Peter Fraser was born on 28 August 1884 at the highland village of Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, the son of Donald Fraser, a master shoemaker, and his wife, Isabella McLeod. Peter's attendance at the local school was interrupted at an early age by the need to contribute to the family income. He was apprenticed to a carpenter, but his education continued through his reading – economics, Keir Hardie, John Burns, Robert Blatchford and other British socialist writers – and his involvement in farmworkers' agitation for the Small-Holding and Allotments Act 1907. Already he was developing a taste for political controversy. At 16 he was secretary of the local branch of the Liberal Association, of which his father was a leading member. Bad eyesight put an end to his apprenticeship; the quest for work led him to London where he became converted to socialist doctrines. In 1908 he joined the Independent Labour Party. In 1910, unemployed and attracted by New Zealand's reputation for social advancement, he decided to emigrate. He landed in Auckland on 2 January 1911.
Pat Fraser, as he was known in his early years in New Zealand, found employment first as a labourer and on the wharves in Auckland. He joined the New Zealand Socialist Party, and was elected president of the Auckland General Labourers' Union. A tall, somewhat gangling young man whose thick spectacles gave him a bookish look that ill-matched his occupation, Fraser quickly made his mark among the small group of militant leaders who were bringing a new radicalism to labour politics. An incisive and forceful orator with an instinctive combativeness, a ready wit, and a sarcastic turn of phrase, he was also a shrewd and tireless organiser. His transformation of the labourers' union into a class-conscious industrial union brought early success. He led his men out of the arbitration system and into direct action, and in July and August 1911 won substantial improvements in wages and conditions from the Portland Cement Company.
The ideological commitment to direct action, however, was never total. In the same year, significantly, he acted as manager for M. J. Savage's unsuccessful campaign for the Auckland Central electorate as candidate of the Socialist Party. During the summer of 1911–12 the labourers faced a tougher opponent in the Auckland City Council. The union placed the dispute in the hands of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (the Red Feds), of which Fraser became an executive member early in 1912, but the city council encouraged some workers to form a new union and recognised it as the legal body. Faced with defeat, the old union lost members and in September Fraser was forced to resign.
By this time, however, his influence was growing within the federation. He became its representative in Waihī during the bitter 1912 strike. The federation had been caught unprepared, but Fraser was determined that it should unequivocally support the striking miners. William Massey's Reform government, elected in July, and standing behind the employers, was equally determined. Following violent confrontations with police and strikebreakers, Fraser, Bob Semple and Paddy Webb, the federation's emergency committee, recognised there was little if any support for a general strike and sought a settlement. However it was portrayed, it was a defeat. It was followed in January 1913 by the unity conference, which sought to bring together the fragmented union and labour groups. Without a job, but apparently unshaken in his militancy, Fraser made his way to Wellington in 1913 and started work on the wharves.
Fraser attended the second Unity Congress in July 1913; this founded the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), of which he became secretary–treasurer. Militancy took a further blow when a series of strikes at the end of 1913 revealed that unity was as elusive as ever. A general strike was poorly supported. Fraser and a number of other leaders were arrested on 11 November; he was bound over to keep the peace. If these events represented a victory for Massey's conservatism, the Red Fed leaders emerged from defeat with renewed determination and a new strategy. Fraser was prominent among those who turned away from ideas of direct action and the general strike towards parliamentary action.
In 1914 Fraser was one of the labour leaders strongly opposed to the First World War, seen by the militants as an 'imperialist war'; but the conflict, far from unifying the labour movement in opposition to it, sharpened existing divisions. Fraser worked hard to revitalise the SDP but its finances and organisation failed to improve. He played a leading part in the July 1916 conference which formed the New Zealand Labour Party. Some hoped that the SDP might carry on as a propagandist and educational organisation within the broader party, but it soon withered away. Fraser was elected to the new party's national executive and remained a member until the end of his life.
By the beginning of 1916 opposition to conscription, clearly imminent, was increasing. The Military Service Act became law on 1 August against the strong opposition of the Labour Party. Fraser's opposition to conscription was not absolute; rather, he was one of those who argued it should not be introduced unless it was accompanied by the conscription of wealth. Nonetheless, in December, together with a number of other prominent Labour leaders, he was arrested for advocating the repeal of the law, was charged with sedition, and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. He served the full term. Fraser's defence was that in arguing for the repeal of the law rather than disobedience or resistance to it, he was acting within his constitutional rights. The war regulations under which he was charged were loosely drafted and the distinction Fraser drew was not recognised by the magistrate. In prison Fraser was well supplied with books provided by Thomas Hunter from Victoria University College, whom he had met through the work of the recently formed Workers' Educational Association (WEA).
Emerging from gaol Fraser found a role as a journalist. He acted as editor of the Maoriland Worker in 1919 when that paper was adopted as the Labour Party's official organ, and continued to write for it and its successor, the New Zealand Worker, through the 1920s. Fraser returned to political activity in 1918 by organising, with great energy and ability, H. E. Holland's campaigns for the Labour Party in the Wellington North and Grey by-elections (the latter with success). In October he was himself elected for Wellington Central. Through boundary and name changes Fraser held the seat for the rest of his life.
Fraser's election coincided with the great influenza epidemic, and the personal courage and organising ability he showed in bringing some order into the relief work in the capital established his reputation as a tireless constituency worker and won him widespread respect. In April 1919 he was also elected to the Wellington City Council and at the end of his term (1923) was narrowly defeated for the mayoralty. (He again served on the council from 1933 to 1936.) On 1 November 1919 at Wellington, Fraser married Janet Henderson Munro; they were to have no children, although Janet had a son from her previous marriage to Frederick Kemp. An able woman, Janet Fraser was herself politically active and added to her husband's influence in the Labour movement.
During the years of opposition from 1919 to 1935, Fraser played a considerable role in the Labour Party. When Holland was elected chairman of the parliamentary party in 1919 Fraser was elected secretary. The newspapers portrayed the party as considerably more radical than it was. Fraser's initial enthusiasm for the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia had not lasted, and he saw no place for communists in the Labour Party. He had denounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, forecasting it would lead to war, and condemned the League of Nations as representing governments rather than peoples. Later he was to see it in a very different light, as the one possible deterrent to further wars. Although the militant tone persisted into the 1920s, Fraser's belief in political rather than industrial action was firm, much of the old ideology was gone, and he developed formidable skills as a parliamentarian. As he gained experience he became the party's most devastating debater and a master of tactics and procedure. He played a major role in party organisation and he was the troubleshooter when problems developed, with little sympathy for dissidents. In the formulation of policy he and Walter Nash were probably the chief influences. Within the party Fraser was more influential than Savage, the deputy leader.
The Labour Party's retreat from militancy and socialist theory would probably have been faster but for Holland's leadership. Holland still dreamed of the socialist millennium, but by 1927 the concern of Fraser and others was shifting from what would happen under socialism to what would happen under a Labour government. In March of that year, plans of land nationalisation having been finally jettisoned as unrealistic, Fraser toured the North Island with a message for farmers of assured markets and guaranteed prices. The same year, he introduced an unemployed workers bill embodying a scheme for contributory unemployment insurance. These were responses to the pressure of economic conditions rather than ideological moves. His former bitter opposition to the arbitration system had gone and in the late 1920s he came to see it as the most effective protection for the living standards of many workers. By 1930 the former socialists were offering the voter credit reform and a humanitarian welfare programme. In 1933 Savage's election to succeed Holland and Fraser's election as his deputy gave the party a leadership to match these policies.
After the 1935 election, when the coalition government was swept out of power and Labour took office, Fraser was clearly the government's second in command. He took education and health, key portfolios for Labour, and marine and police. He early established the pattern which marked his days thereafter: rising at 6 a.m., he listened to the radio news, and then worked from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. During his first years in government, Janet Fraser had an office next to his and acted as a research assistant and adviser. Later, when he was prime minister, despairing of otherwise seeing him, she would occasionally take a meal down to Parliament to share with him.
Few, if any, politicians of his time, with the possible exception of Nash, matched his energy, his seriousness, his single-minded concentration on government and politics. For education, especially, he came well prepared by long study and a passionate belief in the part education had to play in social reform. Under his leadership, cuts made during the depression were restored and many important reforms were made. Perhaps most importantly, access to secondary education was improved.
In health, the passing of the Social Security Act 1938 and the establishment of a largely free national health service threw up formidable problems, not least with the entrenched and bitter opposition of the local branch of the British Medical Association. Fraser proved to be a tough, realistic, and effective negotiator in finally bringing the doctors into the new scheme. Janet Fraser had long been involved in voluntary organisation working in the fields of health and welfare and was a valuable adviser to her husband.
When war broke out in 1939 Savage was already dying, although the country was unaware of the fact, and Fraser assumed the direction of the New Zealand war effort. As acting prime minister, he went to England later that year for talks on New Zealand's participation in the war. He had already gained a considerable understanding of defence problems through his attendance at the Pacific Defence Conference in April. In England he met Winston Churchill and Bernard Freyberg, shortly to be appointed commanding officer of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and the personal links he forged at this time were to be of enormous importance in wartime. Fraser at once grasped that war meant the involvement not merely of the armed forces, but of the whole nation. The implications of this were not always recognised either by his own party or by the opposition.
Bitter divisions within the parliamentary Labour Party, stemming from policy differences but sharpened by the ambition and lack of judgement of John A. Lee, came to a head in Savage's last months. Fraser and his political and union allies acted decisively and Lee was expelled from the party in March 1940. In the election to succeed Savage shortly afterwards, Fraser was challenged by D. G. McMillan and Clyde Carr, who between them polled about a third of the vote. Fraser conceded to caucus the right, not held under Savage, to elect new members of cabinet. The authoritarian streak, however, always there in Fraser, remained a part of his wartime leadership. Partly this reflected his insistence on the overwhelming importance of the war effort. The introduction of censorship, effectively controlled by the prime minister, was followed by the promulgation of emergency regulations in February and June 1940 which established a formidable system of control over public expression of opinion, and gave government virtually unlimited powers over people and property for securing the public safety and efficient prosecution of the war.
One element within this was conscription – widely supported in the country as the German advance to Dunkirk swept across France. Labour's traditional opposition to conscription, still being expressed in the first months of the war, had dwindled and Fraser, by waiting for the right moment, was able to introduce it with little dissent. Partly, however, Fraser's dominance of government reflected his unrivalled ability as well as his temperamental compulsion to do everything himself. At times he seemed unable to discriminate between the great issue and the small, nor could he delegate.
Fraser was in favour of closer collaboration between the Labour and National parties, but the forces within both parties operating against a coalition government proved insuperable. The successive formations of War Cabinet, War Council and War Administration were driven forward with all of Fraser's ingenuity and persuasiveness. Ultimately he was able neither to carry his own party nor the opposition whose new leader, S. G. Holland, appeared to place party advantage before national unity. In the end it was through the small War Cabinet, in which J. G. Coates, eschewing party politics, played a prominent role, that Fraser ran the war effort. Political controversy, however, continued and in the midst of war, in 1943, Fraser had to fight and win a general election.
The course of the war raised crucial questions about the deployment and control of New Zealand forces. Especially after the disastrous 1941 campaigns in Greece and Crete, Fraser was determined to have a voice in these decisions. He felt at the time that New Zealand had not been fully briefed on the military risks involved, and especially the devastating extent of German air superiority. His deep concern for the New Zealand troops led to an uncharacteristic outburst at Freyberg. Fraser spelled out to the British authorities Freyberg's responsibilities to report fully to the New Zealand government on any plans for actions involving the use of New Zealand troops. The role he played at this time did much to clarify the concept of dominion status in wartime.
The most difficult decision followed Japan's entry into the war in December 1941 and its rapid advance into South East Asia and the Pacific. Fraser had to wrestle with the question of whether the New Zealand Division should be recalled from the Middle East and committed to the Pacific theatre – the decision made by Australia – or accept Churchill's request that it remain where it was. Opinion in New Zealand was divided, the country's manpower resources were stretched to the limit, and despite assurances that American forces would be available for New Zealand's defence there was an understandable view in the division that their proper place was closer to home. Fraser, weighing the strategic arguments against public opinion and all the other factors involved, finally made his decision to leave the division where it was. In a remarkable display of political acumen and skill, he then persuaded a divided government and Parliament to give their full support. It was leadership of the highest order.
That decision notwithstanding, Fraser was determined that New Zealand should have a voice in the direction of the Pacific war and in the political decisions that would shape the post-war world. Recognising the key role that would be played by the United States, direct diplomatic relations were established and Nash, while retaining his cabinet portfolios, was appointed minister to Washington. Fraser and his government also established a close working association with the Labour government in Australia. The Australian–New Zealand Agreement of 1944, in which Fraser, pressured by Australia’s foreign minister, H. V. Evatt, uncharacteristically rather overplayed his hand, sought to ensure that Australian and New Zealand interests in the Pacific would not be overlooked. In his wartime visits to London, at prime ministers' conferences and in the United States, Fraser made a reputation for sound sense and statesmanship.
At the 1945 San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations, and at the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, he assumed international stature as a leader of small nations opposing the granting of veto rights to the great powers. Arguing from principle, and also with the experience of wartime collaboration, with moral fervour and a far-sighted breadth of vision, Fraser revealed on the world stage a strength rarely seen by the New Zealand public. At San Francisco he sought, as well, to strengthen the peace-keeping functions of the United Nations, by binding all members to come to the aid of a victim of aggression. Again, his passionate eloquence was unsuccessful although his firm stand, at that time, against the Yugoslav occupation of Trieste and his willingness, if necessary, to see New Zealand forces involved, showed just how committed he was to the case he argued. He chaired the committee that led to the establishment of the Trusteeship Council and by placing Western Samoa within the trusteeship system set it on the road to independence. He also played an important part in elevating the status of the Economic and Social Council to that of a principal body of the United Nations.
Leadership of the country at war, with its unremitting pressure, took its toll. Fraser was often ill and spent some time in hospital. His own exhaustion seemed paralleled by that of his party. In the 1946 general election the government narrowly survived; the opposition had the scent of power, the public was weary of wartime shortages and continuing controls. After the election Fraser added native affairs to his responsibilities. His sympathy with Māori concerns was long-standing. During the war he had forged close links with Te Puea Hērangi and other Māori leaders, and in 1945 he played a large part in the introduction and passing of the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act, intended to help Māori to cope with the problems of poverty and increasing urbanisation. In 1947, on Fraser’s initiative, the department's name was changed to Māori Affairs.
Overall, however, the government seemed unable to do more than administer the welfare structure already in place. At the same time they faced a vigorous parliamentary opposition and bitter attacks from dissident groups among some of the trade unions, notably the watersiders. Fraser came to rely for support on the party machine and F. P. Walsh's leadership of the right-wing unions represented by the New Zealand Federation of Labour. The price he paid was increasing isolation, the discouragement of young members and new ideas, and dwindling popular support for the party.
Fraser's concern with world politics, too, deepened the rift between him and his party. He was initially reluctant to accept the division of the world into two camps, and wary of the policies of both the United States and the Soviet Union. None the less, by early 1948 he despaired of Russian co-operation anywhere. For New Zealand to contribute to Commonwealth defence efforts in the event of war would, in Fraser's judgement, only be possible by introducing compulsory military training. Fraser forced a proposal for conscription through the 1949 Labour Party conference only by promising a national referendum; the resources of government were then thrown into getting a 'Yes' vote. Fraser showed determination, great courage and little sympathy for opponents of conscription. However well justified, his victory left the party split and in disarray.
In the general election held shortly afterwards, in December 1949, Fraser's government was heavily defeated. He took defeat with equanimity and good humour and became, for the first time, leader of the opposition. Exhausted by his years as prime minister, he had no resistance to a number of health problems which fell on him in the ensuing months, and he died in Wellington on 12 December 1950. Janet Fraser had died in 1945. He had become a member of the Privy Council in 1940 and was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1946. He received the freedom of a number of cities, including London, and several honorary degrees.
Fraser’s character was not a simple one; he was a man of complications, and his political career encompassed many changes. He began as a militant unionist; he ended by campaigning for conscription with the backing of his political opponents against many of his party's most dedicated supporters. What remained constant were his superb gifts as a politician: remarkably adroit, at his best in a crisis, his judgement extraordinarily acute and penetrating, his political intuition unerring. Especially on international questions, Fraser sought to ground his views on moral principle. He then held to those views tenaciously. In domestic politics he was at times more prepared to take the expedient course. He could be devious in action, intolerant of opposition, ruthless in maintaining his authority. He had a long memory for enemies as well as for friends. Often secretive in his dealings, he was allergic to publicity in all its forms. As a speaker the searing oratory of his younger days of agitation and opposition gave way to a dreary and ineffective delivery punctuated at times by somewhat querulous bursts of petulance. The passionate voice of early years could still be heard – as at San Francisco – but was heard only rarely. His personal traits concealed many of his best qualities from public view; he never had a place in the public's affection comparable to Savage and few in New Zealand recognised his stature in the wider world.
In day-to-day administration he could be exasperating to those working for him. He had no idea of organising his time or his work, and preferred oral to written reports (possibly because of his poor eyesight). Talking was his way of conducting business and his chief recreation and the latter was often inimical to the former. After talking, perhaps his greatest addiction was funerals and the sending of wreaths and appropriate messages. Conversation revealed his immense range of knowledge and interests. His was not an ordered or disciplined mind but it was a remarkable mind none the less. He had read voraciously throughout his life, peering through thick lenses at a book held inches from his eyes, and he had a wide knowledge of literature and history. His informal meetings, over a cup of tea, with J. W. Heenan, under-secretary for Internal Affairs, played a decisive part in planning the centennial celebrations in 1940 and led to the first government initiatives in support of the arts in New Zealand. He found time to get to the theatre. In the arts and things of the mind, however, he could be as difficult to advise and as tenacious of his own opinion as he was in his political career. With the passionate belief in education went a complete mistrust of the academic or intellectual.
When a balance is struck, with all his foibles Fraser's positive qualities altogether outweighed his other side. He was, above all, a realist. During the war especially, he faced enormous responsibilities, he coped with impossible situations, and he revealed, in so doing, abilities matched by few other New Zealand political leaders. He revealed also a determination to place national interests as he saw them before those of his party. In the end he won a measure of admiration and respect. The historical record suggests he should be ranked among the greatest of the country's prime ministers.