Sidney George Holland was born at Greendale, Canterbury, on 18 October 1893, one of eight children of English-born parents Jane Eastwood and her husband, Henry Holland, a farmer. His father later became a Christchurch merchant and in 1912 was elected mayor, standing as an independent with labour support. Subsequently, Henry moved steadily toward the right and (after standing unsuccessfully as an independent Liberal candidate) was eventually elected to Parliament in 1925 as Reform Party MP for Christchurch North.
Sid Holland was educated at Christchurch West District High School, leaving when he was 15 to work first in a hardware store and then in his father’s transport business. Although influenced by a theologically conservative Methodist upbringing, he was later to move into the Anglican church. He served as a sergeant, and later a second lieutenant, in the New Zealand Field Artillery during the First World War, but became ill with hydatids and was invalided home after the battle of Messines (Mesen). He spent six months in hospital and after several operations lost a lung. When he recovered, Sid and a brother founded the Midland Engineering Company in Christchurch; he became managing director in 1918. The firm manufactured spray pumps and operated a profit-sharing scheme with its employees.
As a young man Holland represented both Canterbury and the South Island at hockey. He was later to become a test match referee, and in 1932 managed a New Zealand team on a tour of Australia. He also became an authority on dahlias and gladioli. He married Florence Beatrice Drayton in the Durham Street Methodist Church, Christchurch, on 12 May 1920. They were to have two sons and two daughters.
Active in a range of organisations, Holland served as president of the Canterbury Employers’ Association, the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce and the Christchurch Businessmen’s Club. He was for a time associated with the New Zealand Legion, which opposed not only the socialist New Zealand Labour Party, but also what it saw as the left-wing, interventionist policies of Gordon Coates, minister of finance in the United–Reform coalition government from 1933 to 1935. Holland did not, like some urban businessmen and Legion supporters, rally to the right-wing Democrat Party at the 1935 election, but the following year he helped bring its supporters into the New Zealand National Party, formed from the remnants of Reform, United and the Democrats.
After working as his father’s election campaign organiser at the 1925, 1928 and 1931 elections, Sid succeeded him as MP for Christchurch North in 1935. He was to hold the seat, later renamed Fendalton, for 22 years.
One of only two new MPs on the opposition benches after Labour’s sweeping victory, Holland quickly proved himself a very effective MP. Determined, vigorous, with a good memory and naturally aggressive, he detested socialism, which he defined as equality of income, irrespective of capacity – ‘the very antithesis of private enterprise’. He was a formidable impromptu debater, whose bluff ebullience, arrogance, tenacity and use of ridicule against the Labour government stood out in a Parliament in which the opposition was weak and divided.
Within a short time Holland was seen as the obvious successor as leader of the National Party to the lacklustre Adam Hamilton, Coates’s loyal lieutenant. In July 1940, when Hamilton and Coates joined the War Cabinet, Holland and other National MPs questioned whether Hamilton could still carry out the role of leader of the opposition. Holland, who for several years had been acting as Hamilton’s private secretary, was regarded as more dynamic. Moreover, because he had only been in Parliament since 1935 he did not carry the unpopular legacy of having been a member of the government during the depression. After considerable discussion, the party’s dominion executive unanimously decided in November 1940 that Hamilton should be asked to retire in favour of Holland. Hamilton forced a caucus vote, which Holland won, reportedly by 13 votes to 8.
Holland, who learnt by listening and doing rather than reading, was no theorist. But he knew what type of society he believed was best for New Zealand. In his speeches he stressed individual freedom, initiative, opportunity, enterprise, responsibility and reward. He disliked bureaucratic regulation and state ownership and, while not an uncaring man, feared that Labour’s social security system (which he once described as ‘applied lunacy’) would make people too dependent on welfare payments and would prove very costly to taxpayers. A fervent admirer of Britain, he claimed to be ‘a Britisher through and through’ and was determined to maintain New Zealand’s links with the United Kingdom. However, he also stressed that he was a New Zealander, who valued ‘a sturdy New Zealand philosophy of independence and self-reliance rather than … any imported theories’, such as socialism.
In the 1940s National’s hold on rural New Zealand was insecure, especially in North Auckland and Waikato, where social credit theories and a country party had considerable impact. Holland needed to improve his image among farmers, who still tended to look to Coates and the MP for Pahiatua, Keith Holyoake, for leadership. With the advice and financial assistance of another National MP, Stanley Goosman, he purchased a farm, Greta Paddock, near Greta, North Canterbury. There, with the help of a manager, he bred Romney sheep and Aberdeen Angus cattle, and whenever possible holidayed in an old shearers’ cottage he renovated for his own use. This gave him the opportunity to present himself as a farmer who understood farmers’ problems, but throughout his career he was always more comfortable with the urban wing of his party.
Holland was also successful in consolidating National’s position as New Zealand’s dominant centre-right party. Other right-wing groups, such as the People’s Movement, the New Liberal Party and a proposed soldiers’ party, had emerged in 1939–40 because of dissatisfaction with National’s performance. In early 1941 Holland persuaded them to merge with National, both through personal negotiations and his much more aggressive attacks on Labour.
When Japan entered the war in December 1941, he repeated earlier demands that a coalition government should be formed. Peter Fraser, the Labour prime minister, again refused, and in June 1942 Holland somewhat reluctantly joined the War Cabinet and a larger War Administration. While the Labour cabinet retained total control over domestic administration, Holland was given ministerial responsibility for all war expenditure. But from the start he criticised economic waste, bureaucratic regulation and the government’s repressive press censorship, all of which he saw as extending and consolidating state control.
When the government suspended court sentences on coalminers convicted of striking illegally at Huntly in September 1942, Holland accused Labour of abandoning the rule of law and interfering with the judicial process. He withdrew from the War Cabinet, and the War Administration was disbanded. This action was criticised by Coates and Hamilton, who left the National caucus and rejoined the War Cabinet as independent MPs. However, Holland’s leadership of the National Party was strengthened, not weakened, by their defection, and he was now free to attack the government without reservation.
During the 1942–43 summer holidays at Greta Paddock Holland wrote a pamphlet in which he tried to explain more positively what he and National stood for, rather than what it opposed. Entitled Passwords to progress , it was launched early in 1943 as a speech in the Auckland Town Hall. He argued that with a National government people could have economic prosperity and social welfare, and in addition individual freedom and a minimum of bureaucratic intervention and restriction. He stressed that ‘the basis of New Zealand’s material future was a little word with big meaning – work’.
Holland was disappointed when Labour won the 1943 election and devastated when it again held on to power in 1946. But in 1949 he led National to victory, winning 46 seats to Labour’s 34, and ending 14 years of Labour rule. The fourth New Zealand-born prime minister, he was to hold office until 1957, when ill health forced his retirement; from 1949 until 1954 he was also minister of finance.
The outgoing Labour government had a huge majority in the ineffective, appointed upper house of the New Zealand Parliament, the Legislative Council. Holland saw no reason for an upper house and did not try to reform it. In 1947 he had introduced a private member’s bill to abolish the council and in 1950 he returned to the attack. He forced abolition through the House of Representatives and appointed a ‘suicide squad’ of 25 National supporters to the council, which then voted 26–16 to make New Zealand’s Parliament unicameral. Although he kept a promise to set up a constitutional reform committee, which recommended a senate of 32 members, Holland told a group of journalists that the committee’s report would get no further than his toilet. No action was ever taken to create a new upper house.
Holland did not move as decisively to keep another promise: to abolish compulsory unionism. This idea met predictably strong opposition from unions, but was also opposed by employer organisations, who feared that it could increase the power of militants in the labour movement. The government, however, did take a hard line against more militant, communist-influenced unions such as the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union. This resulted in a waterfront dispute which started in February 1951 and lasted for 151 days of industrial disruption, social hardship, economic loss, political division and hatred almost unparalleled in New Zealand history. The National government enacted harsh emergency regulations, including strict censorship, and used the courts, police and armed forces to break the unions. When the Labour opposition challenged his handling of the dispute, Holland, who was concerned about fighting an election the following year over the issue of rapidly rising inflation, seized the opportunity to call a snap election. National’s slogan was ‘Who is going to govern the country?’ The voters replied by giving the government 54 per cent of the votes cast and 50 of the 80 seats in Parliament.
Holland’s leadership of the National Party was at its peak in 1951. He had welded it together during the 1940s and at four successive elections significantly increased its share of both votes and seats. He earned a reputation as a tough, even autocratic leader, but he was capable of delegating power to his ministers, and beneath his gruff public persona was a man of considerable personal warmth and humour.
Between 1951 and 1954 Holland’s government gradually started to deregulate the economy. Rationing of petrol, butter and other commodities was ended, and import licensing was freed up. Controls on the price of land, houses and property were removed. Producer-controlled agricultural boards were established, and full employment and social security were maintained. In foreign policy, New Zealand signed the ANZUS treaty with the United States and Australia in 1951.
The 1954 election was a relatively dull affair, marked by the advent of the New Zealand Social Credit Political League as a third party, which at its first attempt won 11 per cent of the vote but no seats. Labour secured almost exactly the same number of votes as National, but the government comfortably retained office by 45 seats to 35. After this election Holland gave up the finance portfolio to his former minister of industries and commerce, Jack Watts. Over the following three years National started to rejuvenate its cabinet, fuelling speculation about Holland’s possible retirement in favour of his deputy, Holyoake. Inflation was still a problem and interest rates were also rising. The Pay As You Earn (PAYE) taxation system was introduced and the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand was established with Holland’s strong support, and against Holyoake’s opposition.
By 1956 Holland’s health was starting to fail. His memory deteriorated and he lost much of his drive and eloquence. During the Suez crisis of October 1956 he suffered what appeared to be a mild heart attack or stroke, but continued working in his office for 48 hours while the crisis was resolved. The following year Holyoake, John Marshall, Watts and the party’s president, Alex McKenzie, persuaded a reluctant Holland that he would have to go. He announced his retirement to the party’s annual conference on 12 August 1957 and was replaced as prime minister by Holyoake on 20 September. He was knighted and made a minister without portfolio, retiring from Parliament at the November 1957 election, at which National lost office, holding only 39 seats to Labour’s 41. His health continued to deteriorate over the following four years, and he died in Wellington Hospital on 5 August 1961. After a state funeral his body was cremated at Karori. He was survived by his wife and children. His son Eric later became National MP for Fendalton and Riccarton (1967–81) and a cabinet minister (1975–78).
Sidney Holland was one of New Zealand’s most significant politicians, not only because of his 22 years as an MP, 17 as party leader, and almost 8 as prime minister, or even because of the achievements of his government between 1949 and 1957. His major contribution was undoubtedly the role he played in the creation and establishment of the National Party, which was to dominate New Zealand politics during the latter half of the twentieth century.