The National Party is New Zealand’s most successful political party. By 2023 it had been in government for 47 of its 87 years in existence, a longer tenure than any other party.
At the founding conference in 1936 there was a long debate about what to call the new party. Gordon Coates suggested Unionist Party. Many thought the name ‘National’ had been discredited by the failure of the National Political Federation in the 1935 election. But the Unionist tag was defeated, and a motion by Mrs J. Aston of Wellington suggesting the name ‘The New Zealand National Party’ was unanimously adopted.
The National Party was formed in May 1936 through the fusion of the two main conservative parties of the time, Reform and United.
Reform, backed by farmers and business, was the senior partner. Set up in 1905, it had governed from 1912 to 1928. United was a remnant of the Liberal Party, which had governed from 1891 to 1912. After two changes of name and several changes of leader and policy platform, United formed a minority government in 1928, with support initially from Labour but, as the 1930s economic depression deepened, increasingly from Reform. From September 1931 United governed in coalition with Reform.
In 1935 the two parties campaigned together as the National Political Federation. Labour won in a landslide, and the federation gained only 19 of Parliament's 80 seats (with 32.9% of the vote). The right-wing splinter Democratic Party received 7.8% of the vote but won no seats.
National Party created
Merging the two parties had been debated but rejected in 1922 and 1925. Reform leader Gordon Coates (prime minister from 1925 to 1928) opposed formal fusion in 1925 and during the 1931–35 coalition, and remained sceptical in 1936. In the new Parliament, United leader George Forbes (prime minister from 1931 to 1935) was leader of the opposition and therefore the effective head of the National Party. He was replaced as party leader by former Reform and coalition minister Adam Hamilton at the end of the parliamentary session, in early November 1936.
In 1938, the Labour government was re-elected with 55.8% of the vote. Hamilton was replaced, at the party executive's initiative, by Sidney Holland on 26 November 1940. Holland withdrew National’s support from the war cabinet set up in 1940, though Hamilton and Coates stayed on it. Holland gradually brought most other right-of-centre splinter groups into National – many Democrats joined after 1936 – and in successive elections increased his party’s share of the vote. In November 1949 his efforts were rewarded when he led his party to victory.
Holland was a conservative – a Baptist and a British Empire loyalist who called himself ‘a Britisher through and through’.1 He was the co-owner of a Christchurch engineering business and had been active in the New Zealand Legion, an anti-socialist business lobby. He believed in ‘[i]ndividual freedom, individual responsibility, individual initiative, individual opportunity, individual enterprise and individual reward’.2 Holland was finance minister as well as prime minister in the new government. He intended to liberalise the economy. However, he made only limited changes, leaving in place compulsory unionism, quotas on imports (intended to foster local industry and manage the external balance of payments) and extensive regulation-making powers. ‘Conservative’ in practice meant keeping the mixed economy of both private and public enterprise, in which the state was a major actor through a welfare state, nationalised industries and regulation.
National’s share of the vote rose from 40.3% in 1938 to 42.8% in 1943 and 48.4% in 1946. In 1949 it took office with 51.9% and a majority of 12 seats. In 1951 National won 54.0% of the vote, which gave it 50 seats and a majority of 20. For the rest of the 20th century, National was in government much more often than out of it.
Holland to Holyoake
In September 1951 Holland called a snap election in which he received a strong mandate. The result reflected both widespread public support for his handling of the recently ended waterfront labour dispute – the most costly in New Zealand’s history – and an economic boom fuelled by very high wool prices.
Three years later lower export prices and rising inflation had taken the gloss off. In the November 1954 election National's vote share fell to 44.3% (just ahead of Labour's 44.1%) and its majority was halved. A rural populist party, the Social Credit Political League, received 11.1% of the vote but won no seats.
Just three months before the November 1957 election Holland, in failing health, resigned under pressure. He was replaced by Keith Holyoake, who had been deputy prime minister. National lost in 1957 but then won four elections in a row in the 1960s.