Fraser, Peter (1884-1950)

Photograph of Peter Fraser
Library of Congress

"Pat" Fraser was born in 1884 in Scotland to a shoemaker. His humble origins and apprenticeship as a carpenter limited his opportunities for a formal education, but he was a voracious reader and by age 16 was secretary of the local Liberal Association. His poor eyesight ended his apprenticeship, and his lack of employment opportunities led him to emigrate to New Zealand in 1911. Here he worked as a wharfle (longshoreman), became a trade unionist, and joined the Socialist Party. His radicalism and skill as a political speaker and organizer brought him into the leadership of the trade unionists, but the failure of a general strike in 1913 and his subsequent arrest for breach of the peace turned him from direct action to politics.

Fraser opposed participation in the First World War and became a leader of the new Labour Party in 1916, which opposed conscription. Fraser was arrested for sedition, and his defense that he was merely calling for repeal of the conscription law, not seeking to undermine its enforcement, was rejected and he was sentenced to a year in prison. After his release he became a journalist and continued to be active in politics, being elected to Parliament in 1918. He held this seat for the remainder of his life. He won public respect for his efforts to mitigate the impact of the great influenza epidemic. It was also during this time that Fraser, who had originally been enthusiastic for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, became an anticommunist. He also reversed his initial opposition to the League of Nations, coming to view it as the best deterrent to future wars. The Labour Party itself became increasingly less militant and socialist by 1927, as Fraser became one of its most important leaders.

Fraser was a member of the Labour cabinet of 1935, where he established a reputation for working long hours in the company of his wife, who was also a Labour activist. Perhaps as a result of his early experiences, he became a particularly strong advocate of secondary education. He also played an important role in establishing a national health service in 1938. When war broke out, the Labour prime minister, Michael Savage, was in poor health and Fraser took effective direction of the war effort. Fraser became acquainted with Winston Churchill and Bernard Freyberg, the latter perhaps New Zealand's best-known military figure, and succeeded Savage as Prime Minister upon the latter's death on 27 March 1940.

Fraser was insistent that the New Zealand forces deployed to Europe remain answerable to the New Zealand government, but after war broke out in the Pacific, he made the decision to leave the New Zealand Division in Europe and turn to the United States for home defense. He also strengthened ties with Australia and was prominent in the negotiations that led to the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945. He was an advocate of a United Nations with strong peacekeeping functions and deplored the division between the United States and Russia while pushing through a law for peacetime conscription.

His party was heavily defeated at the polls in 1949, ending Fraser's tenure as the longest-serving prime minister in New Zealand history. Fraser was already in ill health and died on 12 December 1950.

Fraser's career showed a steady drift from youthful militancy to establishment politician, with his views evolving accordingly. He was a brilliant political strategist, described by one colleague as "one of the shrewdest men I've ever known" (Bassett 1998) yet tended to argue his views in moral terms. His memory was formidable and he preferred discussion to written memorandums, perhaps because of his poor eyesight. He acquired a distinguished reputation abroad that was arguably greater than with his own public.


Bassett (1998; accessed 2013-12-14)

Beaglehole (2013-9-25; accessed 2013-12-14)

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