The New Zealand Legion

Page 7 – Decline

Internal divisions and resignations over policy had considerably sapped the New Zealand Legion’s strength by the beginning of 1934. In the Hawke’s Bay Division, only two of six Centres were functioning satisfactorily, and of the outlying Centres it was reported that ‘complete silence reigns’. President Campbell Begg attempted to rally the Legion with a stirring speech on the movement’s anniversary in February, and a complete 12-point policy was issued in March. But despite a brief resurgence in some Divisions and Centres, the movement continued to struggle.

Lack of finance was also an ongoing issue. As early as August 1933 the National Finance Committee reported a deficit of £434, due mainly to the inability of Divisions to meet the fundraising quotas assigned to them in April. The publication of the journal National Opinion was a continual drain on Legion finances, with its circulation never exceeding 2400. It limped on until October 1934 before being replaced by Legion, a cheaper production that only produced four issues before folding.

Election contests

In July 1934, the Legion decided to field its own candidates in the 1935 election. This raised the obvious claim of hypocrisy, as well as fears that Legion candidates might split the conservative vote. By 1935, however, the Legion lacked the capacity to fund its own candidates, and the plan was abandoned. Nevertheless, in May 1935 the Legion officially endorsed several candidates for the Lower Hutt local body elections, seven of whom were elected as councillors.

Above all, the improving economic conditions undercut support for the more radical policies of the Legion. The coalition government’s controversial decision to devalue the currency began to pay off as an increase in farmers’ incomes percolated throughout the rest of the economy. By 1935 New Zealand had turned the corner, despite the Legion’s continuing attempts to deny it.

Begg resigns

By May 1935 even Begg had had enough. Citing work commitments, he resigned as President in favour of Clarence Meachen, a fellow medical professional and a pioneer in blood transfusions. Despite Meachen’s upbeat rhetoric, he was unable to keep the Legion alive. After publishing a list of recommended candidates for the general election in November 1935, the movement disappeared. A few Centres, such as the one in Hastings, devolved into local study groups in 1936.

‘I certainly didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, when I had the leadership thrust upon me.’ (Robert Campbell Begg, The Secret of the Knife, 1965)

With the conservative parties being well and truly trounced by Labour at the 1935 election, the Legion was soon forgotten. Some of its members, though, became active in the new National Party formed in 1936. Eight former Legionnaires were selected as National candidates in the 1938 election, and the movement’s greatest success story, Sid Holland, went on to serve as National Prime Minister from 1949 to 1957.