Walter Nash was born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England, on 12 February 1882, the fifth of six children of Alfred Arthur Nash and his wife, Amelia Randle. The family was poor and Alfred was often drunk. A rug weaver, and later a clerk, he was also a part-time agent for the Conservative Party, so Walter was introduced to political activity at an early age. Amelia was a weaver in the woollen mills and a devout Anglican. Her religious influence was to help make Walter a lifelong and committed Christian.
From 1885 until 1893 Walter attended St John's school and at 11 he won a scholarship to King Charles I Grammar School. His parents could not afford the additional cost, however, and instead he became office boy for a local solicitor. About 1896 the family moved to Selly Oak near Birmingham, where Nash worked for 12 years, for most of the time as a clerk in a bicycle factory.
On 16 June 1906, at Selly Oak, he married Lotty May Eaton, a post office clerk. Around this time Nash set up two shops: one selling tobacco, the other confectionery. He became very involved in the local community as secretary of the social club, organiser of the debating society, and secretary of the traders' and ratepayers' association. He also attended night class to extend his education, and became interested in Christian socialism.
In 1908 Lot and their first child, a son, were both ill and a second child, a daughter, died shortly after birth. When a brief but severe economic recession hit Selly Oak in 1909, Walter and Lot decided to emigrate to New Zealand. The family left Tilbury in April 1909 and arrived in Wellington in mid May.
Settling in Brooklyn, where two more sons were born, Nash became the secretary and a shareholder of a small tailoring business, Jones and Ashdown. The family started attending St Matthew's Church. Walter was confirmed, taught Sunday school, was elected to the vestry, and joined the Church of England Men's Society, whose medallion he wore on his watch-chain for much of his life. He had a simple faith in a divine power to whom he prayed regularly, and he accepted that it was a Christian's duty to work to bring about God's kingdom on earth. Puritanical in many ways, he was more concerned with Christian morality and ethics than with the supernatural and ritual. He became an advocate of the views of Leo Tolstoy on pacifism, unselfishness and avoidance of evil. Unlike Tolstoy, however, Nash believed that Christianity and socialism were inseparable. His views on political economy reflected the writings of John Ruskin, who argued that the just distribution of wealth to maximise the happiness of the majority of a population was the most important principle in economics.
In 1911 Nash assisted the recently formed New Zealand Labour Party in its election campaign in Wellington, but he was distracted from further political activity by the deteriorating business fortunes of Jones and Ashdown. By March 1913 he had lost nearly all his money. He shifted the family to Palmerston North and became a commercial traveller for Miller and Ahearn, a woollen merchant and cloth importer. A short, neat, courteous, affable and hardworking man, Nash was very successful in his new occupation. He continued to improve his education through the WEA, where he met 'Red Fed' Marxists including Peter Fraser and Bob Semple, and Harry Holland, to whom he had been introduced in 1913. Throughout the First World War Nash adopted a pacifist position, questioning whether Christians should go to war, and after the war he advocated complete disarmament.
In 1916 Nash and a Stratford tailor, Bill Besley, established a co-operative tailoring company and the Nashes moved to New Plymouth. The firm was in trouble from the start and Nash left it in 1919. During his time in New Plymouth he was active in the Anglican church and helped co-ordinate community responses to the 1918 influenza epidemic. In October that year he formed the New Plymouth branch of the second New Zealand Labour Party. He stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate for the borough council in 1919 and in the same year attended his first party conference, winning election to the national executive.
In March 1920 Walter and Lot Nash travelled to England via the United States, leaving their three boys at boarding schools. In England Nash sought to obtain agencies from publishers and manufacturers. He also met several British labour leaders and attended the Second Socialist International Conference in Geneva. On his return in January 1921 he was fined for importing seditious literature – a conviction that did not harm the moderate Nash's reputation within a Labour Party increasingly dominated by Red Feds.
During 1921 Nash worked hard to establish his new businesses in Wellington: the Clarté Book Room and various agencies. Financial difficulties caused by the non-payment of money owed by Besley put a considerable strain on his family and it was not until 1922 that Nash was able to recover the money. In the same year he was elected national secretary of the Labour Party and in a relatively short time had paid off the party's debt and set up an efficient head office in Wellington. He was to remain secretary until 1932, expanding the party's membership and organisation. He continued with his agencies until 1929, but the bookshop was taken over by the Labour Party in 1924.
By the 1920s Nash was keenly interested in international relations, a subject closely linked with his pacifism and his concern for the world's poor and hungry. In 1926 he became an inaugural member of the New Zealand council of the Institute of Pacific Relations, and in 1927 he led the delegation to the institute's second conference in Honolulu. He was also active on the council of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand and in 1934 helped start the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
Nash stood for Parliament unsuccessfully as candidate for the Hutt electorate in 1925 and 1928 before winning the seat at a by-election in 1929. He represented Hutt until his death. Although he contested the Wellington mayoralty in 1929 and served on the Wellington Harbour Board from 1933 to 1938, increasingly he devoted his time to parliamentary and party organisation duties, becoming one of Labour's major finance spokesmen and president of the Labour Party during the crucial 1935–36 period.
At the 1935 elections Labour won 53 of the 80 seats in Parliament and the number rose to 55 with the addition of two Rātana Māori members. Nash became minister of finance, customs, government life insurance, state advances and land and income tax and was ranked third in the government after Michael Joseph Savage and Fraser. High levels of unemployment and the devastation of the rural sector presented the incoming government with a formidable task. It immediately nationalised the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, shifting control from private bankers to the minister of finance. Guaranteed prices for butter and cheese were introduced and a State Advances Corporation Act provided cheap loans to farmers and stimulated house-building. State salaries, reduced in 1931, were restored to their former levels, pensions were raised, the education vote was increased, and free milk was provided in schools. This increased expenditure necessitated increases in income and land taxes. Nash celebrated his first year as finance minister by writing a pamphlet, Labour rule in New Zealand.
In October 1936 Nash sailed to England on a mission to persuade the British to accept bulk trading agreements, which he saw as essential to the guaranteed price scheme. The British were condescending and hostile. Nash continued to negotiate until April 1937, when he visited Berlin and Moscow. Returning to England, he accompanied Savage to the coronation of George VI and the Imperial Conference which followed. He then toured Britain, speaking frequently and receiving an honorary LLD from the University of Cambridge. He returned to New Zealand in August via Canada and the United States, where he met President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The major outcome of his trip was to make him New Zealand's best-known politician in Britain.
Nash arrived home to find the social credit monetary reformers in the caucus expressing dissent about the direction and speed of Labour's economic policy. He became their major target, but received strong support from Savage and Fraser. The caucus was also becoming more divided over the details of its social security scheme. Again Nash, who had to fund the reforms, was seen as timid and conservative by more radical members. In negotiating the health proposals, Nash adopted a more aggressive stance towards the doctors and the British Medical Association than Fraser. He also endeavoured to produce a universal pension scheme funded by social insurance payments, which the majority of caucus rejected in favour of pensions funded from taxation. Nash became minister in charge of social security, introducing legislation to the House in August 1938. The Social Security Act would not come into force until after the 1938 election, thus making the election a referendum on the issue. Labour’s share of the vote rose from 46 per cent in 1935 to 56 per cent in 1938 and it won 53 seats.
When Labour had come to power in December 1935 New Zealand’s reserves of sterling funds in London were £38 million. By November 1938 they had fallen to under £8 million and fear of further flight of capital from New Zealand and difficulties in negotiating overseas loans led to a serious exchange crisis. Debate over exchange and import controls now exacerbated the friction in caucus and John A. Lee launched increasingly bitter and public attacks on Nash, and on Savage, who was seen as Nash's protector.
Nash returned to London in April 1939 to seek further loans and to reassure the British that New Zealand was not embarking on a major campaign of import controls and substitution that would damage British exports. British bankers and politicians were unimpressed, but offered assistance subject to very harsh terms. Nash went back to New Zealand via Washington, arriving home on 1 September – two days before New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within days the British government offered to buy New Zealand's entire export of meat and dairy products. This gave New Zealand the bulk sales it had earlier been denied and as a result its sterling reserves quickly recovered.
During 1939 and early 1940 the caucus was rent by division and acrimony which ended in March with Lee's expulsion from the party and the death of Savage. Fraser became prime minister and Nash, who retained the finance portfolio, was unanimously elected deputy prime minister. As a wartime leader Nash reluctantly abandoned his earlier pacifism, although for some time he had been moving towards accepting the use of military force as a last resort. He was acting prime minister from May to September 1941 while Fraser was overseas, and there were rumours that some Labour members favoured him as their permanent leader. The support of the trade union leaders for Fraser and Nash's unquestionable loyalty made such a change most unlikely, but it may partly explain why Fraser decided to send Nash to Washington as New Zealand's resident minister in the United States.
Nash arrived in the United States in January 1942 and during the following 16 months attended the Pacific War Council, chaired by Roosevelt, and thoroughly enjoyed the political and social life of Washington. He travelled widely throughout the country giving speeches publicising New Zealand. Increasingly Nash advocated the formation of a United Nations council, a world peace council to succeed the war councils.
After his return to New Zealand in April 1943 he presented the budget, attended the party conference and fought the 1943 general election in which Labour lost eight seats but retained a comfortable majority. In December 1943 he flew back to the United States, passing through Australia where he suggested a post-war Pacific islands federation under allied trusteeship. From February until April 1944 he was in London, and on his return to America he attended the 26th conference of the International Labour Organisation, of which he was elected president. In July he was involved with the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods which created the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Although Nash thought New Zealand should join the IMF, there was considerable suspicion of it within New Zealand.
After the war Nash continued to spend considerable time overseas. He attended the Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in London in 1946 and a series of conferences in 1947 and 1948 in Geneva, Hawaii, New York and London, discussing the proposed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In New Zealand the Labour government was losing support in the electorate as a result of inflation, strikes, continued regulations, shortages and the perception that the cabinet was ageing, ill, and – in the case of Fraser and Nash – absent overseas too often. At the 1946 election it barely held on, with a majority of four seats.
In 1949, with militant unions involved in industrial strife – especially on the wharves – and with the government supporting peacetime compulsory military training, the industrial and political labour movements were badly split. Nash also became reluctantly involved in the use of stolen documents to discredit left-wing leaders of the Public Service Association of New Zealand – the Cecil Holmes affair. At the 1949 election Labour's 14 years in office ended when the National Party won 47 seats to Labour's 34. Shortly afterwards, in December 1950, Fraser died.
In January 1951 Nash, then aged 68, was elected unopposed as Labour's leader. Almost immediately he was faced with the waterfront dispute, which reflected not only a battle between the National government and the waterside workers, but also a violent conflict between the New Zealand Federation of Labour and the communist-influenced New Zealand Trade Union Congress, to which the watersiders belonged. Nash would clearly offend part of the industrial labour movement whichever side he and the Labour Party backed. By trying to be impartial, Nash ended up offending both sides.
On 13 May, while addressing a huge rally in Auckland, Nash made the mistake of saying, 'We are not for the waterside workers, and we are not against them'. This opened him to ridicule from political opponents and the press for years afterwards. The watersiders were defeated after 151 days and the National government called a snap election on its handling of the issue. Nash and Labour were humiliated, winning only 30 of the 80 seats.
Nash was not a good leader of the opposition. His pleasure in politics came from being busy: shuffling paper – not always expeditiously or effectively, agonising over decisions, playing with statistics, talking with and helping individual constituents, and attending numerous functions. He did not always discriminate between important and trivial matters, and although a fluent and authoritative speaker, he was also often long-winded and verbose. He could be self-centred and inconsiderate of others and suspicious of subordinates. Throughout 1953 dissatisfaction with Nash increased within the caucus and in February 1954 it decided to fix a date for the selection of a new leader. By the time the vote was finally held in June, the balance in caucus had changed under pressure from trade unions and the party and Nash retained the leadership with two-thirds of the vote.
Although the National government was unpopular and there was a big swing against it at the 1954 election, Labour won only a further five seats. As the 1957 election drew near and the parties began to debate tax concessions associated with the introduction of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) income tax, Nash raised the suggestion of a flat rebate of £100 on income tax due in the year PAYE commenced. Labour also promised to abolish compulsory military training, introduce three per cent loans for housing, and permit the capitalisation of the family benefit for housing. It won the narrowest of election victories by 41 seats to 39 and Nash, at the age of 75, became prime minister.
The outgoing National government had concealed a drastically deteriorating balance of payments situation on which it had also delayed taking action because of the election campaign. The incoming government had to take urgent steps to reduce imports and purchasing power. Import controls were reintroduced from the beginning of 1958 and on 26 June, Arnold Nordmeyer, as minister of finance, presented what quickly became known as 'the Black Budget'. Although it implemented some of Labour's election promises, the budget not only increased direct taxation but also dramatically raised through indirect taxation the cost of beer, cigarettes and petrol. Fanned by the National opposition and a hostile news media, public fury erupted and the Labour Party's support and membership were slashed.
A notable feature of Nash’s prime ministership was his frequent absences from the country. Although his political reputation rested on his long tenure as minister of finance, as prime minister his primary interest was international affairs and he certainly regarded himself as a significant statesman. He also grew more loquacious as he aged, and although always sincere he became more dogmatic and vain. He toured the world lecturing conferences and individual leaders on the importance of international understanding, disarmament and peace.
On one major issue Nash was found wanting by Labour supporters. In 1959 the New Zealand Rugby Football Union chose a team to tour South Africa that excluded all players of Māori descent. The result was one of the biggest public protests in New Zealand's history, but Nash refused to intervene and eventually supported the rugby union, arguing that to include Māori 'would be an act of the greatest folly and cruelty to the Māori race'.
The second Labour government pushed ahead with industrialisation both as a means of import substitution and to create a more mature economy. In particular, agreements were signed with overseas companies to build an aluminium industry utilising cheap power from new hydroelectric projects at Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau, and a cotton mill in Nelson, requiring the construction of a railway line to link Nelson with the main South Island line. Both projects became highly controversial and the second was abandoned after National easily won the 1960 election.
Nash again became leader of the opposition, but the death of his wife in December 1961 and his increasing age seem to have reduced his effectiveness. Pressure built up for a change in leadership but Nash was reluctant to step down and determined that he would not be succeeded by Nordmeyer. His preferred successor, Jerry Skinner, died in April 1962. Nash decided to remain leader for the 1963 election with Fred Hackett as his new deputy. But in December 1962 the party's president, Martyn Finlay, wrote a letter to caucus calling for a change in the leadership, though being careful not to suggest a successor. Nash announced his resignation and on 26 February 1963 Nordmeyer was elected leader.
Nash remained the member for Hutt, receiving many honours, such as a GCMG in 1965. He continued to attend church twice each Sunday and to accept any and every invitation to functions. His home was run after Lot's death by his devoted sister, Emily. From 1965 Nash played a prominent role in the protest movement against sending New Zealand troops to fight in Vietnam; he was at his most persuasive when denouncing the American bombing of North Vietnam. He died in Lower Hutt on 4 June 1968, survived by two sons. The public memorial to Walter Nash was the funding of a children's ward at the Qui Nhon hospital in Vietnam.
Although Nash was a limited and at times reluctant contributor to the formulation of the economic policies of the first Labour government, he was responsible for putting them into effect. He was energetic and meticulous in detail and fervent, principled and moralistic in his political and religious views. Few New Zealand politicians in the twentieth century had such an impact over such a long time.