Page 1: Biography
Webb, Thomas Clifton
Lawyer, rugby player, politician, diplomat
This biography, written by Hugh Templeton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Thomas Clifton Webb was born on 8 March 1889 at Te Kopuru, Northland, the son of English parents Thomas Webb, a farmer, and his wife, Penelope Martha Massey. Clifton attended Te Kopuru School and in 1902 won a Junior National Scholarship, which took him to Auckland Grammar School. He then worked as a law clerk in Dargaville and Auckland, and studied at Auckland University College. Admitted as a solicitor in 1910 and called to the Bar in 1912, he returned to practise in Dargaville.
In Auckland Webb was prominent in rugby, playing as half-back in 1912 and 1913 in Ranfurly Shield teams. He later held office on North Auckland rugby bodies and on the Auckland Rugby Football Union. On 1 September 1915, in Auckland, he married Lucy Amelia Nairn.
During the First World War Webb served in the army from 1917 to 1919; he went overseas as a sergeant, reaching Britain just before the armistice. After returning to New Zealand he practised again in Dargaville, and from 1921 to 1923 was a borough councillor. In 1927 he moved to Auckland, where he established the law firm Webb and Ross, later Webb, Ross and Griffiths. An active churchman, he became a vestry member of the Somervell Presbyterian Church, Remuera.
In 1943, following the death of Gordon Coates, Webb was asked to stand for the Kaipara seat in Parliament. In deference to Coates, who had fallen out with the New Zealand National Party, Webb stood and was elected as an independent National candidate on 25 September 1943. In Parliament his application to principle and detail impressed the National Party leadership and he soon became a leading member of the opposition. In 1945 he made his name in a far-sighted speech in which he urged New Zealand to accept the United Nations and its international future.
After the redistribution of electoral boundaries in 1946 Webb stood for the Rodney seat, winning it with large majorities in 1946, 1949 and 1951. He became one of the key lieutenants of Sidney Holland, the National Party leader, and with Ronald Algie (another Auckland lawyer) added legal and intellectual weight to the party’s parliamentary team.
When National became the government in 1949 Webb was made attorney general and minister of justice in the Holland cabinet. He was responsible for the bill that brought about the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1950 and, in a period of fierce political and industrial conflict, he emerged with Holland, Keith Holyoake and William Sullivan as one of the big four in the cabinet. Webb was unassuming, but had a gift for simple, effective exposition that earned him the title of ‘the great explainer ’ of the first National government. In a speech in June 1951 on the waterfront crisis, he set out the government’s position: ‘You cannot have kid-glove methods when you are dealing with people who do not fight according to Queensberry rules’.
As minister of justice Webb worked diligently to modernise New Zealand’s penal system. He always argued that the law should relate to what the average person regarded as common sense and common justice. Despite being in charge of the legislation reintroducing the death penalty, he was responsible for more liberal criminal, marriage and penal laws. Also, although an abstainer, he guided bills through Parliament that provided minor reforms in the licensing laws.
In September 1951 Webb was appointed minister of external affairs and minister of island territories in addition to his other portfolios. New Zealand was involved in the Korean conflict, the Cold War was at its height and the Colombo Plan and ANZUS were relatively new. ANZUS was New Zealand’s first treaty outside its relationship with Britain, and Webb set about explaining it to the country. He attended the first ANZUS Council meeting, and was subsequently involved in the negotiations leading to the Indochina peace settlement and the formation of SEATO in Manila in 1954. He particularly welcomed the Manila treaty because it tied Britain into the shift of New Zealand’s strategic commitment from the Middle East to South East Asia.
When Webb claimed in July 1954 that the time had come to admit communist China to the United Nations, the adverse reaction of the United States administration led Holland to repudiate Webb’s impulse. That year, New Zealand’s first on the Security Council, Webb also tended, in his wish to ‘obtain results and not merely to pin up declarations’, to involve himself overmuch in detail and in directing the delegation in New York from Wellington.
As minister for island territories Webb’s main achievement was to accept the plan for self-government in Western Samoa, which was devised by the high commissioner, Guy Powles. Before relinquishing the portfolio in 1954, Webb oversaw the initial planning for the constitutional changes that would lead to independence in 1962.
Late in 1954 Webb was appointed high commissioner for New Zealand in the United Kingdom, with Holland making it plain he was reluctant to lose ‘his best man’. Webb served capably at the time New Zealand became involved under the Commonwealth umbrella in South East Asia, and during the Suez crisis of 1956. That year he was knighted (KCMG). The National government was defeated in 1957 and Webb returned to New Zealand in 1958. In retirement he commented and wrote on public and international affairs until his death in Wellington on 6 February 1962. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.