George William Forbes

George William Forbes

honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name=George William Forbes
honorific-suffix =

order=22nd Prime Minister of New Zealand
monarch=George V
term_start=28 May 1930
term_end=6 December 1935
predecessor=Joseph Ward
successor=Michael Joseph Savage
order2=9th Leader of the Opposition
term_start2=13 August 1925
term_end2=14 October 1925
6 December 1935 - 2 November 1936
predecessor2=Thomas Wilford (1925)
Michael Joseph Savage (1935)
successor2=Harry Holland (1925)
Adam Hamilton (1936)
birth_date=birth date|1869|3|12|df=y
birth_place=Lyttelton, Christchurch, New Zealand
death_date=death date and age|1947|5|17|1869|3|12|df=y
death_place=Cheviot, New Zealand
party=United, then National

George William Forbes (12 March 1869 - 17 May 1947) served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1930 to 1935. Few expected him to become Prime Minister when he did, and some believed him unsuitable, but he nevertheless remained in that office for five years. Often referred to as "Honest George", Forbes had a reputation for rare debating skill and impressive memory, and his courteous and friendly attitude earned him the liking and respect of colleagues from all sides of the House. Throughout his time in national politics his Hurunui constituents held Forbes in high regard: even when Prime Minister he would roll up his sleeves and help load sheep from his farm on the railway wagons for market. Forbes led the country through the worst years of the Great Depression, heading the coalition government that eventually became the modern National Party.

Early life

Forbes was born in Lyttelton, just outside the city of Christchurch. He gained his education at Christchurch Boys' High School in Christchurch, and did not attend university. He became known for his ability at sport, particularly in athletics, rowing, and rugby where he captained the Canterbury team. After finishing school he briefly worked in his father's ships' chandlery business in Lyttelton, but later established himself as a successful farmer near Cheviot, to the north of Christchurch. He quickly became active in the local politics of the region, particularly with regard to the Cheviot County Council and the Cheviot Settlers' Association.

Entry to Parliament

In the election of 1902, Forbes made his first attempt to enter national politics, standing for the Hurunui electorate. He stood as an independent, having failed to gain the Liberal Party nomination. He lost the election. In the 1908 elections, however, he became the Liberal Party's official Hurunui candidate, and won the seat of Hurunui. He would hold this seat for thirty-five years.

Forbes remained a backbencher for some time, but became the Liberal Party's Whip when party leader Thomas MacKenzie became Prime Minister in March 1912. He retained this position when his party went into Opposition on 10 July 1912. However, he had considerably higher status within the party than his official responsibilities indicated, although few thought of him as a potential leader.

By the early 1920s, the Liberal Party faced a decision as to its political future. The Reform Party government of William Massey dominated the political scene, having secured the conservative vote, while the growing Labour Party had started to undermine Liberal's progressive voter-base. Many members of the Liberal Party believed an alliance with the Reform Party inevitable, seeing such co-operation as necessary to counteract the "radicalism" of the Labour Party. When Massey died in 1925, Liberal leader Thomas Mason Wilford decided to approach Massey's successor with a merger-proposal, suggesting that the new party could use the name "the National Party". The Liberal Party chose Forbes to represent them at a joint conference. The new Reform Party leader, Gordon Coates, rejected the proposal, although Wilford declared that Liberal would adopt the name "National" regardless.

Party leader

Shortly after the merger proposal was rejected, Wilford resigned as leader, and Forbes unexpectedly became party leader. In the election later that year, however, the party collapsed, gaining only eleven seats compared with Reform's fifty-five. To further compound the injury, Forbes no longer even held the post of Leader of the Opposition - the Labour Party had won twelve seats, enabling its leader Harry Holland to claim seniority in Opposition.

The party's poor fortune did not last long, however. In 1927, Liberal Party politician Bill Veitch secured an alliance with Albert Davy, a former Reform Party organizer who had become dissatisfied with what he saw as Reform's paternalism and intrusive governance. The former Liberal Party (still known as National) absorbed Davy's new "United New Zealand Political Organization", and adopted the name "the United Party". Forbes and Veitch both vied as candidates for the leadership of the United Party, but the position eventually went to a former Liberal Party Prime Minister, Joseph Ward. Forbes became one of two deputy leaders, having particular responsibility for the South Island.

Under the United banner, bolstered by Reform Party dissidents, the remnants of the old Liberal Party once again gained traction. In the 1928 elections, United formed a government with backing from the Labour Party. Forbes gained the portfolios of Lands and Agriculture. Gradually, however, Ward's health declined to the state where he was unable to carry out his duties, and Forbes became leader in all but name. In 1930, Ward finally gave his official resignation, and Forbes became Prime Minister. He also made himself Minister of Finance.

Prime Minister

As Prime Minister, Forbes, described as "apathetic and fatalistic", reacted to events but showed little vision or purpose. Opponents also criticised him for relying too much on the advice of his friends. However, the depression years proved a difficult time for many governments around the world, and his defenders claim that he did the best job possible in the adverse circumstances of the Great Depression.

The Forbes government began to show signs of instability when the Labour Party withdrew its support. Labour expressed dissatisfaction with a number of the government's economic measures - Forbes intended them to reduce the government deficit and to stimulate the economy, but Labour claimed that they unnecessarily harmed the interests of poorer citizens. Forbes had perforce to continue with reluctant support from the Reform Party, which now feared Labour's growing popularity.

In late 1931, Forbes called for a "grand coalition" of United, Reform, and Labour to resolve the country's economic problems. Forbes told a joint conference that he would not implement the measures he deemed necessary without broad backing. Labour refused to join this coalition, but Reform leader Gordon Coates (prompted by the Reform Party's finance spokesperson, William Downie Stewart) eventually agreed.

In the 1931 elections, the United-Reform coalition performed well, winning a combined total of fifty-one seats. Forbes remained Prime Minister, but surrendered the finance role to William Downie Stewart. Slowly, however, many people came to believe that Coates held significantly too much power, and that Forbes showed himself overwilling to give in to Coates' demands. This view became reinforced when Coates and Stewart argued over financial policy - although Forbes was known to prefer Stewart's policy, he publicly sided with Coates, and Stewart resigned.

Coates replaced Stewart as Minister of Finance, and became even more dominant in the coalition. Stewart, noting this, complained that "the Prime Minister is too passive and the Minister of Finance is too active". Both Forbes and Coates, however, increasingly took the blame for the country's ongoing economic problems, and could not avoid public dissatisfaction. In the elections of 1935 the Labour Party defeated the coalition government, gaining fifty-five votes to the coalition's nineteen.


By 1935 Forbes had become increasingly weary of politics, writing that he agreed with Downie Stewart's description of the profession as "slavery that is miscalled power". Nevertheless, Forbes reluctantly allowed his colleagues to select him as Leader of the Opposition, and from May 1936 led the new National Party (created out of United and Reform) until October 1936 when Adam Hamilton became the party leader. Both party and leader agreed on Forbes's tenure as leader of the new National Party as a temporary measure, as Forbes had indicated his desire to withdraw from the limelight and no doubt some now saw his past tenure as a political liability.

Forbes retained his parliamentary seat until 1943, when he retired after 35 years as a Member of Parliament. He declined the offer of the customary knighthood,and four years after his retirement he died at Crystal Brook, his farm near Cheviot.

The national memorial for Forbes, the George Forbes Memorial Library, forms part of Lincoln University near Christchurch. [ See citation |title = Architectural competition |journal = Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects |volume = 23 |issue = 8 |page = 201 |year = 1956, and citation |first1 = M. M. |last1 = Burns |first2 = F. Gordon |last2 = Wilson |first3 = Ronald C. |last3 = Muston |title = The George Forbes Memorial Library |journal = Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects |volume = 24 |issue = 3 |pages = 70-74 |year = 1957]


Further reading

Work of Forbes

:*citation |first = George W. |last = Forbes |title = Some problems of production and distribution within the British Empire / address by G.W. Forbes |place = London, [England] |publisher = Empire Parliamentary Association |year = 1930

Works about Forbes

:*citation |title = Architectural competition |journal = Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects
volume = 23 |issue = 8 |page = 201 |year = 1956

:*citation |first1 = M. M. |last1 = Burns |first2 = F. Gordon |last2 = Wilson |first3 = Ronald C. |last3 = Muston |title = The George Forbes Memorial Library |journal = Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects |volume = 24 |issue = 3 |pages = 70-74 |year = 1957

:*citation |first = Clyde |last = Carr |author-link = Clyde Carr |title = Politicalities |place = Wellington, [N.Z.] |publisher = National Magazines |year = 1936 |pages = 50-52

:*citation |first = William J. |last = Gardner |title = 'FORBES, George William', from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Sep-2007 |url = |accessdate = 2008-05-17

:*citation |first = William J. |last = Gardner |title = 'Forbes, George William 1869-1947'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 |url = |accessdate = 2008-05-17

:*citation |first = Olaf F. |last = Nelson |title = The situation in Samoa: Mr. Nelson meets Mr. Forbes: a record of the interview |place = Auckland, [N.Z.] |publisher = National Printing |year = 1932

:*citation |first = John |last = Wilson |title = Cheviot's jolts and ballots |newspaper = Christchurch Press |date = 18 October 1993 |page = 25 |year = 1993

External links

* [ Prime Minister's Office biography]
* [ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography] (search for "Forbes, George William")
* [ Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966 (George William Forbes)]

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