A very complicated business: Ken Ross outlines the 'horse-trading' behind Alister McIntosh not becoming Commonwealth Secretary-General in 1965.

Author:Ross, Ken

Long-serving Secretary of External Affairs Alister McIntosh played a significant role in the Canadian Arnold Smith becoming the first Commonwealth secretary-general in 1965. McIntosh skilfully out-manoeuvred British officials, who sought to deny him and Smith the slot. McIntosh was himself a candidate for the position but accepted late in the piece that he was not to be the secretary-general. His, and his wife's, health ruled him out of the move to London for such an arduous assignment. McIntosh's moves to help Smith's appointment were successful in large part because his prime minister, Keith Holyoake, was with him in rebuffing the British.

'... the appointment of a Commonwealth Secretary-General. As I mentioned, this is a very complicated business and it will very likely be the subject of much horse-trading.' (Alister McIntosh, 1965) (1)

Alister McIntosh is New Zealand's outstanding diplomatic mandarin. After 23 years spent creating our foreign service 'Mac' retired in November 1966, when he reached the then compulsory retirement age for public servants of 60. We have not seen his like since. McIntosh deserves a major biography.

For now we rely mostly on Ian McGibbon, with his entry for McIntosh in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and the two volumes he edited of McIntosh's correspondence--Undiplomatic Dialogue: Letters Between Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh 1943-1952 (1993) and Unofficial Channels: Letters between Alister McIntosh and Foss Shanahan, George Laking and Frank Corner 1946-1966{1999). McIntosh also features in the writings of Malcolm Templeton, Gerald Hensley, David McIntyre, (2) Keith Sinclair, James McNeish, Roberto Rabel and Michael King.

McGibbon, McIlntyre, King and McNeish all touch on an episode which they saw as bruising McIntosh's reputation--his failure to be the first Commonwealth secretary-general in 1965, due to a seemingly threatened British veto hanging over him because his homosexuality was a security vulnerability too far for London to countenance. Joanna Woods, in Diplomatic Ladies (2013), states that 'Holyoake had been obliged to withdraw his [McIntosh's] nomination on security grounds'. (3)

McIntosh's homosexuality was made public in McGibbon's account in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and was later highlighted by Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand (2003). The richness of McIntosh's family life, with wife Doris and son James, including their weekender garden retreat at Te Marua, is well captured by McIntosh in his correspondence and by Ngaio Marsh in her 234 letters to Doris that span the final two decades of McIntosh's life. (4)

Though McIntosh was indisputably homosexual, there is no evidence to support and a lot of evidence to counter the argument that it was his homosexuality which scuppered his chances of becoming the Commonwealth's first secretary-general. A British push to 'kill' McIntosh's bid was most likely derailed by the most senior of the British mandarins. (5) Joe Garner, who led the British officials throughout this period, recounts in his memoir, with a most elliptic sentence, that it did not happen that way. (6) Given his close friendship with Garner, McIntosh seemingly knew as much at the time. And McIntosh's correspondence at the Alexander Turnbull Library gives us too many clues to allow the belief that McIntosh's homosexuality cost him the secretary-general assignment to stand any longer.

To come to this conclusion, I have combined McIntosh's ruminations in his letters with some Holyoake material at Archives New Zealand, further informed by two David McIntyre articles that chart the time-line for the year-long process ahead of Arnold Smith's appointment as secretary-general by Commonwealth leaders meeting in London on 23 June 1965. (7)

The foreign ministry's inventory of McIntosh's correspondence (the Turnbull's fMS-Papers-6759-2) is of considerable value but has a substantial shortcoming. There are many more letters in the Turnbull folders than the 5450 letters listed on the inventory with foreign ministry folio/piece numbers. 'McIntosh ... was an indefatigable correspondent, and in that context the master of calculated indiscretion'. (8) He held this correspondence with colleagues, friends and contacts in his own secure 'registry' --a correspondence that would seldom have had copies in the ministry's official registry. George Laking, his successor as head of the foreign ministry, let us know that McIntosh's 'correspondence when it becomes available for publication will provide an incisive commentary of a rare kind on the realities of political life in New Zealand over a quarter of a century.' (9)

The essence of my rebuttal is that, first, McIntosh came to accept very late in the year-long search for the secretary-general that neither his nor his...

To continue reading