During the depression, Savage toured the country, and became an iconic figure. An excellent speaker, he became the most visible politician in the land, and led Labour to victory in the 1935 election. Along with the Premiership he appointed himself the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Maori Affairs. The first Labour government swiftly proved popular and easily won the 1938 general election with an increased popular mandate. Savage, suffering from cancer of the colon at the time, had delayed seeking treatment to participate in the election campaign. He died from the cancer in 1940.
Savage led the country into World War II, officially declaring war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, just hours after Britain. Unlike Australia, which felt obligated to declare war, as it too had not ratified the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand did so as a sign of allegiance to Britain, and in recognition of Britain’s abandoning its former appeasement of the dictators, a policy that New Zealand had opposed. This led to Prime Minister Savage declaring (from his bed) two days later that:
With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny.
Savage brought an almost religious fervour to his politics. This, and his death while in office, has made him become something of an iconic figure to the Left. The architect of the welfare state (see Social welfare in New Zealand), his picture reportedly hung in many Labour supporters’ homes. Savage rejected rationalism during later life and returned to his Catholic roots. His state funeral included a Requiem Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Hill St, Wellington before his body was taken amidst general and public mourning by train to Auckland where he was interred initially in a temporarily adapted harbour defence gun installation. He was soon after removed to a side chapel of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland, while a national competition was announced, decided, and the winning design of the monumental tomb and memorial gardens at Bastion Point constructed, forming his permanent resting site. While younger generations have less awareness of him, many older New Zealanders continue to revere him.