Thomas O'Brien

Watching the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU as an expat New Zealander has been a fascinating though depressing experience. From an antipodean perspective, Europe presents broad opportunity and is viewed with affection and interest (Australia is even in Eurovision). Travel through Europe from a UK base (often a shared room in a run-down area of town) has been a rite of passage for many Kiwis, in the form of the big OE (overseas experience). Therefore, the argument that New Zealand could be an exemplar for the UK’s post-Brexit future induces a feeling that something is slightly ‘off’. This feeling is amplified by Nigel Farage’s ‘apology’ for ending the special relationship back in 1973, by joining the common market – an apology welcomed by New Zealand’s own populist minor party leader, Winston Peters. Although nice to be popular, this reference to the experience of New Zealand in this way is tricky - there is history.

The complicated feelings of New Zealanders towards the UK result from the long relationship between the two countries. As a colonial possession, New Zealand strived to be a better Britain and strongly resisted the end of direct rule from Westminster for 16 years, before relenting in 1947. The close ties are exemplified by the fact that, in 1970, Britain accounted for 86% of New Zealand’s lamb exports. In this context, the UK decision to join the common market in 1973 was particularly damaging, as New Zealand felt effectively cast adrift. Struggling through the later 1970s and early 1980s New Zealand enthusiastically embraced neoliberalism from 1984, arguably to deal with a stagnant and bloated economy. This saw the decimation of state industries and the privatisation of large parts of the state, a process accelerated in the early 1990s with the National government’s attempts to cut welfare and workers’ rights. The scars of these reforms still remain, despite the appearance of a prospering South Pacific idyll.

On a social and cultural level, the divorce can be seen as a precursor to the development of a sense of national identity. There were dark periods, such as the dawn raids that targeted Pacific Island communities in the 1970s and an anti-Asian immigration drive in the 1990s, led by Winston Peters. Over time, there was a growing recognition that New Zealand is a Pacific state and part of the wider Southeast Asian region. Fear drove much of the negative feeling, as New Zealand struggled to define its identity having lost its historical ties with Britain and faced an uncertain world. Focusing on its own distinct character also enabled the country to redress historical abuses of the indigenous Māori population by the state, increasingly acknowledging that it is a settler society. Adopting a nuclear free stance by banning nuclear powered ships in 1984 in the face of external pressure also burnished a sense of identity on a global stage. Having weathered (with varying degrees of success) the effects of radical economic and political reforms, the country has been able to develop a sense of pride and lost the traditional cultural cringe. Fush and chupsanyone?

The calls for the UK to take a lead from New Zealand’s experience are problematic. As politicians in the UK argue for the need to ‘take back control’, regain sovereignty, and strengthen the Commonwealth they fail to notice that the world has moved on. New Zealand has taken a more active role in its own region, joining groups such as the Pacific Islands Forum, strengthening ties with Australia (with complications), and negotiating broad regional trade deals such as the contentious TPPA (cousin of the equally contentious TTIP). Four decades on from the weakening of ties with the UK, the attention of New Zealand has shifted considerably and there is less desire to be under the wing of another country. After the Brexit result, one New Zealand based commentator addressed the country’s ‘fairweather friends’ arguing that ‘the days of empire are gone. There is no place in the NRL or Super Rugby for English teams. You can't hitch your faltering pound to our NZ dollar. New Zealand already has a North Island.’ Despite hyperbole, designed to sell papers and attract clicks from expats, it does suggest one lesson that the UK may take from the New Zealand experience is that breaking up is hard to do and takes some time to get over.

Perhaps a better example would have been Australia, home of the mythical ‘Australian points-based system’.


Thomas O’Brien is a Lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. @TomOB_NZ

Image: Artem Verbo