What should New Zealand think of Britain and Brexit?

While we should respect the choice of the British, we should urge them to avoid no-deal Brexit, as a friend, an ally, and a former colony.

Image Source: George Hodan, CC Public Domain

Aotearoa New Zealand’s relationship status with Britain, if it were a line on Facebook, it would be “it is complicated”. Britain signed the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori chiefs in 1840, and subsequently became the colonial power in Aotearoa New Zealand, doing what colonisers do: expanding the Empire at the expense of the natives in the name of “civilisation”, a policy encapsulated by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The White Man’s Burden”. While many of us now recognise that civilisation found on inequality and injustice is no civilisation at all, and therefore British colonialism is unacceptable, in Aotearoa New Zealand we are still living in the legacy of such colonialism. For one, the Waitangi Tribunal, set up to address colonial grievances, is still a going concern. For another, Aotearoa New Zealand still nominally has the Queen as the head of state. Still, Aotearoa New Zealand answers to its own people and not Britain. The changing of our parliament’s makeup from the First Past the Post system used in Britain to Mix-Member Proportional system is further evidence that Aotearoa New Zealand is moving on from the colonial past.

Britain, up until 1970s, was also the biggest trading partner of New Zealand. Looking at Steve Hoadley’s The New Zealand Foreign Affairs Handbook (2nd Edition, 1992), on the chapter of trade, we notice that up until 1960s, Britain historically took north of 50% of New Zealand’s exports. Then the trading relationship changed dramatically afterwards, taking single digital percentage of New Zealand exports in 1990s. That cataclysmic change in 1970s is the British ascension to the European Community (EC), the precursor to the European Union (EU). As a result, a strict and declining quote of main New Zealand exports such as cheese, butter, and lamb is allowed into Britain and the EC from 1970s. Hoadley did not say this, but I will state the obvious: Britain abandoned traditional trade ties with New Zealand in exchange for European trade ties since joining EC and now EU. Since then New Zealand has found new trading partners in Asia and the US.

Culturally, the links between Britain and New Zealand is strong but changing. Many of us do our Overseas Experience in Britain. This however is becoming increasingly difficult, because of the visa issue. As the Otago Daily Times noted, up until 1960s, kiwis are free to live and work in Britain. Then comes increasing visa restrictions, and in 2012, there are only 10,000 quota for kiwis on two years youth mobility working visa, which allows us to work and travel in Britain, but must be of certain age and with funds in the bank. For people in other age brackets there are similar restrictions. In other words, Britain, in terms of visa, is becoming just another foreign country. Britain however still remains one of the biggest sources of migrants into New Zealand, behind China and India. Up until 2014, however, Britain was the biggest source of long term migrants into New Zealand.

Defensively, Britain and New Zealand are still part of the Five Eyes intelligence network and the Five Power Defence Arrangements, and there is no indication that any of these defence connections will deteriorate in the near or even distant future.

All in all, my interpretation is that while Britain and New Zealand have strong cultural, defensive and institutional ties, the colonialism of the Empire remains a black mark in the relationship. While Britain remains as a friend and ally, it is also moving towards Europe, and inevitably, away from New Zealand.

I would liken the relationship of New Zealand and Britain as that between a child and its birth parent. Since birth there is abuse on the child (colonialism), but then the birth parent is only doing what it thinks is the best. As the child grows up, the birth parent has a new relationship with a new partner (a seductive European one). The new partner does not want the child, so there is strain between the child and the birth parent. However the child has grown up nonetheless, toughen up by this experience. The child and the parent is still on speaking terms, nowadays as equals.

Then comes Brexit.


Many kiwis see Brexit as an opportunity to renew the old trading ties we lost to the EU. Back in 2017, Bill English proposed to sign a free trade agreement with Britain as soon as possible after Brexit, and by all evidence this is still the direction we are heading, judging by MFAT asking for submission on such agreement. This will go on in parallel to a EU-New Zealand free trade agreement.

Tactically, Brexit seems to be the best circumstance, from New Zealand’s perspective, to exact the best deal out of Britain, given that Britain desperately needs trading ties to keep its own economy going. The chaos of Brexit only adds to the tactical advantage to New Zealand: the more uncertainty there is between Britain’s trade ties with EU, the more negotiating power we will have to provide a counterweight to the uncertainty with a free trade agreement with Britain. In particular, no-deal Brexit means that overnight, Britain/EU trade will revert back to WTO rules and no more, and it is not clear whether either Britain or Europe is ready for the flow-on bureaucratic and economic chaos that will follow. Hence this will make a Britain-New Zealand free trade agreement an anchor in this sea of chaos, and therefore maximally beneficial to Britain, and thus New Zealand can extract maximal concessions from Britain. By the same token, the more chaotic Brexit is, the more attractive New Zealand will be for British to settle long term, bringing with them skills that we need.

I would urge the New Zealand government, and in particular Jacinda Ardern, to resist this temptation of letting a no-deal Brexit go ahead. The Japanese Prime Minster Abe Shinzo is right in urging Britain to avoid a no-deal Brexit, because no-deal Brexit is completely unprecedented and conceivably there is nothing but chaos, for Britain and EU. No true ally or friend of Britain would want to see that, except mercenary minded “ally” or “friend”.

Of course, we understand that no-deal Brexit is not something that Britain actively signed up for. It is the result of deep disagreement within the British government and the British population in general. As a result of this deep disagreement, there is paralysis. While we respect the will of the British people to make whatever choice they make, the problem, peering from the outside, is that the British people have not made up their mind yet on Brexit. Some people want Brexit at all cost. Some want orderly Brexit negotiated with the EU. Some do not want Brexit at all. And given the defeat of Prime Minister of Britain Theresa May’s Brexit plan in the House of Commons, and the subsequent defeat of the no-confidence vote against May’s government, it is clear that this disagreement cut across party line. Therefore, peering from outside, to move forward Britain needs to somehow discuss the Brexit issue without the interference of party politics. Whether this comes in the form of a free vote, as proposed by former Prime Minister of Britain Sir John Major, or in the form of a second Brexit referendum, or something else, it should be entirely up to the British people to decide. As allies and friends, we respect the autonomy of the British, but also we need to remind Britain that it needs to make up its mind and come to a consensus. The deadline of for Brexit, 29th March 2019, waits for no one (unless there is an negotiated extension).

To continue the abused child analogy, we in New Zealand see that Britain has filed for divorce with its European partner. If Britain cannot negotiate a good divorce settlement with its European partner, it may end up on the street.

What I suggest is to look at this as responsible adults would do. We see our “abandonment” as part of growing up. So we absolutely will help our birth parent however we can. We may even enjoy seeing more of our birth parent, and the benefits that comes with more face time. After all, for the “abuse” we copped, we may even think we deserve some of that benefits. Superficially, our birth parent’s worst case scenario is our best case scenario. However, as responsible adults we nonetheless want what is best for us and our birth parent, not what is only good for ourselves. Therefore we must urge our birth parent to make up its mind on how and what to negotiate with its European partner, and avoid the worst case scenario.