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New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake in 1969. Photo/Getty.

Leaving Mother: Reflecting on NZ's own Brexit-style breakup

Amidst the continuing brouhaha concerning the exact nature of Britain’s ongoing relationship with the European Union, it’s easy to forget that to have a Brexit, there first must be a Brentrance.

Anyone who thinks recent events have been rowdy obviously wasn’t there for the hand-wringing and panty-bunching that went on in these parts when Britain announced in 1961 that it planned to join the European Economic Community, the first step on the highway to hell in the form of European Union membership.

What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as far as Britain was concerned. It was an obvious and economically sensible move for our northern cousins. Not so good for us. EEC policy excluded imports from primary producers outside the Continent: ie, us.

Our Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, told his British counterpart, Harold Macmillan, somewhat histrionically, that if the UK went with Europe, New Zealand “would be ruined”. He had a point. In 1960, 53% of our exports went to Britain, mainly in the form of primary products: meat, wool, dairy and timber.

To put things in context, Macmillan told French President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 that New Zealand was “an English farm in the Pacific”. And he was on our side. Whatever he thought about the advisability of having your larder a hemisphere away, de Gaulle vetoed British entry to the Common Market, stalling it for nearly 10 years. This went down so well here that, according to Paul Moon in his book Turning Points, toasts to de Gaulle were drunk at the New Zealand Association of Economists’ annual conferences for some years.

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British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (left) with his Minister of Agriculture, Christopher Soames, on a grouse shoot in 1961. Photo/Getty.

It took a decade, but British wooing paid off and the country became a member of the EEC on 1 January 1973. There had been much negotiating over continuing to allow trade with its former colonies. New Zealand won export quotas, which were reduced gradually over several years.

(Whether residual rancour over this concessionary shilly-shallying lay behind Europe’s intransigence in Brexit dealings nearly half a century later may never be known.)

At the time the first announcement was made, New Zealand had known for some years that we were overly reliant on exports to Britain to keep our economy afloat. But did we panic? You bet we did.

The chairman of the Meat Producers Board, John Ormond, said it was “difficult to understand those people in Britain who want to abandon the substance of Commonwealth for theoretical gain in Europe”. Not so hard to understand many years later.

But eventually the smelling salts worked and we pulled ourselves together. Accepting the inevitable, we rose to the occasion and, in the words of Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “the next 10 years was a trade policy coup. A country of less than three million people negotiated concessions (in the form of access quota rights to the British and European markets) from a powerful group of countries with a population of over 200 million.”

We also sought out other markets, diversified our exports and did some growing-up as a nation, not having much choice about it. It was a landmark in the process of disengaging ourselves from Britain. The Mother Country was spurning her offspring. This adolescent country wouldn’t leave home, so Home left us.

Now, ironically, as the Economist noted in 2017, a post-Brexit Britain without a guaranteed European market would be in much the same position as New Zealand found itself back in 1973.

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.