New Zealand’s century-long journey to independence


New Zealand gradually became independent of the UK in a slow and gradual manner – one tiny step after another until one day they basically realised they were an independent nation. So much so that they do not have an independence day, because no one really knows when it was.  This century-long journey to independence might seem rather rapid in comparison with Scotland, where even establishing a Parliament took longer. But there are interesting lessons to learn. 

Although it is bigger than the UK in terms of land mass, New Zealand’s population of around 5 million is similar to Scotland’s – although it has grown from 1 million a century ago, while Scotland’s population has remained relatively flat. 

New Zealand’s Sovereign Wealth Fund

New Zealand has a thriving economy, predicted to grow 2.5% this year. The GDP (gross domestic product) per capita is only slightly higher than Scotland’s – but the state pension (superannuation)  is one third more than the UK pension, at almost £15,000. 

Because New Zealand is fully independent, it can make decisions about how to use its resources to build a more secure future for its people. For example, it established a sovereign wealth fund in 2001, with the aim of partially protecting the future pensions of over-65s. It is currently worth $43 billion.

Here are some lessons for Scotland from New Zealand’s independence journey. 

1 Growing political divergence 

Gallipoli prompts desire for independence

At the outbreak of World War One, New Zealand was still an enthusiastic member of the British Empire. Around 120,000 men enlisted and 18,000 men were killed, out of a population of one million. (In comparison to that, up to 135,000 Scots were killed from a population of almost five million.) 

More than 2,700 men died in the Gallipoli Campaign. The heroism of the soldiers in this bloodbath is iconic in New Zealand memory, and often credited as prompting a drive for independence.

A widening political gulf – the “Nats” emerge

Through the 20th century, the political gulf between New Zealand and the UK widened. There were disagreements over foreign policy – New Zealand wanted more say over calls on its young men. 

New Zealand was also a socially conservative country, which saw itself as out of step with the UK’s first Labour governments.  The Liberal Party merged with the Conservative Reform Party to become the New Zealand National Party, also known as the “Nats’. Their first PM, Sidney Holland, was elected in 1949, beginning an almost unbroken 30-year period of rule by the Nats. 

Full control of  legislative powers 1947

A General Assembly had been established in New Zealand back in 1852, but this was subject to the authority of a Governor General appointed by the British Crown.  A UK statute that had been drawn up earlier for the Irish Free State was adopted in New Zealand in 1947.

It granted the New Zealand Parliament full legislative powers, control of its military,  and legally separated the New Zealand Crown from the British Crown. So, although the Queen remains also the monarch of New Zealand, she is in a separate capacity as its ceremonial sovereign.

2 Building a national currency

The New Zealand pound started out somewhat like the Scottish pound is today – it was UK sterling, produced by New Zealand banks with a localised image, until 1933. In 1934, New Zealand established a central bank, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which gave it control of monetary policy for the first time. 

For the next three decades, it remained part of a ‘sterling area’ –  a group of countries that pegged their currencies to the pound after the UK left the gold standard in 1931. Most of these countries were part of the British Empire; some were not. 

Emergency legislation in the second world war turned all these countries into a sterling block without exchange controls. That situation more or less persisted after the second world war, but the UK was declining as an economic power and it could not defend the value of sterling against the dollar. When the UK pound was devalued against the dollar in 1967, other countries made different choices. 

New Zealand was already preparing to introduce, a decimal currency, the New Zealand dollar, which it did in that same year, pegging it to the US dollar. Today, a New Zealand dollar is worth about 53 pence, a valuation that is in keeping with New Zealand’s export strategy. 

3 Rebalancing the economy

The flip side of the Great Betrayal

In what was known in Scotland as the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1921, the UK government abandoned support for farmers in the British archipelago. Scotland was worst affected than any other country and thousands of crofters, farmers and tenants simply walked away from land which could no longer pay. 

The flip side of this was guaranteed prices for New Zealand farmers. The UK government of the day had decided that the increasing efficiency of refrigerated shipping meant it could save money by importing cheaper food from the colonies. It gave New Zealand guaranteed prices and bought two-thirds of all of the lamb, beef, and dairy that the country produced.

Until the 1950s, New Zealand developed a closed economy with high import tariffs protecting local businesses of all kinds from international competition. 

Price shocks 

In 1955, the UK withdrew the guaranteed price, moving into a free market phase. When the UK joined the Common Market on January 1, 1973, its trading arrangements with New Zealand ceased and that caused another shock to the New Zealand economy, compounded by the oil crisis of 1973.

An open economy – with new trading partners

In the 1970s,  Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who was known as the first world leader to adopt an abrasive, informal style –  pledged a “government of the ordinary bloke”. His government oversaw major investments in infrastructure – known as “Think Big” – which took a long time to pay off, partly because the oil price fell back. 

Subsequent governments opened up the economy, now regarded as one of the most open in the world. Its biggest trading partners are: China (32% of exports); Australia, the United States; Japan; South Korea and Taiwan. The UK takes around 2 percent of its exports. 

4 Reassessing founding myths

New Zealand does not have a national day – but Waitangi Day, on February 6, is a public holiday for most people. The historic treaty is considered to be the founding document of the country and was a source of pride for its relative progressiveness. In recent years, however, New Zealanders have begun to understand the Māori perspective on their history. 

A contested land – but the first Europeans don’t get ashore

By the time the first European settlers started to arrive in the late 17th century, the Polynesians had established the country they called Aotearoa over at least three centuries. The first European arrivals were Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and crew, who anchored at the northern end of the South Island. They named it Murderers’ Bay following an attack by a local Māori tribe Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, who killed four of their number in an ambush. Tasman did not land, but drew the rough shape of the country, and in 1645, Dutch cartographers changed the name to Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. 

A century passed before European settlers appeared again – meaning that New Zealand was the last major country to be colonised by a European power. That delay arguably saved its native people from some of the worst violence and slavery that other First People experienced. 

A declaration of independence

New Zealand’s first – and only official Declaration of Independence took place on 28 October 1835, when the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand was signed by the United Tribes of New Zealand, a loose confederation of Māori tribes from the far north of the country.  This was organised by Scot James Busby, who had emigrated from Edinburgh a decade earlier. He also suggested that the country should adopt a flag, and Māori elders chose one in 1834. 

The Treaty of Waitangi makes New Zeland part of the British Empire

The Treaty of Waitangi, of which Busby was a co-author, between the British Empire and Māori leaders made New Zealand officially part of the British Empire It was regarded as a progressive document for many years,  because it recognised full citizenship rights for the Māori – but the devil was in the detail. 

There were key differences between the Māori text and the English language version. The English version ceded all ‘sovereignty’ to the Crown; while the Māori version granted full chieftainship to the Maori leaders and awarded ‘kāwanatanga’ – governance – to the Crown. 

Wars over land soon broke out with settlers, especially after the gold rush of the 1860s which doubled the population. The Māori’s Waitangi rights were either ignored or reinterpreted. By the end of the century, they had lost most of the tribal lands, and many lived in poverty.

Recognising Māori culture and language

After the second world war, the Māori people were discouraged from speaking their language which survived only in a few remote areas. But it was recognised as an official language in 1987. There are now Māori language-immersion schools and two television channels that broadcast predominantly in Māori.  Many places have both their Māori and English names officially recognised and 4% of the population say they can speak the language. 

Conclusion: Lessons for Scotland

There are some parallels for Scotland in New Zealand’s gradual evolution to independence. Historians looking back at the long, slow rise of support for Scottish independence will likely note the emergence of a political gulf between Scotland and England in the late 20th century, which has deepened in the 21st.

That gulf grew through the long years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 90s. It widened again over the Brexit referendum when the UK government refused to acknowledge that every council area in Scotland voted to remain. The difference is stark when you look at a map of the vote – which was famously recast as looking like the cartoon character Maggie Simpson, with a yellow face and blue dress. 

This divergence continues to grow to this day and it is one reason why support for Scotland to have its own government, to enact its different democratic choices is becoming so strong.

Looking at New Zealand which has managed to succeed as an independent, diverse, democratic country with its own currency and a broad base of trading relationships should encourage Scots to feel confident that Scotland could do the same. 





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