It's hard to feel much empathy for Britain over Brexit

by Bill Ralston / 27 January, 2019
British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 10 Downing Street. Photo/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 10 Downing Street. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Brexit NZ

As Brexit drags on, New Zealanders know how it feels to be left out in the cold by a trading partner.

It is difficult for many New Zealanders to summon up much empathy for the UK over its Brexit quagmire. In 1973, the UK entered the European Economic Community, now known as the EU, and most of our biggest export market evaporated almost immediately. London cavalierly cast us aside with scarcely a thought. Those of us old enough to recall what later ensued are the ones largely suffering that empathy lapse.

Sir Robert Muldoon’s National Government took New Zealand’s hitherto excellent credit rating and used it to borrow the cash to make up for the massive drop in our earnings that resulted from the loss of the British market.

By 1984, and the advent of David Lange’s Labour Government, it seemed that Muldoon, as he proudly boasted, had “spent the lot”. As a nation, we were on the verge of bankruptcy, balanced on the edge of an abyss that would have put international finance agencies in charge of what was left of the economy. In terms of our predicament in the 1980s, think of Greece and Iceland in the 2000s.

Then Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas sold as many state assets as he could in a fire sale that took us away from the edge of the debt canyon, but still left us precariously close to it. In the 1990s, Jim Bolger’s National Government was still desperately constrained in its spending by the effects of the disappearance back in the 1970s of one of our principal sources of export income.

The remarkable thing is that New Zealand picked itself up, dusted itself off and found lucrative new markets. It was so successful that, first, Helen Clark and her Government, then John Key and the next National Government, managed to get the country on to a more stable footing, albeit much lower in international per capita income ranking than in 1973.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the coalition are now enjoying the fruits of three decades of pain and suffering as a result of the UK scurrying off into a new economic arrangement with Europe at our expense, and folk like me can be excused a little schadenfreude at seeing British leader Theresa May standing in the House of Commons looking like a whipped spaniel, pushing Brexit options that she insists are different from the one MPs just rejected but are, in fact, the same and suffer the same fate.

As March 29, a key trigger date in the Brexit process, rapidly approaches, the country is left with some horrible choices: a hard, or no-deal, Brexit, where it crashes out of the EU and finds itself, like New Zealand in 1973, adrift in a cold, harsh world without trade agreements and partners; a soft Brexit, where it has theoretically left the EU but is still bound to allow EU labour into the UK and cannot really negotiate its own separate trade deals because it retains access to the EU single market, which really negates the concept of a Brexit; or, if the others are too awful to contemplate, what the hell, let’s have another referendum and pray that a majority decide to stay part of the EU.

From time to time, I have criticised New Zealand politicians for their failures, but they look like statesmen of the highest repute compared with the UK’s incompetent, lacklustre, dithering parliamentarians.

May cannot even get backing for her moves from her own party, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is demanding a Brexit, but is content to frustrate her at every turn.

I know it’s mean but, oh dear, how sad, never mind.

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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