Brexit: A View from Down Under

This was submitted to a British news publication in late December, but was not published. 

Brexit is a great puzzle to New Zealanders. Britain and New Zealand are affectionate cousins with common ancestors back in the nineteenth century. We have gone our own ways; even so we have views of the other’s ways.

New Zealand’s position in 1973 was that Brentrance was a matter for Britain to decide, but that it should not compromise the New Zealand economy. A common informed New Zealand view was that Britain should join what is now the EU. It had lost its empire and its new international role would be as part of a solid block of European nations which would reduce the dominance of the duopoly of the US and (then) Russia.

Now Britain says it wants to leave the block, strengthening the joint hegemony of the US and China. The strategy does not make a lot of sense to your cousins, while the way it is being done is farcical. This view is similar to what our friends and relatives living in Britain tell us – the cousins’ links are close and affectionate.

Part of the divergence in view may arise from New Zealand being a minor nation on the margins of the world, so we have to think globally. There still seem to be a lot of people in Britain who are ‘Little Englanders’, that strange withdrawal from the world based on the pretence that Britain is a higher-level power than it really is.

The odd thing is that the polls tell us that an increasing majority of the Brits are Remainers. It gives us some comfort that the entire nation is not insane. The trouble seems to be the British political system. In particular parliament does not seem to be up to the job, especially given that the majority of MPs are Remainers, so I am told.

We got fed up with the ‘elected dictatorship’ (Lord Hailsham’s term) that our system generated. Twenty-five years ago we replaced it with Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP), a system similar to the German one. What that means is that the party system is much more fluid.

So I don’t think New Zealand would get into such a muddle over a question of Brexit proportions. We do get parliamentary gridlock on decisions. When we do we use referenda. A century ago we were voting on the liquor question. In the last 70 years there have been another ten parliament-triggered referenda. (We may have another three at the time of the next general election in 2020.)

Had the British a more proportional representation system, perhaps MPs would abandon their party allegiances and form new parties – say Tories-for-Remain leaving the Conservatives-for-Brexit rump, and similarly for Labour MPs.  (No wonder party leaders hate proportional representation.)

But if the Mother of All Parliaments cannot get a realignment of parties (as occurred in the nineteenth century) does that mean Brexit is inevitable? That is in the hands of the MPs – hopefully some have the intelligence and commitment to find their way through the arcane parliamentary procedures.

It is not for one cousin to tell another on the other side of the world what to do. But here is a scenario an affectionate one might fantasise about.

Early in the New Year, Parliament forces the British government to the Brexiting on 29 March – say for two years. It is too soon, cuzzie, and you are not prepared. In the interim, Britain works with the other 27 EU countries to review the terms of freedom movement. Cooperatively, not threatening to leave but enabling the EU to work better. There are already numerous restrictions on freedom of movement. Perhaps all that needs to be done is to codify and systematically implement them.

Then have a referendum. We would down here. Blow the party leaders; the people should have the ultimate say. But they would no longer be voting for or against the Remain as it was in 2016 because the restrictions on freedom of movement will be better understood.

New Zealanders’ preference would be for a world with a well-functioning EU and Britain a part of it. But whatever the outcome of the referendum we’ll support you, just as we would a cousin who we thought was, say, committing themselves to an unwise marriage. (But allow us to repeat our 1973 demand that you do not damage our economic interests – well not more than you are going to damage yours.)

One of your great countrymen – your cousins admire him too – Winston Churchill thought that often a country came to the right conclusion after it had tried everything else. The dictum does not say when, nor the terrible cost of the half-baked interim solutions on the way. But it gives your friends overseas some confidence that eventually you will get there. How about soon, cuzzie, soon?