Making a nation still eludes us

This non-nation will struggle through — or simply ignore, except as a holiday — its notional national day next Wednesday.

Twenty-nine years ago a nationalist Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, who made February 6 the national day, said the Treaty of Waitangi gave two peoples “the gift of opportunity”.

No such evocative phrase is likely from the prosaic Helen Clark next week. We have yet to hear from her a cogent statement of our national identity and aspirations.

Why? Historian James Belich has the answer. We do not know who we are. Kirk lived in confident times. Now we drift.

Belich’s contribution to our understanding of ourselves is immense. He is a living national treasure.

His revisionist history of the 1840s-60s wars was seminal. His brilliant and innovative general histories, Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged, are commanding restatements of the forces that have been at work here.

Few, on reflection, would disagree with his thesis that most of last century was a time of recolonisation. Down to earth from the initial expansionist boom, we settled for being a tribe of Britain, displaced geographically but not socially, culturally or economically. We were Outer Pongolia to Britain’s Inner Pongolia.

Then from the 1960s, says Belich, Britain forced independence on us. Now it is a commonplace that when this lost tribe of Britain seeks distinctiveness to show the world, it turns to Maori — but finds a people whose leaders have grown disconcertingly confident of their identity and their place here.

But is Belich right about our decolonisation?

Britain did push us out. And we resisted. We delayed formalising full self-government until 1947. We hung on for dear life to all we could keep of the butter, cheese and lamb trade with Britain after it joined Europe in 1973.

And Britain did “withdraw”, in the sense of declining in military and economic power, becoming less and less able and willing to take our expanding production, fill our import orders and police cheap oil for us.

All of that drove us to trade elsewhere and, in part, contributed to a disastrous slump in our terms of trade — our earning power in the world — by more than a third from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. That in turn, compounded by politicians who pretended it hadn’t happened, caused the economic stall that preceded the radical post-1984 economic reforms.

But Belich has overrated this “push”.

The decolonisation of the late twentieth century came from within at least as much as (I think more than) from without — and more than Belich allows. If Britain had maintained its military and economic power, would we still have asserted our independence over the past 20 years? Yes.

Belich points us towards the agent. He identifies the “graduate” as a new and influential social group from the 1960s, active in many new causes. But he understates the reach of its independence dimension.

The generation which reached adulthood in the 1960s and, in government in the 1980s, made sweeping policy reforms was different in many ways from its parents.

We saw this first where we would expect to see it, in an explosive energy in crafts and then the arts, expressing a home-grown voice (of sorts), then in business and only last in a politics of reform after 1984. This independence revolution is what made our reforms far more radical and extensive than other countries’.

A politicians clique didn’t drive independence. A generation with a radically different set of values and attitudes did.

Sure, much of that was downloaded from the values revolution which swept 1960s United States and Europe — almost as derivative as the “recolonial” parents had been.

But in a raw, young society those values also found expression in decolonisation.

And then … what?

Belich is right that this lost tribe of Britain has not forged an identity. That is partly because the assertion of independence resembled an adolescent flounce. And it is partly because, in shucking the convenient British monoculture, we discovered that two deeply different cultures inhabit this place.

So we aren’t a nation. And so we don’t have a national day. If the treaty was a “gift of opportunity”, we have yet to work out how to grasp it.

That is for the next generation.