Anzac Day: it's all about being independent, isn't it?

Is Anzac Day about war or about independent nationhood? We don’t seem these days to be able to make up our minds.

Every year a minister goes to Gallipoli to commemorate our defeat there at the hands of British political and military genius. This year it is Winston Peters’ turn. Helen Clark went and she set up a prize for kids writing about our military history.

Clark is keen on war memories. (So, apparently, is United States presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton.) This year marks the 90th anniversaries of the horror of Messines (June) and the even greater horror and futility of Passchendaele (October), a grim monument to the British high command’s bone-headedness.

Next year it is the Somme again (after a gruelling Ypres salient winter): mud, death, sadism. At least by then “victory” was looming, a victory that fatally weakened the British empire and destroyed three others.

The Gallipoli legend is that war tempered a sense of New Zealandness. Clark has worked at turning that legend into heritage. Heritage may turn out, in historians’ retrospect, to be the distinguishing feature of her prime ministership.

Certainly, Clark has caught a sentiment. The post-World War II generations have been ready for heritage. Military legend furnishes some of the foundations. Thousands of young people converge on Gallipoli each year. They make a mess but they also make a point about nationhood.

That point is independence.

Groping for independence was an ingredient in the anti-Vietnam war activism of the young Clark and her cohort in the late 1960s-early 1970s. It was an independence from the values of their parents, shackled in sentiment to Britain and in gratitude to the United States for having shielded them from the Japanese in World War II, then from the red menace in the cold war against Soviet Russia and China, in which the American, Australian and New Zealand military intervention in Vietnam was an episode.

So to be “anti-Vietnam” was almost unavoidably also to be anti-American. Clark has carried that tag almost all her political life. We saw a flash of it in the 2005 election campaign.

But it is now a tattered tag. She has troops alongside Americans in Afghanistan. Some in United States military circles talk of “renewing old friendships”. Clark has drawn the venom from of the old alliance debate.

The challenge for the National party, having trooped lately into line on that issue, is to generate a new dimension, to give voice to the next generation, the one that did not cut its teeth on independence from American foreign policy but took independence for granted because it saw and heard it, when young, in films and music and writing that was fresh and unselfconsciously local.

That is John Key’s and Bill English’s generation. Their challenge is to take the next step in an independent foreign and military policy. Key’s misguided attack on Clark’s “huge foreign policy failure” in Washington in March was not a promising start.

He needs new-generation thinking. Murray McCully, Tim Groser and John Hayes are Clark-generation people. Key needs Key/English-generation advice and ideas that reflect a grasp of real heritage.

In this area of policy, maybe more than in any other, Key and English need to refashion National as the future party. Queen-and-country won’t do. In all but the trappings, this country is firmly republican now in the way it does things.

And this is a good year to start because it is loaded with anniversaries quite apart from the military sort (to which we might next year add the “four colonels’ revolt” in 1938, criticising the first Labour government’s military policy).

First, a 150th: on August 17 1857 Britain amended the 1852 Constitution Act it had bestowed on the colony so that the Parliament here could much more freely amend the 1852 act and be master of its own affairs.

Next, a 100th: on September 26 1907 the colony was made a “dominion”, a gesture toward independence. The Premier became Prime Minister and a Rt Hon and the Governor was demoted to Governor-General. But while the Parliament was determined to pass its own laws unimpeded — in fact had done so for 15 years — New Zealanders had no intention of acting independently of the empire. Hence the subjection to British commanders in World War I.

Next, a 60th: on December 10 1947 the British Parliament enacted our Parliament’s foot-dragging incorporation into our law on November 25 of the British 1931 Statute of Westminster giving full formal independence. But it was another four decades before lingering filial and nepotal attitudes departed the Beehive for good.

The new mood then was not (just) Labour’s anti-nuclear law. That owed as much to environmentalism as to peace concerns. It was a symptom of the new independence, not the substance. The difference was a confidence in being New Zealand, in this nation. It is that confidence that enables us now to memorialise past war with uplift instead of with a shudder.

That is Anzac Day now.