What makes a national day? Not the Anzacs

There will be much talk on Friday of “national identity”. Just one year short of the original baptism of the Anzacs, jingoism will be in fashion. Some will say, and many will think, it is our real national day.

The basis for this sentiment is some history and some myth: “heroism” and a degree of distancing from Britain — or at least from the British military leaders and politicians under whose edicts localities, big and small, throughout the empire’s “last, loneliest, loveliest” outpost lost men in sacrifice to the gods of war.

Massey University’s Professor of War Studies Glyn Harper is among those historians who say Gallipoli was where we lost our innocence. “It gave a huge push to cementing our national identity,” he said in a press release last year.

According to Harper, the lesson from Gallipoli, which he called one of New Zealand’s greatest tragedies, was one of valour and values, “victory over death and suffering for the human spirit”.

Harper went on: “It led to a major shift in our attitude to Australia and Britain. While we initially thought the Australian soldier was ill-disciplined, Gallipoli brought us together. We quickly learned we weren’t British nor were we inferior to them.”

The campaign to take control of the Gallipoli peninsula and with that the Dardanelles straits sea route to join Russia in knocking out Turkey was one of Sir Winston Churchill’s ill-fated high-risk brainstorms, ill-executed by British admirals and generals. Churchill did it again to New Zealand in Greece and Crete in 1941.

But did we get a huge push to national identity from Gallipoli? Or did we just think of ourselves as a bit more different from Britain than we had previously thought?

Is Anzac Day our actual national day?

First, Anzac, when written out fully, starts with the word “Australian”. Rank and file Australians commonly leave out references to New Zealand in their commemorations.

Second, Gallipoli was a defeat.

It is not uncommon for small countries to make a big thing of big defeats. They can be character-building, as Harper said. And New Zealanders acquired some scepticism about their imperial bosses. But a defeat is not a sound foundation for nationhood.

Third, New Zealand’s politicians did not exactly sue for divorce.

Unlike the slightly more grown up Australians, New Zealand soldiers were kept under British divisional command till 1918.

After the war Britain remained “Home”. Even in the 1950s, that was the common term. Immigration policy heavily favoured Britain and those new immigrants were “Homies”.

When in 1931 the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster giving the old white colonies full independence, New Zealand took until 1947 to adopt it.

In 1939 Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s “where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand” declaration of war reflected a deep attachment to Britain at least as much as opposition to 1930s fascism.

The 1950s Prime Minister Sir Sidney Holland declared himself “always proud to be British … to belong to what I am happy to call the British Empire, the greatest power for good that the world has ever known.”

It wasn’t until Sir Keith Holyoake that we got a Prime Minister more New Zealand than British but he was a minority in his cabinet and so not audibly, or at least not volubly, independent. In 1982 Sir Robert Muldoon sent a frigate to help Margaret Thatcher keep the Falkland Islands British.

It was when the post-1945 generation took charge, first in the arts, writing and music, then in business then, in 1984, in politics that we became genuinely independent, in mentality as well as in legal formality.

Curiously, it was around then that many younger New Zealanders got an Anzac Day-Gallipoli nationalist bug, swelling ceremonies and making pilgrimages.

Anzac positives contrasted with the protest-driven negatives of February 6, the national day decreed by Norman Kirk, our first overtly nationalist Prime Minister. Activists were battling for full recognition and observance of the Treaty of Waitangi, which for many Maori had come to symbolise a defeat far more catastrophic than Gallipoli: the crushing of a culture from the 1860s on.

In the decades since, deep policy changes, legal revisionism and the “truth and reconciliation” Treaty settlement process have largely realised the potential which Kirk — claimed by Ngai Tahu as our first Maori Prime Minister — presciently envisaged: a day marking a fully independent nation’s unique bicultural unity.

Unity is a more convincing national statement than a military defeat which may have left us sceptical about the ruling British but did not separate us from Britain, as we showed in 1939 by going to war again as a child of empire.

The other lessons some historians distil from Gallipoli and the western front were real and are cause for commemoration. Unity in a fully independent nation, by contrast, is cause for celebration.

It is celebration, not commemoration, that makes a national day.