What if there had been no Treaty of Waitangi?

Some historians test their analysis by asking what if some event hadn’t happened or an alternative course had been taken at a fork. So: what if there had been no Treaty of Waitangi?

One easy answer is that we wouldn’t be commemorating on Friday its signing 175 years ago and billing it as our national day.

Another easy answer is that with no treaty there would be no argument about whether, in signing the treaty, iwi ceded sovereignty, as the English version says.

In the te reo version they didn’t. But the British settlers and the politicians the settlers elected enforced British sovereignty anyway, in much the way they would have if there had been no treaty. Guns trump words, de facto trumps de jure.

Might Maori have remained the majority if there had been no treaty? Unlikely. Settlement projects were burgeoning. That, and a need to regulate British already here, persuaded imperial politicians, who had been reluctant to annex New Zealand, to do so.

They drew on emerging post-slave-trade 1830s humanitarian ideas to insist annexation must be by treaty and that existing tribal authority be acknowledged. In the preamble, the treaty talks of protection of Maori. Contrast the rape of indigenous Australia.

There was plunder here anyway. Land was taken by hook and by crook. Maori “native” culture was devalued to a ceremonial or tourist artefact. Maori had to adjust — no simple matter — or settle for second-class. Local courts declared the treaty a legal “nullity”. It was chucked in a store-room as rat food.

Sovereignty was imposed by war. A tsunami of settlers made New Zealand a British place. Maori had to fit into an British order. Having a treaty made no difference.

An enduring legacy is lower average success in education and earning power, poorer health, the alienation of many from the “mainstream” and a high crime and prison rate.

There were pluses. One attraction for iwi of the British connection was access to technology: military technology to win inter-iwi wars for territory and food sources; tools to lift agricultural and other productivity. Maori plugged into the British imperial global economy. In the early post-treaty years some proved good at business and made money out of the British.

That suggests that had the British not turned up in large numbers and iwi had kept control, they might have successfully — and distinctively — joined the global economy.

Iwi might not have felt the need to carefully preserve protocol and custom. Social organisation and ritual might have evolved. Hierarchies might have become more porous and rank looser, as they did in the settlers’ society. Women might now be in the front row — 120 years back women in settler society were subordinate to men to a degree near-unimaginable now.

Certainly iwi would have held on to most of their land assets.

Since 1985 they have been getting some assets back. The mechanism has been claims for breaches of the treaty, which was resurrected and given some legal status in the 1980s.

Tribal asset bases have been built up, many Maori businesses (iwi, trust and private) have evolved into modern enterprises and are acquiring serious economic weight. Success stories are proliferating (as they did in the 1840s-50s).

Authorities consult and even to some extent take notice of iwi. Te reo and Maori culture have acquired formal equal status. Tino rangatiratanga has meaning here and there.

With this restoration have come glimmers of modernising adjustments of tribal custom and social order. A rising middle class will drive more.

The future looks more positive, though still very uneven.

But was the treaty necessary to do all that?

It certainly put structure under an emerging 1970s-80s concern for and debate on indigenous rights. It provided a mechanism for land and other rights claims to be addressed peaceably which might otherwise have been messy and protracted confrontations, as they were in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But formal structure alone would not have been enough if there hadn’t also been some shift in our social psyche that opened us to addressing injustices and to a two-culture identity — of course, with dispute, debate and disorientation, for this is not easy.

Without a treaty there would likely have been more backward and sideways steps. Nevertheless, we would likely now be on the path we are on, even if not so far along it and maybe with a different signpost or two.

But what next? The bicultural deal does not settle national identity.

John Key’s flag is a sideshow. Princes William and George are another. Anzac nationhood rhetoric — actually commemorating a thumping defeat — is another.

Deeper issues of an agreed value set and agreed ways to accommodate difference within agreed limits are so far addressed haphazardly or diffidently or not at all. As ethnic, religious and cultural diversity grows and blocs form, this will become the focal issue for February 6.

There is no treaty to guide us. But does that matter?