Paul Thomas

Is Patriotism Flagging?

Apr 1, 2016 | Kiwiana

History, they say, is written by the victors and few victors have relished the opportunity as much as Sir Paul Beresford, MP.

The parliament in question is in Westminster, not Wellington; Sir Paul left this country in the 1970s and now sits on the government benches in Britain’s House of Commons representing a Tory stronghold in the Surrey stockbroker belt.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper of choice of both Little Englanders and those who pine for the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, Sir Paul was pleased as Punch that 56.6% of us “voted in favour of keeping our very British flag complete with the Union Jack proudly displayed in the top corner.”

“What does this tell us?” asked the expatriate who cheers “strenuously” for England when they play the All Blacks. “I would argue that it shows Kiwis remain fiercely proud of their ties to the old country.”

Sir Paul told Telegraph readers that “many older generation Kiwis call the UK ‘home… even if they were born and bred in New Zealand” which suggests the 69-year-old thinks contemporary New Zealand is indistinguishable from the country in which he spent his childhood. My parents referred to the UK as “home” but they were born there, lived there until well into adulthood and, if they were still alive, would soon be getting a telegram from Buckingham Palace congratulating them on being a hundred not out.

He name-checked far-off battlegrounds where Kiwi blood was spilt in British wars: Gallipoli, Monte Cassino, Crete, North Africa. Interestingly, his piece, which was reprinted in the Herald, made no mention of the fact that Britain repaid this sacrifice by repudiating a long-standing trading relationship that was crucial to our economic well-being.

Nor was there any reference to New Zealand’s multi-culturalism or acknowledgement of our Polynesian and Asian communities, perhaps because they remain “fiercely proud” of their ties to countries other than Britain.

Sir Paul concluded by asking, “Is it surprising that we voted to keep our flag with its reminder of British colonialism?” When you put it like that and speaking for myself: yes, very. But perhaps some who voted for the status quo didn’t see it in those terms: after all, the anti-change brigade insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the rest of the world doesn’t read anything into the Britishness of our flag.

Let’s leave Sir Paul to his monochrome memories. What does the referendum result mean for those of us who actually live here?

Given that the issue supposedly only arose because John Key wanted to cement his place in history and the alternative design was supposedly uninspiring at best and embarrassing at worst, a 43.2% vote for change is reasonably significant. To put it in perspective, that’s only 1.5% less than the combined Labour, Greens and New Zealand First share of votes cast at the last election.

The three opposition parties opposed change and are now patting themselves on the back for putting a dent in Key’s grandiose aspirations. Well, politics is a tough business and he’d been riding high for quite a while but the public is entitled to ask whether they – particularly Labour – now stand for anything beyond thwarting Key.

No doubt Labour will make an effort to reclaim the progressive mantle that Key was trying on for size. But if we apply Theodore Roosevelt’s famous judgement to this debate, it was the Prime Minister who spent himself in a worthy cause while Labour lined up with the “cold and timid” souls.

Labour’s re-calibration isn’t off to a promising start with leader Andrew Little declaring that, having taken the national pulse in the course of his travels around the country, everything should remain on hold until the Queen dies.

This is a remarkable stance for a would-be prime minister to adopt. It amounts to saying that we, the New Zealand people and our elected representatives, should not determine the timing of any decisions around our flag and constitutional arrangements. Instead the timing should be determined by the longevity of an individual on the other side of the world.

Writing in an English newspaper, an Englishwoman working in New Zealand derided the referendum as Key’s “vanity project.” Another way of looking at it is that Key did what we’re always saying leaders should do: lead.

To say we can’t do anything until the Queen is no longer with us is the essence of leading from behind.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.