Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Hamish McDougall
50 years ago this week, British Prime Minister Edward Heath stood on a political precipice and a New Zealander, John Marshall, was threatening to push him off.
As negotiations to enlarge the European Community dragged on in Luxembourg on 21-22 June 1971, British accession faced the prospect of failure at the third attempt.
Somewhat strangely, of all the complex problems afflicting Community enlargement that year, continued New Zealand dairy exports to Britain was the most troublesome.
Standing in the way of Heath and agreement at Luxembourg was Trade and Deputy Prime Minister Marshall, who told attending media he had no intention of accepting a substandard deal for New Zealand. Marshall even threatened British minister Geoffrey Rippon that he would fly straight to Heathrow to tell waiting journalists how Britain had sold New Zealand down the river. ‘You wouldn’t dare,’ said Rippon. ‘Just try me,’ said Marshall.
Geoffrey Rippon and John Marshall after agreeing the special arrangement for New Zealand, June 1971 (Daily Telegraph)
The British did not try him. They repeatedly went back to the Community members to seek better access terms for New Zealand dairy products, pledging to pay more into the Community budget over the first five years to sweeten the deal.
When agreement was finally reached late at night, the resulting ‘special arrangement’ was a relatively good one for New Zealand, allowing over 70% of its dairy to remain in the Common Market after five years, with promises of future extensions. It was the only developed Commonwealth country to get such a deal. British officials also deftly put Community regulation of New Zealand lamb imports on the backburner for nearly a decade.
Heath was not the only British Prime Minister to bat for New Zealand in Europe. Harold Wilson did the same in the ‘renegotiation’ of British membership terms in 1975, extending New Zealand’s special arrangement beyond the transition period. And Margaret Thatcher cited proposed Community barriers to New Zealand lamb imports as one of the reasons she walked away from a budget agreement at the tempestuous Luxembourg Summit of April 1980. This ultimately led to improved terms for New Zealand when lamb was shepherded into the Common Agriculture Policy later that year.
It all helped New Zealand to retain crucial export receipts from the European Community, including the UK, which was one of New Zealand’s top four trade partners into the 21st Century. It provided much needed breathing space for New Zealand’s economic diversification.
The ‘great abandonment narrative’ was recently criticised by UK High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke. This was likely a tactical ploy in the context of free trade talks; however, Clarke has a point. The special arrangement negotiated by Marshall in Luxembourg has largely been forgotten and even fewer remember the subsequent British efforts. Over the decades, politicians and commentators of all stripes in London and Wellington have too readily claimed that New Zealand was ‘shocked and betrayed’ by Britain’s entry to the European Community.
Laura Clarke, British High Commissioner to NZ
In New Zealand, British accession in 1973 is seen as major turning point in national history; a time when an outmoded colonial identity was supposedly cast off and an independent South Pacific nation emerged. This largely ignores the fact that, in crucial ways, New Zealand largely remained allied to Britain in the decades after British entry in 1973. The Anglo-New Zealand relationship evolved after British accession. It did not dissolve.
But why did British Governments continually do their best for New Zealand in the European Community? This has variously been explained by altruism, helping a small country in economic peril, or imperial nostalgia, rewarding a like-minded ally for past loyalty. Others suggest that the quality of New Zealand’s diplomacy was the determining factor.
In reality, the most important reason was the domestic political situation in Britain. For example, in 1971 Edward Heath was terrified that an unruly group of backbenchers would seize on New Zealand as a reason to vote down entry legislation (as it happened, the votes scraped through, thanks to pro-European Labour MPs defying the party whip). In 1980 Thatcher saw support for New Zealand as helping her battle to reduce Britain’s financial contribution to the Community budget.
It was not only the British political right that saw political benefits from backing New Zealand. In 1975 Wilson seized upon an achievable ‘win’ for New Zealand trade to help convince his own disunited Labour party, and the wider electorate, to vote ‘remain’ in that year’s referendum on British membership. Throughout the 1970s factions in the British Labour Party wanted to keep food prices low, preserve Britain’s global role and enhance links with the Commonwealth, all of which helped New Zealand’s case. Even those in favour of British membership wanted to see the New Zealand problem solved, as they thought this would help settle the European question in British politics.
Conversely, those on the right of British politics were not universally well-disposed to New Zealand. Heath’s Conservative Government unilaterally imposed tariffs on New Zealand lamb in 1970 and wanted to extend its own regime of farm subsidies regardless of Community membership. A significant strand of conservative thinking, epitomised by Enoch Powell and still prevalent today, wanted Britain (or perhaps England) to focus on ‘national renewal,’ rather than fostering Commonwealth links.
All of this suggests that, despite the Global Britain rhetoric, post-Brexit Britain will not automatically want to see a return to the open trading relationship with New Zealand that existed prior to British accession.
If history is any guide, neither any lingering British sentimentality towards New Zealand nor the best diplomacy New Zealand can muster will be enough to secure a good result in the ongoing free trade negotiations.
What New Zealand needs is a fair political wind blowing through Westminster, and a healthy intersection of British and New Zealand political interests.
In the last 50 years, such intersections have tended to occur when British Governments were relatively weak in Parliamentary terms, when the question of Britain’s membership in the Community is at play, and when New Zealand could offer a solution to inflationary problems.
None of this can be said for the current British Government, which has a healthy majority and has purged itself of pro-Europeans. The British Labour Party’s unwillingness to politically engage on Brexit issues does not help. Nor can New Zealand rely on a low food price argument, given many of its products are now targeting the premium end of the British market.
The challenges do not end there. New Zealand’s staunchest ally in Brussels is no longer around, making free trade negotiations with the European Union even more challenging.
On a slightly more optimistic note, historically New Zealand’s credentials as an ‘international citizen’ have always played well in the UK and western Europe, including its Cold War contribution, promoting stability in the South Pacific and constructively engaging with multilateral institutions.
The trade talks in the next few months will do much to shape New Zealand’s relationships with the UK and Europe for the next fifty years. But this time around, there is no New Zealand minister threatening to push Britain or the European Union off a precipice. Will the results for New Zealand in 2021 be as good as 1971? Time will tell.
Hamish McDougall is completing a PhD at the London School of Economics on the topic of Britain’s entry into the European Community and relations with New Zealand, 1960-1980. His most recent research on New Zealand’s role in the negotiations for European Community enlargement in 1970-1 can be found here.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.