Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Historian as Prophet


First ←Previous Page 5 of 5 Next→ Last

One aspect of ‘being British’, which I can only touch on, has been our desire to emulate the military virtues of the British, who have, for centuries, been, of all nations, the one most frequently involved in wars. We have tried to get in as many as possible, and take great pride in our feats of arms and our enormous casualty lists. It is probable that this militarism will be a dwindling asset in the future: a future belonging to rocketry, not infantry. My personal opinion is that neutrality would be a highly desirable policy, as tending to keep H-bombs at a distance. When you consider it, who could have attacked New Zealand in the past – I mean, invaded it, not just fired a few shells or dropped a few bombs on the coast – if we had kept out of wars and alliances and decided to defend only ourselves? Certainly not the Boers. Nor the Germans in 1914-18, nor in 1939-45. They were too far away and lacked the shipping. Only once have we been directly threatened – by the Japanese – while our best troops were away fighting the Germans and Italians. Only once, when we fought the Nazis and the Japanese, did we fight for what most modern historians regard as good causes. I mean that almost no historians believe that the British were justified in killing thousands of Boers; nor that the Germans were responsible for the First World War. But whatever you think about the past, I believe we can do more for civilization by staying out of wars: we might ensure that some of it survives.

In New Zealand ‘Britishness’ has involved other things than John Bullishness. The future historian won’t fail to see that the effort to be British was a source of strength as well as weakness, providing a code to live up to. He may also think it was a useful political device to keep the head of state, at no expense to the taxpayer, 12,000 miles away, rather than to elect an ex-prime minister or general as president. There’s a chance, indeed, that New Zealand will, in a few centuries, be the last monarchy in the world. But I feel sure that New Zealand will be much less British when the future historian writes. Moreover, I am satisfied with that prospect, not as a critic of British life (indeed, I would rather be in London than anywhere else in the world, outside Auckland), but because we never can have a high civilization that is British. For us to want to be British is a poor objective, like wanting to be an understudy, or a caretaker – or an undertaker. Any New Zealand civilization will certainly be mainly European, and British, in origins, but it will be ‘something different, something nobody counted on’.

Many New Zealanders now accept this conclusion: what does it imply? In my view, the Australians have partly found the answer, in its non-British immigrants. They present the natives with other choices – good and bad choices – in conduct, habits and thought. They bring new skills. They bring variety, which stodgy New Zealand needs. But need New Zealand be white? Will the minority of human beings with large noses and pink hairy faces inherit the future? I doubt it. And it seems to me that our future civilization, which we can scarcely imagine, is likely to be created by people of different races, facing the future together in these islands. I would welcome, then, more Polynesian and Asian immigration, especially if it were combined with an active programme of education for native and immigrant, aimed not at complete assimilation, but at integrating the newcomers into our political and social activities, so they they no longer remain outside our life, like so many of our Chinese and Indians, but become active New Zealanders. Then the challenge of their difference will be fully presented to us, instead of going underground.

Many European New Zealanders will resent this suggestion. But let us be modest. In my future historian’s history of civilizations, the Polynesians will receive some attention. They have contributed a unique sculpture and design, for instance, to man’s heritage. The European New Zealanders have done little of note and will scarcely deserve more than a mention except for their contribution to better race relations.

Perhaps that is where our future lies. We live on the border of an area where man’s future will be made, where Asians, Polynesians, Europeans, and other races meet, or confront one another across the Pacific Ocean. Pember Reeves was violently opposed to Asian immigration, seventy years ago, because he thought it threatened the prospects of a New Zealand civilization. I think the opposite, and believe that our future civilization, the creation of an élite, may arise from racial equality as well as from higher education.

* Table based on figures in UNESCO, Basic Facts and Figures, 1961. The British figure consists almost entirely of university students and could, perhaps, be doubled if training college and other students were included.

First ←Previous Page 5 of 5 Next→ Last