Does Britain matter anymore?

23:25, Oct 31 2012

Walk up to an ATM machine in downtown Auckland or Wellington and it will probably offer a range of Asian languages, along with English.

Do the same thing in London, and you'll be spoilt for choice by the range of European tongues, but of Mandarin or the distinctive looping of Korean script, you'll find nothing.

Where our increasingly multi- cultural streets are defined by people of Asia and the Pacific, on the London Underground the visible ethnic diversity is from eastern Europe, the Indian sub- continent, Africa and the Caribbean rather than what the British still quaintly refer to as "the Far East".

As a result, Kiwis in Britain blend in as if they were native- born Poms, for as long as it takes them to open their mouths. At that point they become just another migrant group, albeit fondly regarded, distinguishable particularly for the impact of New Zealand chefs and antipodean coffee snobbery on Londoners' palates.

Britain's reputation as a gastronomic wasteland is as false today as it is to suggest that all New Zealand sells to the world is sheepmeat and butter, and New Zealand wine and food are part of the reason for this change.

These trends, in turn, are parts of the process of New Zealand losing its mid-20th century status as "Britain's farm", with no-one other than recent British arrivals referring to Britain as "home" anymore. For all that we share, it's tempting to ask these days does Britain matter any more to New Zealanders?


The answer, of course, is yes. But how? And what more might be made of it? And what would be the impact if, as well as the concerted push into China and the efforts to stitch together the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there was a more concerted focus on the value of Britain to New Zealand's economic fortunes?

What if, as the current British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell has been suggesting, New Zealand firms with strong trading relationships in Britain made more of the potential either to help British firms crack Asian markets, or to break into such markets themselves by piggy- backing British firms as they make such inroads?

"New Zealand food sector suppliers are already working with UK supermarkets," she says, pointing out that Tesco has more than 100 supermarkets in China.

While New Zealand will never produce enough food to supply Chinese mass markets, infiltrating growing urban elites by leveraging existing relationships has to be worth exploring, she says.

With this in mind, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the British Department of Trade and Industry have memorandums of understanding to work together on opportunities in China and elsewhere in Asia.

At this stage, the idea has only muted support. Britain-based observers of the trade relationship suggest such opportunities could come, but it will take more than warm fuzzies in the Britain market to create new business halfway around the world.

Business New Zealand's Phil O'Reilly says there's potential in the idea, but it's no more than "nascent" at this stage.

"The triangulation opportunity is important," he says. "UK companies are looking to do business in Asia and we know Asia quite well, compared to them."

However, the first step to any such opportunity is the prior existence of strong relationships between Britain and New Zealand companies in their home markets. Without that, "it's unlikely they would choose jointly to do business in a third market".

In the crudest terms, each country will put its own self- interest first. And the reality remains that British firms are still focused on European, American and Japanese markets, all of which remain huge despite their economic difficulties.

Instead, the most tangible opportunities for New Zealand firms lie in taking the greatest possible advantage of the extraordinary store of trust and goodwill that exists toward Kiwis among the Poms, and using that to gain exporting scale that is commonly sought first in Australia.

At least with Britons, we're not in cringing defiance mode as we are with the Aussies. Similarities in our politics and institutions of government, including welfare states, hold serious untapped potential, as demonstrated by the eager uptake of New Zealand public health management software in Britain's National Health Service.

Experimentation and mistakes made in New Zealand have created products that British health administrators have welcomed with open arms. A reputation for clever, nimble invention that goes beyond the number 8 wire cliche is emerging.

Of course, such results can be achieved in other markets too. But the combination of Britain's market's size, reach into Europe, and cultural fit all represent potential for New Zealand exporters who might overlook one of our oldest trading partners for the glamour markets of Asia or the familiarity of Australia.

Pattrick Smellie travelled to Britain courtesy of the British High Commission and Air New Zealand.