The British government clearly thinks New Zealand should have been more forthright in supporting condemnation of Russia for its involvement in the Novichok poisoning scandal. Britain’s minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, reportedly said in an interview that he hoped the Labour-NZ First coalition would issue an “unequivocal” statement backing Britain’s position. By implication, Winston Peters’ action in merely “accepting” the conclusions reached by the British investigation into the poisoning wasn’t enough.
Now National’s foreign affairs spokesman, Todd McClay, has taken up the call. According to McClay, New Zealand risks falling out of step with “our closest friends and allies” unless it makes a statement unequivocally condemning Russia. It was clearly not good enough, in McClay’s view, for Britain to be “left guessing” over our support.
But hang on a minute. Cast your mind back to the Rainbow Warrior bombing by French government agents in 1985. That crime had direct parallels with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. It was a hostile act carried out by a foreign power in the territory of another country with whom it had supposedly friendly relations.
McClay huffs and puffs that the Novichok incident was “an appalling, violent breach of the sovereignty of one of New Zealand’s closest friends”. Those exact same words could have been applied to the Rainbow Warrior bombing.
If anything, the Rainbow Warrior outrage was even more egregious, since it had fatal consequences and was carried out by a supposedly friendly power. But was it condemned by Britain, the country thousands of New Zealanders died for in two world wars?
Nope. On the contrary, Britain's silence implied condonation. Official papers released in 2005 showed that Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction official criticism of France even after the French government had admitted responsibility for the bombing. She sided with the then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, against colleagues in the British cabinet who wanted the government to take a firmer line against the French.
It was no secret at the time that Thatcher heartily disapproved of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand and viewed this country as impertinent for having the effrontery to undermine the Western defence alliance. For all we know, she might have privately applauded France’s action.
The British government had no sympathy for us then, and it's a bit rich to expect unquestioning allegiance from us now that it finds itself in the same predicament. The words "goose" and "gander" spring to mind. If I were Peters, I’d be asking my officials for a polite diplomatic translation of the phrase “Blow it out your ear”.