Like its political institutions, New Zealand’s political culture has largely British origins. From around 1840 the country’s European settlers brought with them certain opinions about how politics and government ought to be run. While these have evolved over time, the overall set of attitudes towards politics in contemporary New Zealand would probably be recognisable to 19th- century New Zealanders, even if they would be surprised by some ways in which matters have developed.
Colonial political culture
There are no colonial opinion polls summarising what the colonists thought about political matters. Nevertheless, from contemporary accounts and from their behaviour – and their presence as settlers in islands far from their place of birth – settlers showed beliefs in:
- the superiority of their way of life
- their rights as British subjects
- their right, and capacity, to begin their lives anew in a land free from European strife and prejudice.
Rights of British subjects
Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, extended the rights of British subjects to Māori. This expressed an underlying political value which was shared by the British government and British settlers alike: that in the political world there was no higher aspiration than to be given the rights of British subjects. The idea of equality for all, irrespective of race, colour, religion or national origin, was also implicit in the Article Three guarantees, although for Māori, the achievement of genuine equality involved a lengthy and ongoing struggle.
Loyalty to empire
While colonial politics was not free of quarrels between the governor and settler politicians, New Zealand’s colonials recognised their dependence on British power and felt an instinctive attachment to ‘the mother country’. They felt pride in the British Empire – its strength, prosperity, size, culture, values and royal family. Loyalty to empire proved a bond strong enough to induce the colony’s young men to join, with popular enthusiasm, in wars far from New Zealand – in South Africa (1899–1902) and in the world wars in Europe and elsewhere (1914–18 and 1939–45).
In the 19th century what are now generally characterised as ‘Victorian’ values included ideas about honour and glory, part of a vocabulary no longer much in use. New Zealanders fighting for the British Empire – for queen (or king) and country – were responding not only to government policies but to the society’s overall view of what was right, proper and expected of the men of that time.