Britain outside the EU? Why not just head Down Under?

Wai-o-Tapu thermal wonderland, near Rotarua, NZ (lake of arsenic and sulphur!)

Over the last few weeks, despite 48 hours on aeroplanes, my husband and I have relaxed, unwound, found that we’ve been able to smile without complaints from facial muscles unfamiliar with the position.

Of course we’ve been back just more than 48 hours now, and I can already see the stress rising for my husband.  I have another 24 hours reprieve before its my turn, and I’m trying to make the most of the time available to me today.

The chance to take 3 weeks off is rare, especially in these straitened economic times when proving your value and how indispensible you personally are to your organisation’s success is equated with hours visibly in the office.  Being able to do so over Christmas, when everyone wants some time away, is doubly difficult.  So we had to book this time some months ago.

We’ve only really had access to Sky News and the occasional bit of BBC World, and I confiscated my husband’s work PDA, so we’ve been blissfully unaware of the news.  On return, I’ve just seen the Daily Express’s 24 page spectacular on how Britain should leave the EU, aimed, I assume to coincide with the EU Bill vote in the House of Commons today.
Take head, find brick wall, apply.

Well, I’ve spent my holiday in another part of the Commonwealth.  Does it show what Britain outside the EU would be like?
(Probably not, but it gives me the chance for a different take on a holiday blog post…)

New Zealand is very much like the UK with sunshine.  There are of course some differences, based on our observations:

1) the attitude to children is refreshing – they play outside, everyone talks to them and pats them on the head, they’re not regarded first and foremost as criminals waiting to happen.
The starting position is not that all adults around children are potential paedophiles.
It is simply not thought necessary to keep kids indoors for their own safety.
When needed, parents take responsibility for their children’s actions and support teachers and neighbours in expecting good behaviour and disciplining them.  This is simply not the case here – while there might still be children who, if they do something bad at school are a bit scared to tell their parents for fear of their disappointment in them, teacher friends tell me that more often than not these days parents are used by the child as a threat against the teacher…
But it’s not being in or out of the EU that affects this issue.

2) the attitude to nationhood is very different.
Everything is Kiwi this and NZ that.  Kiwiana, the celebration of all things New Zealand, is very popular not just for tourists but for New Zealanders on T-shirts, homeware etc.
The butt of NZ jokes is not England but Australia – in fact the Kiwis cheer on England in the Ashes.  This cricketing support for the sucess of what was originally the colonial country is not felt to be problematic for their own identity nor their fierce pride in national sporting success in other games.
NZ is not portrayed as innately superior or inferior to others, but as a young country and good place to be.  What it is not to be burdened with a successful past…
Children learn the national anthem (“God Defend New Zealand“) in English and in Maori at school, and sing it weekly.
Contrast this with nationhood in the UK.  We have more people, more complexity (local, regional, devolved, national, European and international political identities) but we seem somehow to expect citizens that are born here as opposed to naturalised, to somehow just know and understand it.  It’s not as if much clarity is provided by the press.  As the British system has evolved over millenia it is not simple, streamlined and created with a clear goal in mind – and yet we don’t explain our consitutional set up to ourselves.  This is clearly crazy.

3) the attitude to politics is…
impossible to compare.  Two weeks there, and what we noticed is:
i) politicians put great big photos of themselves onto the exterior walls of their constituency offices so everyone knows who they are and where to find them  -no one complains about this lowering property prices as far as we know!;
ii) the only policy that anyone can remember from the newly-elected mayor of Manukau is that he has made all the public swimming pools free for residents, the only part of Auckland Super-City to have this!;
iii) most ordinary people we met seem to think that the Wikileaked American assessment of the NZ foreign policy as reported in NZ press (that those in power were broadly supportive of the US while being vocally anti-American in the national press) was actually rather a sensible way of handling it.

4) the attitude to ethnicity and immigration is…
complicated.  My relatives have only once had “you don’t even come from here!” shouted at them – but they have residency and I understand in NZ this gives full voting rights.
But the truth is no one really comes from New Zealand.
Maoris have certainly been there longest (they came from Polynesia) and, unlike Australia, the colonisation of New Zealand was relatively peaceful and Maori language and culture is taught in schools.
For everyone else, while there may be some original POMs without choice, most chose to emigrate and the only question for those seeking to look down on more recent arrivals should be “wasn’t my parent/grandparent/ great grandparent just doing exactly the same thing?”
As for racism etc. I don’t know.  We were lucky enough not to witness anything first hand.

5) the attitude to faith is different.
While no more than about 20% of people attend a Christian church service regularly in the UK, it is thought to be closer to half of the NZ population.  And that’s before you look at other faiths.
We occasionally tie ourselves in knots in the UK about our Scots-crushing national anthem (looking worldwide, aren’t they MEANT to be embarrassing?), or what a song for the millenium should look like (even a decade or so on, I’m not sure that the sentiments of “Imagine” actually are any better than the winner “All you need is Love”), can you imagine the furore if we did actually try to change it?  Traditionalists -v- modernists would be nothing compared to having a mention of God -v- not mentioning God – nightmare.

6) So could the UK be more like NZ outside the EU?
And would anyone want it to be?
Leaving aside the completely different economic strengths and weaknesses which actually power this argument…

In any case I’m not exactly sure what the country the Daily Express wants the UK to be would look like.

The things I thought were positive about life in New Zealand came either from its geographical location (good weather, lovely countryside, spectacular landscapes, lots of beaches, proximity to Asian markets for goods), or from marginal policy differences (how the education system is run giving more freedom to teachers to teach, and an insurance based health system that’s more affordable).

We can do nothing about the UK in the sense of the first of these (unless we employed magical giants to tow us elsewhere on the globe?) and very little that the EU stops us from doing that we would want to do in the second sense (neither how schools systems nor health systems are run is covered by the EU).
In terms of our wider institutional set up, yes the EU does affect the UK and sometimes things are not set up exactly how we would’ve designed them from scratch in a UK-only situation.  But we rarely vote against, not because the UK is a poor or weak negotiator but because it is a strong one that achieves its main objectives and recognises the value of being inside pissing out, so to speak.  This is clearly no longer considered enough for the Daily Express – but it is hardly the tyranny portrayed.
But how free is NZ to do its own thing?  NZ is part of the Commonwealth and the UN and the WTO, is bound by international courts, the law of the sea, has a free trade agreement with ASEAN and many other countries, ANZIL and PILON… in fact it is not an island and a law unto itself but a fully-interconnected part of the world.

Anything else about NZ that is conforting for the UK citizen looking for the famliar abroad?

They drive on the left.  In the UK there’s a constant euromyth that the EU might FORCE us to change that (not that the EU can do that anyway, I hasten to add…).
They still teach French, though as a third language in schools after Maori and English (but with an increasing emphasis on Japanese and mandarin Chinese).
European goods are still available – albeit at a hefty mark-up.

Being on the other side of the world (and having travelled via the USA), I noticed how European we are as a family.
Although having lived abroad ourselves we could probably easily slot into an expat community just about anywhere, we are just more comfortable living in Europe.  I love its sheer diversity, and if you want to read more of my reasons for loving the place, you can do so here.

I don’t want to conclude this other than in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, so here goes:

Are you disillusioned with Britain in the EU, which is after all your country and your constitutional situation to be proud of but you may have decided you don’t like (NB I can’t see how that point of view should automatically be thought to make you MORE patriotic than someone that does like the UK consitutional set-up?)?
Well, if you are under 45, in a wanted profession such as teaching or policing, attracted by the picture of a country painted here which is different but not too different, why not consider a move to the other side of the world?
It’s got spectacular scenery, it’s part of the Commonwealth, and it’s a generally lovely place to be.
It’s not right for me, but then I’m a European at heart.
But are you?

Flu – should you buy yourself a vaccine?

(image of flu virus from

There’s a most peculiar story on the news this morning.  It seems the head of the UK College of GPs has said that it should be made illegal for people not in the most at risk group to buy flu vaccines at pharmacies as GPs are reporting that they’ve run out of vaccine stocks.

I had to hear this story in two bulletins and then an interview with the spokesperson to try to understand what on earth is going on.

According to an interview on the radio this morning, it looks like the NHS normally plans on a 75-80% take up rate by vulnerable groups of the annual flu vaccine but this year’s strain of flu and swine flu is particularly nasty, deaths have ben reported (50 so far, with 45 from swine flu)  and all this is coming later in the season that in previous years.
That seems to mean that more than the expected percentage of at risk groups have attempted to get the vaccine – and there’s none left.
The 2009 swine flu vaccine has been released to try to ease the situation – see?  There was a good reason to order so much back then after all….

It now seems that vocabulary such as “banning” and “making illegal” may have been a bit ill-considered  – the line has certainly softened (or perhaps press and comms people have now got involved in the press lines?)
I’ve complained about the Kafkaesque and indeed Stalinist approach to people that I’ve personally encountered in the NHS over the years and use of this sort of language today does nothing to make me feel that the NHS has worked out what its role is British society.

I should be clear that I don’t know how the agreement between the drug companies that develop the vaccines and the NHS work in practice.  I presume the NHS is just a major purchaser of vaccines that are the property of the companies rather than the client for whom the vaccine is produced and that, given that flu is seasonal and a different formula is needed each time that not too much is made at a time.

But surely if the problem is higher take-up by vulnerable groups than expected there should be some sort of procurement mechanism negotiable that would enable the NHS to buy-back the vaccines that have been bought by the private sector pharmacies for wider retail?
According to the Department for Health this is in fact already happening between GPs and pharmacies at community level – all very much in line with the decentralised, localisation of the NHS that the current government champions.
If that works, great. But is it that it is harder to interface with a devolved decentralised system than with a monolith that might explain some of the obvious concern and frustration behind the Royal College’s comments?

But why did the Royal College of GPs try to put the blame on people that have in good faith been to their local pharmacy to buy a vaccination?
This is perfectly legal, and in fact some businesses encourage their staff to do so in order that the country does not grind to a halt over the winter.  It saves on sick pay, keeps the country afloat in these tough economic times etc. And stops anyone taking a week off with “flu”.
It’s also worth noting that the most vulnerable groups for swine flu in 2009 were not the elderly (12 percent of deaths were those aged 60 plus) – more than half of deaths were from the 20-49 age groups with pregnant women and obese people most at risk. So while pregnant women should definitely be prioritised, what about fat people?  Or is that not acceptable?
You’ll have to decide for yourself if you think buying a vaccine is necessary for you – I did, in December, as I have done since the mid noughties – working and looking after a toddler when you feel at death’s door is not a pleasant prospect.

May be its easier to get press coverage for “greedy healthy individuals taking the vaccine that vulnerable groups need” rather than “NHS messes up procurement” stories. Or am I just cynical on my return from holiday?