ONCE upon a time there was a small, independent country that defied the logic of global capitalism and created a community that came closest to looking after the interests of ordinary people. Labour’s post-war prime minister Clement Atlee hailed this small country as “a laboratory of social experiment”. That social democratic experiment was New Zealand.

New Zealand, of course, has close affinities with Scotland. In the latter half of the 19th century, 30 per cent of immigrants to New Zealand were Scots and they soon rose to prominence in business, the labour movement and politics. Four of New Zealand’s prime ministers have been Scottish born. (Note for the pedantic: the Irish were very prominent too, especially in the trades unions).

If media leaks are to be believed, contemporary New Zealand is being touted as a development model by the First Minister’s long-awaited Growth Commission, led by Andrew Wilson. Unfortunately, the neoliberal New Zealand of today is an economic monster Frankenstein’s compared to the social democratic country pioneered between 1890 and the mid-20th century. The early New Zealand model was egalitarian and communitarian – the opposite of the neoliberal model of individualistic, free market, dog-eat-dog capitalism. Its genesis came in 1879 when there was a major global recession, similar in impact to the banking crisis of 2008. It did two things: it boosted immigration from the UK (where unemployment was soaring) and it convinced New Zealanders mutual co-operation was the best way of dealing with the crisis.

The result was a flurry of welfare, workplace and educational reforms designed to alleviate poverty and encourage joint endeavour. Crucially, New Zealand’s large estates were broken up to provide land for settlers. An Industrial Conciliation Act in 1894 instituted a guaranteed minimum wage and compulsory arbitration in settling industrial disputes.

One of the world’s earliest (if very basic) public pensions was created in 1898. And, of course, women got the vote in September 1893. NZ folk had a stake in society and were prepared to make their country prosper. Let’s be very clear: the indigenous Maori population did not benefit from this “white” social democracy. Indeed, Maoris were forcibly dispossessed of their land to make way for white settlers. This was a deeply racist society. But one can learn from what it got right as well as from what it got decidedly wrong.

New Zealand wasn’t finished experimenting. The Great Depression hit the economy hard. Germany got Hitler and Britain elected a right-wing government that cut spending and unemployment benefits. But in New Zealand in 1935, a radical, left-wing administration was voted in. It launched a Keynesian stimulus package to boost economic growth, including a state housing programme and guaranteed prices for exports to stop farming from collapsing. The new Labour government introduced free health care and raised unemployment benefits – which helped boost demand. How was all of this achieved? New Zealand had unique advantages, being blessed with an educated population and huge natural resources – like Scotland is today. It came complete with trade unions and a Presbyterian culture, which underpinned a strong, bottom-up, democratic culture.

It is also true New Zealand had a ready export market given its links with the UK. But we cannot discount the fact that a country of a million and a half people decided to build a co-operative society – and did so politically through sheer willpower. Robert Muldoon, the right-wing National Party prime minister from 1975 to 1984, famously joked that he knew all 70 unemployed New Zealanders by name. Then everything changed in the 1980s. First, New Zealand lost its major export market when the UK joined the European Community. Then the oil shock of the 1970s raised energy prices and plunged the country into recession. In 1965, New Zealand was the sixth richest country per capita on the planet; 15 years later, it was 19th.

Of course, being 19th out of circa 200 is hardly bad. New Zealand could have replaced the UK market with China and invested in domestic green energy (which it now has). But instead of sticking with its social democratic model, New Zealand’s Labour Party went Blairite (before Tony himself).

The turn was christened “Rogernomics,” after Roger Douglas, the then Labour finance minister, who eventually left to create his own free-market party. New Zealand embraced neoliberalism as did no other country. Financial markets were deregulated, and restrictions on foreign investment removed. In 1986, Labour slashed income tax for high earners while introducing a sales tax paid by low earners. Most state-owned assets were privatised, including three banks. The end of subsidies hit farmers hard. The Financial Times trumpeted New Zealand as a “blueprint for a shrinking state”. Tony Blair was the first to seize on Rogernomics as a model. Did it work? It is certainly true that by the millennium, New Zealand had emerged as a go-ahead capitalist, free-market economy. And it weathered the 2008 global crisis better than many other countries, (though that’s more to do with its small financial sector). By conventional metrics, its economy looks good today. Annual growth has averaged 2.1 per cent since 2010.

Recently growth has been higher, driven by construction, a booming tourism industry, and strong terms of trade. To be frank, an independent Scotland could conceivably emulate New Zealand in conventional growth terms. But at what cost and to what gain for ordinary Scots?

As in other neoliberal economies, the wealth generated by conventional economic growth in New Zealand goes to the few. Between 1978 and 2016, the share of national income going to employees fell 8.3 percentage points, to around 55 per cent. Based on the average hourly pay, New Zealanders earn around £29,000 a year, not a great deal more than Scots. But since 2001, New Zealand has consistently registered in the lower half of OECD social spending. This is closer to the United States and even smaller as a percentage of GDP than Tory Britain. The NZ Salvation Army reports that demand at its food banks has outstripped supply. Don’t be poor in New Zealand.

Jobs-wise, Scotland scores better, with unemployment marginally lower at 4.3 per cent and youth unemployment significantly lower. Participation in the labour market is also higher in Scotland, even with growth slowing as a result of Brexit and a downturn in local construction. (Memo to Nicola: pump in more construction spending via the state-owned Scottish National Infrastructure Company being proposed by Common Weal).

None of this suggests contemporary New Zealand is a model for indy Scotland. If the SNP were to adopt neoliberal New Zealand as a model, it would split the national movement and hand the political initiative to our opponents. Richard Leonard could claim the SNP were Tartan Tories all along while Ruth Davidson could argue the Nats had come late to the free-market party. When will Scotland abandon following other people’s failed models and invent one of our own. Surely, that’s what independence is for?