David Lange was possibly the only New Zealand Prime Minister who was well-known abroad, especially among people that interested in international politics. Robert Muldoon may have come close, but for all the wrong reasons and only by sports fans, such as the Springbok rugby tour and the 1976 Olympic boycott by African nations due to New Zealand’s sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa.
When due to an imploding economy and plunging currency in 1984 the Labour Party, led by Lange, beat Muldoon, it was not until the next year, when he dazzled the world in the Oxford Union debate on the morality (or lack of) of nuclear weapons, he put New Zealand for us Europeans on the map in a most favourable light.
Here was this liliput country at the other end of the world, defying Cold War nuclear deterrence logic and its traditional allies to forge for itself a national identity not based on war glory, as is usual the case, but on winning a moral debate and providing of an example to follow. It was city on the hill stuff.
In the early 1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher were doing nothing more than rattling war sabres by installing cruise missiles on airbases about 25km from my house, Belgium cravenly complied with the wishes of its NATO “allies”, not least to protect its interest to keep NATO headquarters and the attendant jobs in Brussels. No Lange stood up in Belgium to argue against the nuclear war head deployment. (But we tried hard!)
I could not but marvel at the daring nature of defying the hegemon and the willingness to take the risk to stand up for what you believe in. New Zealand got my thumbs up, and it certainly played a role in my decision to move here: if my partner had been an Australian I think I may have baulked at emigrating.
A collection of David Lange quotes is here.