Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Sir Lockwood Smith: the politician turned diplomat prepares to return to the farm

In about two months, Sir Lockwood Smith will leave London after four years as High Commissioner. He talks to the Herald about Brexit, the Girdlers, political appointees, and returning to the farm.
Sir Lockwood Smith has occupied the penthouse of New Zealand House for the past four years. Photo / Claire Trevett
Sir Lockwood Smith has occupied the penthouse of New Zealand House for the past four years. Photo / Claire Trevett

The view from the penthouse of New Zealand House is one of the best in London and Sir Lockwood Smith has enjoyed it for the past four years.

In just over a month he will leave what he calls the "greatest city in the world" to return to what he calls the "greatest little country in the world".

It is an emotional time for him. In the penthouse at a reception for Prime Minister Bill English on his visit to London in early January, Smith gets quite choked up when he talks about the New Zealanders living in London and the great deeds they have done.

Despite a gentle ribbing, Smith gets quite choked up again the next day when he is talking about the same thing during an interview with the Herald in his London office.

"It gives me huge pride. This city is amazing."

He leaves at a crucial time for New Zealand - United Kingdom relations, courtesy of the Brexit vote in the UK.

English's visit was a success, securing a commitment from UK Prime Minister Theresa May for New Zealand to be one of the top of the list for a trade agreement post-Brexit.

Words and reality and two different things however, and the Brexit vote made the London posting a lot more important than the "plum posting" it was when Smith started there in 2013.

Smith himself says the job was much harder work than he had expected. "I had not idea before I came here."

That only intensified after the Brexit referendum.

On the night of the Brexit referendum results, Smith was in Scotland.

He set his alarm to go off every two hours to check the results.

"By 2am I thought 'goodness, this is interesting". By 4am, it was clear the vote had gone in favour of Brexit. And it has changed things and influenced the work I've been doing here."

He said in the trade area in particular he found his counsel called on - not least because the UK had not had to negotiate its own trade agreements for 40 years while New Zealand had built up a great catalogue of experience.

Smith says the aim is not just to secure a free trade agreement for itself, but to have some influence over the UK's broader trade strategy.

Political appointments to overseas postings have been controversial and Smith was no different.

Smith has been a target of NZ First leader Winston Peters in particular.

Sir Lockwood Smith diplomatically declines to name his favourite royal - but notes Prince Harry went to every Anzac Day service. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Lockwood Smith diplomatically declines to name his favourite royal - but notes Prince Harry went to every Anzac Day service. Photo / Getty Images

Peters criticised Smith's appointment when it was first confirmed, saying politicians should not be appointed Speaker with the inducement of a knighthood and a plum diplomatic post to follow.

But Smith says the turmoil of recent times shows the value in having an ex-politician in such posts as London and Washington.

His own background includes farming and stints as a trade minister and agriculture minister - all jobs which have come in handy during Brexit.

"I wondered whether being a political appointment was a good idea or not, and I think it is. Because you do get cut through. Having been a minister you can be on a more even footing with key players here."

His successor, Sir Jerry Mateparae, is not a former politician, but has a background in the SAS, followed by Chief of Defence and head of the SIS before he was made Governor-General.

Smith is swift to insist Mateparae's standing was greater than that of a ex-politician.

"He's one of the most distinguished New Zealanders. And that sort of thing counts up here."

He expected Mateparae's interests to be in different areas to his own, such as defence, intelligence and security. "I believe you should play to your strengths. His sheer standing will hold him in great stead."

He's one of the most distinguished New Zealanders. And that sort of thing counts up here.
Sir Lockwood Smith on Sir Jerry Mateparae, who succeeds him as New Zealand High Commissioner in London

Smith says he avoids the diplomatic social circles - "it's a waste of time really". Instead he mixes in political and sector groups with an occasional visit to the ballet or opera tossed in. But he and his wife Alexandra have enjoyed London life.

He speaks of royals he has met, diplomatically declining to name his favourite - although he notes Prince Harry went to every Anzac Day service.

He speaks of being among the 50 people at the inauguration of the new Lord Mayor, Sadiq Khan, of befriending the Dean of Westminster Abbey, and of learning the history of churches, and London's guilds - all 110 of them.

He is particularly fond of the Worshipful Company of Girdlers' which puts up a generous scholarship for a New Zealander to study at Corpus Christi at Cambridge. They also attend Waitangi Day services every year.

Smith says the last thing in his diary will be a speech to the Girdlers.

"They are such good friends to New Zealand."

I don't admit I have no idea what the Girdlers are - a quick Google later reveals they have had an association with New Zealand since 1932 and once made belts and girdles but are now more involved in charitable work, what with girdles having fallen out of favour.

In pride of place on his office wall is a photo of Smith with one of his next constituents - one of the Belgian Blue cattle he breeds back in New Zealand.

Smith is returning to live on his farm in Kaipara - a farm he has managed electronically for the past four years. It is suggested he could suffer from some culture shock going from London to gumboots. He thinks not.

"I've been very privileged to serve New Zealand here, and it's time to move on. I'll enjoy retiring gracefully to my farm back in New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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