The British Empire strikes back

How dreams of the “Anglosphere” returned to British politics.

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Who in a friendless world will now befriend us? We have picked the worst possible moment to forsake our European partners: an age of authoritarian nationalism and resurgent protectionism. Yet, although we find ourselves, quite understandably, in a funk, this seems unlikely to have enduring political significance. Foreign policy almost never decides general elections. Indeed, our concerns about Britain’s place in the world weren’t reflected in the choices we faced at the general election in June 2017, when the 48 per cent who voted to Remain in June 2016 were effectively disenfranchised.

All too often in modern British politics, questions of how and where we fit into the wider world – whether via the British empire, Europe, Nato or the “special relationship” with America – have served merely as the backdrop to domestic issues. Only rarely, as with the breakaway of the SDP from Labour in 1981 over Europe and nuclear disarmament, has foreign policy played much part in determining the shape of party politics. Instead, class-based disagreements about the scope and scale of the state dominate portrayals of the political scene.

However, our current anxiety about Britain’s networks of partnerships and alliances brings to the foreground a set of themes that usually lurk unnoticed in the darker corners of the canvas. In Shadows of Empire, Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce remind us that the motherland’s place in the English-speaking world has been an enduring but subordinate motif in British political discussion since the late 19th century, and that a version of it still entrances today’s hard Brexiteers.

During the Brexit referendum campaign Vote Leave deliberately underplayed sentimental ties to our “kith and kin” of the Commonwealth, but the notion of an Anglosphere had been circulating on the right since the late 1990s, initially under the auspices of the Canadian media magnate Conrad Black, then owner of the Telegraph newspaper group, and right-wing think-tanks in America, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation. At the concept’s core was the identification of a shared commitment in the English-speaking world to the common law, liberty, and free markets. Moreover, between Britain and the former colonies of “white” settlement – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – there was a visible measure of trust, enshrined in these countries’ “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network.

The idea of an Anglosphere gained traction on parts of the right in this country, promoted by politicians such as Liam Fox and think-tanks with strong transatlantic connections such as the Adam Smith Institute. By 2015 Ukip was explicitly puffing “the Anglosphere” as an alternative home for a Britain that had never really shared the corporatist values of continental Europe. The “Global Britain” now touted by hard Brexiteers is founded on renewing links with the United States and the old Commonwealth, but also with building new trading connections with countries in the Far East whose “Asian” virtues of thrift and self-reliance share something in common with Anglo-American individualism.

Kenny and Pearce can see all too well the delusions of the Anglosphere fantasy; for even at the height of empire, Britain’s largest market for value-added exports was the European continent. Nor are they deceived by Brexiteer admiration for Asian values, a dainty fig leaf for a barely concealed post-imperial nostalgia. Nevertheless, the authors are fair-minded. They recognise that although the precise coinage is recent, the ideas behind the Anglosphere have a much longer, serious pedigree in British politics that involves the left as much as the right.

In its initial formulation, the Anglosphere was known as “Greater Britain”. In the late 19th century the Anglo-American hostility of the previous 100 years had mellowed into a rapprochement based on the shared Anglo-Saxon racial stock of Britain and white America. Across the globe developments in shipping and telegraphic communication were knitting together far-flung communities, and held out the prospect of a properly consolidated imperial community that amounted to something more coherent than a jumble of pink-coloured territories on a map.

The era witnessed numerous projects for uniting Greater Britain, whether inside or outside the formal confines of the empire. The Imperial Federation League, founded in 1884, whose president was the Liberal politician and future prime minister Lord Rosebery, sought to unite the British empire along properly federal lines – after the fashion of the American and Canadian solutions to the government of huge land masses – but in this case centred on an imperial parliament at Westminster. Other plans were pan-Saxonist rather than imperial, such as that of Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-born American industrialist, for a reunion of the transatlantic “Saxon” peoples, among whom contemporary racial theorists also included the population of Lowland Scotland.

The visionary and the pragmatic were combined in the plans for imperial reform of the Liberal Unionist politician Joseph Chamberlain, who envisaged a united empire protected by tariff walls, the revenue from which would be used to fund a welfare system. Imperial and social reform were intertwined, a pairing which lives on in the ideas of Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy, who hoped to exploit the plea for help heard in the Brexit result  to reposition the Tories as a Chamberlainite party that fused statism and a commitment to welfare. Of course, Timothy’s project ran counter to the new right’s vision of an Anglosphere of limited state provision and deregulated labour markets, just as Chamberlain’s over a century ago failed to dislodge the orthodoxies of free trade and fiscal prudence. Nevertheless, versions of Chamberlain’s plan lived on in the scheme of imperial preference negotiated by his son Neville at the Ottawa Conference in 1932.

As Kenny and Pearce make clear, there was no single dominant version of Greater British political economy. Winston Churchill left the Conservatives for the Liberals because of his free-trading objections to an imperial tariff, but was otherwise a staunch imperialist, an opponent of self-rule for India and a champion of the shared ethos of the English-speaking peoples. Churchill’s postwar conception of Britain’s place in the world encompassed all three of the main rival attractions: the Anglo-American connection, an empire-become-commonwealth, and a united Europe.

More intricate still was the post-imperial path taken by Enoch Powell, which diverges significantly from the one taken by today’s Europhobe – and superficially Powellite – champions of the white Anglosphere. Although once an imperialist, whose ambition as a young man was to be viceroy of India, Powell saw that the empire was finished after Indian independence, and disdained the post-imperial illusion that this sham Commonwealth was in any way meaningful. Moreover, as a convinced anti-American, Powell was also immune to the lure of the “special relationship” and also to American-sponsored ideas of European integration, alighting instead on English nationalism.

In the interim it was the Labour Party that proved staunchest in its commitment to the Commonwealth. In 1962 Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, claimed that entry to the EEC would mean “the end of a thousand years of history” and “the end of the Commonwealth”. Long after the flirtations of the instinctively pro-Commonwealth Harold Wilson with the EEC, the New Zealand-born Bryan Gould continued to champion an older and increasingly submerged tradition of Commonwealth-oriented socialism in the Labour leadership election of 1992. By then Labour had been converted to the idea of a “social” Europe articulated by Jacques Delors.

The chequered story Kenny and Pearce tell is rich in ironies and surprises. Their book serves, moreover, as a salutary warning that our customary preoccupation with domestic political economy ignores its necessary foundation in international networks and alignments; an insight obvious to the earlier generations who navigated the transitions from the British empire to the Commonwealth to the European Community. 

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews

Shadows of Empire: the Anglosphere in British Politics
Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce
Polity, 208 pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war