During what has been an unusually turbulent period in British politics, one of the most important and potentially enduring shifts in the mindset of those at the apex of the political system has received far less attention than it merits. This concerns the striking re-emergence on the political right of the dream of an entirely different geopolitical and economic future for the United Kingdom, one that claims to relocate it in the historical trajectory and distinctive values that once made Britain great.
Among a growing number of conservative-inclined Eurosceptics, the long-standing ambition of an alliance made up of some of the leading English-speaking countries spread across the world has quietly moved from marginal curiosity to a position of respectability. The idea of the “Anglosphere” – and the policies and strategies pursued by some of the political leaders of its constituent countries – has become a source of increasing, almost magnetic influence on British conservatives. And it may well provide the governing intellectual framework for the Eurosceptic campaign to quit the European Union in a post-election referendum.
The concept of an Anglosphere reflects the long-held belief that Britain’s best interests lie in forging closer relationships (and perhaps even some kind of institutionalised alliance) with those countries that have broadly similar political structures and systems; and that also tend to cherish the values of parliamentary government, individual liberty, the rule of law and the free market. The membership list of this club varies quite considerably depending on the author but at its core are the English-speaking “Five Eyes” countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Each of these was once a British colony and can readily be situated within an imaginary horizon of a group of countries united by a shared political and economic culture, nourished from the roots of British parliamentary institutions, economic liberalism and Protestantism.
But what gives the concept of the Anglosphere striking modern-day appeal for conservatives and dispels any lingering cold-war revanchist overtones is that it frames an account of how an independent UK can prosper in a global economy dominated by the rise of Asia. Liberated from the EU and allied with the rest of the Anglosphere, the argument runs, Britain could reinvent its open trading heritage, harnessing its colonial history to integrate itself into the new global economy of the Asian century.
Here are the seeds of a powerful alternative argument against the pro-European, centrist view of globalisation that has dominated the mainstream of British politics – and the Labour Party, above all – for the past quarter of a century. Importantly, this position resists a retreat to the hinterland of economic nationalism and instead constructs a new account of free-market geopolitical co-operation, anchored in the institutional alliance of the Anglosphere. In the title of an influential Conservative Free Enterprise Group pamphlet, it is Britannia Unchained.
The Britannia Unchained has deep roots in the Commonwealth tradition, which emerged as a shared point of reference after the Second World War. As Winston Churchill is said to have shouted at Charles de Gaulle before the D-Day landings, “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea!” – a remark later echoed by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at the 1962 Labour party conference, when he argued that Britain would become a mere “province” in a federal Europe, bringing to an end “a thousand years of history”.
Charles de Gaulle (R) awards Sir Winston Churchill la Croix de Liberation at the Hotel Matignon in Paris 06 October 1958. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.
During the debates about membership of the European Common Market in the early 1970s, many opponents invoked the Commonwealth as an alternative trading partner and source of influence and as a community towards which Britain retained distinct obligations. Yet, by this time, arguments about Europe were being conducted against the background of a much deeper set of concerns about the prospects for the UK. Fear of the implications of Britain remaining outside the Common Market outweighed the sentimental and economic arguments mounted for the Commonwealth.
This post-imperial tradition may have weakened during these years but the dream of an Anglophone future for Britain refused to die. Instead, it migrated to the outskirts of conservative politics and re-emerged as an important feature of some of the libertarian currents that began to percolate into mainstream conservatism in the mid-to-late 1970s. In these quarters, American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”.
In this climate, as Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have shown, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.
In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.
Thatcher’s endorsement ushered in a period of growing respectability for this notion. Soon, it was projected to a much wider set of publics by several prominent intellectuals. In his 2003 book Empire, for example, the historian Niall Ferguson concluded that the liberal values associated with the British empire remained the lodestar for democrats around the world. For him, the principles of free trade, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy constituted the positive aspects of its legacy.
The Anglosphere: countries where the first language is English are in dark blue; countries with a substantial knowledge of the language, dating back to the British Empire, in light blue.
In these and other high-profile arguments, a clear moral emerged: the unique political and economic inheritance of Britain made the decision to enter a union of European nations an error of epic proportions. The very survival of the values of the Anglosphere had been put into jeopardy. As the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it more recently: “As the sun sets on the Anglosphere imperium, we understand with sudden clarity what it is that we stand to lose.”
For the most part, however, the idea of the Anglosphere remained on the margins in political circles until the establishment of the coalition government in 2010, since which time it has steadily forced its way into the political conversation. Speaking during an official visit to Australia in 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, argued for closer ties between Britain and Australia and made reference to one of the most important, enduring political expressions of the link between them – the close co-operation enjoyed by their intelligence services and the experience of finding much common cause in relation to the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the past few years, other leading Tories have, in different ways, identified themselves with this idea, including David Willetts, John Redwood, Norman Lamont, Liam Fox and Michael Howard. During his own trip to Australia in 2013, Boris Johnson argued that when we joined the Common Market, we in effect “betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand”.
Framing the decision to join the fledgling EU as an act of “betrayal” was an eye-catching rhetorical flourish, even by Johnson’s standards. Europe became the default option, he continued, “when the establishment was defeatist, declinist and obsessed with the idea that we were being left out of the most powerful economic club in the world”.
Notions of an organised alliance of any kind remain fanciful in the extreme. Yet the underlying impatience with a European future for the UK and a deep desire to get back to the exceptionalism that characterised Britain’s self-image in earlier times underpin the renewal of this dream. The past 70 years have generated profound and mostly unanswered questions in British politics about how a state that once saw itself as special and exemplary might make sense of its waning geopolitical position and declining economic strength.
For advocates of the Anglosphere, these painful realities and the existential angst associated with them can, it seems, be defied. Individualism, liberty and the rule of law are the normative cornerstones of this vision and are typically framed in stark contrast to the corporatist, bureaucratic and authoritarian political cultures that are widely held to prevail on the European continent.
The appeal of this idea is not just a reflection of growing disillusionment with Europe. For many, the rise of China, the increasing threat of radical Islam and the uncertainties of the global economy all make the question of locating political allies and sympathetic states much more imperative for the UK. The future of the west, some argue, may be contingent upon a closer coalescence of the Anglosphere countries.
And the European project is now often condemned as fundamentally out of kilter with the dynamics and leading technologies of the world we inhabit. Eurosceptics increasingly view Europe as an old, declining continent, riddled with regulation and saddled with debt. The Anglosphere sustains a restless desire to find a new, outward-facing, globally rooted destiny for the UK. And this vision is offered in stark contrast to the more insular ethos and instincts of the right-wing populism associated above all with Ukip.
This is an important, growing source of tension within the Conservative Party and beyond and is echoed across the political spectrum. These differences of national vision and understanding now run deep in British politics and are contributing significantly to the pressures bearing down on the unity of the two main parties. Both the outward-facing ambitions of the Anglosphere and the more inward-looking, anti-metropolitan politics of Ukip are rooted in national traditions. But for advocates of the first of these world-views, the Englishness to which they lay claim is steeped in images of the intrepid, entrepreneurial peoples of a world island, a seafaring nation committed to finding partners and acquiring influence across the globe.
Indeed, this liberal, internationalist idea of Britain was once much more prominent and mainstream than the kind of insularity and pessimism that Ukip espouses. Its optimism and openness to the world are what gives it political appeal for Eurosceptics who are anxious to contest the argument about what is best for Britain’s future and not get boxed into a
political retreat to a fading past.
The Anglosphere evokes a way of telling the national story and understanding Britain’s place in the world and connects contemporaries to forms of patriotic sentiment that have largely fallen out of favour in the past few decades. But while the growing unpopularity of the EU has made the Anglosphere a more important alternative ideal, at least among southern English Tories, some profound obstacles to the realisation of this dream have yet to be addressed.
The US, including many leading Republicans, remains convinced that the UK should stay in the EU. States such as Australia and New Zealand are all involved in managing their growing orientation to Asia, while anti-monarchist republican sentiment periodically animates their politics. Above all, there are important class interests lined up against Brexit, among them major multinational corporations trading in Europe and the City of London.
While the unfeasible nature of any kind of formal alliance among these countries is clear, there is a real growth in interest on the political right in the notion of the Anglosphere as an alternative political ideal and as a source of ideas – about policy, strategy and leadership. We may not be joining an alliance with Canada or Australia any time soon but our politics may be increasingly influenced by the political values and experiences of both.
The electoral successes of Stephen Harper in Canada, John Key in New Zealand and Tony Abbott in Australia have given British conservatives concrete examples of right-wing leaders to emulate. And with the rising appeal of the Anglosphere as a counterweight to Europe, there is an increasing appetite to draw lessons from these conservative cousins, rather than to look across the Channel to centrist Christian democrats. Very little is written in the UK conservative press and blogosphere about Angela Merkel’s model of leadership, despite the hegemonic status she has achieved. Instead, Anglosphere conservatives look towards those they consider to be muscular and authentically right-wing leaders, such as Harper and Abbott.
Harper is a particular source of attraction: he united a deeply divided right and proceeded to defeat his opponents, turning a precarious minority government into one with a governing majority. He is fiscally conservative, a climate sceptic and ruthless at using the office of prime minister to pursue a radical agenda without reaching into the middle ground of politics. Indeed, he has sought to weaken and then dismantle the institutions and political pillars that formed the progressive heart of the 20th-century Canadian state, bypassing public servants, marginalising parliament, challenging the courts and attacking liberal civil society organisations.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images
Harper’s premiership is almost the complete antithesis of a centrist, inclusive modernisation project of the kind that David Cameron envisaged before the 2010 election. But its remarkable run of electoral success has given many British conservatives food for thought.
It is therefore through what political science terms “policy transfer” and the informal exchange of ideas and people that the Anglosphere is coming to political prominence, rather than the various quixotic schemes for institutionalisation that have been advanced from time to time. Given that the European question will become one of the dominant issues in British politics, whatever the outcome of the general election in May, the Anglosphere idea will play an even bigger role as a beacon for an alternative, globally conceived national project to that which is associated with an apparently sclerotic EU. The figures who have come to prominence on the Anglophone right, such as Harper and Abbott, offer intriguing models for possible leadership contenders in the Conservative Party. No wonder Boris has been busy in Australia.
The rise of the Anglosphere is both a barometer and a source of deepening disagreement on the right about the UK’s geopolitical and economic development. Yet the temptation for those on the centre left to rejoice in these kinds of disagreements ought to be set aside. For while parts of the right have assembled an ambitious and optimistic project that has the capacity to appeal to a range of social groups, the left shows few signs of forging a national project of its own that might guide it through the economic and territorial turbulence ahead.
The left has largely shed its Euroscepticism but has yet to find arguments for staying in the EU that are anything other than technocratic or tactical. With a few exceptions, it is silent on how the European project can be rescued from the historical cul-de-sac of deflation and post-democratic governance associated with Brussels and Berlin and even less certain about how membership of a reformed EU can express a bigger, compelling and value-laden vision of Britain’s future in the world.
The Anglosphere is far from being just a quirky, nostalgic idea. It is at the heart of a re-emerging political world-view. Understanding its power, reach and history is imperative for a centre left that needs a more clearly defined strategic ambition and sense of political direction if it is to do more than survive buffeting by the storms.
Michael Kenny is the director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London
Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity