The Anglosphere Project

For now, it is no more than a gleam in the eyes of a few influential and powerful people. But an Eng

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

"The English Speaking Union," said John O'Sullivan. "It is the coming idea of the right."

For the moment, it remains semi-subterranean, new, a little shocking - like the ideas of rolling back the power of trade unions which the Tories were rehearsing in the mid-1970s; or the attack on comprehensive welfare systems which the US policy-thinker Charles Murray was testing out around the same time; or the foretelling of the collapse of the Soviet Union which analysts such as Zbigniew Brzezinski were putting into public debate, to general disbelief, a little later.

This idea, or rather cluster of ideas, has similar origins - in the Anglo-American intellectual right, a milieu at once self- confident, vengeful, well funded and very sharp. It is based on the belief that the transatlantic right needs some kind of coherent internationalist vision to set against the corporatist European Union. The answer is what the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson has called the Anglosphere. The US, Canada, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and much of the West Indies, it is pointed out, enjoy a common language, a common culture, common legal traditions and, above all, common entrepreneurial instincts. Can these countries create a loose association of some kind? Mexico, though it does not meet all the criteria, would have to fit in, since it is already part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - which is central to the Anglosphere project, both economically and politically. Norway might fit in, given that it is negotiating with Nafta. Japan, backward-looking and over-regulated, would not.

This new idea - it has certainly not yet become a defined strategy - has three main progenitors. The first is O'Sullivan himself, indefatigable intellectual entrepreneur of the right, a former Telegraph writer, adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, and now the opinion editor on a new Canadian daily, the National Post. The second, the chief bankroller of the idea, is the Anglo- Canadian Conrad Black, the proprietor of the National Post as well as of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain. Black sees the Anglosphere as an idea that accords with human nature, common sense and commercial dynamism. In an article in the US quarterly The National Interest, Black portrayed a Britain "afflicted by an existential loneliness", shackled to Continental European economies which "are paying huge quantities of Danegeld to the urban masses and uneconomic small farmers [with] political traditions [that] are corporatist, not liberal". That Europe, in his view, is anti-American. Black quotes - it is something of a touchstone text for the authors of this genre - a private comment made by Francois Mitterrand towards the end of his life: "France does not know it, but we are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, an economic war, a war without death."

Black's antidote is for Britain to recover its true vocation: "Britain is at the centre, geographically, culturally and politically, of an Atlantic community, whereas it is in all respects on the periphery of an exclusively or predominantly European order."

The third founder member of this movement is Robert Conquest, one of the most distinguished intellectuals of the right and the chronicler of the Stalinist mass murders. In his recently published Reflections on a Ravaged Century, Conquest sees the project in the grandest terms: "We [the main English-speaking states] have both the physical power and the moral prestige first to preserve the precarious peace of the world and, for the longer term, be the focus and example for a . . . genuine world community. If we grasp the opportunity, we may be in a position, to paraphrase the younger Pitt, to save ourselves by our exertions and the world by our example."

Speaking to me from his home in California, Conquest seemed to have become even more enthusiastic for the idea. "I'm now trying to work out a constitution for this association," he said. "Not a constitution, really, something looser. I think it should have its capital in somewhere like Barbados, to keep it small. People will turn to this: in Britain even now, things are enforced from the EU which cannot be enforced on the states in the US."

At the end of last year, the Hudson Institute held a conference in Washington addressed by Thatcher. She referred, without being specific, to a potential union between countries with "good Anglo-Saxon" traditions of commerce and culture. Addressing the same conference was an American Internet entrepreneur called Jim Bennett, who recently founded a company called Internet Transaction Transnational Inc.

Bennett, who is writing a book called Network Commonwealth: the future of nations in the Internet era, said that he once thought the decline of the nation state was inevitable, as economic power drained away to transnational businesses and institutions. But while setting up his company, he changed his mind. "It's true," he said, "we are going towards a borderless economy; we're half-way there. But this is not the end of the nation state. You need more cultural cohesion and civic strength - and so states of similar culture and civic awareness will tend to band together. These are the English-speaking states. My company assembles software in Ireland and has an association with a UK company. We're there not just because of the tax or the language, but because the legal system, the customs, the assumptions, are common."

He thinks that the Anglosphere states are all becoming more entrepreneurial than even advanced Continental countries. "You look at Canada, New Zealand, Australia as well as the UK: they're all punching above their weight in business start-ups and new technologies, where countries like Germany and France are punching below it."

The way the world is going, said Bennett, makes the European Union archaic. "In the UK, Euroscepticism is painted as backward-looking and nostalgic; but it's actually very forward-looking. It's about making new links which have more to do with culture and ways of doing things than geographical closeness."

The other early American champion is John Hulsman, the senior European policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, one of the largest right-wing US think-tanks. In a lecture in Washington in January, Hulsman, noting that the UK would soon make a choice about joining the euro currency, said that "this is the last chance for Britain to join an alternate future path, one that recognises that its natural economic and political partner remains the US, and not the European Union".

Hulsman emphasised three points. First, the US and the UK remain psychologically close: an Economist poll in November 1999 found that 59 per cent of the UK population thought the US the most reliable ally in a crisis, while only 16 per cent chose Europe. Second, British direct investment in the US over the past decade has been double its investment in Europe, while investment in the UK from the US and Canada has been more than 11 times EU investment in the UK. "The inevitable conclusion," said Hulsman, "is that the American and British economies are more in sync with one another than either is with the economic powers of the Continent."

Third, the political cultures of the two countries are the same. "The US and the UK exhibit an anti-statist, pro-free trade, pro-markets politico-economic culture; sharing a common school of thought makes a trade combination infinitely more likely to be successful and is a strong argument in favour of the new Nafta combination."

There is much excitement in this camp, as new converts are spotted and new positions staked out. But it is still marginal. Britain is led by a (more or less) popular government which seems increasingly committed to closer integration with Europe, if with reservations. The US government's official position is to encourage the EU to draw its members more closely together - though it has increasing jitters about developments such as the common foreign and security policy.

The only prominent US politician who has flirted with the Anglosphere idea is Pat Buchanan, a man whose political stock is currently low. But next month the issue will move up a gear, when, as the result of an initiative by two Republican senators, the US International Trade Administration will examine the effects on Nafta of British membership. If the judgement is that Britain's entry would benefit the existing members, a political constituency is likely to form round the idea, on both sides of the Atlantic. The British right is not so rich in ideas and projects that it can afford to be insouciant about a new one; and the Anglosphere idea pushes so many of the right's emotional buttons that it seems unlikely to die.

There are already signs of this. In the Daily Telegraph on 6 March, Lord (David) Poole, a member of Major's policy unit from 1992 to 1994, wrote: "It is time for my euro generation to reconstruct its attitudes . . . the argument put before the revolution in communications was that geography bound us to Europe. Exports were considered in terms of industrial output - and half of our industrial exports do indeed go to Europe. But that is hardly relevant today. With globalisation, the growing importance of the Internet and the falling price of air travel, geography matters less and less. What matters is wit, energy and adaptability. The centralist tendency of the EU has turned out to be at odds with our own British concepts of democracy and freedom."

So take these ancient attachments to democracy and freedom, the British public resistance to the euro, and the implications of the Internet. Combine them into a convincing narrative. The policy mavens of the British right may then find that they are on to something. They currently, saving Ken Livingstone, have little else.

This article appears in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor