Having cut Britain adrift of Europe, Brexiters are indulging in an old fantasy about a new national role in the world—as the hub of a far-flung Anglosphereby Duncan Bell / January 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Theresa May’s government is frantically trying to square all sorts of circles, but it cannot conceal the abject confusion about post-Brexit Britain’s place in the world. Can it act alone on a crowded stage? How can it compete against giants like the European Union, the United States, or China? Should it even try?
Many of the leading Brexiteers have proposed a simple answer to these questions: the Anglosphere. Britain, they suggest, should reanimate its long-standing relationship with its “natural” allies—principally Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. In championing this far-flung union, the Brexiteers draw—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—on a strand of thought that stretches back to the Victorian age. Like so much else about the current moment—from the planned restoration of grammar schools to cries for relaunching the Royal Yacht Britannia—the past serves as inspiration and guide. We are invited to march back to the future.
On a chilly Tuesday in December 1999, Margaret Thatcher rose to deliver a speech in New York. Her hosts were the English-Speaking Union (ESU), founded in 1918 to promote co-operation between the “English-speaking peoples.” The English-speaking world, she proclaimed, had a providential task to fulfil. “We take seriously the sanctity of the individual; we share a common tradition of religious toleration; we are committed to democracy and representative government; and we are resolved to uphold and spread the rule of law.” Citing John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Thomas Jefferson, she recommended an alliance that would “redefine the political landscape” and transform “backward areas [by] creating the conditions for a genuine world community.” A new civilising mission beckoned.
The ex-Prime Minister was not the only one airing such grandiose ideas as the new millennium approached. Indeed she was drawing on a proposal that the historian Robert Conquest had sketched in a speech to the ESU a few months earlier. At a time when the consensus was that Britain’s settled future lay in the EU, Conquest boldly charged that existing international bodies had failed. An alternative was required. He suggested an “Anglo-Oceanic” political association “weaker than a federation, but stronger than an alliance.” It would help bring peace to a violent planet. A few years later he argued that an “Anglosphere Association” would become “a centre of hope in the world… round which peace, co-operation and democracy can develop.”