The Anglosphere is nothing more than a rhetorical wheeze
World View: Suggestion that likes of US, Australia offer alternative to EU is fantasy
British prime minister Boris Johnson: By the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the Anglosphere had established itself in right-wing mythology as the promised land. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA
If the success of a political idea turns on its power to instil hope or optimism in its adherents, then, in its early years, Brexit was a colossal failure.
The British Conservatives who first embraced the idea in the 1980s, when the party’s Europhilia was beginning to wane, knew they wanted out of the European Community (as it was), but they struggled to articulate a vision of a viable alternative.
Then as now, theirs was largely an exercise in imperial nostalgia – an impulse with considerable appeal to many English voters, but not the sort of language that lent itself well to a modern political project supposedly driven by the promise of future prosperity.
The neo-conservative alliance formed for the Iraq war in 2003 was presented as proof of the natural geopolitical affinity between Anglophone powers
So they came up with some new branding: the Anglosphere. Coined, fittingly, by a science fiction novelist, Neal Stephenson, the term denoted a community of English-speaking states that, Eurosceptics argued, comprised Britain’s most natural allies.
The word was new, but the idea itself had a long lineage. In his book A Short History of Brexit, Kevin O’Rourke reminds us of variations on the theme: Joseph Chamberlain’s plan for an imperial customs union, Winston Churchill’s determination to hold on to the empire, or the view in the 1960s Labour Party that Britain’s loyalty was firstly to the Commonwealth.
The idea was revived in conservative circles during the Maastricht treaty debates of the mid-1990s, and gained traction during the Tories’ long spell in opposition in the Blair years, when conservative historians, think-tanks and journalists embraced it.
The neo-conservative alliance formed for the Iraq war in 2003 was presented as proof of the natural geopolitical affinity between Anglophone powers. By the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the Anglosphere had established itself in right-wing mythology as the promised land that awaited Britain once freed from its loveless marriage with the EU.
At the centre of the Anglosphere are the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – countries, it is argued, that share a common history, language and legal system, as well as a commitment to democracy, free markets and the rule of law. They share something else too, as you might have noticed: this is a club composed mainly of the rich, white bits of the Commonwealth.
“It functions as an imaginary horizon for a Eurosceptic worldview of Britain after Brexit, uniting the UK with a global trading future as well as a sceptered isle past,” writes Nick Pearce, a leading analyst of the concept. “It registers nostalgia, but also energy: Britain would be liberated to march on the world stage again, freed from sclerotic, conformist Europe and reanimated by the animal spirits that once gave it an empire.”
As a rhetorical wheeze to make 19th-century imperialist discourse sound respectable, the Anglosphere has been a big success, as the referendum result showed. But that’s all it is – a slogan, a tactic, a useful retort to the charge that Brexiteers offer no viable alternative. As an actual thing, the Anglosphere doesn’t exist.
The Anglosphere doesn’t need to be real; its purpose is merely to help maintain the illusion that Brexit is an act of liberation
Take trade. Australia, which Boris Johnson has said was “betrayed” by Britain’s decision to join the European project in the 1970s, is held out as a prime example of the Anglosphere’s potential to replace the EU. But Australia – which, like the rest of Britain’s English-speaking allies, opposed Brexit – long ago oriented its economy towards the Asian behemoths on its doorstep (we know that states tend to trade most with their nearest neighbours, which is one reason for the success of the single market).
The idea that Australia could offset in any meaningful way the losses Britain will suffer from leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc is pure fantasy. From a strategic perspective, it’s the same story. The idea that the US or Canada – or even India, were it to be added to the Anglosphere to bulk up the numbers – would seriously entertain the idea of a geopolitical reorientation towards an imperial old boys’ club is fanciful.
Perhaps most fatal to the Anglosphere is the idea that these states could form an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, as Margaret Thatcher put it in a speech in 1999. Claiming Anglo-American kinship founded on a shared faith in open markets, globalisation and personal freedom may have sounded plausible 20 years ago.
But look around: today, the US is led by a populist demagogue who disdains free trade and migration, while England’s inward turn (for Brexit is largely an English project) is itself a rejection, rather than an embrace, of these liberal values.
While the Brexiteers speak of “global Britain”, the country they run is in fact turning in on itself – losing its foreign languages, welcoming fewer outsiders and turning its back on its friends. The Anglosphere doesn’t need to be real; its purpose is merely to help maintain the illusion that Brexit is an act of liberation. It doesn’t matter that it looks like the very opposite.
“Believe in Brexit” and the Anglosphere will come true.