In the shadows of empire: how the Anglosphere dream lives on

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Global politics, Political history, UK politics

The Anglosphere is a term of relatively recent coinage, first used by the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his novel The Diamond Age, published in 1995. But in the last two decades it has achieved much greater prominence in political discourse to denote a group of English-speaking nations that share a number of defining features: liberal market economies; the common law; parliamentary democracy; and a history of Protestantism.

It is most routinely applied to the United Kingdom and her former settler dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand., and this grouping has even come to acquire its own acronym – CANZUK.

In many accounts of the Anglosphere, the net is cast more broadly to embrace the United States, once also home to settler colonies from Great Britain and a partner to the CANZUK nations in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence and security alliance.

Wider still, and often controversially, the Anglosphere has in recent times been used to embrace a new set of potential members, including India, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as English-speaking countries of Africa and the West Indies, all of which were formerly part of the British Empire.

Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland is sometimes included as well. Drawing boundaries around the Anglosphere has always been problematic.

The very notion of an Anglosphere belongs to a family of concepts – including ‘Greater Britain’, ‘the English-speaking peoples’, ‘Anglo-America’ and ‘the Old Commonwealth’ – which have played an integral role in British politics and political discourse since the late nineteenth century.

Its origins lie in the late Victorian era, when historians and politicians debated what held the British Empire together, particularly those ‘kith and kin’ colonies where ‘Anglo-Saxons’ had settled, and whether stronger forms of political, economic and military unity were needed to secure the empire against the threats posed by the rise of rival powers, the USA among them. The idea lived on, but also changed in character in the early twentieth century through debates in high politics about tariff reform versus free trade.

Later, it came alive again both in arguments over the future of the British Empire between the world wars, and in the soul-searching about Britain’s place in the world that accompanied decolonisation, the rise of the ‘New Commonwealth’, and Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community (EEC).

Then, as the ‘short twentieth century’ came to an end after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Anglosphere was reinvented once more, becoming a potent way of imagining Britain’s future as a global, deregulated and privatised economy outside the EU. In this guise it forms an important part of the story of how Britain came to take the historic decision, in the summer of 2016, to leave the EU.

Although references to the Anglosphere were few and far between in the referendum campaign itself, the idea supplied an imaginative horizon of possibility for eurosceptics seeking to forge a new account of the UK’s place in the world outside of the European Union.

It now forms part of the constellation of arguments that are presented for a ‘Global Britain’ that trades outside the EU customs union and single market.

The paradox of the Anglosphere lineage is that it has been both politically influential and consistently unsuccessful as a project. Some of its leading champions – notably Churchill and Thatcher – used it either for political window dressing or to develop post-facto rationalisations for decisions or strategies they wished to pursue.

Other figures – such as Joe Chamberlain and Enoch Powell, who sought to distil radical policy agendas on the basis of some of its key precepts — met ultimately with failure. One reason for the latter is the striking persistence of an embedded, influential nexus of economically liberal ideas about trade and a ‘realist’ statecraft which has required the UK to cultivate various alliances and unions and to adopt a pragmatic approach to its international liaisons.

And failure may well be its fate once again if the Anglosphere is offered as the governing framework for post-Brexit Britain. Whether it could muster the economic partners and geo-political alliances the UK will require once it exits the EU is open to considerable doubt. Deeply enmeshed in the single market and the trading relations managed by the EU, the British economy cannot rely upon the hope of the trading partnerships and tariff preferences of yesteryear being reinvented now.

Outside the customs union and single market, the bulk of Britain’s trade may well become less, not more, ‘free’ – contrary to what many Brexiteers hope. And, given its largely eurosceptic tenor, the political assertion of the Anglosphere will also tend to divide the UK, territorially and demographically, rather than unite it behind a new sense of shared national purpose.

Meanwhile, the other core English-speaking countries to which the Anglosphere refers, show no serious inclination to join the UK in forging new political and economic alliances. They will, most likely, continue to work within existing regional and international institutions and remain indifferent to – or simply perplexed by – calls for some kind of formalised Anglosphere alliance.

Yet, while there are good reasons to be sceptical towards the notion that the Anglosphere can supply a secure platform for the UK in terms of foreign and economic policy, it is equally notable that it is hard to imagine a coherent alternative trajectory being pursued at present.

Should the UK change its mind and not leave the EU, or if it seeks to leave on much ‘softer’ and more equivocal terms, it is very unlikely that it will commit enthusiastically to the European project and prioritise its neighbours over its global entanglements.

It is, we would suggest, far more likely that the UK will attempt to navigate between its European, Anglospheric and wider global commitments, just as it has done for much of its recent history, only now with diminished geo-political influence and standing.

The tragedy of the different national orientations that have emerged in British politics after empire – whether pro-European, Anglo-American, Anglospheric or some combination of these – is that none has yet endowed the UK with a compelling, coherent and popular answer to the question of how it should find its way in the wider world.

By Michael Kenny, Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge university and Nick Pearce, Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. They are authors of their latest book Shadows of Empire: The Anglosphere in British Politics (Polity, 2018).


A version of this article originally appeared on UK in a Changing Europe.

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Global politics, Political history, UK politics


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response