One of the problems with Brexit is how to replace the free trade we presently enjoy within Europe, but which we might lose – especially after what is called a ‘hard’ Brexit – with something else as profitable. At the beginning of the so-called ‘debate’ over Brexit, its supporters were claiming that there were enough opportunities outside Europe to fill the gap; with some harking back nostalgically to pre-Common Market days, when we had an Empire or Commonwealth free trade area that could, perhaps, be revived. In historical fact that was never a complete reality, and insofar as it was, was declining in any case; and the likelihood of Commonwealth trade fully compensating for our losses in Europe today seems remote. The figures just don’t add up. A US trade deal would seem to be our best hope of a replacement for the EU one, and that would come with environmental and other conditions that many would find unacceptable.
Lying behind this there seems to be at least a smidgeon of imperial nostalgia, and of longing for a union of old and trustworthy friends and relatives to replace one with ‘foreigners’. That’s where I come in, as an imperial historian. The idea of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ union or federation goes back a long way in British history. Some versions of it envisioned the USA coming back into the Empire or Commonwealth, imparting a strength to it wouldn’t have otherwise – British imperialists were fully aware of the potential of America, from the later 19th century on; sharing with us ‘the White Man’s burden’, as Kipling memorably put it, and even perhaps taking over the lead. The Americans after all shared much of their history with us, as well as their political values, and many of their genes. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ federation ideas can be traced back originally, I think (there may be earlier precedents) to Charles Dilke’s influential 1868 book, Greater Britain, by which he meant the ‘settler’ colonies (as opposed to the ‘dependent’ ones). Later, in the early 20th century, when the Empire looked to be vulnerable to foreign competition, it was reflected in schemes floated by Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes and the ‘Round Table’ group of Commonwealthists to turn the existing Empire into a federation of equal states, with a place open for America if she wanted it.
More recently it has come up in the emergence of the term ‘Anglosphere’ to describe this collection of countries, and the claim that its ‘Englishness’ somehow makes it essentially distinctive from the rest of the world. ‘Anglosphere’ is an imprecise word, sometimes denoting a racial or ethic identity – Dilke’s old ‘white’ colonies – but at other times including non-Anglo-Saxon countries that have nonetheless been essentially Anglicized in their institutions, usually under past British imperial tutelage. ‘Cricket’ can be used as a measure of this. But it’s consanguinity that is usually emphasized by present-day users of the term. Australians, Americans and the rest are our ‘brothers’, or ‘cousins’, at least in great part (especially if you add in the Celts); and consequently share the greatest identity with us Brits.
It’s in that sense that the journalist Melanie Phillips uses the word, in a recent extraordinary article in which she looks forward to a post-Brexit revival of the ‘Anglosphere’, in a more material and tangible form than it possesses today. (HTTP://WWW.MELANIEPHILLIPS.COM/OPEN-DOOR-SWINGING-ANGLOSPHERE/.) For her the Anglosphere consists mainly of Britain and the United States; for which two nations she makes claims that would not, I think, be accepted without considerable qualification by any serious historian (apart perhaps from Niall Ferguson). One is that America and Britain are together ‘the mother-ship of political liberty and democracy’, and ‘the foundation nations of western freedom’; the principles of which other nations understand only ‘imperfectly’ at best. Unfortunately (for Phillips), both Britain and America lost confidence in these principles, and consequently in themselves, after the last World War. This was what gave rise to the widespread and guilt-ridden anti-‘Western’ reaction we can see today in the West, and to new and dangerous ideologies: ‘such as moral and cultural relativism, feminism and multiculturalism’, ‘capturing the citadels of the culture such as the universities, the churches, the media and others and subverting from within the west’s core values’.
According to Phillips, joining the EU was – in some way, not fully explained here – a symptom of that. And the reaction against the EU expressed in the 2016 referendum, together with the reaction against conventional American politics that brought Donald Trump to power, were consequently essentially a ‘reassertion of [the] western national identity’ that could revive these Anglospherical principles. ‘With both the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, the door to the Anglosphere’s future suddenly burst open’, writes Phillips; although she’s not altogether confident – especially in view of May’s weakness and Trump’s obvious failings – that it will remain open for long.
It’s an interesting argument for Brexit, by-passing the usual commercial ones; which in any case aren’t apparently all that important for older Brexit voters, half of whom would be – according to a recent poll – quite happy to sacrifice their children’s prosperity in exchange for what they conceive as ‘national freedom’. (See http://www.scotsman.com/news/half-of-older-leave-voters-would-accept-job-loss-for-brexit-1-4519647). The flaws in it will be apparent to any historian: the idea that Britain and America have sole responsibility for the development of democracy and the rule of law, for example, with other European countries being historically resistant to them; an assertion which must seem even more questionable in view of both Britain’s and America’s serious deviations from these principles in recent times, against the more liberal present trends in western Europe. Particularly astonishing is the inclusion of ‘feminism’ among the ‘destructive and dangerous ideas’ that are undermining ‘western’ (by which she means Anglo-American) values today, when most people would see it (though not exclusively) as a logical development of those values. One gets the impression here that Phillips is merely lashing out at traditional right-wing bêtes noirs, like ‘political correctness’, without any thought for their real provenance, or for how they fit into the logic of her general argument. Then, lastly, there is the racist – or at the very least ‘culturist’ – implication of this whole ‘Anglosphere’ thing; which as well as being objectively misleading, can also be dangerous, if it persuades people there is a particular virtue in being ‘British’, either presently or in heritage, as against ‘foreign’.
By other ways of looking at it, British and Americans – and also Canadians and Australians – have at least as much dividing as uniting them, deriving from the material circumstances that influence people and countries probably more than their common historical roots; and making it at least as logical for a people to ally with their close geographical neighbours as with their far-flung ethnic ‘cousins’. Such alliances will also be more productive and creative than remaining, boringly, with one’s own ‘sort’. That’s how British culture, including our political culture, has developed over the centuries: ‘multiculturally’, to name one of Phillips’s other bêtes noirs; and one reason why some of us are happier in a relationship with peoples who might teach us something, rather than with countries we believe – arrogantly – can only learn from us.
(Revised 5 August.)