Now that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has published the proposed reforms to the relationship between the UK and the EU, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has endorsed them as the basis for the UK’s continued membership of the union, the starting gun has effectively been fired in the referendum campaign. A central challenge for Eurosceptic supporters of Brexit is how to articulate a prosperous, optimistic future for the UK outside the EU. Conversely, supporters of staying-in need to show why Britain is stronger inside the union, and why leaving it would be risky. Much of this hangs on bread-and-butter questions about jobs and living standards, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s reform package addresses public concerns about immigration and democratic control over EU institutions. But bigger questions about Britain’s identity and place in the world loom large too.
In the last couple of decades, eurosceptics have developed the idea that Britain’s future lies with a group of “Anglosphere” countries, not with a union of European states. At the core of this Anglosphere are the “five eyes” countries (so-called because of intelligence cooperation) of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Each, it is argued, share a common history, language and political culture: liberal, protestant, free market, democratic and English-speaking. Sometimes the net is cast wider, to encompass Commonwealth countries and former British colonies, such as India, Singapore and Hong Kong. But the emotional and political heart of the project resides in the five eyes nations.
As this lineage suggests, the roots of the Anglosphere concept lie in 19th century imperialist discourses, and more specifically in the idea of an Imperial Federation, which gained ground in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as the British Empire came under pressure from rising nationalist and anti-colonialist forces. Federation, with an Imperial Parliament governing foreign, defence and trade policy, seemed an ideal solution for keeping dominions and colonies happily inside the empire. The First World War put paid to this ambition but the idea lived on in the concept of the Commonwealth.
As Professor Michael Kenny and I set out in an essay for the New Statesman, the Anglosphere returned as a central concept in eurosceptic thinking in the 1980s, when Europhilia started to wane in the Conservative Party and Thatcherism was its ascendancy. On the right of the Conservative Party, we argued:
“…American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”. In this climate, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.
In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.”
The idea of the Anglosphere as an alternative to the European Union gained ground amongst conservatives in their New Labour wildnerness years, when transatlantic dialogue and trips down under kept their hopes of ideological revival alive. It was given further oxygen by the neo-conservative coalition of the willing stitched together for the invasion of Iraq, which seemed to demonstrate the Anglosphere’s potency as an geo-political organizing ideal, in contrast to mainstream hostility to the war in Europe. By the time of the 2010 election, the Anglosphere had become common currency in conservative circles, name checked by leading centre-right thinkers like David Willetts, as well as eurosceptic luminaries, such as Dan Hannan MEP, who devoted a book and numerous blogs to the subject.
As Foreign Secretary, William Hague, sought to strengthen ties between the Anglosphere countries, despite the indifference shown by the Obama presidency to the idea. After leaving the cabinet, the leading eurosceptic Owen Patterson gave a lengthy speech in the US on the subject of an Anglospheric global alliance for free trade and security; he could expect a sympathetic hearing in Republican circles, if not the White House. And in its 2015 election Manifesto, UKIP praised the Anglosphere as a “global community” of which the UK was a key part.
These geo-political claims are met with derision in centrist political circles. For international relations realists, the idea of an Anglosphere barely merits a straight face, let alone serious consideration. And it is unquestionable that the US and Canada, let alone India, would view a geo-political alliance of English-speaking as an alternative to existing global structures as fanciful; indeed, they question why the UK should be entertaining leaving the EU at all.
But the Anglosphere’s potency is ideological, not geo-political. 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. 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. Thus it defends the eurosceptic flank where it is most vulnerable – rebutting the charge that it wants to take Britain back to the 1950s by delving even deeper into our island story and casting it forward into the 21st century.
This should give pro-Europeans pause for thought. The “Remain” campaign is currently premised largely on the risks of Brexit (or “Project Fear” as it is known to its detractors). It needs an optimistic account of Britain’s future in the world – one which passes through the European Union, not past it. Yet globalization currently has a bad press, and in the face of insecurity and inequality, a New Labour formula of “globalization plus good schools” doesn’t cut much ice with working class voters. Developing its own version of Britain’s identity and role in the world, beyond the fact of EU membership alone, is therefore a pressing task.