Brexit's Doomed Alternative to the EU

Image: Flickr/Dave Kellam. CC BY-SA 2.0.

An Anglosphere alliance is more romantic than practical.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson stirred considerable controversy when, in a speech at West Point in 1962, he admitted what everybody already knew of his nation’s wartime partner: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” As one might expect, this incensed British tabloid opinion, and both Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the leader of the Labour Party quickly denounced Acheson’s words. But what went less noticed was his next sentence, warning that said role could not be “based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength.”

With today’s Britain on the verge of embracing Brexit (the latest polls show the “Leave” camp rapidly closing the gap with the previously unassailable “Remainers”), there are some in the Euroskeptic wing of David Cameron’s government yearning for exactly what Acheson said was inadvisable—greater ties between Anglophone nations worldwide in lieu of formalized empire. Party grandees such as Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan and David Willetts see this “Anglosphere” as their best escape from a run-aground European project they consider to be stultifying, patronizing and trespassing on Parliament’s sovereignty. Therefore, in choosing to bail out, this faction of the British right views this not so much as advocating surrendering a “new role” in the EU as recycling an old, albeit reengineered, role.

This Anglosphere hobbyhorse is not new, nor indeed is the phrase “English-speaking peoples.” It originated with Winston Churchill, whose staggering four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples wove a vast tapestry of shared history, from the Roman invasion of Britannia to the American Civil War, and served as an appropriate compendium to similar words voiced in the famed “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946: “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples.”

After Churchill’s passing, a new fraternity of Anglo-Americans proceeded to pick up his baton and run with it. The eminent historian Robert Conquest, for example, expounded in his 1999 Reflections on a Ravaged Century on his desire—rooted in his Thatcherite sympathies—to see the British detach themselves from the EU and float closer to their transoceanic cousins. The always-wry Conquest even suggested placid Bermuda as an ideal (or idyll) headquarters, much as La Francophonie sets up shop in Paris. John O’Sullivan advocated a return to this form of “network commonwealth.” Even as famed a contrarian as Christopher Hitchens sounded sympathetic to the idea, though he was quick to note that burgeoning India, Anglophone among its political and business elite and parliamentary in its form of government, ought to be included. In fact, all three men of letters were in agreement that “multiracial” did not necessarily have to be at odds with “civilizational”; Nigeria, South Africa and the West Indies would be just as welcome.

Assuming that David Cameron would resign his premiership if the referendum on which he staked so much credibility does not go his way, how would, say, a Prime Minister Boris Johnson seek to corral the other “English-speaking peoples” into this vision? In a very narrow sense, the rudiments of a foundation are already in existence. The controversial “Five Eyes” arrangement, whereby the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share gathered intelligence with each other (including about Five Eyes nations’ citizens, in order to circumvent its own domestic safeguards) has been extant since the Second World War and has proved especially fruitful in the War on Terror. Obvious cultural ties, alongside ties of blood, still abound. And of course, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are all defensively lashed to the same NATO mast, with a similar configuration binding the collective security of ANZUS.

That this much cooperation has occurred between nations so geographically disparate speaks to a values-laden argument for closer ties. As historian Andrew Roberts’ follow-up to Churchill’s opus, A History of the English-speaking Peoples since 1900, attests, on the grave questions of twentieth- and twenty-first-century ideology—Wilhelmine expansionism, fascism, communism and now Islamism—the aforementioned countries, with few exceptions, all found themselves not only on the same side, but leading the charge. Surely a more durable union, perhaps consisting of some sort of free-trade regime accompanying a loose confederation with limited decision-making powers, would be the next logical step, a codification of already existing norms?

In short, the answer is no. The two massive bookends on which the stability of such an organ would doubtless have to rest, the United States and India, are in any case disinclined toward such a plan.