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Toward an English-Speaking Union

Toward an English-Speaking Union

Mini Teaser: The idea of a European Union is artificial and unconvincing. A more natural association would be one between like-minded peoples who share a common language and heritage.

by Author(s): Robert Conquest

The Federal Europe now metastasizing away suffers from several substantial defects. It is divisive of the West, and indeed divisive of "European" civilization itself, which has always included the Europes Overseas. It is implicitly - and often explicitly - anti-American. It is already, with the promise of worse to come, a scene of extreme regulationism and of a Continental administrative outlook contrary to the Common Law tradition. But most of all, and fatally, what it misses is any real sense of how the feeling of citizenship arises. That feeling cannot simply be elicited by appeals or compulsions on behalf of a supra-national entity. We are still, after all, in a period where it is difficult enough to get Fleming to lie down with Walloon, let alone Croat with Serb.

The "European" answer to this is that a supra-national European state or federation will be a vehicle by which the forces of goodwill can prevent nationalist eruptions. But how? To say that a larger federal unit, once created, will provide a counterattraction to nationalism, that it will win in the political field, is sheer speculation - and a speculation not justified by the experience of other multinational federations. (It is rather like arguing that a house, once erected, will proceed to dig its own foundations.) The world has seen many such arrangements break up - not only the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia but the United Arab Republic and the Federation of the West Indies and Malaysia. Indeed, one might add in this century the union of Sweden and Norway, and of Austria and Hungary; and, earlier, two separate attempts to form a Central American union.

The European Idea is at once both obsolete and premature. It is obsolete in the sense that the physical propinquity, the cartological tidiness on which the whole idea so largely rests, is no longer anything like as important as it once was. It is premature in the sense that the political cultures of Europe are not yet similar, or assimilable, enough for what is intended - while there are other more closely related cultures whose connection should take precedence.

If we seek something better than what exists, it seems sensible to turn to a grouping that would be natural rather than artificial, going with the cultural grain rather than cutting across it. It hardly needs saying that what comes to mind is some form of unity between countries of the same legal and political - and linguistic and cultural - traditions: which is to say an Association of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - as well as, it is to be hoped, Ireland and the peoples of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

For within the West, it is above all the English-speaking community that has over the centuries pioneered and then maintained the middle way between anarchy and despotism. In most of the rest of the world, in the past as now, this balance has failed. (A great Chinese historian once despairingly wrote of his countrymen that their history alternated between periods when they were enslaved and periods when they wished they were.)

The praise of the eighteenth-century British constitution voiced by the French statesman Jacques Necker - that Britain's was the only government in the world "which united public strength with individual security" - identifies the defining point of the system we now describe loosely as democracy. Today, the same can be said of the United States and the other countries listed above. We are used to our inheritance. We think it natural and normal that we enjoy the civil and other liberties common to our countries, and we rightly complain about their defects or inadequacies. But our order is not that which has commonly or widely prevailed - as a look at the present-day world should be enough to remind us. We are, through the luck of our history, the main bastion against the various barbarisms that have reared their heads so devastatingly in the past half century. Nor need we forget that in World War II those areas of Europe and Asia that were indeed liberated, and not turned over to another despotism, were liberated in the European case mainly by the combined arms of the United States, Britain and Canada; in the Asian case mainly by the combined arms of the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The difficulties of bringing even these countries into an Association are clearly great. But they are, in principle, petty ones, arising from a tangle of detailed interests, thoughts and habits. Though of course there are many differences, the situation in some ways resembles that which faced the American Federalists in the 1780s. At the lower level, everything was against them. It seemed almost impossible that, in spite of their common heritage of law and liberty, a general unity could prevail in thirteen democracies over such a mesh of legalisms and local interests as then existed. The weaknesses, the disintegrative tendencies were obvious enough to provide material for countless Cassandras. But a man like Benjamin Franklin could see through them to the basic strength and unity. And, just as it was precisely the crumbling of the old American confederation - the backbiting and worse between the states - that induced the Federalists to make the effort for unity, so today's problems should act as the same sort of stimulus on us.

It is a mistake to imagine that only revolutionaries and utopians are capable of strong and radical action. Where great changes are needed in the interest of stability and progress, men of vision have not seldom been available to press them through. In the 1780s, events in America were not allowed to drift on in an unsatisfactory fashion, in the direction of disintegration and impoverishment. The difficulties were diagnosed and the opportunities seized.

The End of the Tyranny of Distance

What, then, are the difficulties faced by today's advocates of a greater English-speaking union? Until now, whenever the subject has been broached (and it is worth recalling that in a nebulous form it was in the air as early as a century ago) it has been argued that the distances separating North America, Australia and Britain rule out political union. But that argument now fails. The thousand-mile spread of the American States in the eighteenth century was, in its effect, far greater than is the twelve thousand-mile spread of the countries of our culture today. Caesar Rodney rode through the whole night to arrive in Philadelphia to cast the vital vote for the Declaration of Independence. Today a helicopter would get him there in half an hour. At that period it took two days to get from New York merely to Philadelphia by John Barnell's "flying machine", and five to Baltimore; and that was one of the better connections. Nowadays, statesmen and businessmen can get from London to Canberra in a day, while communication by internet or telephone is instantaneous.

Even at a time when it took months to reach it, the British were able to maintain close political connections with New Zealand right across the globe. Yet now, when London can speak to Auckland or Adelaide instantaneously and when it is possible to get from one to the other in a day, the British are told that their natural political contacts are with Europe. Europe is indeed nearer in the crudest physical sense, but ours is precisely the era when travel and communication have made that measure less significant than it has ever been in human history. For what the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called, in the context of the history of his own country, "the tyranny of distance" is now effectively vanquished.

The obstacles of geography, then, are grossly exaggerated. What about those of nationalism and ethnicity? First, let us note well that the crucial links between the various countries of which we speak are not blood ties. The most powerful link is the shared commitment to concepts of Law and Liberty, in a way that is not shared to anything like the same degree by other countries within the general democratic sphere. In fact, there is no racial implication in the claim that Anglo political culture is the most advanced and the most promising. This style of political and civic organization happens to have emerged most importantly in Britain, and to have spread most widely from that center. This historical chance, needless to say, does not mean that our form of society is exclusive in principle, or attached to any particular genetic group.

Great Britain itself has several "nationalities." No one who knows the English, Scots and Welsh could believe for a moment that they are really much the same. Even speaking solely of Britain, one should properly speak of Anglo-Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon, traditions. The so-called Anglo-Saxon stock in England seems to have been based on very considerable intermarriage with and absorption of the Britons - just as on the other side of the Border, the Lowlanders who constitute the majority of the Scottish population are in large part of Anglo-Saxon descent. But, more than this, the whole British expansion overseas was heavy with Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen. The cultural, temperamental and other differences are very great indeed. But the liberal political and civic tradition transcends them.

Nor, even in Britain, is the political culture totally and wholly associated with the English language. Several languages are spoken: Welsh, Gaelic, and, these days, Romani, Urdu, Bengali, Greek, Maltese. But English is very much the central tongue. We must insist that this bond of language - one that, crucially, is missing in "Europe" - is a strong one, and tends, moreover, to carry shared assumptions.

If the British population is itself fairly heterogeneous, the American is much more so. In their economic interests and their social structure, even the original United States were (and it is worth noting that the plural verb continued to be used until after the Civil War) a variegated lot. As Thomas Paine pointed out, the populace were by no means entirely of the same stock: even if the black element was then essentially excluded from the civic culture, the New York Dutch, the Germans and Swedes in the middle colonies, the important Huguenot element, let alone the Irish, were far from negligible (the Germans amounted to about a tenth of the population, the Scotch-Irish about three-quarters of a tenth).

What the colonies had in common was first a main language; but second, and more important, they had the institutions and habits of a legal and civic culture. Some American and other writers have taken the view that "national identity", in the sense in which it is found among the European peoples, is to some degree weaker in the United States, and that for this reason there is a tendency to substitute general principles, or supposed general principles, for the deeper and less conscious bonds. It may be true that some such substitution takes place, at least in certain minds. But it would be hard to assert that an American identity, starting in Revolutionary times, did not get a secure hold. The argument that the huge influx of immigrants from various nations to some degree diluted this may appear plausible on the surface. But to what degree? The astonishing thing, until very recently at least, was the effectiveness of the "melting pot." But in any case, the fact of maintaining the older national, religious and cultural traditions of the countries from which the American nation derives (or in recent years the fact of a notable return to those traditions) need not in any way affect the general national feeling. For with us the state does not aspire to be the center of all public aspiration. We can include communities of different internal loyalties. In Britain, loyalty to a Scottish clan or to the Jewish community does not in any way compete with loyalty to the country. America's ethnic diversity, in fact, may yet promote greater national pride.

It was said of Disraeli that "At but one remove by birth from Southern Europe and the East, he was an Englishman in nothing but his devotion to England, and his solicitude for her honour and prosperity", and this would apply to many originating outside our culture, but temperamentally within it. A number of the most prominent and devoted adherents of the ideas involved - statesmen, judges and others - have been immigrants. Some thirty million people of African descent have English as their native tongue and generally regard our political tradition as their own. Most are in the United States, but they include majorities or important minorities in a number of independent states, largely in the Caribbean, together with a large community in Britain. No doubt there are racial problems in most of our countries. It would be up to the Association to give even greater reason for, and scope to, such feelings of community.

What We Stand To Gain

The United States nowadays has less wish to undertake the enormously preponderant role in the West's foreign and military arrangements and responsibilities that has fallen to it in the second half of the twentieth century. A unity with the other countries of the same tradition would ease the American task and spread some of the responsibility. (Apart from Britain's well-recognized role as the most dependable ally of the United States, it may be worth recalling that Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that have fought alongside America in all four major wars of this century.) Countries that have relied on the Americans, and themselves been inadequately faced with either the responsibilities or the decisions of world power, should be brought into the central processes.

It is not only that the United States, still the most powerful of democracies, may no longer feel capable of bearing the burden - political as well as military - on its own. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have the skills but they do not have the power to act autonomously with any but local effect. Yet their interests, too, are deeply involved in the world scene, and there are contributions they can make. Thus, a recent American tendency to make unilateral decisions, and then to complain that its allies are not backing it up, is relevant to the present world troubles. Under a closer Association, countries such as the United Kingdom, which have not seldom felt themselves committed by American decisions tending to the unilateral, would share not only the responsibility of decision but also that of military or other action.

It is not true - as some British left-wing circles would certainly declare - that in such an Association the United Kingdom would come more directly under American control or influence. Precisely the opposite: it would no longer find major confrontations, or lesser decisions on weaponry or local commitment, taken without its participation. At present it is possible for confrontations to occur in many parts of the world in which, though some sort of national consultation might take place, real decisions committing Britain would be taken unilaterally in Washington; or, alternatively, the United States would have to face a crisis alone - to the benefit, in either case, of none of us. And, in stressing the negative side, we should not forget that in the Iraq confrontations in 1998 it was Britain - and Canada and Australia - that supported the United States: which is to say that a de facto trend to united policies already exists. This should logically lead to a far greater interdependence.

From the point of view of the world at large, then, we can view a greater Association both in the short and in the long term. In the short term it would define political civilization, opening a great part of the world to joint solutions of economic and social problems. In the long term it would help to secure world peace, transforming politically backward areas and creating the conditions for a genuine world community. The Western alliance originally assembled around the power of the United States. That power no longer being so predominant, if the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world could combine their strengths, they would once again provide a strong center around which a new world community could develop.

Judged in this deeper perspective the European Union looms small: either as an irrelevance that can be adapted and encysted, or as an aberration that can be corrected. But suppose that the often stated aim of some "Europeans" to create a political and economic and even a military force roughly equal in power to the United States were feasible; as noted above it could not but be harmfully divisive of the West. By contrast, an English-speaking union, far from repelling the other democracies, would form a rallying point for democratic movements the world over. Indeed, if the EU proved to be in the interests of neither the United States nor Britain, and became a handicap to the development of a worldwide democratic culture, a different approach would clearly be required from the Europeans themselves.

The Primacy of the Political

The perspective of an Association opens up eventually to a free market of the entire "Western" world. The EU on the other hand is more or less openly concerned with a narrower autarky, in essential competition with the United States. There are, it seems, several things to be learned from the experience of the EU - that is, quite apart from the creation of a Little Europe mentality. The mere mechanics of the supposed unification of Western Europe were, to begin with, wrongly conceived. First, it was believed that economic unity would precede and produce political unity. But in general the broader and higher attitudes that constitute politics must always prevail; or, to put it another way, the economy can only be a component, important but never decisive, of the political. Of course, it goes without saying that certain minimum economic matters must be adequately dealt with or a polity will collapse. But that does not make economics determinative - in a house the plumbing must work, but none of us would choose a house for its plumbing.

That said, a respectable school of economists has long preferred the transatlantic option on economic grounds alone. Douglas Jay, president of the Board of Trade in the British Labour government of 1964-67, urged instead of the European Economic Community the idea of a North Atlantic Free Trade Association. In his original conception, this would have consisted of Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and the old European Free Trade Area. As he pointed out as early as 1968, this would have saved Britain from the expensive food policy of the Common Market and would have provided a duty-free market without rises in export costs. He noted also the advantages to Canada, at the time the country with the smallest tariff-free market of any leading industrial nation.

In America, Congress was told by President Lyndon Johnson's trade representative, William Ross, that the project was receiving serious consideration. A conference at New York University between members of the business, trade union and university worlds of Britain, Canada and the United States - including UK trade union leader Frank Cousins, the economist Roy Harrod, Senator Javits and Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as well as representatives of the Canadian Conservative and Liberal Parties - welcomed the proposal. This particular initiative did not lead to results, but it does show a potentially receptive mood to an idea close to the one I am proposing.

And there are other indications that the idea continues to attract. Today, for example, we see the New Atlantic Initiative, which is promoted by a Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and supported by a broad spectrum of statesmen and thinkers in Europe and North America. And in 1998 American receptivity to a form of transatlantic association generated the suggestion from several Washington sources that the United Kingdom should join NAFTA. True, many of these initiatives have been framed in terms of a joint Euro-American approach. But this is hardly possible until the grotesque rigors of the European Union are abated. Meanwhile, a British move into a transatlantic, or rather transoceanic, association - while Britain retains membership in a less overweening "Europe" - could prepare the way for a later coherence of the entire "West."1

There will, of course, be opposition to these proposals. It will come from various sources. In some Third World countries, the cry of neocolonialism or neo-imperialism will go up. In Britain, those of the Left who wish to use British political insularity to turn the island into a fogbound Cuba will see our suggestions as something that will make their schemes impossible. Chauvinist Americans, on the other hand, will deplore association as a means to impede America's ability to act independently. A further obstacle is the strength of protectionist instincts in the United States. On the Left, elements who are opposed to any strengthening of the West must, of course, object. On the Right, exaggerated localism and conservatism tend to some extent in the same direction. But in reply to the latter, the actual powers devolved to an Association, at least until a further stage may be reached, will be small. No derogation of sovereignty will arise. The task will merely be coordination and cooperation.

Even so, the concept of sovereignty is in many cases not susceptible to clear-cut definition. Each of the constituent elements of the United States, for example, is still technically speaking sovereign, and the degree of that sovereignty was not settled until ninety years after the Declaration of Independence. Originally, the Union, let alone the preceding Confederation of that period, was an association undertaken for reasons both practical and ideal - that is, a good deal was left undefined, or inadequately defined, to be developed by later generations. With us, too, there would be a period of flexible negotiation with no preconceptions about stages to be reached within a given time period.

It is not my purpose to lay down the ways in which this change might come about. Clearly, a political movement in our respective countries would have to develop. One can envisage a start made by committees of politicians, and of others in public life, with assistance from the New Atlantic Initiative, which has already opened serious and urgent debate among all those concerned with the problem of Western unity. The time then would perhaps be not too far off for something like a Declaration of Interdependence, and the election of an Intercontinental Congress - with, at the start, no more than a small and flexible permanent staff and a coordination of foreign, military and trade policies. We can meanwhile present the substance of such an arrangement - one that has breadth and scope and yet avoids the spurious breadth and scope of dogma or artificiality.

The internationalist idea, and internationalist ideas in general, may thus be channeled into the construction of a community with a genuine cultural unity. Though not world-embracing, it will be fit to act as a model and center from which the eventual progress of the entire world may proceed. For as President Kennedy said in his message to Congress on January 11, 1962, "Our basic goal remains the same: a peaceful world community of free and independent states - free to choose their own future and their own system, as long as it does not threaten the freedom of others."

In that context, what is here proposed is not a solution so much as a direction. It is one that is in accord with both our reason and our feelings.

1 See Conrad Black, "Britain's Atlantic Option - And America's Stake", The National Interest (Spring 1999).

Robert Conquest is a fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA. This essay is adapted from one of the many themes covered in his forthcoming book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (W.W. Norton, 1999).

Essay Types: Essay