A Diminished Nation in Search of an Empire

Boris Johnson’s dreams of an Anglosphere to replace the European Union aren’t new. Ever since the end of colonialism, the United Kingdom has sought ways to revive its standing.

Union Jacks flap in the wind in front of the Houses of Parliament in London on Oct. 23.
Union Jacks flap in the wind in front of the Houses of Parliament in London on Oct. 23. Peter Summers/Getty Images

Historical reversals are hard to swallow, especially when a magnificent past is suddenly swapped with an ordinary present. To some extent, the psychodrama at the heart of Brexit reflects the inability on the part of the British establishment to come to terms with the diminished global role associated with the loss of the British Empire. Hardcore Brexiteers like Prime Minister Boris Johnson anchor their expectations for a bright future away from the European Union to a revival of the imperial past. They speculate about the emergence of an Anglosphere, centered on the United Kingdom and linked to the United States and Britain’s other former colonies.

This is not the first time that London has floated the ideal of Anglo-Saxon solidarity to reinvent its role in a less conquerable world.

Unlike other empires, the British one did not collapse abruptly after a clash with a rising power. Its demise was gradual and, in many instances, peaceful and amicable. That made it easier for the country to preserve the economic, and sometimes military, relationships between the former mother country and the ex-colony. At the same time, the British elite took advantage of the slow imperial dissolution to effectively reposition their country within the international system.

The start date can be pegged to 1873 at the Oxford Union, the debating society of Oxford University, during a discussion on how to reorganize Pax Britannica. Even then, the case for reforming and reinventing the British Empire was strong. The geographical vastness of the country’s imperial possessions made their management difficult, especially in an age where other colonial powers were scrambling for land. The Second Industrial Revolution, based on steel and electricity, had turned Germany and the United States into new global powerhouses, and cross-continental railways boosted the influence of land powers such as Russia compared with naval ones such as Great Britain.

At the same time, the colonies in North America, Australasia, and South Africa were more assertive and wanted more autonomy from Britain. As the geographer Halford Mackinder argued in the early 1900s, “[W]e must grow used to the thought that the Empire is no longer based on a Mother Country and her Colonies. … The new view, acceptable to all the Britains, is that the Empire rests on a group of allied nations.” Granting independence to white settler colonies was a historical inevitability.

Like today’s Brexiteers with their Anglosphere fantasies, their Victorian forebears aspired to replace the British Empire with a less intrusive Greater Britain. They believed that the British diaspora formed an organic unity. It was a single, transcontinental political community that could act as the guarantor of British supremacy, promoter of democratic principles, and custodian of global stability.

Some intellectuals imagined that this political community would span the whole empire, India included. Others preferred to invest efforts and energies in a political project that would have involved only the settlement colonies (Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand), whose populations, economic power, and strategic importance were rapidly growing. A third group hoped to involve the United States, which was about to replace the United Kingdom as global hegemon.

Soon, whereas British intellectuals had previously stressed the racial factors that kept the British diaspora together, institutional commonalities and shared values became predominant. Winston Churchill himself dreamed of a U.S.-led, English-speaking concord after World War II. As argued by Johnson himself in his biography The Churchill Factor, Churchill was convinced that the American empire was the natural evolution and, to some extent, the continuation of its British predecessor.

During the Cold War, the debate about Anglo-Saxon unity halted as communist versus capitalist became the division of the day. But the lifting of the Iron Curtain ushered in a series of technological and political transformations that unexpectedly opened a window of opportunity for those utopians who still dreamed of an English-speaking union. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 seemed to confirm the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon ideals of democracy and freedom, whereas the adoption of the euro fueled fears among British Euroskeptics that the European project was going too far in the direction of an “ever closer union.”

Since then, proposals for a new empire have proliferated further. Paul Johnson and Robert Conquest, two influential figures within the Conservative Euroskeptic wing, put forward the most utopian projects. The former envisaged Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand becoming formal member states of the United States and taking up a suitable number of House and Senate seats. Conquest suggested the creation of an association of English-speaking countries that would be more than an alliance but less than a union. Others, like the American entrepreneur James Bennet, envisaged a lighter institutional structure, describing the Anglosphere as a network civilization glued together by shared history and culture.

Plans of this kind, no matter how utopian or simplistic, prepared the ground for the Brexit debate since they could provide a grand alternative setting for London. When leaving the European Union became a concrete prospect, many Anglosphere enthusiasts revised down their ambitions, proposing slightly more realistic plans based on free trade agreements and defense cooperation without any complex supranational architecture. Some would restrict this new sphere of influence to the so called CANZUK (Canada, Australia, U.K., and New Zealand); others would include the United States; and a few also looked with interest to Singapore, India, and Ireland.

Like in the past, these plans are unlikely to be implemented because they address a British preoccupation with irrelevance while ignoring the priorities and aspirations of those countries that are supposed to become London’s bedfellows. The Victorians also overlooked that the more independent colonies would want to retain a substantial degree of freedom from Britain as well. And today’s Anglosphere enthusiasts heavily discount different national interests among its potential members. Canada is torn between its Anglo and French identities. New Zealand and Australia are primarily Asian nations with an Anglo-Saxon pedigree. And the United States is too powerful to tie itself to such a regional grouping in the name of a shared historical background.

In 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously stated: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” The identity crisis he identified had actually started almost a century earlier. More than 50 years after he spoke, it has not yet come to an end.

Edoardo Campanella is a Future World fellow at IE University’s Center for the Governance of Change in Madrid and the co-author, with Marta Dassù, of Anglo Nostalgia: The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West.

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