Brexit, the Anglosphere and the emergence of 'Global Britain'

by Andrew Mycock

5 May 2017

In January 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May argued that Brexit afforded new opportunities for a ‘truly Global Britain’ to re-imagine existing and new international diplomatic, trade, and security relationships. May argued that a ‘profoundly internationalist’ post-EU Britain should draw on its distinctive national history and culture to become ‘the best friend and neighbour' to Europe while also reaching out across the world ‘to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike’.

Central to this Brexit-inspired ‘Global Britain’ narrative has been a desire to reaffirm and strengthen ties with ‘old friends’ across the so-called ‘Anglosphere’, particularly Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Proponents of ‘Global Britain’ have often sought to support their vision by drawing attention to the potential for a series of trade deals can be quickly concluded across the Anglosphere once the UK leaves the EU. Furthermore, both May and new US President, Donald Trump, sought to reframe the ‘special relationship’ in the context of Brexit, emphasising that stronger economic, military, and diplomatic ties would be founded ‘on the bonds of history, of family, kinship and common interests’.

Although the term ‘Anglosphere’ is a relatively recent addition to the vocabulary of British foreign relations, interest in Anglospheric transnationalism is not new. As Duncan Bell notes, the origins of the Anglosphere concept were first expounded in the late 19th century when imperial federalism was proposed as an alternative to growing instability within the British Empire and growing competition from external rivals, not least the United States. In a brief period from the early 1880s until the drift into the First World War, advocates argued for the establishment of a transnational union. However, the proposition lacked sufficient precision in terms of its composition, form, and purpose, meaning imperial federalism failed to garner sufficient political or popular support in either the ‘mother country’ or the ‘white dominions’.

The concept of the ‘English-speaking peoples’ was not though universally rejected as a meaningful geo-political and trans-national community, either in the United Kingdom or across the Anglophone world. Brief periods of political support manifested but quickly passed, particularly in pivotal moments of change such as during the Second World War and as the UK prepared to ‘abandon’ its empire and join the EEC.

However, Mike Kenny and Nick Pearce note the emergence and solidifying of Euroscepticism from the mid-1990s encouraged a more sustained renaissance. Political attention intensified particularly when the Conservative party came to power as part of a UK coalition government in 2010. Leading figures such as former Foreign Secretary William Hague and then London Mayor Boris Johnson sought to exemplify the potential of the Anglosphere as a counterweight to Europe by seeking to intensify links with conservative-led governments in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Ardent Eurosceptics, such as then UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, went further, invoking the potential of the Anglosphere as an alternative to the EU.

During the EU referendum, senior politicians aligned with the ‘Leave’ campaign such as Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, and David Davis, also made explicit reference to the potential of Anglosphere. The Anglopshere has thus providing as a rare point of commonality between the different groups supporting Brexit. As Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have highlighted, the Anglopshere has also been advanced by an influential international alliance of predominantly conservative politicians, commentators and public intellectuals who share an insurgent ideological and geopolitical agenda which informs ambitions for an alternative world order. 

At the core of 21st century Anglospherism is the so-called ‘five eyes’ network of the UK, United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand who are bound by a multilateral treaty for joint co-operation on intelligence. This noted, advocates often draw attention to the extent to which a shared trans-national constitutional, political, economic, and military history has informed a common approach to contemporary governance and international relations. Particular emphasis is given to the mutual commemoration of past and present military conflicts, and ascription to an Anglospheric ‘civilisational’ heritage founded on the values, beliefs, and practices of free-market economics and liberal democracy. For some linguistic and cultural connectivities were and are reinforced by historical familial ties that endure due to continued patterns of population exchange between English-speaking countries.

But while support for the Anglosphere in the UK has often coalesced around a shared antipathy towards the EU, Brexit has highlighted dissension between trans-national advocates concerning the rationale, purpose, or membership of an Anglospheric ‘union’. The community of ‘Anglospherists’ have typically projected their vision centrifugally, driven by national self-interest that often overlooks the diverse geo-political and economic interests of the other constituent states. Moreover there is a lack of consistency in terms of who are the constituent states of Anglosphere. Many of the most vocal proponents have sought to frame the Anglosphere around a network of core constituent ‘Crown countries’ that comprise of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Others have however sought to frame the Anglosphere in terms of a new Anglo-American alliance (re-)asserting their global dominance in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But outside of these so-called ‘core’ Anglophone states it is not clear what place there is within the concept for states such as India, Ireland, Singapore or South Africa.

For many proponents, however, greater engagement with the Anglosphere is congruent with a desire to rejuvenate the Commonwealth through the development of trade links with emerging economic ‘powerhouses’, particularly India. Such intentions reveal, however, historical and contemporary complexities both in geo-political relations between the core Anglosphere states and the pervasive resonance of the issues of racism and neo-colonialism across other parts of the former British Empire. For example, the United States is seen both as pivotal and a potential threat to the egalitarian foundations of a post-Brexit Anglosphere, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Other critics within the UK and elsewhere have suggested that the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ vision is akin to ‘Empire 2.0’, founded on a monochrome and overly-positive vision of the colonial past and its contemporary legacies. Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor has argued that the post-Brexit UK government appears to suffer from a nostalgia-infused post-imperial ‘amnesia’ that negates engaging with its post-colonial responsibilities.

With new policy dilemmas creating strains on the post-Cold War world order, it is therefore timely that the British Academy will host an international conference entitled ‘The Anglosphere and its Others: the English-speaking peoples in a changing world order’. The conference will be held in London on 15-16 June 2017 and is convened by Professor Michael Kenny (Queen Mary University, London), Dr Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield), and Dr Ben Wellings (Monash University). It will explain, interrogate and explore the growing resonance of the ‘Anglosphere’ concept in the light of Brexit, with leading scholars from multi-disciplinary backgrounds exploring the commonalities and divergences in the Anglosphere concept within and across Anglophone states and its relationship and intersections with the Commonwealth. In so doing, the conference will inform policy-making and public debate in the United Kingdom and across the ‘English-speaking world’ by establishing connections between academia, government and the public on a topic of increasing political, economic and socio-cultural salience. 

Dr Andrew Mycock, University of Huddersfield, is a convenor of The Anglosphere and its Others: The ‘English-speaking Peoples’ in a Changing World Order.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

Image: the New Statesman 

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