Today’s pundits and scholars no longer speak of “liberal international order,” but rather of an increasingly fragmented world, built around a handful of centres of power, most of them decidedly illiberal. This has prompted some conservatives to call for greater co-operation and co-ordination among “the English-speaking peoples,” to use Winston Churchill’s mid-20th-Century phrase.
In Britain, major Tory Brexit campaigners are no longer merely pointing to “the Anglosphere” as an alternative to the European Union (EU), but are now working together with a small but well-connected group of politicians, journalists, business leaders and civil activists from across the English-speaking political right to make this alternative a reality. Discussions of several new bilateral free trade and visa-free work deals are under way, with an eye on “CANZUK,” a future ever-closer union of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Although far-fetched, the idea has actually already intrigued New Zealand’s ruling National Party, the Act New Zealand Party, the Britain’s Brexit Party, the Conservative Party of Canada, and, in Australia, a former prime minister, a former high commissioner to Britain, and at least one current senator.
The logic behind all these proposals appears straightforward: since the English-speaking countries already have so much in common — history, politics, economics, law, media, culture, and even familial ties — and since technology is making the physical distance smaller, a globe-spanning Anglosphere of free movement of goods, services and labour is a viable proposition. Some indeed go several steps further to imagine a new defence pact and even a transcontinental confederation. As CANZUK-supporting historian Andrew Roberts likes to put it, with a combined population of 130 million mostly rich and progressive people, this new union would be the world’s third most powerful polity as well as a third pillar of Western civilization, alongside the U.S. and the EU.
Both the Anglosphere and CANZUK have a certain air of novelty. First recorded in a science-fiction novel in 1995, the Anglosphere is now a household item in many political, journalistic and scholarly discourses, while CANZUK, a word coined in the 1950s, has gained new currency after Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. In truth, both are very old ideas; indeed, plans for uniting English-speaking polities in fact go back to 19th-Century debates over settler colonialism and what then used to be called “Greater Britain.” During the 1880s and 1890s in particular, the idea of an “imperial federation” encompassed adherents to a broad spectrum of positions, some complementary, others contradictory, but with a common focus on improving relations between the metropole on the one hand and “old Empire lands” on the other. And yes, like some of their heirs today, advocates of an imperial federation were quick to draw a hard and fast line between settler Dominions peopled primarily by those of “common British stock” and other imperial territories, such as India or Ireland.
Although the bulk of imperial federation talk bounced in and around London, some of it reached Canberra, Ottawa and Wellington, too. Some turn-of-the-20th-Century Canadians thus made appeals for “imperial preferences” in trade or for strong “imperial defence” (the latter in response to growing competition from rival empires, including the U.S.) Others expressed interest in diplomatic and military co-operation between the British Empire and the U.S. on the basis of Anglo-Saxon racial solidarity. And still others expressed hopes not just for a formal political alliance between the two brotherly powers, but for their fusion into a single country, as if in a response of sorts to the unifications of Italy and Germany.
One can excavate these and many other fin-de-siècle arguments in journals such as The Anglo-Saxon, a monthly periodical published in Ottawa from 1887 to 1900, or The Anglo-Saxon Review, a chic quarterly founded and edited between 1899 and 1901 by Churchill’s American-born mother, Jennie Jerome, a.k.a. Lady Randolph Churchill. What is remarkable is their similarity with today’s arguments; then, as now, advocates of English-speaking unity engaged in techno-utopian fantasies, premising their arguments on the ability of technological change to fundamentally transform the meaning of political identities and the nature, scope and scale of political institutions.
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But in politics, fantasies matter. Although plans for imperial federation fell flat, while Anglo-American reunification never got off the ground, Anglo-Saxonism did end up reinforcing the dominant racialized conception of empire. For one thing, the erection of then new immigration controls in the U.S. and British settler colonies — and their maintenance well into the late 1960s (1973 in Australia) — owes a great deal to these fin-de-siècle beliefs. For another thing, Anglo-Saxonism contributed to the rise of Anglo-American cordiality and therefore to what international relations theorists call a peaceful hegemonic transition, meaning the non-violent transfer of leadership from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana.
Beliefs in the unity and superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race allowed leadership in London and Ottawa to justify the consolidation and extension of U.S. power, first in North America and then globally. Similar beliefs, however, also helped Americans embrace British followership later on. In his famous 1946 Fulton [Missouri] speech, Churchill called this arrangement the “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” He was onto something. The combined chiefs of staff, the supreme military command for the Anglo-American forces established at the 1941 Arcadia Conference, continued to operate after the war, as did the two-way co-operation in intelligence and nuclear areas. There was also the Canada-U.S. permanent defence agreement, which Churchill duly mentioned in the speech.
The longevity, scope and depth of the special relationship today would probably surprise even Churchill. Consider the ”Five Eyes.” Bringing together approximately 20 distinct agencies led by, or centred on, the National Security Agency in the U.S., the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain, the Communications Security Establishment in Canada, the Defence Signals Directorate in Australia and the Government Communications Security Bureau in New Zealand, this network has its roots in the special intelligence relationship that developed between the U.S. and the Britain during the Second World War. Although Canada formally joined the pact in 1948, with Australia and New Zealand following in 1956, all three countries were participants from the start. Declassified in 2011, the 1946 UKUSA treaty makes this point rather diplomatically in Article 6a: “While the Dominions are not parties to this agreement, they will not be regarded as third parties.”
Prior to the Snowden disclosures — the release in 2013 of a cache of leaked documents by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency and an alleged Russian spy — Five Eyes meetings were highly secretive. Few knew these countries were members of the most exclusive “intelligence pooling club” in the world, and even fewer were aware of this club’s regular gatherings. But now said countries send their representatives to annual Five Eyes meetings — this year’s “Five Country Ministerial and Quintet of Attorneys General” took place in London, for example —and the media are able to request and receive a group photo of the leaders involved and as well as all their official communiqués.
Though never front-page news, these stories deserve our utmost attention. Once confined “merely” to signals intelligence, Five Eyes consultation and co-operation practices have long ago spilled over to other policy and operational areas. Canada’s 2017 white paper on defence, for instance, talks about “the Five-Eyes community” as being “central to protecting Canada’s interests” through multilateral means. What this and similar government documents do not say is that said “community” is also characterized by a large and growing number of trans-governmental policy networks in virtually all areas of security, some of which now provide actual governance functions.
On the surface, these developments look like policy inertia, but their political consequences are massive, not least in the context of the aforementioned Anglosphere talk. Indeed, should the institutional and bureaucratic architecture of the Five Eyes community continue to grow, we might even live to see it cannibalizing existing multilateral institutions, mainstays of liberal international order included. If you read Churchill’s Fulton speech carefully, you will see that it envisages this future, too. His logic goes like this: if the threat of tyranny is great and if international governance mechanisms are failing or have failed, what the world needs is more “Anglobal governance,” not less. One could in fact argue that Churchill’s intended punchline was not “the iron curtain” — his still-famous metaphor for Communist takeover of Central and Eastern Europe — but rather a call for the “fraternal association of the English-speaking people.” He even predicted the special relationship giving birth to common citizenship between the U.S. and the British Empire: “Eventually there may come — I feel eventually there will come — the principle of common citizenship.” It is no accident that today’s Anglospherists and CANZUK-ers are all major Churchill aficionados.
Not going away
Proponents of the Anglosphere and CANZUK insist that their projects are very different from their Victorian-era predecessors. This may be true in principle, but it is politically naïve in practice because history shapes the reception of all political ideas, not least of all in today’s multicultural societies that characterize the “English-speaking” world (Quebec, anyone?) But history also shows that fantasies of settler colonial unity actually shaped numerous real-world policies, institutions and practices. Some of them, such as the Five Eyes community in security and defence, not only still exist, but are actually growing — right at the time when regional and global power balances are shifting.
Srdjan Vucetic is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. This is a condensed version of the author’s lecture at Carleton University’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence for European Studies on Sept. 30, 2019.