The weird and wonderful concept of the Anglosphere is gaining a surprising salience in public debates as Britain faces up to its post-Europe future.
Angst seems to be mounting as many British voters who voted to leave the European Union begin to realise that in Brexit they might have bitten off far more than they can chew. So they are turning to the “Commonwealth”, to ask if something like the old imperial order may be resurrected. This is being referred to as the “Anglosphere”.
This kind of thinking has its devotees in Australia too, including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. For Abbott, the bonds uniting the Anglosphere states:
… arise from patterns of thinking originally shaped by Shakespeare and the King James Bible, constantly reinforced by reading each other’s books, watching the same movies and consuming the same international magazines.
And for Howard, Anglosphere membership implies that Australia has overriding cultural, economic and strategic interests in common with the US, Canada and New Zealand. These are interests that, as Stefano Gulmanelli points out, “provide the compass in defining Australia’s national interest and its projection into the world”.
As noted in a recent piece in The Conversation, advocates of the idea of the Anglosphere are inclined to see it as a springboard for a post-Europe, “truly global Britain”.
But those advocates are rather a rum lot. They include the extreme right-winger Nigel Farage, as well as ministers Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis in Theresa May’s government. Their dreaming is an attempt to re-imagine a Britain that can turn its back on Europe and benefit from new trade agreements and security alliances with its former colonies, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Before Australians even start to think about joining in the Anglosphere frolic, a great deal more needs to be understood about this worrisome concept. Its roots are in proposals for an imperial federation of the white settler colonial societies within the British Empire towards the end of the 19th century.
Alfred Deakin was an Australian champion of this wild idea on the eve of federation, and it reached into the thinking of our longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies. The idea remains a nostalgic dream among the dwindling ranks of British Empire loyalists and staunch monarchists in contemporary Australia. It was probably a factor influencing Abbott’s risible adornment of Prince Philip with an Australian knighthood.
It is important to remember that the British Empire was a very ramshackle affair for almost all of its cumbersome history. To paint it in glorious hues, to thrill to the chords of Elgar’s blood and state music, or to be enthralled by Kipling’s tales of derring-do British colonial officials in far-away climes, is to be deceived by a version of history as much riddled with falsehoods and jingoism as it is a true account of what really happened in the British Empire.
While it might have instigated some modernising benefits, the empire also brought a great deal of arrogant British brutality and ignominious conquest to many noble civilisations.
Recall, for example, the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919. British troops under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd of pilgrims, killing 1,000 and wounding many more. This hideous moment is one of many stains on Britain’s imperial history in India. The Raj was an era of racialist superiority, economic exploitation, cultural crassness and bureaucratic stupidity as much as it was an era of enlightenment.
The British Empire started to come crashing down at the end of the first world war. The second world war delivered its coup de grace as independence movements swept many former colonies to post-colonial freedom.
It is well to remember that the roots of latter-day Anglosphere imagining lie all gnarled and twisted amid the British Empire’s ruins. Srdjan Vucetic has written what is arguably the finest scholarly critique so far of the Anglosphere concept. In his exceptional book he explains:
… the Anglosphere cannot be understood without reference to the legacies and shifts in Self-Other relations inside and outside the territorial boundaries of its five core states.“
It is, he points out, a "racialised” identity.
Australia ingratiating itself into a post-Brexit, British-instigated Anglosphere would be a futile exercise in counterproductive nostalgia. Almost invariably, nostalgia entails delusional imaginings of a golden age that never existed.
Australia’s present and future security and prosperity are irrevocably involved with the country finding its way into Asia. The US and the UK are now wallowing in politically fouled nests entirely of their own making. Australia should stay well away from any entanglement whatsoever with such a ridiculous political confection as the Anglosphere represents.
Authors: Allan Patience, Principal Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne