Short Cuts

James Meek

John Norton-Griffiths, ‘Empire Jack’, engineer and strapping essence of imperial British manliness, was sent to Romania in 1916 to destroy that country’s oil industry before the Germans overran it. He had the Romanian government’s permission but local staff would occasionally try to interfere as he went at the oil wells with fire, dynamite and his personal sledgehammer. If the force of his personality failed to get them to back off, Daniel Yergin writes in The Prize, ‘he would deliver a powerful kick or pull out his revolver and shout: “I don’t speak your blasted language!”’

The Norton-Griffiths vignette contains the essence of a notion that has shimmered in the political ether for decades but is gaining definition with the rise in Britain of the UK Independence Party and the growing strength of the right in Canada and Australia. This is the notion of the Anglosphere. It’s a white English-speaking male preoccupation, founded in a selective view of history that portrays war as inevitable, noble and glorious, where Britain and the majority white countries of its former empire repeatedly come together to defeat a savage foe (Prussian militarism, in Norton-Griffiths’s case, but it might just as well be Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or ‘Islamofascism’); where Anglo technology is supreme; where cowardly, bureaucratic, envious non-Anglos impede the Anglo mission to save civilisation and are ruthlessly, necessarily pushed aside; and where there’s no need to learn anyone else’s language because they’re bound to learn yours.

The Conservative prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and the man who on present showing is likely to be prime minister of Australia after September, Tony Abbott, have spoken up for the Anglosphere. In Britain, the Anglosphere is held up as an alternative way to exercise influence in the world by Nigel Farage’s Ukip and the ten Conservative MPs who have openly declared their desire to see the country leave the European Union, along with the Better Off Out group, supported by such luminaries as Frederick Forsyth, Norman Tebbit and Austin Mitchell.

What is it, though? Lovers of the Anglosphere can’t agree on its constituent parts. The cultural Anglosphere, those countries and regions where English is a literary language, is seldom coterminous with the geopolitical one. Sometimes Ireland is included; sometimes it isn’t. South Africa and Zimbabwe are seldom mentioned. Few proponents of the concept include countries like Singapore, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Nigeria or India – or, indeed, English-fluent countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are on every Anglospheroid’s list. The status of the world’s largest collection of native English speakers, the United States, is less certain. After Harper won his third election victory in 2011, the first to give him an absolute majority in Canada’s federal parliament, Britain’s most energetic Anglospherite, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, hailed him in his Telegraph blog as ‘the effective leader of the Anglosphere’. Although Barack Obama is leader of a one-time British colony with more native English-speakers than all the others put together, Hannan doesn’t for some reason consider him a candidate for the – fantasy – position of Anglosphere leadership, implying, confusingly, that a country’s place in the Anglosphere is dependent on its leaders making their interest in the concept explicit, rather than there being something essentially Anglospheric about the country itself.

There’s a certain honesty in this. The United States didn’t win a war for independence against a tyrannical British king just so that two centuries later it could commune with the spirits of Cecil Rhodes and John Buchan in neo-imperialist seances alongside the set of countries bearing the queen’s head on their coins. But this hasn’t stopped certain Anglosphericals formulating a new mythology of Anglo oneness.

In his 2006 book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, the British historian Andrew Roberts writes: ‘Just as in science fiction people are able to live on through cryogenic freezing after their bodies die, so British post-imperial greatness has been preserved and fostered through its incorporation into the American world-historical project.’ Surprising as this creepy revelation, a sort of pith-helmet Invasion of the Body Snatchers, must be to Americans, there is a related strain of historical mysticism among American conservatives, those who liked to think of presidents like Ronald Reagan and – not that anyone wants to remember this now – George W. Bush inheriting the mantle of Winston Churchill.

Robert Conquest, presenting a relatively sophisticated, unmilitaristic and tolerant version of the Anglosphere (it included Nigeria and India) in Reflections on a Ravaged Century contrasted ‘the European political tradition’ with what he called the ‘law and liberty tradition’ of the heirs of Runnymede. Defending the book against criticism from Michael Ignatieff, and thinking, perhaps, of a continuation of the line connecting two European revolutions that so preoccupied him, the French and the Russian, Conquest described the European Union as an ‘(immensely corrupt) bureaucratic and regulationist nightmare’. In his critique of Conquest in the New York Review of Books, Ignatieff saw merit in the vision of global associations of English-speaking peoples grounded in ‘shared political culture rather than the fleeting language of interests or the advertising babble of globalism’. But, he added, ‘the political cultures of the English-speaking world are not necessarily converging.’

The Ignatieff-Conquest dispute was in 2000, an age ago, before 9/11, the carnage of Iraq, the financial crisis and the Arab uprisings. In 2011, Ignatieff led Canada’s Liberal Party to the hustings, only to suffer one of the most ignominious electoral defeats of any leftist party since the dawn of the age of mass democracy at the hands of Stephen Harper, a champion of the Anglosphere. Could it be that Conquest saw the way the wind was blowing in a way Ignatieff didn’t, and that there is convergence within the Anglosphere?

Harper, Abbott and the British and American political right share scepticism about climate change; a desire, although they don’t put it this way, to shift the tax burden from the well-off to the poor; a belief that public administrators are inferior to private ones; a yearning for high defence spending and a readiness to evoke a Tolkienesque-Churchillian vision of noble Anglos fighting, outnumbered and despised, in defence of freedom, even though, unlike Tolkien and Churchill, neither those doing the evoking nor their children ever seem to pass through war themselves. Yet when you look more closely at the countries of Hannan’s core Anglosphere, Ignatieff was right: the differences jump out. On immigration, for instance. The British right is hostile, whereas Harper and even Abbott, who blames immigration for Australian cities ‘choking on traffic’ and wants it cut, endorse a steady flow of new immigrants. In Canada, Harper has done what America’s Republicans and Britain’s Tories have failed to do and benefited from the votes of socially conservative immigrants.

The most obvious divergence between Britain and the rest of the Anglosphere is that the political culture of the other countries evolved as much in opposition to Britain’s as in tribute to it – in opposition, specifically, to Britain’s class system. Conrad Black might wish it otherwise, but the former colonies have not been amenable to the importation of Old World class values. Similarly the British right lacks a British Tony Abbott, capable of fronting up as an average, middling sort of fellow who wouldn’t stand out in a posh golf club or in a branch of McDonald’s, who wouldn’t look out of place in a T-shirt or a smart suit, who could play the part of the regular suburban father in an advertisement for breakfast cereal – as his deadly rival Julia Gillard, the incumbent prime minister, could play the mother. (Tony Blair is probably the closest Britain has come.) That’s not to say the Anglosphere outside Britain doesn’t seethe with snobberies based on money, education, appearance, race and the metropolitan-provincial divide – but none of these snobberies prevents those countries being more egalitarian places.

Ukip’s recent by-election success in Eastleigh buoyed the party but by exposing Farage to heightened public scrutiny reminds us how remote the chances are of this fey populist ever turning insurgency into power. As the timetable of a possible British in or out referendum on Europe emerges in parallel with Scotland’s referendum on independence from England, the English ‘out’ party, like supporters of a Scottish ‘out’, will be obliged to swallow the indigestible realities of detail consequent on exit. ‘Convergence in the Anglosphere’ is every bit as airily New Age as it sounds and the truth is that, in the absence of an existential threat to Britain, Canada and Australia’s Anglospheric interests are focused on their military and trade relations with the US. Britain’s private grief vis-à-vis Europe is a peripheral concern.

An irony of the revival of the argument about British membership of the EU is that it exposes how closely the underlying dividing lines in British politics – so different from those marked by actual party affiliation – resemble the pattern of parties on mainland Europe. Many Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs look like Social Democrats; some of them, and many Tories, look like Christian Democrats. There’s plenty of room on the right for a large minority of Tories, with the Ukippers and the odd BNP blow-in, to form a small, borderline racist party of right-wing nationalists. Add the Greens and a rump of residual socialists on the left – could it be that, politically, Britain is converging with the Eurosphere, rather than the Anglo, even as it considers leaving?