Shadows of Empire – a review

How far do ideas of the Anglosphere explain Brexiteer thought? David Edgerton reviews a new book by Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce.

David Edgerton
29 June 2018
union jacks on regent street.jpg

Image: Regent Street during a recent Royal Wedding. Credit: Raghavvidya/Flickr, CC 2.0.

In the early 1990s I stayed at the Divine Tracy hotel in Philadelphia. It was owned and run by the remnants of a remarkable non-segregated church led by Father Divine, also known as God. He believed in a non-racial America, but he was regarded as black by most of America; although committed to celibacy, he married; he lived in luxury but had no income, though he believed in self-reliance and hated welfare. His church campaigned for English to become the official language of the USA, to marginalize encroaching Spanish. He was also very much in favour of the hydrogen bomb and wanted to spread his notion of America as the kingdom of heaven to the whole world. In 1950 he made a start by suggesting that Australia and New Zealand adopt the US constitution and become part of the USA.

I recalled the story of Father Divine when confronted by the idea of the Anglosphere in British politics, the subject of Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce’s excellent book. They follow much of the intellectual left in seeing in Brexit as ‘Shadows of Empire’ – though theirs is a refined version that focusses not so much on Empire itself, as on the new concept of the Anglosphere.

Pearce and Kenny don’t claim the Anglosphere idea was behind the Brexit vote. They show it played no role in the referendum campaign. But they argue it is important to the Brexiteers and has thus emerged since the referendum as a key part of their fantasies about the future. In essence some Brexiteers claim to want to recreate a united Anglosphere as an alternative to the EU. The idea is that the Anglosphere shares some fundamental similarities which differentiate it from continental Europe.

But what is this Anglosphere, and did it ever exist in reality? It is of recent coining and comes in many varieties. For some it is UK and three (not all) of its former white dominions – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – known as CANZUK. For others it includes more, but not all, of the Commonwealth (CANZUK plus India, and perhaps the anglophone Caribbean). Tellingly, Ireland is not supposed to be in the Anglosphere, though New Zealand, with the same population is.

Pearce and Kenny include the United States of America in the Anglosphere. This makes a crucial difference. An Anglosphere with the USA would be a global power.

Most of the book is not about Brexit or the recent past at all. It is a study of Anglosphere ideas in British politics over more than a century. While the term is of recent coining and the concept of the Anglosphere very dubious indeed as an analytical category, as their book shows, Kenny and Pearce do a service in putting into the study of British politics the idea that there was into the 1950s, an overtly imperialist party which put the white dominions at the centre of its picture of empire. They also show just how important the Cold War was in making stories of a deep Anglo-American relationship so central to politics. Too often the history of British politics has ignored both.

But one needs to be careful that the assumptions of imperialists and of cold warriors do not infect the account of realities. The USA was a protectionist power – like the white dominions – but unlike the white dominions, the USA never gave the UK preferential treatment. Empire Free Trade was a fantasy even at the height of imperial sentiment. The idea that there was one Empire was always a serious error. Different parts of the empire had very different statuses. The British Commonwealth was different from the British Empire, and one did not turn into the other in any simple way.

Thus the Windrush people did not come from the independent Commonwealth, but from within the Empire, and thus had different, more British, nationality than say Canadians. They were not immigrants. But their colonies were turned out of the Empire and into the Commonwealth, and therefore subjected to immigration controls from 1962.

At the level of military and intelligence collaboration one needs to be very careful about realities. ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence agreements correspond to the Anglosphere, but the US, not the UK, as at the centre of the alliance. Apart from South Africa, not usually put in the Anglosphere, the White Dominions stopped buying serious British military equipment in the 1950s – they bought American. Even at the height of the empire, of the Cold War, things were not as imperialists, or pro-Americans would wish. The dream of imperial unity, like the dream of a true Anglo-American special relationship of near equals, proved chimerical.

Putting relations with empire and the USA into a history of British political ideas is an advance over histories which have virtually no abroad at all. But the brute reality is that foreigners usually mattered more than what were called ‘British countries’ and ‘our American cousins’. Very powerful strands of British political opinion – not strongly enough acknowledged in the book – were hostile to a focus on the Empire/Anglosphere. British globalising liberalism – dominant until the 1930s and from the 1950s onwards – was famously indifferent to the nationality of who was traded with.

This strand of British politics, and the extraordinary political economy it rested on, is too little appreciated – even though it is very evident in much Brexiteer thought, for example in Boris Johnson’s ‘Liberal Brexit’. The Brexiteers are often radical free traders who hark back to importing half of the UK’s food, even though they recognise that most came from outside the empire. In strategic terms the great British ally in the first half of the century was not the USA, but France.

Another politics which Brexit might have suggested should be put into the history of British politics is nationalism. Political history books, including this one, are silent on it, with the notable standard exceptions. In this book Powell plays the role of lonely nationalist, but he is forced to become, with I think inadequate evidence, a bearer of Anglospheric ideas. It is indeed curious how reluctant political scientists and historians are to recognize nationalism for itself. It is a very problematic omission which sets up all sorts of false oppositions. So, going into the EEC is seen as a question of giving up food from abroad, and giving up the empire/commonwealth in favour of Europe.

But it was not so – what the UK gave up was not an imperial economy, but a protected national economy, an economy well on to way to becoming self-sufficient in food. It was an economy which was reducing dependence on food from the white dominions, and which raised protectionist barriers against commonwealth textiles. Entry to the EEC was about liberalizing the national economy not protecting it. Interestingly this crucial aspect of Alan Milward’s extraordinary retelling of the history of British entry is not picked up. Furthermore, as Kenny and Pearce note, imperialists could be strongly in favour of the UK entering the Common Market. Anti-marketeers were typically nationalists, and not as the standard story must have it, imperialists.

This is a rich and interesting book, but it would be a great shame if it reinforced the view that some species of imperialism dominated British politics and came back to haunt in the 21st century. British politics was much richer in ideas than this. Imperialism/Anglospheric thought doesn’t help understand the Brexit vote (as the book makes clear) but neither does it really get at Brexiteer thought. What that is remains elusive, as is where it came from. In the meantime we should not pay them the undeserved compliment of taking their ideas too seriously nor indulge their belief that they are the inheritors of a living, essential tradition in the history of British political thought. They are rather like Father Divine – manipulators of clichés, teetering on the edge of absurdity. But unlike a good pastor, they have power without responsibility.

Shadows of Empire by Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce is published by Polity Press.

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