The CANZUK flags fly outside Parliament Square in London (photo: Alamy)
Artillery Row

Can the Anglosphere be saved?

CANZUK is a better idea than British advocates have yet articulated

Last month, a few Britons reignited a debate about the Anglosphere, but the debate hasn’t been pretty. At best, the argumentation has been amateurish, at worst, plain nasty. This is embarrassing because the debate is more mature in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where mainstream parties have already adopted a policy for free trade and movement between each other and Britain (CANZUK).

In 2018, a non-partisan lobbyist (based in Canada) reported that 82 percent of New Zealanders, 76 percent of Canadians, 73 percent of Australians, and 68 percent of Britons support the idea. The Conservative Party of Canada adopted the idea as policy in August 2018, almost unanimously, although the Party remains out of government. New Zealand opposition parties have done the same.

Even earlier, Tony Abbott, Australia’s former Liberal Prime Minister (2013-2015), wished for Britain to escape the EU for CANZUK. Late last month, the British government proposed Abbott as an adviser to a new Board of Trade. Another Australian Liberal (Senator James Paterson) published, through London’s Adam Smith Institute, a proposal for free trade and movement between Australia and Britain. In the following week, Britain’s International Trade Secretary (Liz Truss) revealed her ambition to agree free trade and movement with Australia.

CANZUK does not need to stop at trade and migration. Some have suggested that it could develop a space agency, in lieu of the EU’s politicized alternative and America’s commercial offerings. The CANZUK countries could develop further security cooperation, which in some domains is already as tight as it gets (they make up four of the “Five Eyes,” the intelligence sharing arrangement).

China is the threat against which the CANZUK countries are already balancing. In June, the British government caught up when it stopped kowtowing to China’s price dumping, economic bundling of Huawei’s espionage, lies on Covid-19, repression in Hong Kong, and intimidation of neighbours. In July, the British government publicised an idea to base an aircraft carrier in Asia, and accepted the inevitable fury from China’s ambassador.

However, the MOD has yet to put its money where its mouth is. The British government has engaged but not pivoted towards its former Dominions. For now, Boris Johnson’s administration is stuck in domestic ideological disputes and U-turns (Covid lockdowns, furloughs, Brexit negotiations, exam grades, school closures).

The clearest advocacy of CANZUK from within the Conservative Party was published in February 2019 by backbencher Bob Seely and a co-author from the Henry Jackson Society. Their ambition for CANZUK went all the way through free trade and movement to freedom of thought, academic exchanges, space collaboration, “integrated diplomacy,” a mutual defence pact, a naval fleet in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and collaborative naval acquisitions.

Boris Johnson, then a backbencher, wrote a foreword that summarised rather than endorsed the content. Johnson did not refer to CANZUK, but noted “some creative thinking about improving our already strong relations with the Anglosphere.” As Prime Minister, Johnson has declared no policy on either CANZUK or the Anglosphere, although his ministers are always talking up the chances of free trade with the former Dominions.

Unfortunately, more recent British advocates of the Anglosphere have not improved the discourse, although nor have their critics. For the record, I have no skin in this game, except a desire to see more erudite discussion of international relations. I don’t know any of these people, and I have not asked them to explain themselves.

Standardisation of a legal system across four countries would be overly ambitious

The easiest British advocate to introduce is Matt Kilcoyne, Head of Communications for the Adam Smith Institute. Writing for Conservative Home, Kilcoyne offers free movement within CANZUK as the way to keep Scotland in the British union. He offers also “a global alliance of modern, diverse, liberal, English-speaking democracies united by common cause, a shared head of state, institutions, businesses, academia, legal systems, and of course all-important family links.” Unfortunately, Kilcoyne doesn’t specify any of these things. Without his help, clauses such as “common cause” sound wishful. Similarly, his reduction of the incentives to “a love for freedom” seems idealistic. He does not source any of his offerings.

Conservative Home’s editor subsequently helped by effectively declaring an editorial position: “If by CANZUK you mean new trade deals, four of the five eyes, and stronger cultural links with some of what Churchill called ‘the English-speaking peoples’, we’re all for it. If by CANZUK you mean free movement, a NATO-type defence union, and a single Joe Chamberlain-style economic bloc, our advice is to lie down until the feeling goes away.”

Implicitly, ConHome is dismissing the historian Andrew Roberts, who, a few weeks earlier, had proposed a “CANZUK union … on the way to a fully functioning Anglosphere.” Roberts writes of “some form of federation among them, with free trade, free movement of people, a mutual defence organization, and combined military capabilities.” Roberts writes also of “a loose confederal state,” but that’s an oxymoron. Sometimes Roberts writes of “a new global superpower and ally of the US,” but the countries of CANZUK are already allies of the US.

Advocates of CANZUK would be better off avoiding selective history

At times, Roberts is more interested in US interests. He chose to publish his proposal through an American newspaper, and often seems to be selling it to US officials, such as his statement that “the CANZUK Union would … as a superpower … stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US [against] China” and “would be a fine neighbour and trading and defence partner for the US.” But the US doesn’t need a new superpower, it just needs its current allies to step up. And US self-interest is not a good argument for what other countries should do.

Roberts writes as if cultural ties are sufficient for structural integration, but if culture were sufficient, the EU would be stable just because its members are European. One level of identity belies differences at other levels, even before the differences are exacerbated by structural changes (laws, regulations, treaties, institutions, migration).

Roberts lists a lot of things already in “common,” but most of these are cultural. Meanwhile, his structural claims are inaccurate. He lists “not just a common majority language but a common legal system, a common parliamentary and political tradition, a common military structure and tradition, and a common head of state in Queen Elizabeth II.” Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute seconded Roberts with “common language, common political systems, common history, common sense of purpose.”

The structural claims are jarringly inaccurate. Roberts included “a common legal system,” but not even the EU’s member states have a common legal system (they have national systems, subject to supernational laws and regulations). He would be better off talking about a common legal tradition (i.e., English common law or case law, in contrast to the civil law or statutory law that is dominant globally, thanks to Roman, French, and Spanish export).

As it happens, while Roberts is correct that any common tradition helps countries to align, the English legal tradition is most difficult to align. For instance, English courts would need to consider decisions in New Zealand courts. The English tradition is more practical and flexible and will be more so post-Brexit. From 2021, English courts will be again to adjust locally rather than conform to statutes that were written mostly for the benefit of Germans and French.

On the other hand, flexibility leads to unreliability. The elite’s reaction to Brexit illustrates how differently legislators and judges can interpret the law. The triumph of a new Parliament (after the general election of December 2019), and the chronic need for more accountability, suggest that Britain’s legal system is heading for more statutory authority. This contest between case and statutory law is unresolved in Britain. The other countries in CANZUK have their own unique tensions. Australia, for instance, like the US, has different federal and state laws. Standardisation of a legal system across four countries would be overly ambitious.

Roberts has no argument for why CANZUK should standardise the same case law. In any case, a common legal system is not necessary to union. Aligning tariffs, for instance, can be achieved by treaty without aligning laws (except so far as the treaty counts as a law).

Roberts makes a similarly jarring claim that CANZUK countries have “a common military structure.” Canada and Britain are integrated in the NATO command structure, but they remain sovereign states, with their own national structures. They boast high interoperability thanks to NATO standardisation of such things as gun calibres, but interoperability is not the same as commonality (their armies don’t acquire the same ammunition or guns). Australia and New Zealand are not within NATO, although liaisons and rotations are regular.

To get to a CANZUK, the British elite’s sticky biases towards the EU and China need to be overcome

Roberts relies on history to justify the incentives towards CANZUK, but his history is selective. He is correct that shared language, traditions, and military operations has helped the CANZUK countries to cooperate, but he doesn’t admit their uncommon experiences. He anchors their “military collaboration” between the fall of Britain’s continental allies in June 1940 and Germany’s turn against the Soviet Union in July 1941, but that’s 80 years ago. Roberts doesn’t admit that while Canada quickly sent forces to Europe, Australia deployed forces in only the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific and consolidated in the Pacific after disappointments with British command in the Middle East. New Zealand kept a division fighting through North Africa into Italy but joined the others in turning to the US for post-war security.

Advocates of CANZUK would be better off avoiding selective history and emphasising current interests. Moreover, they need to move on from cultural interests, which are necessary but insufficient for union. Advocates should emphasise the material interests. They also need to finesse the inevitable trade-offs in any union.

Advocates foresee the material benefits of free trade and movement, although, as the EU and NAFTA prove, popular self-interests are often sacrificed for elite self-interests. An emphasis on economic and social freedoms, without the EU’s political agendas, would mitigate elite biases. Also, shared security interests would drive bottom-up unity, in contrast to the EU’s top-down impositions. Finally, the rising threat of China is already stimulating Western unity, just as the Soviet threat once stimulated European economic cooperation. In the long run, the difficulty is to avoid elite hijacking of economic cooperation into political authoritarianism.

To get to a CANZUK, without repeating the Europhile’s and Sinophile’s mistakes, the British elite’s sticky biases towards the EU and China need to be overcome first.

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