August 19, 2020   11 mins

Since losing the empire, Britain has notoriously struggled to find a role on the world stage. Initial attempts to piggyback on the power of our successor as global hegemon, the United States, by acting as a guiding force — a Greece to America’s Rome, in Harold Macmillan’s phrase — faltered due to the total absence of interest ever shown in this arrangement by any American administration.

The subsequent attempt to remould Britain as a European power acting in concert with its continental neighbours through the European Union was an unhappy marriage, and has ended in a rancorous divorce whose final settlement is still to be determined. Adrift on the world stage, we are in need of good ideas.

Instead, we are offered CANZUK, a reheated Edwardian fantasy of a globe-spanning Anglosphere acting as a world power which excites the enthusiasm of a small coterie of neoliberal and neoconservative ideologues, if no one else.

In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, the historian and Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts argued that the CANZUK nations — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK — ought to establish “some form of federation among them” as a “second Anglospheric superpower” combining “free trade, free movement of people, a mutual defense organization and combined military capabilities” , which would “create a new global superpower and ally of the U.S., the great anchor of the Anglosphere”.

One cannot fault Roberts for the grandeur of his vision, even if the details of how this would actually work are left to others to fill in. Instead, we are reassured, this would not be a centralising project like the hated EU; rather,“its program for a loose confederal state linking the Westminster democracies would be clearly enunciated right from the start.” Already, we see the harsh hand of reality ready to crush this initially appealing vision. On the one hand, CANZUK is a globe-spanning superpower ready to be born; on the other, it is merely a loose grouping of separate national governments, which would, like all national governments, act according to their own interests above all. 

By totting up the different GDP figures of the various CANZUK nations, Roberts claims that his proposed Empire 2.0 “would have a combined GDP of more than $6 trillion, placing it behind only the U.S., China and the EU,” while “with a combined defense expenditure of over $100 billion, it would also be able to punch above its weight”.

Yet the flaws of this argument are obvious. As other critics have noted, only a minuscule proportion of the CANZUK nations’ trade is with each other, save New Zealand, an economic satellite of Australia. Australia is a great East Asian trading power, and will remain so. Canada is enmeshed in the greater North American trading sphere, as are we with Europe, whatever Brexiteers may wish. As always, the simple matter of geography trumps the affective bonds between far-flung kith and kin, whatever their emotional appeal. 

As the political scientists Duncan Bell and Srdjan Vucetic note in a 2019 paper on the CANZUK project, sober analysis of the geographic facts underwriting trade patterns reveals “why Australian exports to Britain have for decades hovered below two percent of its total outgoing trade and why only for New Zealand would a CANZUK pact count as ‘the most important’” This, they note, partly “explains why during the Brexit campaign, the leaders of all of the CANZUK countries supported Britain remaining in the EU. They do not see the huge benefits professed by CANZUKers.”

In any case, what good would it do us if Australia sells huge quantities of raw materials to China, or Canada agricultural produce to America, if the UK exchequer doesn’t benefit from it? Would we share the same currency? Would there be a shared tax mechanism to convert this notional $6 trillion GDP into something meaningful? The issue is not even raised, let alone answered.

Yet the example of the EU already shows us the failure of economic union without political union; and of advancing a common foreign policy among nations with different interests. Without an overarching political and economic framework, the goal of uniting separate nations into one coherent geopolitical bloc cannot succeed; and even with one, as long as the interests of the component nations diverge, the long-term chances of success are slim. The only meaningful economic effect of a CANZUK free trade zone, surely, would be to wipe out what remains of British farming under tides of Canadian wheat, Australian beef and New Zealand lamb. 

On the strategic level, the MP Bob Seeley, in a report for the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society thinktank, proposes “a mutual defence clause, akin to NATO’s Article 5”. But on the matter of defence, again the stumbling block is not the individual fellow-feeling and affection shared between the Anglo-Saxon nations but the differing foreign policy goals of CANZUK’s constituent countries. Would Australia send jets to defend the North Sea from Russian incursions? Would avowedly anti-nuclear New Zealand, an essentially pacifist state with barely any armed forces to speak of, demand a place under the UK’s nuclear umbrella, or raise an army to defend Canada’s oil exploration rights in the high Arctic?

As Bell and Vucetic note, “it is illusory to think that an alliance with Britain would ever again become Australia’s main strategic priority, just as it is illusory to expect that Canada and the UK would re-orient their defence postures away from the Atlantic and towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Roberts claims that “Churchill would have approved” the CANZUK scheme, but his previous attempts at viewing foreign policy through a Churchillian lens have not been successful. On the wisdom of invading Iraq, I suspect not even the objects of his adulation would agree with his previous assertions that “history will prove George Bush right”, nor that Tony Blair’s “apotheosis” will come “when Iraq is successfully invaded and hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed from where they have been hidden by Saddam’s henchmen”.

But as a useful thought experiment in this mooted superpower’s foreign policy, what would the CANZUK position on invading Iraq have been anyway? Neither Canada nor New Zealand took part in the war, which they strongly opposed, judging that the invasion was not in their national interests. Perhaps a more useful Churchillian lesson would have been the Chanak Crisis of 1921, when Canada refused to follow Britain into war against Turkey to Churchill’s great disappointment, and which established the principle that the dominions would from then on follow their own independent foreign policies — a principle even more apparent now than it was a century ago. 

More bold claims for a united CANZUK foreign policy have been offered recently by Matt Kilcoyne of the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute, who argues that “common language, common political systems, common history, common sense of purpose, translate into a sheer force of fact re-emergence of a global role that has eluded the mandarins in the Foreign Office for far too long.” Explicitly echoing the civilisation-state rhetoric of China, Russia and Turkey, Kilcoyne claims that the CANZUK nations are themselves a civilisation-state, with that civilisation being globalised capitalism. “Our civilisation needs champions to save it from opponents and challengers abroad, but also nationalists at home,” he asserts (presumably referring to the voters who brought Johnson’s government to power), vowing that “we must defend the gains of globalisation for the whole of the world”. 

This is a vision of Anglo-Saxon civilisation purely reducible to swashbuckling free trade on the high seas previously made only by Napoleon or Oswald Spengler at their most cynical and dismissive, though here represented as a positive trait. Wrapping neoliberal economic goals within a narrative of derring-do and imperial nostalgia derived from Ladybird’s Adventures From History series may make a subset of middle-aged Brexiteers go weak at the knees, but a zealous adherence to free trade dogma does not make a civilisation, even if, as we are rapidly finding out, it may well break one.

If the argument is that doubling down on the economic theories which have done so much to destroy British manufacturing and boost Chinese power at the expense of the West will somehow restrain China’s growth, then it is self-evidently absurd. Having handed the world on a platter to China in pursuit of globalisation, we are now told to deepen globalisation to fight China. Far from an Anglospheric superpower, a CANZUK along these lines would be simply a transcontinental suicide pact.

As for what a united CANZUK foreign policy of confronting China would mean in practice, Kilcoyne cites the fact that “Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom joined the USA in condemning moves to shut down free and fair elections in Hong Kong this autumn”, as indeed they did; and if foreign policy were simply a question of co-signing petulant letters, no doubt CANZUK would indeed be a superpower.

However, foreign policy and grand strategy entails far more than this in the real world, and in the real world, the primary defence relationship of each CANZUK Nation is with the United States, and not with each other, and the primary focus of each nation is its own continental sphere. In defence as with trade, Britain remains a European power, Australia and New Zealand retain their focus on Asia, and Canada on North America and the Arctic: and these basic orientations will not change, whatever the dreams of a certain subset of Westminster thinktankers. 

A more limited argument in favour of enhanced cooperation among the CANZUK nations could reasonably be made — indeed, it is a common approach of the cheerleaders to elide support for their more realistic goals with that for their grander geostrategic fantasies.

Liberalisation of visa regulations among the CANZUK nations would no doubt be broadly popular; similarly, a more realistic proposal for diplomatic cooperation on the world stage between Britain, Canada and Australia has been put forward by the journalist Ben Judah. He correctly notes that New Zealand’s foreign policy does not chime with the others, as “Wellington is simply not in the same place as Ottawa, Canberra, or London when it comes to China”, and “New Zealand sees itself as neutral in U.S.-China competition”. Cooperation could well be considered on shared defence procurement issues, though again, Australia, the UK and Canada expect to fight wars in very different environments for very different goals, so even here a degree of scepticism must enter the conversation. 

Given the vast disparity between the economic and foreign policy realities and the grand claims of the CANZUK enthusiasts, what are we to make of this sudden reflorescence of ideas first proposed, and then swiftly abandoned as unrealistic, at the height of Britain’s Edwardian golden age? The historians  Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce note in Shadows of Empire, their recent book on the Anglosphere, that “it is advocates of a free market, neo-liberal future for the UK who remain its most enthusiastic champions”, and that as the UK’s attachment to Europe soured, “the gravitational pull of the Anglosphere on the political imagination of neo-liberal Eurosceptics intensified”. 

“Politicians, commentators and think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute, which had long-established transatlantic ties with Washington counterparts such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, began to publish pamphlets, speeches and blogs making the case for Brexit,” they note, which “reimagined Britain as a freewheeling, globally networked economy, striking trade deals with the USA, Canada and an expanded Asian and Australasian Anglosphere.”

Despite the overlap of personnel between these neoliberal ideologues and the Leave campaign, the campaign to exit the European Union consciously chose not to stand on a platform of Anglospheric neoliberalism. It correctly perceived that few in the Leave vote’s core areas share Kilcoyne’s perception of globalisation in which “the empirics of a world made richer, with more choice, happier, freer, more tolerant people, engaged in commerce with others right across the world would be obvious to all”. Who in the Red Wall clamours to keep the South China Sea safe for globalisation? Where is the popular demand to rework Britain’s constitutional order around neoliberal economics? This is, after all, precisely the worldview most Brexit voters were casting a defiant vote against. 

As Pearce and Kenny note, “a neo-Thatcherite idea of Brexit, which involves stripping away tariff barriers, reducing labour market and product regulations, and trading at ‘world prices’ remains a potentially toxic position to present to a public weary of austerity, facing years of declining living standards, and increasingly jaded in the face of the economic liberalism associated with the last few decades of government.” Aware of the absolute unpopularity of their ideology with British voters, neoliberals have tweaked their offering by dressing it up in dashing Edwardian garb.

There is a danger that Johnson, with his fatal weakness for bombastic and absurd ideas, will hear the siren song of Westminster’s new Empire League; but this will be counterbalanced by his just as powerful ambition to remain in power, shoring up his fragile electoral coalition by giving his new working-class voters what they want, and not what neoliberal thinktankers demand they must suffer. This scheme is literally the work of an elite, and not a popular one. Everything about the EU that Red Wall voters hated, this would multiply.  

In any case, is there any meaningful support for CANZUK in its other mooted constituent nations? The CANZUK blogosphere asserts so, but — as is a recurring pattern here — this very much depends on which shifting definition is used. Certainly, a number of right-wing current and former politicians in Canada, New Zealand and Australia support a free trade agreement among the CANZUK nations, along with some form of free movement between them. Support for free movement, free trade and an undefined “security coordination” among the CANZUK nations is now a policy platform of Canada’s opposition Conservative party, but this is far from the federal superpower of Roberts’ imagining. 

CANZUK evangelists cite the Australian senator Eric Abetz as a supporter, but his explicit insistence that “this would absolutely not be a political union”, and that “I wouldn’t want a CANZUK Human Rights court which would determine what Australia or New Zealand parliaments can legislate”, again shows the limitations of the idea’s appeal even to its own supporters.

New Zealand’s leader, Jacinda Ardern, has expressed no interest in the idea whatsoever, though her coalition partner in the rightwing populist New Zealand First party supports free trade and movement, as does the leader of New Zealand’s opposition New Zealand National party, though again both are silent on the wider strategic aspirations of CANZUK’s true believers.

Similarly, Australia’s former leader Tony Abbott has expressed support for free trade and free movement among the CANZUK nations, and again, is silent on the wider geopolitical aspects. Support for the idea even in its most nebulous form is hardly unanimous among the ranks of Australia’s former prime ministers. Kevin Rudd, writing for The Guardian, has described CANZUK as “utter bollocks” and “the nuttiest of the many nutty arguments that have emerged from the Land of Hope and Glory set now masquerading as the authentic standard-bearers of British patriotism”. 

The issue here is, as the political scientists Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale note, that “in eschewing the type of institutional set-up that characterizes the EU, the success of the Anglosphere appears to rest on the existence of a constellation of like-minded politicians in English-speaking countries”. As long as the Antipodean and Canadian equivalents of Daniel Hannan or the other neoconservative and neoliberal occupants of the wilder fringes of British conservatism are in power, then the idea may seem viable, “but such alignments are ephemeral”.

A loose alliance dependent on the vagaries of four different electoral cycles for its very existence is clearly not a stable prospect. In any case, as Pearce and Kenny observe, generally speaking “the other core countries of the Anglosphere 
 remain indifferent to — or simply perplexed by — calls for some kind of formalised Anglosphere alliance.”  

Much of what is achievable is harmless, and may even bring a modest good; that which is actively dangerous is fortunately unlikely to be achievable. As a proposal to amplify Britain’s diplomatic reach, it is worth considering, though in any case it is Australia and Canada who have more to gain from sharing our UN seat than we do.

Easier movement between the CANZUK nations may well be popular, though the significantly differing immigration policies of Canada, New Zealand and Australia would present a barrier, whatever the strength of fellow feeling between the mother country and the dwindling proportion of the former colonies’ citizens who claim descent from these islands. How long the residual emotional pull of Britain’s political and cultural inheritance will survive the changing demographics of the former dominions is an open question. 

Eager to shy away from accusations of racial discrimination in choosing Britian’s former white colonies for political union over the rest of the Commonwealth, CANZUK’s adherents seem to advance the notion that the people of Australia, Canada and New Zealand are, whatever their origin, somehow metaphysically British, like those of Hong Kong, due to their adherence to Westminster-style governance and free trade dogma. But this is a shaky foundation on which to build a political union. Indeed, the very survival of the United Kingdom itself as a single political unit is looking shakier than it has at any time since its founding, and CANZUK’s evangelists would do better to worry about the continued existence of their own country before planning unions with other nations on the furthest corners of the globe. 

But it is as a Trojan horse to smuggle in failed and wildly unpopular economic belief-systems under the banner of imperial nostalgia that CANZUK’s neoliberal fantasies will have to be rejected. That these wild dreams are even entertained by MPs of the governing party only highlights the irreconcilable tensions within the Brexit vote, and the fragility of the Conservative Party’s hold on power.

They are useful only to show how far Whiggish fantasies have penetrated into British conservatism; and how bereft the ideologues are, perhaps fortunately for the national good, of meaningful or achievable ideas. Perhaps it is for the best that they are distracted by such a fanciful project, as long as it prevents them from doing more damage to this country than their harmful economic dogma has already achieved.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.