“As Prime Minister, I will actively pursue a Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand trade and security pact, including freedom to live, work, and invest in these countries.”
So says Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole on his website — a bold vision, borrowed from a previous century.
“CANZUK,” the working name for this pact, is meant to build on a common language, shared Commonwealth history and liberal democratic values as well as shared strategic outlooks, as O’Toole explained in his interview with iPolitics on February 9. The signals intelligence-sharing network known as the Five Eyes already brings together assets from the CANZUK countries plus the United States, as do several similar networks in defence.
For O’Toole, the institutionalization of CANZUK should begin with new free trade and free movement deals, with Canada’s priority being an agreement with “Brexiting” Britain. Brexit is the necessary context; without the 2016 vote to leave the EU, and Prime Minister Theresa May’s aggressive (some would say desperate) search for new “global” trade deals, there would be much less talk of CANZUK today.
CANZUK enthusiasts are delighted that a Canadian politician has endorsed the idea. Take Andrew Lilico, the British economist who advised Brexit campaigners last year. “The post-Cold-War alliances and assumptions are obsolete,” wrote Lilico earlier this month in The National Post, praising O’Toole’s vision. “CANZUK is the global deal of tomorrow.”
Actually, CANZUK belongs to the past. Essentially the same idea floated over one hundred and twenty years ago across the British empire, under the rubric of “Imperial Preference,” with “free traders” debating “imperial federationists” bent on setting up protective tariffs against outsiders. Aspects of this debate defined Canada’s history; recall the 1894 and 1932 Colonial/Imperial Conferences held in Ottawa, the Laurier-Borden face-off in the election of 1911 or the trade policies of the Diefenbaker era.
In the end, it was decided (wisely) that the system of Imperial Preference should yield to geography.
Most fin de siècle British imperialists were also strong believers in the unity and superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon race.” Winston Churchill was one of them, even if he himself preferred the phrase “English-speaking peoples.” CANZUK brings this history in tow. Although its zone of free movement in theory applies to “anybody English-speaking, whether Celtic or Saxon, pale or brown, from down under or beyond the pond,” the arrangement nevertheless draws a hard and fast line between what used to be called the “old” (i.e., white) Commonwealth and the “new” (i.e., Afro-Asian) Commonwealth.
CANZUK supporters seem to ignore this. “Our citizens enjoy a roughly similar per capita GDP (which is just not true of the other Commonwealth nations with similar constitutions) and face few hurdles in integrating into another CANZUK country’s labour market,” Lilico writes.
The lack of economic, political, and geopolitical cost-benefit analysis is typical of all such proposals. Should the Canadians in Mittimatalik, Nunavut or Mascouche, Quebec be as excited about a CANZUK-wide mobility as those in Mission, British Columbia or Marystown, Newfoundland? (We can probably expect more polling on this soon.)
Looking further afield, would CANZUK weaken Canada’s existing and soon-to-be-existing trade pacts? O’Toole has taken only one into account: “It’s almost making sure that the really enhanced relationship that we have with the US is extended to these other countries, allowing their citizens to be able to travel and work here and return, and Canadians will have that reciprocal ability,” he said in his iPolitics interview.
This supplies further context. All CANZUK supporters are deeply interested in the Anglosphere — a larger community of the English-speaking polities centered on the US. An article published earlier this week in Foreign Affairs, a magazine run by New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, classifies O’Toole’s CANZUK plan as a contribution to “the dream of creating an Anglosphere.” This again has historical parallels with the aforementioned imperial federationists, many of whom campaigned for Anglo-American (re)unification.
Other Conservative leadership candidates have not yet commented on O’Toole’s foreign policy. Lilico’s op-ed claims that the idea is on the rise, but mentions only one other politician in the world who explicitly supports it — David Seymour of the Act New Zealand party (a man who spent five years in Canada with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Centre).
Lilico might be correct, of course. If NAFTA falls apart, future governments of Canada and the US may well decide to revert to the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement, or CUSFTA, that operated between 1989 and 1993, and then proceed to invite the UK into their pact — a scenario Conrad Black explored in 1998.
Ongoing dramatic political upheavals in Britain, the US, and elsewhere offer a constant reminder that neither contemporary policy discourses nor actual government policies are immune to vulgar nostalgia for the colonial past.
The article was first published on iPolitics on 24 February 2017.