Backwards, March! Brexit, CANZUK, and the Legacy of Empire

By Duncan Bell and Srdjan Vucetic

It was coined in the 1950s, but the term CANZUK — a union (or alliance or pact) of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom — has been repurposed in the wake of the Brexit vote. Rallying behind it is a small but well-connected network of pro-Brexit politicians, policy-makers, journalists, and business leaders, who argue that since these countries already have so much in common, a globe-spanning zone of free movement of goods, services, and labour is a viable proposition. Some of them argue that further integration, with a new defence pact and even a transcontinental (con)federal polity, is both feasible and desirable.

This CANZUK argument deserves our attention. Together with developments such as the US retreat into unilateralism and the rise of the nativist right, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is spawning new political possibilities and reconfiguring our geopolitical imaginaries. Yet, rather than “something completely new,” as its advocates argue, CANZUK is in fact remarkably old. Its conceptual roots, and many of its animating concerns and ideas, emerged during the imperial debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its revival reveals much about the character of policy thinking among conservatives within the so-called English-speaking world today.

A new union?

CANZUK supporters have already developed a loose transnational advocacy network, establishing grassroots campaigning organizations, publishing policy documents, creating social media platforms, and recruiting prominent intellectual entrepreneurs to proselytize the idea. American entrepreneur James Bennett was the first to (re)deploy the term. In a USA Today op-ed published hours after the Brexit vote in 2016, he called CANZUK “the kind of partner America had always hoped the EU would be but which never showed up in reality.”

In the UK, two Brexiteers made the same argument around the same time: Andrew Lilico, a Tory think-tanker and economist, who served as an advisor to the Leave campaign, and the historian and journalist Andrew Roberts, who has touted “a CANZUK Union” as “one of the global great powers” and a “pillar of Western civilisation.” The idea has since piqued interest among several politicians and think tankers, including Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan (a well-known Brexit campaigner) and Tim Hewish, who in 2015 oversaw the merger of his conservative Eurosceptic outfit Commonwealth Exchange with the venerable Royal Commonwealth Society.

Outside the UK, the quirky Act New Zealand Party endorsed CANZUK early, as did a handful of Australian politicians. The strongest endorsement yet has come from the Conservative Party of Canada. Last August, its policy wonks adopted a resolution for realizing the following objectives “among CANZUK countries”:

  1. Free trade in goods/services
  2. Visa-free labour/leisure mobility for citizens, including retirement relocation
  3. A reciprocal healthcare agreement modelled on existing AU/NZ/UK bilaterals
  4. Increased consumer choice/protection for travel
  5. Security coordination

(The party leader, Andrew Scheer, just happens to be an admirer of Hannan and a supporter of Brexit.) So, in contrast to the more overarching idea of “the Anglosphere” that Bennett and others popularized in the early 2000s, CANZUK appears to be of interest to at least some politicians, and not just the usual range of Anglophone neoliberal think tanks and news media outlets.

Old wine in new bottles

In an article forthcoming in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, we place the emergence of CANZUK as a political category in historical context, highlighting the connection between plans for uniting English-speaking polities and late 19th century debates over settler colonialism. During the 1880s and 1890s in particular plans to consolidate the settler empire assumed a central position in British political argument (and a much more limited one in the settler colonies).

Many leading thinkers, politicians, journalists, and imperial administrators, obsessed over how best to organize “Greater Britain.” The idea of an “imperial federation” encompassed adherents to a broad spectrum of positions, some complementary, others contradictory, but with a common focus on recalibrating relations between Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Like their heirs today, advocates of imperial federation indulged in techno-utopian fantasies, premising their arguments on the ability of technological change to fundamentally transform the meaning of political identities and the nature, scope, and scale of institutions.

Other British imperial territories were ignored, although it was occasionally suggested that at some unspecified future date, they might warrant inclusion, once they had reached the requisite level of “civilization.” The discourse of imperial federation reinforced the dominant racialized conception of empire, insisting on the distinctiveness and superiority of the “core” white settler colonies.

It formed part of a concerted transnational effort to secure and stabilize “white” rule globally, the chief practical manifestation of which was the erection of racialized immigration controls in the United States and British settler colonies. Though plans for formal colonial union fell flat, they nevertheless succeeded in shifting elite British attitudes about the significance of the settler colonies. This remained a prominent feature of British political debate throughout much of the 20th century, as Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce have recently shown.

Seen from this perspective, while the vocabulary of “kith and kin” unificationism evolved over time, from “the Anglo-Saxon race” to the “English-speaking peoples” to the “Anglosphere,” most of the basic ideas have not. We think it essential to acknowledge this historical trajectory for two reasons. First, such recognition helps us situate CANZUK in the history of British political ideology, highlighting its notable precursors and its evolution. Dreams of settler colonial unity, whether Victorian or contemporary, reveal much about the ideological practices of the British political elite.

Second, this history also helps explain the idea’s magnetic appeal to some — and fierce rejection by others. In particular, it explains why so many critics see CANZUK as a problematic reincarnation of the old “white” colonial world. CANZUKers, unsurprisingly, are keen to insist that their project has a very different foundation. Although the imperial origins of the idea do not determine its meaning today, they do condition it, shaping the reception of CANZUK projects.

Proponents of CANZUK cannot escape this troubling past, however hard they might try. To imagine otherwise is politically myopic.

Duncan Bell is a Reader in Political Thought and International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.

Srdjan Vucetic is an Associate Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Their research is part of the CIPS-supported “Global Right” project. This blog is co-published with the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Brexit Blog.

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