June 22, 2016
In recent years, three of the biggest proponents of closer ties between Britain and the Commonwealth have been from the right side of politics – Boris Johnson, UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Conservative MEP Dan Hannan. Since the announcement of the ‘Brexit’ referendum, all three have also come out in favour of a vote for Britain to leave the European Union (EU). With this, Johnson, Farage and Hannan have suggested that if Britain left the EU, closer economic and political ties could be formed with the developed nations of the Commonwealth – namely Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, possibly, South Africa. This has chimed with support from politicians in these countries, such as New Zealand PM John Key, who has pushed for relaxed immigration restrictions between these Commonwealth countries. It also seems to have chimed with respondents to a recent poll in The Daily Express.
Johnson and the others have tapped into a long held argument by sections of the Tory right and the far right that Britain should break from its agreements with Europe and turn towards the Commonwealth. Looking back at the last referendum concerning Britain’s membership within the European Economic Community (EEC), Enoch Powell, the right-wing Tory group the Monday Club and the National Front all campaigned that Britain would be better served by abandoning Europe and reconnecting with the ‘white Commonwealth’. This included closer ties with apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, which had both left the Commonwealth in the 1960s in protest to pressure from other Commonwealth countries to dismantle the official racist political structures in both countries.
These sentiments can be traced back into the 1950s, when the idea of closer ties with Europe were floated by the Conservatives, the League of Empire Loyalists (founded by former British Union of Fascists’ propaganda chief A.K. Chesterton) called for an end to this engagement with Britain’s former enemies and to revitalise the British Empire, in the throes of decolonisation at this point. Britain, according to the LEL, were reliant on the goods and markets provided by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. These countries had loyally stood by Britain during both World Wars and even in the period of decolonisation, remained close to Britain financially, politically and strategically.
Although both Ireland and India were also given dominion status, these former settler colonies formed an alternative (and nostalgic) network of Anglophone nations to the newly rearranged post-war Europe. Despite its relatively recent unspoken status, the dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia offered Britain the safe and familiar ‘white man’s world’ that, crucially, shared the so-called ‘British culture and values’, that had existed since the late Victorian era.
In fact, these arguments go back much further than the twentieth century, and echo a Liberal politician’s solution to fears of the decline of Britain in the 1870s. Charles Dilke’s Greater Britain argued that Britain should bring its white colonies together, alongside a growing power in the USA, in order to counter the growing European power of Germany, and the Zollverein Customs Union. He advocated this idea based on the shared culture of these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ peoples. The ideas of the Brexiteers is eerily similar here. This ‘British world’ is juxtaposed with the ‘unelected and unaccountable’ Europeans, who, by definition, cannot share British values. In this facet it goes back to the 18th century creation of ‘Britishness’, which was constantly compared favourably to Europeans (particularly the French) whose characteristics represented the polar opposite to the supposed values of the Briton. In coming out for Brexit in the Sunday Times, Ian Botham exemplified this trend perfectly, talking of ‘our natural friends’ in the Commonwealth, whilst suggesting that the European project was riddled with ‘waste and corruption’.
This lack of trust in those without ‘British culture and values’ means the Tory right (and the extra-parliamentary far right) had long believed that Britain’s prosperity and security lay with these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nations, rather than in Europe, but had been unable to prevent the entry of Britain into the EEC in 1973. For those on the right, a possible Brexit offers the opportunity to revitalise these imperial networks in a post-imperial era, based on ideas of Anglo Saxon fraternity and values espoused centuries ago. The idea, which never reached fruition in the nineteenth century, has largely been seen as overly romantic and, at best, misguided, by historians such as Duncan Bell, and its reappearance suggests an active misunderstanding of Britain’s place in the world.
About The Author
Steven Gray is currently Lecturer in the History of the Royal Navy at the University of Portsmouth. His research focuses on British imperial, maritime, transnational, global and transoceanic history. He is particularly interested in the material infrastructures of global networks, and how these facilitated the mobility of goods, people, militaries and empires. He is a member of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures research group, where he regularly blogs, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). Email: Steven.Gray@port.ac.uk
History and Policy