Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce argue that the Anglosphere idea is politically implausible but ideologically potent.

Although much of the EU referendum debate is likely to focus on bread-and-butter questions about jobs and living standards, and the extent to which the prime minister’s reform package addresses public concerns about immigration and democratic control over EU institutions, bigger questions about Britain’s identity and place in the world loom large too.

In the last couple of decades, eurosceptics have developed the idea that Britain’s future lies not with the union of European states but with a group of ‘Anglosphere’ countries, at the core of which are the ‘five eyes’ countries (so-called because of their cooperation on intelligence) of the UK, United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We five, it is argued, share a common history, language and political culture: liberal, protestant, free market, democratic and English-speaking.

The idea gained ground among conservatives in their New Labour wilderness years, and it was given further oxygen by the neo-conservative ‘coalition of the willing’ stitched together for the invasion of Iraq, which seemed to demonstrate the Anglosphere’s potency as an geopolitical organising principle. By the time of the 2010 election, the word ‘Anglosphere’ had become common currency in conservative circles, name-checked by leading centre-right thinkers like David Willetts, as well as Eurosceptic luminaries like Dan Hannan MEP, who devoted a book and numerous blogs to the subject.

As foreign secretary, William Hague sought to strengthen ties between the Anglosphere countries, despite the indifference shown by the Obama presidency to the idea. After leaving the cabinet, leading Eurosceptic Owen Patterson gave a lengthy speech in the US on the subject of an Anglospheric global alliance for free trade and security. He could expect a sympathetic hearing in Republican circles at least, if not the White House. In its 2015 election manifesto, Ukip praised the Anglosphere as a ‘global community’ of which the UK was a key part. More recently, David Davis has pointed to the Anglosphere as the terrain for a new ‘global project’. After Brexit, he has argued, the UK should become more like Canada, not Norway or Switzerland.

Economic stagnation in the eurozone has given a superficial gloss to claims that the UK would do better to expand its trade with the Commonwealth than to remain inside the EU. For the free-market right, adding former British colonies and city-states in Asia to the Anglosphere has a further appeal: the fast-growing Asian economies appear to mirror the neo-liberal Anglo-Saxon ones, unencumbered by large welfare states, strong trade unions or high taxes. Reunited with the Anglosphere and trading with Asia, the story goes, Britannia would be simultaneously unchained from Europe and social democracy.

These geopolitical and economic claims are met with derision in centrist political circles. For international relations realists, the idea of an Anglosphere alliance barely merits a straight face, let alone serious consideration. And it is unquestionable that the US and Canada, let alone India, would view a geopolitical alliance of English speakers as an alternative to existing global structures as fanciful; indeed, they are more inclined to question why the UK should entertain leaving the EU at all.

But the Anglosphere’s potency is ideological, not geopolitical. It functions as an imaginary horizon for a Eurosceptic worldview of Britain after Brexit, uniting the UK with a global trading future as well as a sceptered isle past. It registers nostalgia but also energy: Britain would be liberated to march on the world stage again, freed from sclerotic, conformist Europe and reanimated by the animal spirits that once gave it an empire. Thus the Anglosphere myth shields the Eurosceptic flank where it is most vulnerable, by rebutting the charge that it wants to take Britain back to the 1950s, by delving even deeper into our island story and casting it forward into the 21st century. For the Carswell and Cummings factions in the Brexit camp, it helps to furnish precisely the optimistic, expansive account of Britain’s economic future they believe stands the only chance of winning the referendum.

This should give pro-Europeans pause for thought. The ‘Remain’ campaign is currently premised largely on the risks of Brexit (or ‘Project Fear’ as it is known to its detractors). It needs an optimistic account of Britain’s future in the world, one which passes through the European Union, not past it. Yet globalisation currently gets a bad press, and in the face of insecurity and inequality, a New Labour-style formula of ‘globalisation plus good schools’ doesn’t cut much ice with working-class voters. Developing its own version of Britain’s identity and role in the world, beyond the fact of EU membership alone, is therefore a pressing task.

This is an edited extract from a full-length article that will appear in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.