‘A people that idly sips its cognac on the boulevards as it lightly takes a trifling part in the comedie humaine,” Franklin Giddings, professor of sociology at Columbia University, taunted contemptuously in 1900, “can only go down in the struggle for existence with men who have learned that happiness… is the satisfaction that comes only with the tingling of the blood.” The blood that tingled was Anglo-Saxon. “The greatest question of the twentieth century,” Giddings believed, was “whether the Anglo-Saxon or the Slav is to impress his civilisation on the world”.
A century later, it’s not Anglo-Saxon pitted against Slav, but the west against China. Nevertheless, as the fallout from the Aukus deal reveals, something of the contempt for the French still remains, on both sides of the Atlantic, as does the sense of what Giddings called “the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon”, though today many prefer to talk about the “Anglosphere”. France, Tory lord Daniel Hannan suggested, is “not a reliable partner”, so “Anglosphere allies” have taken “responsibility for defending liberty”, demonstrating that “there are still some grown-ups patrolling the playground”.
In recent years, the Anglosphere has become a go-to concept for a certain strand of rightwing Eurosceptics, helping them redefine British identity in the post-Brexit world. For Nigel Farage, Aukus is “the Brexiters’ dream” because “our best friends in the world speak English”.
As a word, “Anglosphere” is relatively new, coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1995 science fiction novel The Diamond Age. As a concept, however, its roots go back to 19th-century notions of Anglo-Saxon racial greatness, cultivated by figures as diverse as American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and English historian JR Seeley. What connects the old Anglo-Saxonism with contemporary ideas of the Anglosphere, advanced by enthusiasts such as Hannan and historian Robert Conquest, is a view of Englishness as a unique culture, the one that “invented freedom”.
It’s a vision that, in its understanding of language, culture and history, ironically draws heavily upon German Romantic philosophy, in particular Johann Gottfried Herder’s notion of the Volksgeist, the spirit of a people carried across history. In every language, Herder wrote, dwells “the entire world of tradition, history, principles of existence: its whole heart and soul”. Hannan similarly argues that the tribes that settled in England in the fifth century brought with them “the germ of… Anglo-Saxon liberties” and ensured “a direct connection between the English language and the distinctive political system of the Anglosphere”.
It’s a story of how liberties have been won that does serious damage to history. The role of the English, and the British, in the development of freedom and equality has been complex and contradictory.
The English philosopher John Locke is seen, not just by Anglosphere advocates, as a founder of liberalism and of notions of tolerance. He was also a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which supplied African slaves to the English colonies. His Two Treatises on Government argued that “all men by nature are equal” while also making a case for the legitimacy of slavery. Locke’s view that Catholics should be denied rights shaped English law for two centuries.
Continental thinkers, meanwhile, especially those within the tradition of the Radical Enlightenment, offered more expansive visions of liberty. The law, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza insisted, unlike Locke, should not restrict beliefs but allow everyone “to think what he wishes and say what he thinks”. French philosopher Denis Diderot was vociferous in his opposition to slavery and colonialism. It was through the French Revolution that the “declaration of the rights of man and the citizen” was enunciated, becoming central to struggles for liberties since.
Neither the British nor the French (nor the Americans) allowed their love of liberty to get in the way of the practice of slavery. It was not Britain, as many claim, which first ended slavery, but a slave insurrection on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791 that not only brought about emancipation but forced the French formally to abolish servitude. The British response? To invade Saint-Domingue in a (failed) attempt to restore slavery and prevent the virus of emancipation from spreading to British colonies. Forty years later, Britain finally passed its own Slavery Abolition Act.
Those who fought for their liberties were treated with brutality by the British. A favourite way of dealing with rebels of the “Indian Mutiny” was to lash them to cannons and blow them up. Lieutenant George Cracklow wrote to his mother that he thought “no more of blowing away half a dozen mutineers before breakfast than I do of eating the same meal”.
This is not to say that British thinkers and movements have not been important in the forging of traditions of liberty. From Thomas Paine to Mary Wollstonecraft, from the suffragettes to the Red Clydesiders, many have fed into those struggles. The story, however, is far more complex than Anglosphere advocates wish to acknowledge. Only by reducing liberty to notions of the “free market”, “small government” and “common law” could the idea of the Anglosphere as the principal fount of liberty be imagined.
Even with this risibly restricted notion of liberty, the argument for a distinct Anglosphere political culture does not stack up. Take the question of free speech, fundamental to any discussion of liberty. British law is (unfortunately) more aligned to European legislation than to America’s First Amendment (which itself draws more on the spirit of Spinoza than of Locke). British welfare and health policies are similarly (thankfully) more akin to those of European nations than of America, the free market doctrines of recent decades notwithstanding. Australia’s Covid policies have hardly been rooted in the defence of liberties. Nor does New Zealand distancing itself from the Five Eyes security policy towards China speak of a common Anglosphere vision.
The irony, as Linda Colley has observed, is that the “cult of superior British liberty has often been deployed to uphold and maintain the political status quo”. Radicals have often called on ancient liberties, real and imagined, to buttress new struggles for freedoms. The authorities, however, have used those same stories “to promote a version of liberty that would be fully compatible with property, hierarchy and law-abiding moderation”. From Peterloo to Orgreave, the laws and traditions celebrated by Anglosphere enthusiasts have often been used to suppress radical dissent. As we wrestle with what Britishness means today, we should be wary of distorted histories of liberties and freedoms being deployed to curtail today’s struggles for liberties and freedoms.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist