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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > Empire of the tongue

Empire of the tongue

Having cut Britain adrift of Europe, Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy about a new national role in the world—as the hub of a far-flung Anglosphere

Duncan Bell is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Studies and a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge

Theresa May’s government is frantically trying to square all sorts of circles, but it cannot conceal the abject confusion about post-Brexit Britain’s place in the world. Can it act alone on a crowded stage? How can it compete against giants like the European Union, the United States, or China? Should it even try?

Many of the leading Brexiteers have proposed a simple answer to these questions: the Anglosphere. Britain, they suggest, should reanimate its long-standing relationship with its “natural” allies—principally Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. In championing this far-flung union, the Brexiteers draw— sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—on a strand of thought that stretches back to the Victorian age. Like so much else about the current moment—from the planned restoration of grammar schools to cries for relaunching the Royal Yacht Britannia— the past serves as inspiration and guide. We are invited to march back to the future.

On a chilly Tuesday in December 1999, Margaret Thatcher rose to deliver a speech in New York. Her hosts were the English- Speaking Union (ESU), founded in 1918 to promote co-operation between the “English-speaking peoples.” The English-speaking world, she proclaimed, had a providential task to fulfil. “We take seriously the sanctity of the individual; we share a common tradition of religious toleration; we are committed to democracy and representative government; and we are resolved to uphold and spread the rule of law.” Citing John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Thomas Jefferson, she recommended an alliance that would “redefine the political landscape” and transform “backward areas [by] creating the conditions for a genuine world community.” A new civilising mission beckoned.

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In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.