A couple of weeks ago at my blog, A Bit More Detail, I linked to an interesting article about the legacies of the First World War and the thin ties of the Commonwealth at The Conversation. There, James McConnel and Peter Stanley describe how a British-Australian dispute over commemorating a battle of the First World War, the Battle of Fromelles, brings our contemporary nationalisms into conflict with the imperial-era reality of a much closer and more complex British-Australian relationship of a century ago. There was no clear division between Briton and Australian.
Awareness of the historical context of the battle has clearly informed some British coverage of the decision by the Australian Department for Veterans Affairs to invite only the families of Australians to the memorial ceremony this year. Coverage in the UK has suggested that “banning” the relatives of the 1,547 British casualties of Fromelles, exclusively focuses on the Australian soldiers lost in light of the smaller, but still significant, British casualties.
In response, an Australian spokesman noted in The Times (paywall) that Britain’s own Somme commemoration of July 1 2016 will only be open to British citizens. It’s clear the war’s centenary is being shaped by modern national and state agendas.
But there is an anachronism at the very heart of this spat because – as the military historian Andrew Robertshaw said: “A surprisingly high proportion of the Australian Imperial Force were not actually born in Australia.”
Many of the Australian volunteers, the authors go on to explain, were themselves recent migrants from the United Kingdom, still feeling many loyalties to the country of their birth. At a time when the nationhood of Australia--arguably, like that of the other settler colonies of the British Empire--was far from established and issues of citizenship and identity were uncontestedly unsettled.
Among the names included under the headline “Australian casualties” in The (Melbourne) Argus of August 22 1916 was that of Private Charles Herbert Minter. He was just one of 5,513 soldiers of the AIF who had been killed, wounded, or captured during the bloody attack on Fromelles of July 1916.
Minter was born in Dover, in the English county of Kent, in 1888. He arrived in Australia in October 1910 at the age of 22 and enlisted less than five years later in the Australian Imperial Force in July 1915. In doing so, he was typical of many of the so-called “new chums” (as recent arrivals from Britain were colloquially called). One estimate suggests that 27% of the first AIF contingent were British born, with estimates for the war as a whole varying between 18% and 23%.
Australia was hardly unusual among the Dominions in this respect – 26% of the first contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were British born, while 64% of the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been born in Britain. As one of these men commented years afterwards: “I felt I had to go back to England. I was an Englishman, and I thought they might need me.”
That Minter’s British descendants (his “sorrowing sister” posted a death notice in tribute to her “dear brother” in the Dover Express in August 1916) would not technically be eligible to attend the Fromelles commemoration highlights the way that the multi-layered identities of these British-born “diggers” (and “Kiwis”, and “Canucks”) have been rendered one-dimensional in the century since the guns fell silent.
My own personal background, and that of my native province of Prince Edward Island, is not nearly as closely tied to the United Kingdom. The last of my ancestors arrived on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean from Europe in the 1850s. The legacies of the British Empire, of the blood shared in common ancestry and spilled in wars, are still ubiquitous. Never mind the matter of ancestry, of Canada's domination by descendants of migrants from the British Isles, never mind even the great cenotaphs to the dead in the world wars. In Charlottetown, just around the corner from the provincial legislature and in front of the courts, stands a monument to the now forgotten Boer War battle of Paardeberg, waged in 1900. Only after I took a photo of this monument in 2008 did I learn about this battle, once so important to Prince Edward Islanders as to deserve a prominent memorial.
It's still up in 2014.
The British Empire was a reality. It is no longer. In the case of Canada, the repatriation of the Canadian constitution that was completed in 1982 definitely established Canada as a state fully independent from the United Kingdom. All of the other erstwhile colonies, whether destinations for British migrants or not, have gone through similar processes. The Commonwealth of Nations has some meaning, particularly inasmuch as our head of state is shared with more than a dozen other countries and as the organization that gives its name to a sporting event of some note, but that's it.
There are some who would like to change this, who would like to establish unfettered freedom of movement between at least some of the Commonwealth realms. In recent years, it has been the subject of some discussion, talked about in March 2015 at Marginal Revolution, and reported by Yahoo in November 2014.
Canadians who want to live or travel in the United Kingdom could be granted the ability to do so without the current shackles of visa requirements and limitations, should the British parliament heed the call of a British think-tank.
That call involves urging for the creation of a vast “bilateral mobility zone” that would give citizens of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada the ability to travel freely, without the need for work or travel visas, between those Commonwealth nations.
"We want to add distinct value to Commonwealth citizenship for those who wish to visit, work or study in the U.K.," reads the report released by the Commonwealth Exchange. "The Commonwealth matters to the U.K. because it represents not just the nation’s past but also its legacy in the present, and its expanded potential in the U.K.’s future."
The idea of easier mobility between Canada and some of its closest Commonwealth allies would be an exciting concept. There are currently 90,000 Canadian-born residents of the U.K., and another 34,000 living in Australia and New Zealand.
The Commonwealth Exchange report takes on the larger question of the U.K.’s place on the international stage, noting that while the economies of European Union members are struggling, the Commonwealth nations such as Australia and India are booming. Despite this, its connection to those countries is weakening.
This is an unlikely outcome. As the CBC noted in its reportage, there just is too much that is vague about the proposal, and from the Canadian perspective not enough to gain.
“I think it’s an intriguing proposal, but I think chances are it will be some years in the making if it’s ever to be realized,” said Emily Gilbert, an associate professor who teaches Canadian studies and geography at the University of Toronto.
“So I don’t know where the political will would be coming from to get this going.”
Gilbert said allowing greater mobility is a worthy goal, but much depends on the specifics of the agreement between the countries.
Would immigrants automatically gain permanent resident status or have full access to citizenship rights, for example, beyond simply having the right to work and stay indefinitely?
“If they were to move ahead with this, that is what would be worked out, and the devil is in the details,” she said.
Jeffrey Reitz, from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said the chance of seeing such an “eccentric” agreement between the four countries is effectively zero.
He said it’s unclear why Canada would pursue a proposal with New Zealand, Australia and U.K. instead of the U.S. and Mexico, countries that are already part of a free trade agreement. Or why not a proposal to loosen travel between all 53 Commonwealth countries?
The Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Association ranks highly on Google. In its blog, one author argues that expanding this four-country zone to include other candidates--like Jamaica, an Anglophone island nation not much different from New Zealand in size, or a South Africa that has as large a natively Anglophone population--would create the risk of too much migration. In all honesty, with the exception of the noteworthy migration of New Zealanders to Australia, I'm not sure that there are any especially significant ongoing flows of migrants between these four Commonwealth realms. Is there much of an untapped potential for migration? All four countries are already high-income countries with comparable standards of living. Is there any particular point to this?
There actually is, but it is not related to gains from migration. With this, we come back to what I talked about here in July 2012, about the idea of liberalized migration between certain Commonwealth realms serving as a supposed substitute for Britain's participation in the European Union's unified labour market. The idea of a Canadian migrant to some Britons would be substantially more appealing than the idea of a Polish migrants, partly because of the assumption of shared ancestry but also because such might be the first step towards Britain's ascent to non-European prominence. Nick Pearce's essay "After Brexit: the Eurosceptic vision of an Anglosphere future", published last month at Open Democracy, sets the stage for the Anglospheric dreams of many in the United Kingdom.
In the last couple of decades, eurosceptics have developed the idea that Britain’s future lies with a group of “Anglosphere” countries, not with a union of European states. At the core of this Anglosphere are the “five eyes” countries (so-called because of intelligence cooperation) of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Each, it is argued, share a common history, language and political culture: liberal, protestant, free market, democratic and English-speaking. Sometimes the net is cast wider, to encompass Commonwealth countries and former British colonies, such as India, Singapore and Hong Kong. But the emotional and political heart of the project resides in the five eyes nations.
[. . .]
As Professor Michael Kenny and I set out in an essay for the New Statesman, the Anglosphere returned as a central concept in eurosceptic thinking in the 1980s, when Europhilia started to wane in the Conservative Party and Thatcherism was its ascendancy. On the right of the Conservative Party, we argued:
“…American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”. In this climate, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.
[. . .]
The idea of the Anglosphere as an alternative to the European Union gained ground amongst conservatives in their New Labour wildnerness years, when transatlantic dialogue and trips down under kept their hopes of ideological revival alive. 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 geo-political organizing ideal, in contrast to mainstream hostility to the war in Europe. By the time of the 2010 election, the Anglosphere had become common currency in conservative circles, name checked by leading centre-right thinkers like David Willetts, as well as eurosceptic luminaries, such as 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, the 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, if not the White House. And in its 2015 election Manifesto, UKIP praised the Anglosphere as a “global community” of which the UK was a key part.
I'll note now, just as I did four years ago, that all this is terribly unlikely, at least in Canada. I am personally unaware of any significant political group that would sign on to this particular structure. The Commonwealth unification movement is dead. Canada is an independent state with its own interests, many of which do not follow the patterns of pro-Brexit Anglospherists. Indeed, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated Canada's preference for a United Kingdom that remains engaged within the European Union. The United Kingdom could still liberalize its visa procedures with as many Commonwealth realms as its government might like within the European Union, what with the continued fragmentation of the European Union's migration policies. The United Kingdom could always have chosen to leave the doors to its erstwhile colonials open.Quite frankly, many Canadians might prefer the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union in the case of such a liberalization.
I'll also note my skepticism of the motives of many of the proponents. Why include New Zealand but not Jamaica within this scheme? Jamaicans, as a community and as individuals, are far more likely to benefit from this liberalization than New Zealanders? If some people within the United Kingdom want to radically shift immigration policy, why not perhaps try to replace Poles with Jamaicans? The answers are obvious, and unflattering. The chief one is that these people do not want many immigrants at all, perhaps particularly the "wrong" type of immigrants. The pro-Brexit Anglospherists who offer up the idea of free migration with the richest and whitest of the old colonies could be accused of bait-and-switch, of wanting to exit a European Union where migration is a substantial presence for a mini-Commonwealth where migration is, if not less of an issue, more politically difficult. (What immigration policies, I wonder, are Canada and Australia and New Zealand supposed to adopt?) I'd accuse some of these of having hidden motives, but then some of them are quite open about their plans.