How the pandemic exposed the myth of the Anglosphere
A park bench in Brockwell Park, London, that was taped off to stop people sitting on it in the early days of the pandemic in April 2020. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images
Yes, he might lose his job, US-resident Brits are currently having to explain to neighbours, friends and Uber drivers. Yes, the prime minister of the actual UK. Yes, over some office parties of less than Caligula-grade decadence.
The bemusement of our hosts is not evidence of their slacker ethical standards. Rather, the problem is that Americans tend to underrate how harsh the UK’s lockdown was for much of 2020 – and how correspondingly provocative Boris Johnson’s breaches of it are.
In turn, both countries struggle to believe the severity of the restrictions under which Australians have lived. A bid for “Covid zero” made the place all but unvisitable at times, even for passport-holding expats. Melbourne had no fewer than six lockdowns. Unable to renew his near-monopoly on that city’s Grand Slam tennis tournament, Novak Djokovic can attest to the strength of feeling there.
All of which gives rise to a question. If there is such a thing as an “Anglosphere”, bound by a deep-seated culture of individualism, why did the member nations diverge so much over the pandemic? Aukus, a naval pact agreed between the three countries mentioned above last September, breathed new life into the idea of English-speaking unity.
But the past two years have more often argued against it. The gamut of pandemic measures runs from the relative laxity of the US to, in the case of Australasia, perhaps the severest lockdowns in the western world. Some local authorities in Britain were taping up park benches to prevent strangers sharing them. Try doing that in Dallas or Miami. To the extent that Covid has served as an audit of national cultures, the findings refute the idea of a Washington-to-Wellington communion of values.
For the US, with a $21 trillion economy and no express need for the outside world, this is an academic point. But for a midsized nation that has spurned its own continental market, on the hunch that its English-speaking former colonies can step in, the tenuousness of any Anglosphere is more troubling. It implies that national interests still trump (for want of a less loaded verb) ancestral fealties.
Tellingly, the US still has steel tariffs on the UK, but not on the EU. Washington’s trade representative Katherine Tai is “confident that we will take this up when the time is right”. It is not known whether she was ruffling Johnson’s hair and praising the quaintness of Regency costume dramas while uttering those words.
I spent long enough in Westminster to anticipate the Conservative response here. That is, a Republican administration would have been more generous to the UK. And so we have the paradox of the “special relationship”: it is at once fundamental and entirely dependent on whoever is in the White House.
If any good comes of the past two years, it will be a sense of realism in Britain and elsewhere about the US. It is not, as even the French presume, an “Anglo-Saxon” country, whatever that means. It does not share political culture or institutions with the white Commonwealth. First, it broke from colonial rule much earlier and more absolutely than Australia, Canada or New Zealand, none of which are republics. Second, it absorbed such vast and such varied immigration as to become its own category of nation.
Whether the events of 1776 constitute a “revolution” (Gore Vidal, noting that the domestic social order was not turned upside down, preferred the term “separation”), they ingrained a mistrust of the state. The consequences are evident in good ways and bad.
“A Latin-Slav mixture”, one UK premier called America, and that was in the 1950s. In other words, even if you are a crude ethnic determinist, it makes no sense to assume an automatic coincidence of world views between the US and other countries that happen to speak English. It makes even less to bet your nation’s economic future on it. And given that the US accounts for the lion’s share of the population and economic output of the Anglosphere, that putative grouping has no meaning without it.
The uniqueness of the US is recorded here with due ambivalence. On the one side, American individualism prevented the most heavy-handed pandemic measures. It is increasingly plausible that the taped-up benches and Zoom-only funerals had a scarring effect that Britain and other nations will be reckoning with for years.
On the other side, there is a pandemic death toll that now well exceeds that of the American Civil War. Either way, as Anglosphere enthusiasts struggle to accept, the US is different. It is not an overgrown Britain. Those who fawn over it most, understand it least. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022