Time for a British-led Anglosphere?
This week Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, used his column to give a slightly embarrassed account of a successful coup.
He was embarrassed because the coup was his own work, political activism rather than reporting, and possibly involved more than one breach of confidence.
It began with his research for a book, The Partnership, on the US-Australian military and intelligence relationship, which is close and growing closer.
The more Sheridan examined this relationship, the more he was struck by something else: namely, "the astonishing, continuing, political, military, and intelligence closeness between Australia and Britain".
Even though Australia has little at stake in Europe and Britain only limited interests in the Pacific, everywhere Sheridan went in the US-Australia alliance, he found the Brits there, too: "Our special forces train with theirs, as we do with the Americans. Our troops on exchange with the Brits can deploy into military operations with them, an extremely rare practice, but something we also do with the Yanks.
"Australian liaison officers attend the most sensitive British intelligence meetings and vice versa, in arrangements of such intimacy that they are equalled only in our relationship with the US."
Sheridan was uneasy, however, because there was no formal alliance structure to give top-level political guidance to this effective but relaxed co-operation.
Events came to his aid: he was invited to a UK-Australia Dialogue in Canberra, attended by Tony Blair on a flying visit. At the reception, Sheridan buttonholed Blair, Australia's PM John Howard, foreign minister Alexander Downer, and almost anyone else who would listen to preach the necessity of a new UK-Australia security structure. He sensed they were unimpressed.
As he later discovered, however, at a cabinet meeting attended by Blair the next day, Downer proposed a new annual meeting of Australian and British foreign and defence ministers on the lines of their AUSMIN meetings with Washington. Blair responded enthusiastically - and AUKMIN now meets annually.
Well, an interesting little story, you may think, but hardly earthshaking. And if AUKMIN were an isolated incident, that would be a sensible response.
As Sheridan's account makes plain, however, AUKMIN merely brass-hatted an existing system of military and intelligence co-operation between Britain, Australia, and the US that was unusually intimate and extensive.
But the story rang several bells. I had recently been reading a Heritage Foundation study by the American writer James C. Bennett, in which he argued that such forms of developing co-operation were especially characteristic of English-speaking, common law countries such as, well, Britain, Australia and America.
There is a definite pattern to them. Citizens, voluntary bodies, companies, lower levels of government form their own networks of useful co-operation for practical purposes across national boundaries.
Over time, these networks become denser, more complementary, more useful, and more self-conscious, creating what Bennett calls a "network civilisation". In time, governments see the value of these networks and underpin them with new links - trade deals, military pacts, immigration agreements - creating what he calls a "network commonwealth".
Such network commonwealths may end up being more integrated - psychologically and socially, as well as economically - than consciously designed entities such as the EU.
If you want to know which countries the British feel really close to, check which ones they telephone on Christmas Day (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, America... but you knew that). Network commonwealths don't demand surrender of sovereignty, either.
Bennett calls the English-speaking network civilisation "the Anglosphere". This term, unknown in political circles a few years ago, now yields 39,700 entries on Google. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a recent article in the American City Journal, the idea is certainly in the air - and in respectable circles, too.
Its academic foundations are rooted in work demonstrating that England always had a more individualist culture than continental Europe, that the "civil society" tools of this culture were transmitted to the colonies settled from England, and that those countries have since not only prospered unusually, but also established a world civilisation rooted in liberalism.
Bennett in The Anglosphere Challenge makes unmistakably clear that it is English cultural traits - individualism, rule of law, honouring contracts, and the elevation of freedom - rather than English genes that explain this success.
These traits enable a society to pull off the difficult trick of combining trust with openness. Nations with different genetic backgrounds that adopt such traits seem to prosper more than their similar neighbours. Hence the Anglosphere includes India and the West Indies, as well as the "old Commonwealth".
The idea, lagging well behind the reality, is now seeping into politics. Last year Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, delivered an eloquent speech to the Australian parliament that praised the common British heritage linking both nations.
Even more significantly India's PM, Manmohan Singh, gave a speech at Oxford in 2005 that neatly stole the entire concept for New Delhi: "If there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of the English-speaking peoples, in which the people of Indian origin are the largest single component."
That raises a painful question. If Australians, Indians, Canadians, and even Americans can recognise the Anglosphere as a new factor in world politics, why is it something from which the Brits themselves shy?
To the best of my knowledge, the only politician to have embraced the idea is Lord Crickhowell, formerly David Howell, who held several ministries under Margaret Thatcher and who, from his City experience, knows that Britain's prosperity lies with the growing markets of Asia and North America.
Our fading Anglosphere ties give us an advantage over Europeans and other competitors there. If we were to pursue a deliberate strategy of strengthening such ties, we would discover a better "grand strategy" than the present muddled shuttling back and forth between Washington and Brussels, feeling a "poodle" to both.
Is our reluctance because we fear to touch anything that smacks of the empire? No such timidity restrained Singh.
Are we nervous that anything "English-speaking" might be thought incompatible with multiculturalism? Well, the first multicultural identity was the British one; today the Anglosphere spans every continent.
Is it politically dangerous as an alternative to Europe? That would only be true insofar as "Europe" failed to meet our needs - in which case we would need an alternative.
Or is it, as I suspect, that the Anglosphere offers us the prospect of national adventure that in our cultural funk we find too exciting - preferring to go back to the sleep of the subsidised?