Department of Anachronism

24 09 2012

Ok, so it appears that the United Kingdom and Canada may share some embassies in the future. See here, here, and here.  The announcement by Foreign Secretary William Hague suggests that the two countries will cooperate in both consular and diplomatic matters.

It remains to be seen how many embassies will be shared. It is also unclear to what extent diplomatic as opposed to purely consular activities will be coordinated. However, my initial reaction is to say that I don’t think that this move is in the interests of Canada. For one thing, overlooks the fact that Canada’s image abroad is overwhelmingly positive, whereas Britain’s relationship with much of the world is complicated by centuries of the wrong sort of history. Canada is one of the few Western countries outside of Scandinavia that isn’t tainted by the legacy of overseas colonialism. Canada has never sought overseas colonies and this fact has done much for the country’s image abroad.  In the last fifty years, Canada has gone to great lengths to distance itself from Britain. Indeed, that’s what the 1965 flag was all about.

Defenders of this move will doubtless point out that Canada already pools resources with Australia to provide consular services in some countries. Neither Canada nor Australia have the same baggage as the British.

Renewing Canada’s association with Britain in such a symbolic way could do tremendous damage to Canada’s image. Admittedly, there are some countries, such as former French or Belgian colonies, where people have a neutral attitude to the British. Perhaps Canada and the UK could safely share diplomatic premises there without too much damage being done to the reputation of either country.  However, it would be a mistake for Canadians to share premises with the British in countries that were once the victims of British formal and informal imperialism.

It would be a mistake for Canada and the UK to share even consular offices.  The idea of joint or coordinate diplomacy is even more dangerous. I think that this move overlooks the fact that Canadian and British foreign policy have significantly diverged in the past. For instance, the British recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of all of China in 1950, just a few months after the Communist Revolution. In contrast, Canada did not recognise Red China until the 1970s. In this case, Canada’s policy was much more aligned with that of the United States, which is actually what you would expect, given the greater strength of Canada’s ties to the United States. On the issue of climate change, Britain and Canada have very different policies, values, and interests: Britain is an island nation where the population has a highly-developed environmental consciousness. Canada’s had lots of tar sands and has relatively few people near the coast.

This isn’t about cost savings. It’s about both the governments of both countries playing to their respective bases. In the case of Canada, the Conservative government wants to appeal to the surviving Red Ensign wavers and those who object to the idea that the Francophonie and the Commonwealth should have equal status in Canadian diplomacy. In the UK, the Conservatives want to appeal to people who fantasize that the UK could leave the EU and form some sort of trading bloc with the old “White Dominions.” Anti-EU Conservatives in Britain have been overjoyed by Hague’s plan for “Commonwealth Embassies,” since they see a resuscitated Commonwealth as a substitute for the EU. See here.

Notice how neither country is talking about sharing embassies with, say, Singapore or Barbados, even those are also Commonwealth countries. Just the wrong sort of Commonwealth countries, one might suggest.  This announcement is reminiscent of the Mitt Romney advisor who spoke of how Britain and the United States were linked by being “Anglo-Saxon” nations, which was a subtle jab at the current non-Anglo-Saxon incumbent of the White House.

It’s also interesting that this policy is being unveiled by Foreign Secretary William Hague. When William Hague was leader of the Conservative Party in the late 1990s he expressed tremendous admiration for Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Indeed, he visited Oakville, a Canadian town with an unusually low unemployment rate, to inspect a welfare-to-work programme. After he returned to the UK, he plagiarized  borrowed Mike Harris’s slogan of the “The Common Sense Revolution”.


A blogger on the website ConservativeHome has commented on this move:

United by monarchy, history, language, heritage and political tradition, we have much more in common with, say, a Canberran or a Torontonian than we do with an Athenian or a Roman. We are already diplomatically close, but this move by Mr Hague to extend our interests is a very welcome renewal of our four countries’ friendship. The Commonwealth was neglected under Labour, who rejected the old English-speaking countries, and embraced “forward-looking” Europeans. The Coalition has started correcting this.