I like to think that I witnessed the moment when Lord Black of Crossharbour realised that he was in deep, deep trouble. The former newspaper magnate goes on trial for fraud in Chicago next week, but back in the summer of 2003 he was still swaggering. We were both at a lunch, where I found myself sitting between the head of a famous private equity firm and an important man from Goldman Sachs.
Lord Black, who was at another table, wandered over and began a joshing conversation with the private equity boss about their corporate jets. Was it worth getting anti-missile systems fitted? he bantered. Since this was not a conversation that I felt I could usefully contribute to, I stayed silent and picked moodily at my bread roll.
After a while, Lord Black turned to the man from Goldman Sachs. He mentioned that a new director was coming on to the board of Hollinger, the newspaper firm that Lord Black chaired. His Lordship asked Mr Goldman Sachs if he knew anything about the new director. He was not going to be a corporate governance zealot, was he? (I should say that this conversation is not in quotation marks, since it is recalled from memory. It would have been bad form to start jotting notes on the napkin.) Well, said the man from Goldman Sachs ruminatively, the new Hollinger director was a moralist, a real stickler for the rules. I glanced up from my bread roll and I had the strong impression that I could see the blood draining from Lord Black’s face.
The arrival of sticklers on the Hollinger board was a sign that Lord Black was losing control. He preferred to stuff the top echelons of his company with power brokers – men such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, who had help top positions at the State department and the Pentagon. The Hollinger directors would have made an impressive National Security Council. But they were a hopeless board, which failed to stop the alleged abuses that have landed Lord Black in court. As the Goldman Sachs man remarked to me some months after the lunch: “You’ve always got to be worried about a board that’s packed with political rock stars.”
Like many a newspaper magnate, Lord Black was more interested in prestige and politics than in business. But he was no dilettante. In fact, before the fall, he was a thoughtful promoter of conservative ideas.
He was particularly fired by the notion of an “Anglosphere”. A fierce Eurosceptic, Lord Black believed in an alliance of English-speaking nations. John Hulsman, who worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank, argues that, in his heyday, Lord Black was “pivotal” to the Anglosphere. His encouragement and money helped pull together a crew of conservative intellectuals, on both sides of the Atlantic, who believe that the English-speaking world is a coherent bloc – and the only reliable guardian of political and economic freedoms.
The most vigorous promoters of the Anglosphere include historians such as Robert Conquest and Andrew Roberts. Politicians, past and present, such as Lady Thatcher and Alexander Downer, the Australian foreign minister, are known sympathisers. President George W. Bush has boasted of reading Mr Roberts’ A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, which sets out the Anglospheric world view. There is even an Anglosphere Institute, although it is not an encouraging sign that its contact address is a PO Box in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The believers in the Anglosphere differ on the details. Some limit the true members of the club to just five countries: the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Others cast the net much wider to include India, Ireland, the Caribbean and English-speaking Africa.
Some want to see the Anglosphere develop formal institutions. Others argue that the essence of the club is that it relies on informal ties of history, culture and kinship.
The cultural ties linking the Anglosphere are, indeed, deep. But they are also changing as America becomes more Hispanic and Britain becomes more European. According to Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research, there are 1.3m Britons living in Australia and 678,000 living in the US. But there are also 761,000 living in Spain and 200,000 in France.
Politically, the Anglosphere is also coming under strain. The outbreak of the Iraq war initially served as a boost. After France and Germany opposed the war – but Britain and Australia rallied to the cause – US conservatives began to take seriously long-ignored warnings from their British counterparts about the evils of the European Union. But, as the war has grown more unpopular, so it has eroded ties of sympathy within the Anglosphere. An opinion survey conducted by Globespan in January found that 57 per cent of Britons and 60 per cent of Australians now believe that America’s global role is “mainly negative”. Even the Chinese (52 per cent) took a more positive view. A previous Globespan survey in 2005 found that more than 60 per cent of Britons, Australians and Canadians now want Europe to be “more influential” than the US.
But while the Iraq war points in one direction, the fighting in Afghanistan points in the other. In a recent debate in Britain’s House of Commons, politicians from all sides lamented that most of the European members of Nato are effectively opting out of the fighting. Only Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands were deemed willing to fight and die.
The presence of the Dutch might jar for those who would see the Afghanistan campaign as the Anglosphere in operation. But that would be a mistake. For the Dutch seem to have effectively joined the Anglos. They usually speak better English than the English, they voted decisively against the EU constitution and – this is the clincher – they are the only country that is not a former British colony to take part in this month’s cricket World Cup.
In his pomp, Lord Black might have seized upon the Afghanistan campaign as evidence that, in spite of current tensions, there is an underlying unity of English-speaking peoples. These days he has more pressing matters on his mind. Indeed, it is tempting to see the Black trial as a symbol of the decline of the political project that he is most associated with. But the Anglosphere idea is a resilient one with deep historical roots, which may yet rebound. His Lordship may not be so lucky.
Conrad Black and the rise and fall of the Anglosphere
Par Gideon Rachman