Britain Could Be Canada

Ottawa’s ability to balance its interests and partners offers lessons for London.

Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau sit alongside each other at a table.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau at the G7 meeting in France. (Pool / Reuters)

In the scramble to find a model for its post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, Britain has considered a series of options: the Norway model, the closest of all trading relationships available absent actual membership of the bloc; the Swiss model, more complicated but with more sovereignty; and the Canada model, the loosest of all.

But perhaps this has been the entirely wrong way of looking at the challenge. For too long, Brexit has been viewed as an end in itself, not a beginning. At the root of much of the back-and-forth between Brexiteers and Remainers has been the fallacy that whichever model is chosen, that will be the end of the matter—that the politics of Britain’s relationship with its continental neighbors will come to an end, the new state of affairs locked in from then on.

For most countries, this is not how international relations works. Diplomatic and economic relationships change and adapt over time. The models Britain should be contemplating, then, are not one country or another’s current trade agreements with the EU, but successful countries in themselves—countries, specifically, that have thrived in similar circumstances to those that Britain will face outside the EU.

The model Britain should be looking at, from this perspective, is not Norway’s or Switzerland’s or Canada’s trading relationship with the EU, but Canada itself: a medium-size economy flourishing next to a trading superpower; an open, multicultural democracy bound by trade agreements but not supranational institutions and law; and a country that has navigated the position in which it finds itself in the world—geographically in the New World but with ties to the old, spread out and linguistically divided, multicultural and multiethnic.

Canada has morphed from “senior dominion” in the British empire, in the words of the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, a professor at the University of Oxford, to a successful independent nation. Its steps along the way and the place it now occupies in the world offer lessons to its former mother country, which finds itself poorer per head, more at risk of disintegration, and less sure of how to balance its economic and geopolitical challenges than the place it once ran. Ultimately, the lessons from Ottawa offer both hope for London and warnings of the challenges ahead.

First, the challenges. Canada did not emerge as an independent nation through war or revolution; rather, it grew into a country over time, from disparate colonial possessions to a self-governing federation to, finally, a fully sovereign state in 1982. For much of its existence, Canada has been something of an adolescent, neither fully independent of its colonial power nor entirely dependent on it either. Its foreign policy was largely directed from London until well into the 20th century, but its existential concerns were distinct from those of Westminster.

This semi-independent status presented Canada with an overarching challenge: how to maintain good relations with the two principal powers that affected it, Britain and the United States. In MacMillan’s seminal work on the Paris Peace Conference, Peacemakers, she sets out how this goal was born out of self-interest. Ottawa, MacMillan writes, had “a recurring nightmare” following Britain’s 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance that it might find itself fighting as part of the British empire alongside its new ally, Japan, in a war against the United States. Simple geography meant that Canadian and British interests were not the same, and, in fact, were diverging. Even when Canadian and American interests came into conflict, Britain could not be relied on to defend Ottawa’s position—after all, London had good relations with Washington to consider.

This reality saw Canada begin to adopt its own positions, negotiating and signing its first international treaty independent of Britain in 1923 (a treaty regarding halibut fishing rights in the Pacific). The Canadian Encyclopedia, a national publication on Canadian history, describes this treaty as the moment that most clearly signaled the shift taking place in Canadian politics, “from one focussed on being a part of the British Empire, to one that was more pan-Canadian,” while also indicating Canada’s “shifting economic focus during the 1920s from Britain to the U.S.”

Robert Bothwell, a Canadian-history professor at the University of Toronto, told me that at the height of British power, in the mid-19th century, Canada’s governor-general, Lord Elgin, decided that politics and sovereignty could be divorced from trade and investment—a bargain that held for a century. “In the 1950s, the Canadian government concluded rather reluctantly that [trade with Britain] would never return to its previous importance,” Bothwell said.

The lessons for 21st-century Britain are clear: Geography matters, as do national interests irrespective of historic ties or ancestral sympathy. Outside the EU, like Canada, Britain must manage two existential relationships. For Canada, this was with the U.S. and the U.K.; for Britain it will be with the U.S. and the EU. No matter how Britain’s ties to Washington develop over time, simple geography will continue to dictate that its relationship with Europe will remain of fundamental importance. (Don’t be surprised if halibut forms part of the picture as well—fishing remains one of the most likely flash points in negotiations between Britain and the EU over their future trade relationship.)

The obvious counter to this point, that geography matters most in or outside the EU, particularly from those who support Britain’s exit from the EU is, essentially, that necessity is the mother of invention: Canada managed to walk its diplomatic tightrope, unpicking its ties to Britain over time and adeptly building new ones with the U.S., while never supposing the need to actually join its southern neighbor. If Canada managed it, why can’t Britain?

Jeffrey Simpson, a Canadian author and columnist at The Globe and Mail, told me that Canada’s understanding of its role in the world is one of its core strengths. “No Canadian ever kidded himself that we were a great power,” he said. “No such memory clouds our thinking.” Former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King once quipped, “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography.” Free from this burden of history, Canada has grown into a major international economy.

Britain will have to lean on its diplomatic skill to maintain its relations once it leaves the EU. But this may require it to think and act like a smaller power—like Canada—which might prove challenging. In Britain’s negotiations with Ireland over Brexit, some senior politicians in London were dismissive of the effectiveness of Irish diplomacy. One cabinet minister, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, told me that Ireland was a small country, which meant that the quality of its ministers could not match that of those in the U.K.. And yet this attitude proved part of London’s undoing in the negotiations, which saw Ireland win more of its objectives than Britain did.

Simpson told me that Canada’s other strength is its constitutional flexibility, something it shares with (and inherited from) Britain. “Textbooks might say that Canada should not work in theory, but it does in practice,” he said. Its federal structure, which gives each province and territory varying degrees of autonomy, has proved flexible enough to keep the country together, even if it came close to separation in 1995, when Quebec voted only narrowly against secession—a threat that has since died down, though not entirely dissipated. With Scotland once again agitating for separation from the U.K., London may look to Canada for lessons on how to ensure that unity remains. “Having lived in Britain for four years, and having observed the country for many decades,” Simpson said, “I used to quip that Britain invented federal systems for its former colonies but never found itself comfortable with federalism for itself.”

Canada today appears more stable than ever, far from perfect but united, prosperous, and culturally and socially distinct from both the U.S. and Europe. “The dysfunctional U.S. political system plus other unsavory elements of U.S. life have cemented the view that things are better done here,” Simpson said.

For Brexiteers, this is the core of their creed and the prospect that binds them: that despite everything, they hope, British voters will feel the same in time, that “things are better done here.”