British MEP: ‘I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the US relations with her traditional friends’
British Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan says he is “deeply disappointed” in President Obama.
“What happened to that inspiring, bipartisan fellow who made the speech about not slicing and dicing red and blue states?” the conservative politician, who despite being a member of the European Parliament is a Euro-skeptic, told The Daily Caller. “The debt is growing, the health care scheme is misguided, and I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends, or the patrimony she was privileged to inherit from her Founders.”
Hannan, a popular figure among American conservatives, is out with a new book, “Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.”
“As we export our ideals, we can forget that they are ours,” he said, explaining the title of his book. “It’s rather like our style of dress: we no longer think of a suit and tie as an Anglo-American costume, because it has become global. Yet you don’t have to go back very far to find a time when constitutional liberty survived only in the English-speaking world.”
“We take familiar things for granted: property rights, regular elections, free contract, the rule of law, equality between men and women, habeas corpus, personal liberty, jury trials,” he added. “It’s easy to slip into thinking that these attributes are the natural condition of an advanced society. In fact, they are peculiar products of Anglosphere culture, and were developed largely in the language we’re using now.”
Check out TheDC’s full interview with Hannan, about his book, President Obama and whether he wants London Mayor Boris Johnson to be his country’s next prime minister:
Why did you decide to write the book?
We take familiar things for granted: property rights, regular elections, free contract, the rule of law, equality between men and women, habeas corpus, personal liberty, jury trials. It’s easy to slip into thinking that these attributes are the natural condition of an advanced society. In fact, they are peculiar products of Anglosphere culture, and were developed largely in the language we’re using now.
As a boy, growing up in South America but attending an English boarding school, I was aware that there was something different about the Anglosphere. But it was only when I was elected to the European Parliament that I grasped how peculiar to English-speaking countries is a solid commitment to the rule of law. Elsewhere, it’s accepted that the letter of the rules shouldn’t stand in the way of political imperatives (the patently illegal Eurozone bailouts are only the most current example). I became more and more interested in where this difference came from. This book is my answer.
Explain your title — how did English-speaking peoples invent freedom and the modern world?
As we export our ideals, we can forget that they are ours. It’s rather like our style of dress: we no longer think of a suit and tie as an Anglo-American costume, because it has become global. Yet you don’t have to go back very far to find a time when constitutional liberty survived only in the English-speaking world. When Winston Churchill met Franklin D. Roosevelt on HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941, and spoke of the two powers having “the same ideals,” he wasn’t making a bland generalization about being the good guys. Almost the entire Eurasian landmass, from Brest and Lisbon to Seoul and Vladivostok, was under authoritarian government. Freedom, the rule of law, and democracy were, to a single approximation, confined to the Anglosphere.
Three times in the past century, countries that elevate the individual over the state have fought global conflicts against countries that do the opposite. The list of nations that were on the right side in both World Wars and the Cold War is short, but it includes the main English-speaking democracies.
What values have enabled the Anglosphere to succeed in the way that it has?
A number of factors contributed: religious pluralism; differences in inheritance and property laws that emphasized total ownership by a single individual; a proliferation of clubs and societies and charities and other non-state civic associations; the definition of nationality in civil rather than ethnic terms. But if I had to put my finger on the two biggest factors, I’d say geographical isolation and common law. The Anglosphere is, with the exception of North America, an extended archipelago. And the United States has always been, politically if not literally, an island: “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, “from the exterminating havoc [of Europe].” This meant that there was no need for a standing army, which meant that the government lacked an instrument of internal repression. If rulers wanted something, they needed to ask politely, by summoning representatives in some kind of parliament or congress.
But the real hero of my story turned out to be the common law: that extraordinary, anomalous system which treats the law as the property of the people, not the state, and which builds up case by case, rather than being imposed from above. John Adams put it beautifully: “The liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature, the grandeur and glory of the public, and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England.”
Many people would argue that the values you talk about have their root in Athens and Jerusalem, where English wasn’t spoken. Weren’t these ideas you speak of “invented” by the philosophers of Athens and the prophets of Jerusalem — and then adopted and spread by English-speaking peoples?
I don’t claim that the English-speaking peoples came up with the idea of majoritarian democracy: that has indeed been practiced, in various forms, since classical times. What we came up with was something rather different: “Freedom under law,” as the spare, simple memorial at Magna Carta puts it (a memorial raised, by the way, by the American Bar Association, not by any British body). Simple majority rule can lead to terror and tyranny. Our contribution to human happiness was to elevate the law above the government.
It’s perfectly true that the idea of a supreme law has been proposed long before (though I would say at Sinai rather than at Jerusalem). The revolution was in moving from the idea of the law as someone’s will – either God’s or the king’s – to the extraordinary concept that the law was independently there: invisible, untouchable, yet powerful enough to bind the mightiest king.
What is the first and second Anglosphere civil war you write about?
The American Revolution was, in the minds of the people who fought it, a continuation of the wars of the 1640s. Historians give that earlier war various names: the currently fashionable one is the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland). But it was fought, too, in the fledgling colonies of America’s Atlantic littoral. In very broad terms, the New England Yankees, largely descended from Puritans who had come from Eastern and Southeastern England, were for Parliament, while Virginians were for the Crown. Precisely the same battle-lines emerged in the 1760s and 1770s as had emerged in the 1640s – on both sides of the Atlantic. The likeliest denominator of whether you were Loyalist or Patriot in sympathy was not where you went to church, or how much you earned, or even whether you lived in England or the colonies — it was, rather, which side your ancestors had been on in the 1640s. The two wars were fought over precisely the same issues — money, religion and Royal power — and both were triggered by the fear that the Crown would disarm the militia.
No one in 1775 described the conflict, as the tour guides at Lexington do today, as being between “the British” and “the Americans.” Everyone involved self-identified as British. It was a war, rather, between supporters and opponents of the ministry, between Tories and Whigs. As far as we can tell, public opinion in Great Britain was very similar to in North America. The closer we look, the clearer it becomes that these were two civil wars, cutting laterally across all the lands where English was spoken; and clear, moreover, that the second was a continuation of the first.
Does the Anglosphere still believe in the values that made it great? It seems free speech, for instance, isn’t as highly valued as it once was — not hurting people’s feelings seems to be a greater value to many in the Anglosphere.
Free speech used to be something that set the Anglosphere apart. Throughout the twentieth century, most Western European states had laws on blasphemy, Holocaust denial and respect for state institutions that overrode free expression (and most Eastern European countries, obviously, had no free speech at all). Since the end of the Cold War, curiously, there has been a retreat in every Anglosphere territory except the United States. In Canada, Australia and the UK, people are now regularly charged with, in effect, causing offence to someone else, usually a religious or ethnic minority. To be clear, we are not talking about incitement, which is an ancient common law offence, but with expressing opinions that are judged to be objectionable.
Until now, the U.S. has been protected by the First Amendment to its Constitution. But for how much longer?
You lump the English-speaking peoples together, but many would argue there are significant differences between, for instance, Britain and America? One was an imperial power, the other anti-imperial in nature. One is a society that is very class-conscious, the other militantly not so.
The differences between Anglosphere countries are more obvious to their inhabitants than to observers from elsewhere, who bracket us together as a single civilizational continuum. Americans might describe Britain in the way you just did, but European visitors almost never do so. Their descriptions of the British, down the ages, are remarkably similar to their descriptions of Americans: individualist, materialistic, undeferential, parochial, mercantile. The British Empire, unusually, had a self-dissolving quality, because British law led inexorably to local self-government. And, in practice, no European country had more social mobility than Britain, which lacked the large, legally separate aristocratic class that was common on the continent, and whose inheritance rules meant that younger sons of even the grandest families had to make their way in business or the professions.
Do you believe the British Empire was a net positive or a net negative?
It would have been better for everyone had we simply run a network of coastal trading posts instead of assuming responsibility for vast tracts of land. But it’s worth making a rarely remarked point. For most of the countries concerned, the alternative to British rule was not unmolested progress, but colonization by someone else – the French, the Russians, the Turks, the Germans, the Japanese, the Dutch or – worst of all – the Belgians. Most British colonies were brought to independence without a shot being fired in anger (though there were tragic exceptions in Ireland, Palestine and, bloodiest of all, Kenya).
While it would have been better never to have annexed most of these colonies, in several cases we compounded the error by leaving prematurely. Most of our African colonies were supposed to be prepared for independence in around 1980. Instead, exhausted by the war against Hitler, we pulled out a generation earlier when, with a few exceptions, there was no middle class, and little infrastructure.
What is the most interesting fact or story you discovered researching the book?
On November 19, 1863, at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln, weak and lightheaded with an oncoming case of smallpox, made a speech that lasted for just over two minutes, and ended with his hope “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Those words have been quoted ever since, as the supreme vindication of representative government. Indeed, they are often quoted as proof of American exceptionalism. But the words were not Lincoln’s. Most of his hearers would have recognized their source, as our generation does not. They came from the prologue to what was probably the earliest translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English language: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” The author was the theologian John Wycliffe, sometimes called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Astonishingly, the words had first appeared in 1384.
In no other language could such a concept have been verbalized at that time. The English language has been both a vehicle and a guarantor of liberty down the centuries.
What do you think of Boris Johnson? Would you like to see him become prime minister?
I love Boris: he’s an old and dear friend, and he would excel at anything he turned his hand to.
What is your view of President Obama five years in?
I’m deeply disappointed. What happened to that inspiring, bipartisan fellow who made the speech about not slicing and dicing red and blue states? The debt is growing, the health care scheme is misguided, and I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends or the patrimony she was privileged to inherit from her Founders.