Sunday, 22 December 2013

How We Invented Freedom, Daniel Hannan

This book was marketed as Inventing Freedom in the USA.

This is a book by Daniel Hannan MEP, a well-known exponent of right-wing libertarian politics.  In it, he seeks to give historical colour to his political views.  He advances the thesis that democracy, freedom and capitalism form a specific inheritance of the English-speaking world, which he refers to as the "Anglosphere".

This is not going to be a sympathetic review, so it is worth saying at the outset that Hannan gets some things right.  He is quite correct to say that English political institutions can be traced a long way back in time, not merely to Magna Carta but in some cases to Anglo-Saxon times.  Our elected legislature, constitutional monarchy, common law and jury trials - all these have deep roots in English history and tradition.  Hannan is also right to distinguish such English arrangements from the more authoritarian continental traditions associated with Roman law, the Catholic Church and Bourbon-style absolutism.  The book is readable, and Hannan is a better writer than most politicians, though I realise that that is a very back-handed compliment.  It is historically informative, and the political subtext doesn't really get out of hand until towards the very end, when Hannan allows himself to lapse into tub-thumping nonsense about Barack Obama and the EU.  There are some entertaining digressions, notably one about the iconography of Banqueting House.

But I come to bury Hannan, not to praise him.  The first problem with his approach is the black-and-white filters through which he sees both the past and the present.  His mental universe is populated by goodies and baddies.  The Saxons v the Normans.  The Roundheads v the Cavaliers.  Protestants v Catholics.  James II v William III.  The Anglosphere v "Europe".  Radical Thatcherism with a minimalist state v leftist socialism in which the state controls everything.  This sort of simple-minded dualism might win Hannan applause in his political speeches, but it doesn't make for either reliable history or a constructive approach to policy-making.  I wish I could say that he was over-egging his Manichaean view of things for rhetorical effect, but I expect he probably believes it.

The second, related problem is that Hannan's history is ahistorical.  His project is to discover a pedigree for his own political opinions, but he never adequately deals with the fact that his brand of radical libertarianism has never represented the norm in the English-speaking world in any period in history.  He also feels the need to define his opponents as an undifferentiated mass consisting of anyone who, in any age and for any reason, has favoured some form of big government, from modern-day social democrats to mediaeval feudalists to Jacobites.  This is essentially the same cheap trick that Jonah Goldberg tried to pull in Liberal Fascism - everyone who isn't a Reagan Republican gets lumped in with Hitler.  But if Ed Miliband and King John are unlikely bedfellows, Hannan is an equally improbable scion of his own chosen ancestors.  His conception of freedom is a very unusual one by historical standards.  Whatever the Anglo-Saxons, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Roundheads and his other heroes were, they were not Thatcherite libertarians (what did they think about, say, gay sex? or blasphemy laws?).  Hannan is on firmer ground when he associates himself with the classical liberalism of the American founding fathers, but the founders' credo represented a break with as well as a continuation of English traditions.  They revered Magna Carta and 1688, but they were also heavily indebted to the revolutionary rationalism of the European Enlightenment, and indeed to ancient Graeco-Roman political thought (this is why the Federalist papers were signed "Publius" rather than, say, "Cromwell").

In fact, Hannan gets into real difficulties when he ventures outside England.  The idea that England is essentially akin to - to take two of his examples - Australia or Ireland is one that needs to treated with some caution (living in Ireland and marrying an Australian are two ways of discovering this).  But at least it's broadly plausible.  The comparison becomes much more strained when we bring in the USA, a country which broke off from the rest of the Anglosphere much earlier than the others and took a different and unique developmental path.  This is why American politics is nothing like British politics, as demonstrated by the bizarre rituals of presidential elections and episodes like the war of attrition over Obamacare, almost no part of which could have happened in a British-type political setup.  It is also why the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-Muslim, anti-everything credo of the Republican Right is a quintessentially American phenomenon which we Brits (including most Conservatives) are more likely to ridicule than to embrace.  To most of us, the Tea Party is at least as foreign and un-British as, say, European social democracy.  The political institutions of, say, Canada still retain a reasonably close resemblance to their Westminster originals, but who seriously claims that Westminster and Washington DC are just different variants of a common Anglospheric model?

The answer is that Hannan does, because he has to.  He sees the American Republic as the pinnacle of Anglospheric values, but this gets things precisely the wrong way around.  The strong suspicion is that he has started with his radical libertarian credo and reverse-engineered his Anglosphere thesis backwards from it.  This is why he ends up taking the least typical Anglophone country of all as his prize exhibit.  His true allegiance is not to historical English constitutional and social values but to populist libertarian capitalism, which happens to have an unusually strong following in the USA.  Everything else follows from this.  He approves of the English constitutional tradition to the extent, but only to the extent, that it is congruent with his views on economic and social policy.

Hannan's boldest claim is that there is no such thing as Western civilisation.  He is presumably speaking here in political terms - even Hannan surely wouldn't claim that European art and culture don't form a coherent tradition as against, say, China or the Islamic world - but still, the claim hardly seems tenable.  Direct and representative democracy, with free debate and regular elections, were already functioning realities in classical Athens and republican Rome.  Hannan is smart enough to know this (just as he knows that democracy is deeply embedded in the French republican tradition), and he attempts to respond by saying that the Anglosphere is about more than just democracy.  It also includes such things as the rule of law and economic liberalism.  Yet the rule of law had also been invented by the Romans by the 5th century BC and was written about at length by Plato.  Hannan quotes John Adams' line about a government of laws not men without realising that it was originally coined by the historian Livy, writing about the Roman Republic.  Mercantile capitalism has existed since prehistory and operated on a large scale at least as early as Roman times.  Banking was invented in the Italian city states.  There is a good case for saying that modern capitalism was invented by the Dutch.  Hannan nods to all this, but he can't do much more than that, can he?

Of course, I am biased, and I disagree with Hannan's politics at least as much as his historical analysis.  His outlook appears to be over-influenced by his childhood in Peru, where he encountered authoritarian populism in the form of the leftist Velasco dictatorship.  As the insurgents battered at the gate of his dad's farm, the Anglosphere seemed a long way away.  So far, so understandable.  But he then tries to connect this violent revolutionary lawlessness with the Lisbon Treaty and the Eurozone bailouts, and not all readers will find these connections as obvious as he does.  Whatever may be the case with Latin America, the tradition of constitutional governance is deep-rooted across much of continental Europe, dating back at least to the 18th century.  Hannan brings up Chancellor Merkel in his discussion of how foreigners don't really get the rule of law, but this is a really bad example, not only because David Cameron probably gets on better with Merkel than with Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, but because Merkel leads a country which is heir to one of the most scrupulously legalistic constitutional traditions in the world.  It is no accident that it was the staid, rule-abiding Germans who invented the idea of a Rechtstaat.  Hannan later brings up the Nazis, and notes that the English-speaking countries were largely alone in preserving liberal democracy during World War II, but that was an unusually calamitous historical period and Hannan both overemphasises and over-romanticises it.  He also gives insufficient attention to the non-Anglospheric cultures of - for example - Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even right-on welfarist Scandinavia.  His own intellectual heroes have names like "von Hayek" and "von Mises"  We're not as exceptional as he thinks.

Politically, there is a serious problem with Hannan's conception of freedom, which is that of hardline right-wing libertarianism.  For him, the freedom of the ordinary citizen to criticise the government without getting his fingernails ripped out is not essentially different from the freedom of employers to dictate pay and conditions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis unencumbered by employment laws or trade unions to even up the playing field.  This is why he seems to think that (e.g.) the Labour Party can be pigeon-holed with (e.g.) William the Conqueror.  One doesn't have to be a radical leftist to think that he is being just a teensy bit disingenuous here.  His anti-élitism, so eloquent when he is attacking Normans and Cavaliers, seems to desert him when faced with modern financial élites.

Even granted that the English-speaking world has a less statist and more individualistic culture than most of continental Europe, Hannan barely acknowledges that the English Left is part of the story too.  One of the great achievements of the English-speaking world was the creation of a non-Marxist, parliamentary form of socialism which didn't exterminate kulaks but did invent the NHS.  Hannan briefly nods to this tradition, but he seems to regard it as less legitimate, less truly English, less Anglospheric than his own creed.  In Hannan's hands, the notion of the Anglosphere is not just historically descriptive, it is politically prescriptive.  It is an exclusionary, partisan conception which is inherently hostile to things like redistributive taxation, organised labour and state provision of welfare and social services - all of which things, be it noted, are well-established features of English-speaking countries, much as Hannan and his Tea Party friends might wish they weren't.  This is unwittingly brought out by his own description of the Anglosphere as
....people who speak English and believe in small government, whether in San Fransisco, Sligo, or Singapore.
These examples say it all.  San Francisco is solidly Democrat (an astonishing 83.4% of voters voted for the Golfing Marxist in 2012).  The last Irish political party which went before the electorate with views like Hannan's, the Progressive Democrats, got 1.6% of the vote when they last stood in Sligo.  And the choice of Singapore under the Lee dynasty as an exemplar of freedom-loving Anglospheriansm is, well, counter-intuitive.

It will be clear by now that I can't recommend Hannan's tome except as comfort food for those who already share his political convictions.  Somewhere buried underneath all the tendentious special pleading is a thesis worth arguing about the English tradition of constitutionalism and freedom under the law - but Hannan has proved that a libertarian can't be trusted to argue that thesis without killing it in the process.  I doubt that his book will contribute much to serious debate in this country, although it appears to have been reviewed favourably by the well-known Conservative commentator Charles Moore and the strange Adrian Hilton.  It will, however, probably sell well in the American market, which I suspect was the point.