Daniel Hannan could be the ultimate tea-party candidate, waving his pocket Constitution, citing the Founders, and warning that we are in danger of losing America itself. Hannan even holds public office. Just not in America. He’s a Brit — and a member of the European Parliament — with a love for the Red, White, and Blue. It’s out of that love that he’s written The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America. He talks about it with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “The United States is becoming just another country.” How far along are we?
DANIEL HANNAN: The abandonment of American particularism started with the first Roosevelt but really took off with the second. Like most bad things, it happened from good intentions. FDR saw himself as the champion of the masses against the lobbies. Convinced of his moral rectitude, he tolerated no constraints on his power. He sidelined the legislature, ignored the conventional two-term limit, ruled by executive order, tried to pack the Supreme Court and constructed a massive federal bureaucracy, much of which is still in place.
You don’t need to look far to see parallels with the past two years. A Democratic president assumes office, bringing a massive majority with him to both Houses. He takes over during a financial crisis that has been blamed on a failure of capitalism. He’s determined to “do something” — and that something involves extending government and spending a great deal of money. The economic ill effects are already becoming clear; but the political consequences, as power is shifted from the 50 states to Washington, from the legislature to the executive, from the elected representative to the federal czar, from the individual to the government, are far more deleterious.
LOPEZ: How does America actualize an ideal? And why will “all of us be left poorer” if we give up on that ideal?
HANNAN: Other countries are defined by territory, language, religion, ethnicity. Yours is defined by a constitution, and the dream of liberty that found form in that constitution. You don’t have to be American to share that dream, which is why the world has a stake in your success.
LOPEZ: If we’re so great, why do you live elsewhere?
HANNAN: I am a British patriot. I believe my country has great achievements to its name, from the defeat of Hitler to the Royal Navy’s relentless campaign against the slave trade. Indeed, my admiration for the U.S. is informed by the way in which your country developed out of the British Whig tradition and has become, in many ways, a more secure repository of traditional British freedoms than the land where they were first adumbrated. A patriot doesn’t desert his nation simply because another is more congenially administered. I want to bring home our revolution — that is, to restore the Jeffersonian precepts that we successfully exported but have since lost.
LOPEZ: What is the American liberal’s attraction to Europe?
HANNAN: Europe is doing all the things that an American liberal would like to do at home: raising taxes, penalizing the use of carbon, cutting military spending, engorging the welfare state, surrendering national sovereignty. It’s significant that the supporters of a European socioeconomic model in the U.S. tend also to be supporters of the EU in a foreign-policy context. Barack Obama has gone much further in his praise for European integration than any of his predecessors. And he is, to be fair, being perfectly consistent: If you believe in the centralization of power, then you’re bound to see the EU as a good thing.
LOPEZ: You have a whole chapter urging us not to copy Europe: on health care, welfare, immigration, and more. Which front worries you the most?
HANNAN: The economy. In 1970, Western Europe accounted for 36 percent of the world’s GDP. Today, it’s 25 percent; in 2020 it will be 15 percent. Over the same period, the U.S. share of world GDP has remained, and is forecast to remain, stable at around 26 percent. As my American friends say, go figure.
LOPEZ: How is cap-and-trade an example of the Europeanization of America?
HANNAN: Even its supporters don’t claim that it will make a significant difference. If we take their projections at face value, they are proposing something that would slow global warming by perhaps 0.2 degrees over the next century. So why are they doing it? Because it “sends a message”; it signals that legislators are nice people trying to do the right thing.
This is one of the worst aspects of European politics, and it is seeping into the U.S.: a tendency to declamatory legislation, legislation that is intended to strike a pose — with someone else’s money — rather than achieve significant results.
LOPEZ: Why were you fascinated by the Contract with America?
HANNAN: We are already losing sight of its magnitude. The Republicans did something that no one had thought possible, capturing the House after 40 years. More than this, though, they kept their promises, delivering nine out of their ten pledges. I was convinced that my own party, also seeking to take office after a series of petty scandals in the legislature, could learn from that example. I traveled to Atlanta to meet Newt Gingrich, and to Dallas to meet Dick Armey, and the more I listened to them, the more impressed I became. When the results came in in 1994, journalists kept asking Gingrich what he planned to do next. “Implement the Contract,” he would say. Yeah, yeah, the campaign’s over now, what are you really going to do? “Here’s a copy. Read it.”
The Conservatives took my message on board. Two weeks before polling day in May, our “Contract with Britain” was mailed to nearly 2 million marginal voters. It worked: The polls immediately turned in our direction.
LOPEZ: How does your reaction to the House GOP “Pledge to America” compare?
HANNAN: We’ll know soon enough whether it was successful. My guess is that, once again, the GOP will take the House. But the real test comes with implementation. In the mid-1990s, Republicans reintroduced Americans to an idea that had been almost totally forgotten, namely that politicians can keep their promises.
LOPEZ: Is the Tea Party a wholly American phenomenon?
HANNAN: Yes, because open primaries are a wholly — or almost wholly — American phenomenon. There was a survey last week by the BBC World Service of 23,000 people in 22 countries. In all but one of these countries, people wanted spending cuts rather than tax rises. In other words, the desire for tax cuts is not peculiar to the U.S. But the belief that you can do something about it through your democratic mechanisms is a fairly unusual one. In countries where candidates are selected by the parties rather than by local people, certain points of view are excluded from the legislature. Unsurprisingly, voters in those countries believe that a Tea Party would simply be ignored.
LOPEZ: You say that British liberties thrive in the U.S. Any hope for them in England?
HANNAN: I know Americans like to see their Revolution as a national struggle, a war of independence. But this reading depends on disregarding much of what the patriot leaders were arguing at the time. They saw themselves not as revolutionaries, but as conservatives. All they were asking for, in their own minds, were the rights they had always assumed to be theirs as freeborn Englishmen.
As I argue in the book, people in Great Britain seem to have seen things much the same way that people did in the 13 colonies. Insofar as historians can infer from the data, Toryism attracted roughly the same level of support on both sides of the Atlantic, namely around 35 percent. The difference was that the colonial assemblies had a wider franchise than the House of Commons, and so were more representative of public opinion.
So, yes, British liberties thrive in North America. The framers of the U.S. Constitution saw themselves as part of a continuing tradition, stretching back through the English Civil War, back even through Magna Carta, to the folkright of Anglo-Saxon common-law freedoms. And they believed, naturally, that Great Britain was equally the inheritor of this tradition. As Thomas Jefferson wistfully observed, in a line that his fellow authors insisted on excising from the Declaration of Independence, “We might have been a great and free people together.” We might yet.
LOPEZ: You write with a great deal of clarity and common sense and love for American constitutional principles. How in the world were you once a fan of Barack Obama?
HANNAN: I thought his victory would serve to silence some of America’s critics; and, in the short term, it did. When his opponents complained that he was “all things to all men,” I saw no dishonor in that. The phrase comes from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: Paul describes how he came as a Jew to the Jews, as a Greek to the Greeks, and so on. This is part of what a U.S. president is supposed to do: to be a unifying figure at home and an ambassador abroad. I had also become disillusioned with the GOP. The longer the Republicans stayed in office, the less Republican they seemed. They had become a party of external tariffs, of federal spending, of contempt for states’ rights, of the surveillance state, and, latterly, of bailouts and nationalizations. I had no idea that Barack Obama would immediately expand the federal government by a third. After all — it seems an eternity ago — he had campaigned on a promise of tax cuts.
Finally, I was taken aback by the vehemence of the personal attacks on Obama. Leftists are forever judging people’s worth by where they are placed on the political spectrum, and I feel we conservatives should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Your president may be mistaken, but he is not wicked. His children are old enough to read and remember what is written about him. His critics would perhaps be more convincing if they remembered this.
LOPEZ: How do you view Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi today?
HANNAN: Hang on: I was never for Reid or Pelosi. I urged all my American friends to vote Republican in the 2008 congressional elections, and I’m doing the same today. I’ll give them this, though: When they pushed through the health-care reforms, they understood that it might well cost them their majority. Several Democrats knew that, in supporting the legislation, they were putting themselves out of a job. Obviously, I was against Obamacare; but I wish I could say with confidence that there would be as many principled Republican congressmen if it were the other way around.
LOPEZ: What might Hayek say about The New Road?
HANNAN: Once he’d got over his shock at the level of spending and state intervention in the modern world, I hope he’d see it as a timely warning to — as he put it — “socialists in all parties.”
LOPEZ: Did you learn anything you didn’t know — or fully appreciate — about America during the course of writing the book?
HANNAN: Yes: Most of you have no idea of how lucky you are.
LOPEZ: How do you ultimately view your book? An affirmation of the Tea Party movement? A love letter to America? A desperate plea? What would be the ideal impact of it?
HANNAN: It’s a warning: a warning from someone whose present resembles your future. As Ayn Rand said of Atlas Shrugged, it will have worked if the future it describes doesn’t come to pass.
LOPEZ: What kind of career move is it for a European politician to write such a thing?
HANNAN: I’m not European, I’m British. There is a market for anti-Americanism on the left in most countries, including the U.S. itself. In parts of Europe, the market isn’t confined to the Left. But my constituents, in the southern counties of England, feel far more affinity with the Anglosphere than with Europe. They see the U.S., and the other free, English-speaking democracies, as our obvious and permanent allies. They understand that we have a stake in your success.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.