Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, by Daniel Hannan (Broadside, 416 pp., $26.99)
George Orwell, who spent his short career fighting the coupled perils of censorship and propaganda, famously accorded to the fictional ruling party of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s England the aphorism “He who controls the past controls the future.” But it was his contemporary, the less frequently quoted Aldous Huxley, who more presciently sketched out the threat to the free.
In Huxley’s dismal estimation, the primary hazard wasn’t so much the suppression of truth as it was apathy, nonsense, and disconnection from tradition. And the salient question for those who were protective of English liberty was not what would happen if their past were erased or replaced by force, but what would become of their countries if the citizenry became so distracted that it didn’t know anything about the past at all — if, that is, the people became “concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” Cynics such as myself might look around and ask, “Are we there yet?”
That the usually sunny Daniel Hannan, a prominent British member of the European Parliament, has felt the need to issue a reminder of his country’s cultural and political development suggests that the answer might, at least in a limited sense, be “Yes.” Secure in our movement, our trade, and our prosperity, Westerners are nonetheless marred by a clement amnesia — unsure where they came from, confused by conflicting accounts of their heritage, and corrupted in their inquiries by the deliberate conflation of race and culture.
It was “once uncontroversial to see the spread of liberty as bound up with the rise of the ‘Anglosphere,’” Hannan writes. Now, “it takes a major effort of will to imagine how revolutionary” are ideas such as individual rights, private property, and personal liberty — expressed in English-speaking lands through common law, religious freedom, presumption of innocence, trial by jury, and free markets — and how offbeat they “must have seemed when first proposed.” To the extent that we think about these things at all, many of us are likely simply to believe that it all just is. But if we don’t know that liberty is a contingent reality, with a specific historical development, that needs to be defended if it is to continue to exist, how can we be expected to defend it?
Its thesis is by no means new, but this is a brave and countercultural book nonetheless. In a world in which even the most innocuous observations can get one labeled a “racist” or a “hater,” Hannan — who is manifestly neither of those things — shows an admirable willingness to offer judgments that will inevitably be misunderstood, misquoted, and, eventually, portrayed as something sinister. There are, he notes correctly, “few scenarios in which the Anglosphere peoples can be cast as the underdogs” — and in a culture that has come to favor the underdog in all circumstances, History’s winners are unlikely to be much loved.
Popularity, power, and truth have a difficult relationship, but Hannan is admirably happy to risk the first two in order to advance the third. What we call “the West,” he notes delicately, is really just a “polite” way of referring to nations that have picked up those exceptional libertarian ideals that were developed initially in Britain and then spread through the New World and, eventually, across the globe. Likewise, when we refer to “free” nations, we mean those that have adopted, fought for, or had imposed upon them the “Ancient English cause,” thus joining what Lord Macaulay memorably described as “the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.”
While Hannan’s view is that Britain would “have been better off running trading posts and informal protectorates than assuming responsibility for vast tracts of land” — one suspects that he would have been philosophically of a piece with the 18th-century liberal reformers who held that the greatest day for the Empire would be when it could be dissolved, leaving liberty and order in its wake — he nevertheless has an important question for Britain’s critics: What was the alternative? Taking a cue from Dinesh D’Souza, who articulated this view well in What’s So Great About America, Hannan remembers that “what distinguished the English-speaking nations was not that they practiced slavery but that they crushed it,” and he channels Niall Ferguson in contending that, for many subjugated peoples, the alternative to British rule was not liberty but conquest by someone less enlightened.
Which is to say that Hannan is a Whig, in the best sense of that word. He is understandably proud that the core five Anglosphere nations have demonstrated such a pronounced tendency to resist tyranny — Communist parties never elected a single MP in Australia or New Zealand, managed to get just one into office in Canada, and elected only six in Britain — but he is keen to establish that this has been the product of ideas that can be adopted by anyone. Not only does Hannan soundly reject the racial arguments that can sometimes accompany claims of exceptionalism, but he also takes on that strain of conservative thought that holds that only certain cultures and races are suited to liberty. As India demonstrates, Hannan claims, what people need is a framework or “meme” — not the right set of genes. And the framework that they need is one that has been slowly developed by the British. This is why “Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia, why Hong Kong is not China (and, for that matter, not Macau).”
For a culturist and champion of the Anglosphere such as myself, this is all catnip. But funnily enough, I found the most interesting part of the book to be its discussion of an idea that cannot be so easily attributed to the English-speaking peoples and with which I have no strong personal connection: Protestantism. I have long argued in vague terms that America is a fundamentally “Protestant” society, by which I have absolutely not meant that only Protestants can be good citizens, but rather that the Founders were the product of not just a religiously Protestant inheritance but also of a politically Protestant worldview — and, too, that the two are historically inextricable.
This is to say that once a people becomes accustomed to cutting out the middlemen from their path to God, absolution, and salvation, it becomes easier for them to countenance cutting out the middlemen from their path to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well. Cultures in which the layman has been encouraged to have direct access to Scripture — as opposed to being forced to take the word of the clergy — are cultures in which men will defend parliaments against kings, and individuals against authorities. Yeoman farmers and lay preachers are, if you’ll forgive the pun, cut from the same cloth — independent, self-reliant, and with a direct line between themselves and their well-being.
In a fascinating passage, Hannan explains that Protestantism did not merely help forge the philosophy of individual liberty but came to be seen in “political rather than theological terms, as guarantor of free speech, free conscience, and free parliament.” The most effective of the grievances listed in the Declaration, Hannan writes, was the complaint about the Quebec Act, by which Thomas Jefferson transmuted a restoration of French civil law and Catholic tithing in British Canada into the accusation that the King had abolished “the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government.” In 1936, the historian Charles H. Metzger would write that, to many colonists, “the ‘Church of Rome’ was little less than the incarnation of evil; its adherents were thought capable of any crime; its creed was believed to be perversive and destructive of the very foundations of the social order.” How astonishing that, just a few years later, the new country ratified the First Amendment.
Books such as this are usually designed to set contemporary questions in their proper context. As the ancients were quoted liberally by the architects of the Enlightenment, so are the luminaries of the Age of Reason now deployed as bulwarks against radical change. Indeed, much of the final chapter is spent warning readers that they are at risk of squandering a beautiful and rare inheritance — the product of 1,100 years’ work, no less. As one might imagine, the European Union comes in for some choice words, as does Barack Obama, whose agenda Hannan regards as an existential threat to American liberty, and whose worldview belittles the “Anglo-Saxon values [that] made possible the transformation of our planet over the past three centuries.” (The author’s last book, remember, was called “The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America.”)
“An autopsy of history would show that all great nations commit suicide,” Arnold Toynbee once wrote. A few more Hannans manning the crisis lines and we might have a chance at survival.