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How We Invented Freedom
& Why It Matters
by Daniel Hannan
Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP who suffers neither doubt nor diffidence. He is lauded by activists for his hostility to the EU and is a prominent advocate of a Tory-UKIP alliance. This book, he writes, 'tells the story of freedom - which is to say, the Anglosphere'.
On Hannan's telling, the idea of liberty was a creation of these islands' political and legal institutions. His history takes in the Magna Carta, Civil War and Glorious Revolution, but he maintains that England as early as the 10th century had embarked on constitutionalism.
Then came catastrophe, for in 1066 England was 'brutally wrenched out of the Nordic world and subjected to European feudalism'. The rediscovery of this old tradition established the rule of law and representative government. It led to parliamentary democracy and the American Constitution. Individual rights enabled citizens to live freely and own property. There is scarcely a benign social outcome that Hannan does not attribute to the 'individualist market system developed by the Anglosphere'.
Not every assertion is wrong, but this book might as well be illustrated with cartoons. It is one thing to argue that the doctrine of checks and balances that developed in 17th-century England informed American colonial practice. It is scarcely credible to give an account of US constitutionalism that bypasses Athens and the Venetian republic and makes but a brief, condescending reference to the Dutch republic.
The book lacks a bibliography, but this hardly matters given Hannan's taste for talking off the top of his head. It is not enough for him to commend Samuel Johnson's dictionary as 'three [in fact, nine] years of work by a single, brilliant, idiosyncratic mind'. He has to declare that working in Strasbourg 'has convinced me that there are intrinsic properties in English that favour the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas'.
If Hannan were more interested in Europe's culture, he would know the tradition of French grammarians who maintain that theirs is a uniquely logical language. And if he consulted a linguist, Hannan would realise the fallacy of claiming that any tongue has intrinsic qualities of empiricism.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Hannan's history has been constructed backwards from his political conclusions. He laments that Britain has surrendered sovereignty to the EU. He lambasts President Obama, who 'doesn't like the British'. Hannan cites some real historians but also charlatans, such as the 'intellectually dazzling' Enoch Powell. His source on the politics of America's first black president is a columnist who urges repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. History is more opaque than Hannan allows. American constitutionalism's concern for limited government hampered the anti-slavery cause. Edmund Burke, whom Hannan anoints 'the intellectual grandfather of the conservative Anglosphere tradition', defended laws excluding Dissenters and Catholics from office.
Pointing out such discrepancies in his account of freedom will have scant effect on his supporters. Commended by Boris Johnson, this book exemplifies an insular and stubbornly anti-intellectual strain in modern conservatism.
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