Good reads: ‘How We Invented Freedom
and Why it Matters’ by Daniel Hannan

Good Reads

Western civilisation has deep roots. The Greeks invented democracy and philosophy. The Romans spread civilisation across Western Europe. Medieval Christendom fostered a loose European identity that still persists to this day. The religious wars of the 1600s gave birth to the notion of religious tolerance and inviolable nation states.

But as Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP and honorary president of Conservatives for Liberty argues, the modern Western ideal of freedom under law is peculiarly English.

Any conservative looking for a robust intellectual defence of the Anglosphere tradition would do well to pick up a copy of Daniel Hannan’s ‘How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters’.

Hannan completely rejects the currently-fashionable Marxist notion that British history is all about exploitation: the oppression of slaves by free men, peasants by landowners, factory hands by industrialists, Irishmen, Africans and Indians by posh, swaggering imperialists.

He comes out swinging with a defence of the much-derided Whig view of history. The mistake of the Whig historians like Macauley and Trevelyan, Hannan argues, was to see history as a series of steps towards the inevitable triumph of liberty.

But modern historians are wrong to write their contributions off completely. Many of the events the Whigs celebrated are genuinely exceptional. No other nation had a Magna Carta. No other nation had a Glorious Revolution.

And in any case, many of the most celebrated “modern” historians – men like Eric Hobsbawm, EH Carr, EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and CLR James – are guilty of the same crimes they accuse Macauley of.

Like the Whigs, the Marxist historians see history as an unrelenting advance towards victory. But the victory they seek is not a world where all human beings are free but one where the organised working classes have crushed all opposition.

Britain, Hannan argues, is unique because of its legal and political culture.

The Anglosphere concept of liberty begins in the tribal forest gatherings of Germania described by Tacitus. It took flight across the North Sea, and put down deep roots, with the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain. It has been with us ever since. Danish and Norman conquerors became English, and adopted English ideas of government. The seed of liberty was an ideal that refused to die.

It was this indigenous tradition of freedom that was asserted by Magna Carta in 1215. King John may have tried to overturn it, but over the next several centuries it became the foundation stone of British liberty.

An unbroken line runs from that date to this: through the foundation of Parliament by Simon de Montfort, the struggles against Charles I that led to the Civil War in the Three Kingdoms, via the Levellers, the Glorious Revolution, and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The institutions and ideas we take for granted are unique. Outside the English-speaking world, common law, jury trial, representative government and strong property rights are remarkably rare. Only in Denmark, Iceland and Holland did they spring up elsewhere.

Extremism has never flourished in Britain. Whilst revolutionary communism and national socialism swept across the continent of Europe, they failed to gain any purchase on the minds of the English-speaking peoples.

Our ancestors may have beheaded Charles I and established a Commonwealth, but they soon invited the monarchy back. Communists failed in their attempts to stir up revolution in England in both the 1840s and the 1960s. The nation that rejected Michael Foot at the ballot box will soon reject Jeremy Corbyn and his army of youthful fanatics as well.

The British concept of freedom was not to be confined to these islands. As Hannan convincingly asserts, nowhere is the tradition of liberty our ancestors once prided ourselves on stronger than in the United States of America.

The Pilgrims brought with them the Protestant faith, strong work ethic, language and values that have traditionally been the characteristics of the English-speaking peoples. Alone in a wilderness, separated from home by the wide Atlantic, they refined and strengthened those values.

In 1775 they upheld them against George III, with the support of the vast majority of English-speakers even in Britain. Today’s Tea Partier is yesterday’s Patriot.

When tyrants and dictators threaten to destroy liberty and democracy, the nations who stand against them have always been led by the English-speaking democracies: Britain, America, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and India – the largest English-speaking democracy of all.

There is a great debate raging now about British values: What are they? How do we preserve them? Daniel Hannan has magnificently contributed to that debate. His book is a thunderclap in defence of life, liberty and property.

Freedom is the common heritage of the English speaking peoples. Each generation must make up its mind whether it is worthy of it.

Chris has been a member of the Conservative Party since 2010. He believes strongly in individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the power of free markets to eliminate poverty by encouraging wealth creation. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmanby1989

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty.