Thursday, 23 October 2014

Maybe Dan Hannan's right, and it's time for the Anglosphere to circle the wagons in order to protect Freedom

During last night’s television news coverage of the terrorist outrage in Canada, a passing reference was made to the “Five Eyes”, the group of countries which routinely share intelligence on security matters: America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What they have in common, of course, is that they are English-speaking parliamentary democracies which share, in some measure, the ancient English concept of personal and economic freedom which can be traced back to Magna Carta – most vitally, they are countries which enjoy the rule of laws, not men (at least, they enjoyed it until Barack Obama came along and started gleefully tearing up the US Constitution… but I digress).

This reminded me that I’ve been meaning for some time to write enthusiastically about Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s utterly splendid history book, How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (available  here), in which he argues for the creation of a closer alliance between those Anglosphere countries which still cleave to the democratic form of government they inherited from Britain. Apart from the “Five Eyes”, he argues for including Ireland and India. He concedes that the last is a bit behind the curve, freedom-wise, but points out that it has eagerly thrown in its lot with its capitalist Anglophone cousins, and that Britain has a lot more in common with India than it does with most of its EU partners. He also suggests offering honorary membership to Scandinavian countries (from which England originally at least partially derived its concepts of law and liberty) and the Netherlands – a crucible of free-market capitalism before its Spanish masters nipped it in the bud.

If the English usurped the Dutch as the primary practitioners of freedom, it exported the concept to its colonies – most notably, America. Indeed, the patriots who won the War of Independence against Britain in 1776 were fighting for the principles which underpinned Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 – the American revolutionaries were conservative Britons fighting for the system of government and those freedoms which flowed from it established in Britain when the Stuarts were kicked out almost a century before. One colonial pamphleteer summarised those principles in 1775:
“Lawmakers should be directly accountable through the ballot box; the executive should be controlled by the legislature; taxes should not be levied, nor laws passed, without popular consent; the individual should be free from arbitrary punishment or confiscation; decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affected; power should be dispersed; no one, not even the head of state, should be above the law; property rights should be secure; disputes should be arbitrated by independent magistrates; freedom of speech, religion, and assembly should be guaranteed.”
All sounds good to me. The problem (for the UK, at least) is that much of it has little to do with the principles underpinning the EU. The problem for all the main Anglosphere countries is that many members of their ruling elites see the principles which animated the Glorious Revolution and the War of independence as a hindrance to, as Hannan puts it, “bringing their political systems into line with more autocratic foreign models”:
“The tragedy of our age is that those domestic opponents are succeeding. Having developed and exported the most successful system of government known to the human race, the English-speaking peoples are tip-toeing away from their own creation.
Britain’s intellectual elites see Anglosphere values as an impediment to assimilation into a European polity. Their equivalents in Australia see them as a distraction from their country’s supposed Asian destiny. In the United States, especially under the present administration, Anglosphere identity is seen as a colonial hangover, the patrimony of dead white European males. In every English-speaking country, a multicultural establishment hangs back from teaching children that they are heirs to a unique political heritage.”
Amen to all that.

One of the most interesting ideas raised in this truly splendid, heartening book is that the system of government based on personal and economic freedom which Britain and several of its former colonies so successful may have survived in English-speaking countries precisely because they speak English.
“Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words.”
Hannan goes on:
“There is an intriguing connection between the global dominance of English and the ideas that were first conceived and expressed in that language. As the philologist Robert Claiborne puts it, ‘The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated. Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.’ Madhav Das Nalapat, who holds the UNESCO Peace Chair… at Manipal University argues that ‘the spread of education in English has reduced the abstraction of radicalism.’ 
Could he be right? Could it be that the advance of democracy and free trade over the past six decades is connected to the rise of English as the first planetary language?”
I’ve no idea, but it’s fascinating to wonder whether thinking and expressing oneself in English rather than in, say, German, French, Russian or Arabic might make it easier to resist the chimera of human perfectibility and the sort of brutal totalitarian system such a delusional belief seems to entail in favour of an acceptance of human imperfectability and the system of limited government which seems to be its natural corollary.  


  1. A very interesting post. Thank you.
    Apart from language, the other characteristics the "Five Eyes" nations seem to share are:
    1. They have never suffered the horror of being occupied by military force since achieving nationhood.

    2. They are [mostly] surrounded by the natural barriers of vast quantities of water. [Treating Canada and America as one entity].

    3. They are all useless at playing football which is a great blessing.

    4. They mostly think that Continental Europeans have always been and continue to be a bloody nuisance.

  2. They also don't ullulate at funerals and have never come to close to voting in communist or fascist governments. And of course, their people tend to have a sense of humour.