December 13, 2013 6:55 pm

Books: on Britain’s place in the world

Contrasting visions of Britain’s place in the world from Daniel Hannan, David Howell and Douglas Alexander

How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters, by Daniel Hannan, Head of Zeus, RRP£20, 400 pages

Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks, by David Howell, IB Taurus, RRP£12.99/RRP$29.99, 256 pages

Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy, edited by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns, Guardian Books, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

‘Britannia’ (c.1915) by Sydney Kendrick©Bridgeman

‘Britannia’ (c.1915) by Sydney Kendrick

Across the back of Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters is a curious endorsement from Boris Johnson. The blurb starts conventionally enough, hailing the book as a “magnificent achievement”, before adding that Daniel Hannan “bestrides the Atlantic like a majestic combination of Winston Churchill and Piers Morgan”. Reading that, one might almost conclude that the mayor of London was taking the piss.

My own feelings towards Hannan and his new book are similarly ambivalent. I got to know the author when I was a correspondent in Brussels. He was then, as now, a Conservative member of the European Parliament and a vituperative critic of the EU. Although I thought his unswerving hostility towards the European project was misplaced, Hannan’s fierce dissent from the self-congratulatory Brussels consensus was rather bracing.

The argument of his book, expressed in the title, is that political liberty is fundamentally an English invention. To this day, Hannan writes, an Anglosphere of English-speaking nations have a fundamentally different concept of liberty from the more statist continental Europeans. The Anglos, according to Hannan, see their rights as established by tradition and rooted in law. The Euros, by contrast, believe that rights are granted by the state.

This will be dismissed by many as simple British jingoism. Yet the book is well constructed and researched – and Hannan goes some way to establishing the idea that there are philosophical and cultural ties that mean that there is such a thing as an “Anglosphere”. He quotes Churchill, who after a famous joint wartime service with Roosevelt, off the coast of Newfoundland, proclaimed: “Same language, same hymns and, more or less, the same ideals.” These days, after the Snowden revelations, one might add, “same secrets”.

 

Yet while Hannan has an interesting theme, his book is ultimately unconvincing. The problem is that it starts with a thesis and then ransacks history to illustrate the point, while carefully screening out awkward facts that do not fit the argument. Early on, he quotes approvingly from Herbert Butterfield’s famous critique of the Whig theory of history: “The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all the sins and sophistries in history.” But, having identified the problem, Hannan then illustrates it – by writing an ideologically driven history, designed to support a political position.

At times, the logical jumps and peculiar inferences in the argument are startling. Hannan’s book starts with a dramatic scene from his childhood, when “a mob attacked our family farm” in Peru. His father, despite suffering “from one of those diseases that periodically afflict white men in the tropics”, sees off the intruders with the help of a revolver and some security guards. Using this memory as a starting point, Hannan rejects the idea that “English and Spanish-speaking worlds are two manifestations of a common Western civilisation”. The “Hispanosphere”, which seems to include Spain itself, is closer to a Hobbesian “state of nature”. This seems a little hysterical. For all its troubles, modern Spain does not strike me as a lawless state, on the brink of descending into violent anarchy.

Before he can develop his argument, however, Hannan moves on to his real target, the European Union, asserting that: “The rule of law is regularly set aside when it stands in the way of what Brussels élites want.” His main evidence for this is that “the eurozone bailouts were patently illegal”. That is certainly a point of view but it is not one that is shared by the German constitutional court or the EU’s legal services. Both of these bodies may well have been influenced by politics. But neither bears much resemblance to the Peruvian bandits who were roaming Hannan’s book just a couple of pages earlier.

Hannan’s treatment of history is calmer and more considered than his opening salvos. Yet the problem of highly selective interpretation remains. In his efforts to demonstrate that Britain and the US share a political culture, he argues that the American War of Independence was in fact an “Anglosphere civil war” – with the American revolutionaries drawing heavily upon English political ideas and traditions dating back to the Magna Carta. The evidence that Hannan marshals is interesting. But so are the omissions. The crucial influence of the French enlightenment – Montesquieu in particular – on the American revolutionaries is barely acknowledged. Benjamin Franklin’s friendship with Voltaire is never alluded to. It is true that thinkers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu were themselves impressed by English political thinking. But that merely underlines something that Hannan is keen to deny: the existence of a common western tradition of thinking about political freedom that has drawn deeply on contributions from continental Europe.

 . . . 

 

What Hannan’s book reveals is the obsession of many British conservatives with finding a political and philosophical alternative to Europe. Hannan plumps for the Anglosphere. By contrast, David Howell – who served as a Foreign Office minister under David Cameron – is interested by the possibilities offered by the Commonwealth. Unlike Hannan, Howell is not viscerally hostile to the EU. He argues instead that the European debate is simply old-fashioned, when the forces that will shape the future are emerging in Asia and Africa. Appealing for Britain to look to the Commonwealth was once the last respite of nostalgic British imperialists. But Howell argues that, far from being a relic, the Commonwealth now provides a “lucky legacy” of connections to a third of the world’s population, and many of its most dynamic economies.

It is an appealing idea. But while Hannan’s argument leans too heavily on shared values, Howell’s fondness for the Commonwealth neglects them – a problem highlighted by the recent Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, with its dubious human rights record. As Hannan accurately notes: “The trouble with the Commonwealth . . . is that it contains some dictatorial regimes that have drifted away completely from Anglosphere values.”

With the Conservative party in uproar about Europe, it is now the opposition Labour party that is closest to establishment thinking on British foreign policy, as expressed in academia and the Foreign Office. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, has co-edited a new book of essays on the subject, which includes contributions from the directors of the leading British think-tanks and prominent academics on everything from the euro to the future of humanitarian intervention. Editing this volume will have been invaluable preparation for Alexander should he become foreign secretary – and reading it would be useful for students of international relations.

 

In his own co-written essays, Alexander starts his analysis with the “shift of economic power from West to East”, which he points out will profoundly change global politics. His complaint that “too much in the current government’s shift to Asia has been narrowly focused in the commercial realm” is well aimed – particularly after a recent prime ministerial visit to China that was little more than a glorified trade mission.

Influencing Tomorrow avoids some tough questions, however. The essay on the global nuclear order by Harvard’s Graham Allison is fascinating – but makes only a passing reference to Britain’s nuclear weapons. Yet British military spending is falling, which makes the commitment to the hugely expensive modernisation of the UK nuclear deterrent look questionable – not least to many Americans, who would prefer Britain to spend its resources on more useful military assets. It is difficult issues like this – rather than entertaining debates about the Anglosphere or the Commonwealth – that the next British foreign secretary will have to grapple with.

-------------------------------------------

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE