How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters
Head of Zeus, London
Time has proved Francis Fukiyama wrong, the triumph of democracy is not inevitable, nor should it be taken for granted. As Blair, Bush and their allies found, western freedom cannot be exported at the point of a gun.
Neither can we be certain that democracy will survive the onslaughts levelled against it. In 1940 it had almost vanished from Europe and held out only in a small damp island on the Atlantic fringe. It is only due to the interventions of the Anglo-sphere Commonwealth and the USA that democracy exists anywhere on the European continent.
Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for South East England, argues that what we understand as ‘Western’ freedom is actually an invention emerging from that small damp Atlantic island; it was born and nurtured within an Anglo-sphere consisting of those countries shaped by and continuing to hold the political concepts which arose in Great Britain, principally England.
This is no claim to ethnic superiority, but it is about superior values. Hannan sees Anglo-sphere values as developing in a multi-ethnic context and are, ‘transmitted through intellectual exchange rather than gene flow’. Whilst continental Europe is firmly outwith the Anglo-sphere he points out that the largest Anglo-sphere democracy is India, and that large sections of the Commonwealth are part of the Anglo-sphere
‘What raised the English-speaking peoples to greatness was not a magical property in their DNA, nor a special richness in their earth, nor yet an advantage in military technology, but their political and legal institutions. The happiness of the human race depends, more than anyone likes to admit, on the survival and success of those institutions.’
These institutions Hanna sees as central to Western civilisation and arising from the Anglo-sphere are:
- The rule of law; common law which has emerged from within the state and is interpreted by independent magistrates, especially the principle that the government is as bound by the law as the governed.
- Representative government; the right of the people to choose their own leaders, who are then held accountable by the people.
- Individual liberty; the individual is free to associate freely, buy and sell freely, speak, believe and think freely.
These institutions led to the revolutionary concept that the state is the servant of the populace, not the master.
Hannan’s argument is that elected Parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, a free press and the other aspects of freedom we value did not just happen but are the product of a particular political ideology which gradually developed over centuries amongst English speakers. Things that we have come to take for granted, such as the jury system, innocence until proven guilty, the rule of law and representative government, are highly unusual. ‘The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin.’
Hannan sweeps through a thousand years of history tracing the development of these institutions. From the pre-Norman ability to choose and remove a king, through Magna Carta, to the three Anglospehre civil wars wars, the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. These Hannan sees as wars fought to resist overweening states which would coerce their subjects and limit the freedoms of the individual.
Hannan rightly acknowledges that Protestantism played a part in shaping the political structures of the Anglo-sphere However, quite understandably, he fails to grasp the centrality of Reformed thinking to shaping our understanding of freedom. In discussing the importance of the state being subject to the law he fails to mention the significance of Rutherford’s Lex Rex. As well as Reformed ecclesiology, doctrines such as that of election,had a significant impact on a hierarchical society. Not for nothing did George III describe the American Revolution as his ‘Presbyterian war’.
For a more in depth study of the importance of Reformed theology for political freedom The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World by Douglas F Kelly is an introduction at a popular level; whilst The Revolution of the Saints by Michael Walzer is a more academic examination of the role of Puritanism as a revolutionary ideology in a time of social disintegration when a traditional order was crumbling but had not yet been replaced.
What concerns Hannan is that today ‘The English-speaking peoples are tiptoeing away from their own creation… In every English-speaking country, a multiculturalist establishment hangs back from teaching children that they are heirs to a unique political heritage.’
In a day when in the West free expression is being increasingly limited and the state is drawing ever greater powers to itself this book is a timely reminder not only of the origins, but also the importance of the basic freedoms we enjoy.