How the English speaking people invented freedom
Published in The Weekend Australian, February 15, 1024
IT is safe to assume that the academics responsible for the Australian Curriculum would disagree with Daniel Hannan’s proposition that the English-speaking people are blessed with an exceptional virtue.
Hannan, as it turns out, disagrees with national curriculums, and says the Coalition government will come to regret its decision to support one.
More of that in a moment, but first a warning: politically correct readers may find the views expressed in this article offensive.
Hannan is a British member of the European parliament and author of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. His unfashionable claim is that the British Empire was a force for good, and that far from saying sorry for colonial settlement we should be saying thank you.
The civic system to which Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US owe their stability and success began with a quirky idea that took hold on a damp isle on the western edge of Europe: the state should be subject to the law rather than the other way round.
Australia’s most important resource is not natural but imported: the spirit of liberty under the rule of law brought here by the early settlers.
“It was a way of arranging their affairs that elevated the individual above the state and that elevated the rule of law above the power of the executive,” Hannan told Inquirer in a phone interview from Brussels this week.
“That’s the magic ingredient that led to modern capitalism and modern freedom. Everybody does better under that system.
“The reason why a child of Greek parents in Melbourne is better off than a child of Greek parents in Mytilene has nothing to do with race and everything to do with political structures.”
The idea of Anglosphere Exceptionalism would have seemed too obvious to need stating in Australia a generation or two ago.
With the abandonment of the White Australia policy from the late 1960s onwards, however, and Britain’s rejection of Commonwealth in favour of joining the EU,
British patriotic sentiment became distasteful to the Australian intelligentsia, who came to view it as akin to racism. It is a criticism with which Hannan is familiar.
“That’s the opening gambit of somebody who can’t be bothered to read the thesis.It’s demonstrably false. The Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti. It’s why Hong Kong is not China. It’s why Singapore is not Indonesia.”
The notion that the dynamic qualities of Britishness were racially determined was a heresy that took hold in the 19th century and flourished until World War II, says Hannan.
“When I was last in Australia, I was struck, and quite moved, by the multi-ethnic make-up of the people who had come to listen to me hymning the virtues of the Anglosphere,” he says.
“Personal freedom, free contract capitalism, the common law are things people want to buy in to. They cross half the world in order to find a better system.”
The enabling principle of personal liberty was imported from Britain and then improved upon in the colonies, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his study of the US in the 19th century. “The American,” Tocqueville wrote, “is the Englishman left to himself.”
Australia, in Hannan’s estimation, is “not a spill-over Britain, but an intensified Britain”. The defining Australian character of egalitarianism, often seen as a rejection of the British class system, may owe more to the mother country than we are inclined to imagine.
“The British had, historically, been remarkably ready to defy their rulers,” Hannan writes in his latest book.
“Australians took these characteristics much further. Any visitor to Australia is struck by the endurance of these characteristics: informality, bloody-mindedness, individualism, self-reliance, in short, is (John Stuart) Mill’s libertarian philosophy made flesh.”
Conservative critics of the national curriculum say it skates too lightly over the virtues of Australia’s colonial heritage, a tradition they commonly describe as “Judeo-Christian”. Hannan’s conclusion is subtly different. Christianity, and particularly the Protestant tradition, may have provided the seedbed for personal liberty, but it was principally in Britain that it flourished.
“There is a unique lineage of liberty that you can trace back in the English-speaking world that is qualitatively different from the Polish experience, the Russian experience or the Italian experience,” he tells Inquirer.
“It is true that it can’t be wholly divorced from the religious context but the outcome of that has long since transcended its denominational roots. There is an Anglosphere culture that is as strong in Ireland or, for that matter, Singapore, as in Australia or Britain.”
Yet, says Hannan, having developed and exported the most successful system of government known to the human race, the English-speaking intelligentsia is now walking away from its own creation.
Britain’s intellectual elites see Anglosphere values as an obstacle to European integration. Contentiously, he concludes: “Their equivalents in Australia see them as a distraction from their country’s supposed Asian destiny.”
The Conservative Euro MP from Britain is keen to clear up any misunderstanding.
“To be absolutely clear, I do not mean that you should not be profiting from the economic growth of Asia – you would be crazy not to do that,” he says. “It doesn’t follow that you need to redefine your political system. On the contrary; yours has demonstrably worked better than most of those on the Asian mainland.
“I was really struck when I was in Australia last that the kind of people who saw Asia as kind of alternative to the Anglosphere were the precise equivalent to British Europhiles, politically and socially. They were equally dominant in the same fields, in parts of the media and parts of academic life, and they had exactly the same attitudes British Euro fanatics have.”
Nevertheless, he insists, the flight away from individualism has been slower in Australia and the US than in Britain, leaving us in a stronger position.
The marshalling of national resources by the British government during World War II was the precursor for the welfare state.
“Powers given to the government, supposedly contingently for the war effort, were not returned when the peace came,” he says.
Since the early 1970s, Britain has faced a “huge additional nightmare”: the EU.
“Being in the EU means accepting the primacy of EU law over national law. It’s meant a revolution in our legal system and it’s meant a revolution therefore in the assumption of what the government does,” he says.
Hannan will be at the forefront of the campaign for a decision to withdraw from the EU at the referendum that David Cameron’s government has promised.
“The great advantage of us leaving, apart from us being able to trade with the wider world, is that we would, I hope, rediscover the libertarian tradition that used to go with the common law,” Hannan says.
In retrospect, Britain could not have timed its entry into Europe more badly.
“We joined in 1973 and Europe’s growth came to end with the oil shock of 1974,” he says.
“And just at that moment was when the Commonwealth began the economic take-off that continues to this day. It was a calamitous error economically, let alone the ties of sentiment and affection that bound us to the old dominions.”
The challenge for Australia is to learn from the European experience and to resist the tyranny of an ever-expanding state, he says.
“It’s very, very odd to have what you and we have, which is this system where nobody really wrote the law down, it just kind of emerged. It grew like your Great Barrier Reef, coral by coral, each case leading on to the next one.
“A consequence of that is that it is assumed that you are completely free except in so far as a law has had to be developed to protect somebody else’s freedom. And that leads to a completely different mentality that, up until very recently, served to keep the state small.
“The other great civilisations of the world, the Mings or the Moguls or the Ottomans, all ended up going down the road towards high taxes, uniformity, bureaucracy and over-regulation. And they all went into decline.
“The Anglosphere was always a diverse plurality based on elevating enterprise and individualism. I’m not sure that this uniqueness will survive the expansion of the size of the state that we are now experiencing.”
The expansion of the state, particularly the deadening hand of the permanent bureaucracy, is at the heart of Hannan’s objections to national curricula.
“We introduced our national curriculum in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, supposedly as a way of stopping loony Left teachers,” he says.
“In fact it was immediately captured, totally predictably, by the very people it was supposed to deter.”
We discussed the draft Australian Curriculum’s priority themes of sustainability and Asian engagement.
“I can’t imagine that the current Prime Minister of Australia would design a curriculum along the lines you suggest,” says Hannan. “Inevitably, if you give them a national curriculum, no matter how huge the conservative majority might be in parliament, it is going to be taken over by the cultural relativists and the politically correct.”
Hannan’s solution demands the exercise of personal liberty.
“The answer is not to get your guys in charge of it,” he says. “The answer is to scrap it and let parents pick what schools they want, because they can invigilate the system a billion times better than any conservative politician.”