In conversation with Dan Hannan

February 12, 2014

Daniel Hannan is one of Britain’s foremost conservative intellectuals. He spoke to Nick Cater by telephone from Brussels as he prepared for a lecture tour of Australia. Read The Weekend Australian article drawn from this interview here.

Nick Cater: The project of colonisation receives a bad press these days, but you say Australia owes its success to the sentiments and civic institutions brought here by the British. What is your evidence?

Daniel Hannan: I suppose the obvious answer is to compare Australia to surrounding countries, Indonesia or Vietnam for instance. It is natural to become blasé about the familiar and Anglosphere societies tend to take for granted the rule of law, personal liberty, free contract, regular elections, uncensored newspapers, equality between men and women, jury trials, habeas corpus.

But these things are not the natural condition of mankind. They’re not even western values, or rather they became western values only –if we are blunt – because of a series of military victories by the English-speaking people. These were precepts that were overwhelmingly developed in the language in which you and I are now talking.

We delude ourselves if we imagine that every country will automatically get there when it becomes wealthy, educated or developed enough.

Cater: You’ll be familiar no doubt with the views that Australia found success “riding on the sheep’s back.” To me that suggests a rather passive route to prosperity. Yet there was nothing accidental or inevitable about Australia’s success.

Hannan: No. Australia was settled in incredibly difficult circumstances as I understand it. The prospects faced by the first British colonists were, from our present perspective, almost unimaginably harsh – the distance, the unfamiliar flora and fauna and the lack of any resources beyond what they brought with them. And yet Australia now enjoys on any measure one of the highest standards of living on the planet.

Why did that happen in Australia rather than in any other of those surrounding places? Well, the really precious resource those early settlers brought with them to Australia 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. That’s the magic ingredient that led to modern capitalism and modern freedom.

Once it’s there, people will come from all over the world and benefit from it. It doesn’t matter whether your ancestors are Croatian or Greek or whatever. 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.

Cater: Do you think that the Dutch or the French would have made such a good job of it?

Hannan: We can see that the French wouldn’t have done. They had a very different style of government and a very different style of colonial administration. The Dutch might well have done. The Netherlands and the British Isles were developing very much in parallel towards individualism and free trade. In fact the Dutch beat us to it in one important sense which is that they got the modern system of capitalism, if we define it as limited liability and joint stock ventures – the Dutch got that slightly before us.

Why was it the English speaking peoples who came to spread liberty rather than the Dutch? It was an accident of geography. The balance of power tilted overwhelmingly from the low countries to Great Britain the last decade of the 17th Century and the first two decades of the 18th. Britain was an island and so didn’t need a big standing army. It relied on its navy. The Dutch had the misfortune to occupy an almost indefencible low-lying plain and between 1689 and 1720 they were exhausted in a series of defensive wars against the French. And that’s the period when the Dutch trading houses and banks started relocated from Amsterdam to London. It was to that moment that you can trace the rise of the Anglosphere to global dominance.

Cater: There is a live debate in Australia about a national curriculum. On the conservative side, the view is frequently expressed that the draft curriculum pays too little attention to Australia’s European cultural heritage, something often characterised as “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” But I suspect you would describe our heritage as something subtly different from that, something that draws upon more than religion.

Hannan: Yes. I think 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. It is true that it can’t be wholly divorced from the religious context in which all political discourse took place until very recently. It’s probably also true to say that in the early stages, the individualist culture of the Anglosphere was, in political terms, influenced by Protestantism.

That is not the same as saying that it was stronger among Protestants, however. One of the things that always struck visitors from Europe and particularly visitors from Catholic European countries, is that American Catholics had the same attitude to personal liberty that English speaking protestants had.

There was a political culture that drew from the specific religious teaching that emphasised the individual over the hierarchy. 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.

Cater: How do you respond to the accusation that the theory of Anglospheric exceptionalism adopts a racist interpretation of history?

Hannan: That’s the default setting for people who haven’t bothered to listen to what you’ve said. 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 beauty of these values is that they are transferable.

There was a time in the Victorian period when it became mixed up with the then-prevalent ideas of racial determinism. But I don’t think anyone could conceivably claim now that Anglosphere values are transmitted genetically rather than intellectually. Every Anglsphere country, including the UK, has received massive populations from elsewhere and the extraordinary thing about this is that it applies to any individual. Your grandparents could have come from Ukraine or Vietnam, but once you get the hang of living in a society characterised by personal liberty and the rule of law, there is no going back.

Cater: Is this an argument in support of multiculturalism? Is the nation’s shared philosophical framework adopted by all those arrive?

Hannan: It depends what you mean by “multicultural.” In Britain the word is seen on the Left as being almost synonymous with “multi-ethnic” which plainly it isn’t. If by multiculturalism you mean valuing different sets of civic values equally than I am an opponent of it. It’s possible to have a cohesive state where people will eat differently and dress differently and pray differently, but it is not possible to have a functioning state where they have completely opposed views about the role of democracy, the relationship between the individual and the state, the role of secularism and so forth.

One of the things that English-speaking societies were very good at until recently is accepting people as individuals without hectoring, without saying that you have to leave behind your cultural tradition, but you did have buy in to a certain way of doing politics. And the reason people were happy to buy into the way they did politics was because it works.

When I was last in Australia I was struck, and quite moved, by the multi-ethnic makeup of the people who had come to listen to me hymning the virtues of the Anglosphere and as far  as I could tell, they were pretty ethnically representative of the cities that I was speaking in. That’s a tremendous tribute to a political system that holds out something that people want to belong to. Personal freedom, free contract capitalism, the common law; people want to buy into that. They cross half the world in order to find a better system than the one they are choosing to get away from.

Cater: Where does the Enlightenment, and specifically perhaps the Scottish Enlightenment, fit into the jigsaw of the creation of liberty?

Hannan: The Anglosphere has had different capitals at different times. It was briefly  Philadelphia, and then it was London, but there was definitely a time when the capital was Edinburgh. The legacy of David Hume, Adam Smith and others is palpably around us now.

The tragedy is that that legacy is not palpable in Scotland. The country that gave us the purest and best expression of Anglosphere economics through the works of Adam Smith has completely turned its back on its own son and his teachings.

Margaret Thatcher frequently said she could not understand why the Scots did not vote for her. They are famous for being thrifty and provident and hard working. One of her Scottish MPs said to her: “It’s true that most Scots are like that Margaret. But most Scots who are like that are no longer in Scotland. They the ones who emigrated to England or Canada or Australia.”

I think there is a more prosaic explanation. In the 1980s, when Thatcher was Prime Minister, successive Scottish secretaries tried to kill separatism with kindness by securing and spending bigger and bigger budgets north of the border. And of course, completely predictably, a higher percentage of people became dependant on the state. And then they voted Labor.

It became a rational career choice to work for the government, and so the best and brightest kids gravitated into the public sector instead of making things or selling things. If they really were entrepreneurs they would move to another part of the English-speaking world. That’s the real tragedy of Scotland, and I say this as the child of a Scottish mother.

Cater: In Inventing Freedom you write: “Having developed and exported the most successful system of government known to the human race, the English-speaking peoples are tiptoeing away from their own creation.” Can you expand?

Hannan: The more I researched this topic, the more I came to the conclusion that the real exceptionalism of the Anglosphere could be found in our bizarre, anomalous, beautiful legal system. The miracle of the common law is that is assumes residual rights and assumes personal liberty. It is not a system that anybody would invent.

The logical way of creating a legal system is the way they do it in Europe – the Roman law or Bonapartist thing where you write down the law in the abstract and then you apply it to specific cases. It’s very, very odd to have what you and we have, a 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.

Cater: If I’m interpreting you correctly, the implication is that the expansion of the state is inherently illiberal.

Hannan: 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.

I think Britain went wrong first. Of the core Anglosphere countries we’re in a much worse state than you are, and the reason for it is that we were in the Second World War in more intense way. There was a total marshalling of national resources for the war effort and nationalisation, I.D. cards, rationing and so forth. Powers given to the government, supposedly contingently for the war effort, were not returned when the peace came.

The welfare system that we have to this day was conceived in the early 1940s. The National Health Service and the education system were war babies; they came out of a mentality that held it unpatriotic to complain about or question authority. That was the beginning of our flight away from individualism. It happened in other English speaking countries more slowly and later, which is why I think your position is better than ours.

Cater: The European Union is, of course, a particular problem.

Hannan: Yes. That’s the huge additional nightmare that we face that the rest of the English-speaking democracies, other than Ireland do not. Being in the E.U. 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.

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.

Cater: In that neat little book you wrote on the EU in 2012, A Doomed Marriage, you suggest that Britain would have fared better if it had continued to trade with the Commonwealth rather than throw in its lot with Europe.

Hannan: Yes. In retrospect we couldn’t have timed it more badly. We went in that the beginning of the 1970s when it looked as if the Commonwealth was in decline and that all the action was in Western Europe. Between 1945 and 1973 Western Europe spectacularly outgrew Britain and the Commonwealth and indeed the United States for that matter.

We joined in 1973 and Europe’s growth came to end with the oil shock of 1974. 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 in particular.

Cater: You say Australia’s intellectuals regard Anglospheric values “as a distraction from their country’s supposed Asian destiny.” Could pro-Asian sentiment send Australia off course in the same way pro-European sentiment sent Britain off course?

Hannan: 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. Your geographical location and your time zone is a huge asset. One of the reasons why Australia and New Zealand are doing better than Britain is that our immediate neighbours are in economic collapse and your immediate neighbours are growing. If I was an Australian I would be in favour of maximum free trade with everybody.

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 Asiamainland. The only places in Asia that have a comparable climate of economic  freedom are the other Anglosphere countries: Hong Kong and Singapore.

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 that British Euro fanatics have. They think they are the majority, because everybody they know thinks like them and the general population doesn’t feature.

Cater: The entrenchment of what we might call the cultural eliteis clearly an international phenomenon. And we shouldn’t be surprised at that since they share a universalist outlook. They like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, which I would imagine you find a troubling concept.

Hannan: Yes. The European construction itself assumes that national loyalties are arbitrary, transient and discreditable. The difficulty post-nationalism faces, however, is that you cannot legislate against human nature.

Let’s say you’re watching news footage of a disaster on the other side of the world affecting strangers. There’s something almost wrong with you if that affects you in the exactly the same way as watching the footage of a natural disaster in your home town where you know people. There would be something inhuman about that. It may be irrational, but it is no less powerful for being irrational in the same way that we feel differently about our own kids than kids in general.

It’s bad politics to try to wish human nature way or to legislate as if it didn’t exist. You’ve got to start with the reality of how people are made and then try and design political institutions that are suited to the way in which we’ve evolved.

Cater: The draft Australian Curriculum has three cross-curriculum priorities. These are the themes that run through it: Indigenous heritage, sustainability and engagement with Asia. It seems to me the last of those could be used as a device to steer us away from the Anglosphere.

Hannan: And this is exactly why you shouldn’t have national curricula. We introduced our national curriculum in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and it was introduced supposedly as a way of stopping loony Left teachers. In fact it was immediately captured, totally predictably, by the very people that it was supposed to deter. It was dragged, as these things always are when they get into the hands of the permanent bureaucracy, to the far Left.

I can’t imagine that the current Prime Minister of Australia would design a curriculum along the lines you suggest. But I sometimes think you have to have been in politics to see how powerless the elected representative is. Your ability, even as a national leader, to take on this powerful, permanent apparat, of this standing leftist bureaucracy, is remarkably limited.

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. The answer is not to get your guys in charge of it. 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.

Cater: Why does the centre Right seem so hopeless at winning these cultural arguments?

Hannan: It’s not that they’re hopeless. They’re up against impossible odds. Imagine that you’re an MP. Think about how your week works: you’ve got constituency work; you’ve got correspondence to attend to; you’ve got to turn up to debates; you’ve got to be glad-handing other MPs. And then you’re made a minister as well. And you’re one guy.

In your department you have five or six hundred people working Monday to Friday on their agenda. There is no way you’re going to impose your will on them. That’s the iron law of politics. So your best in that situation is to do what our Education Secretary Michael Gove is doing in London and recognise that you cannot impose victory in a culture what on the Left educational establishment. So what you do is to let schools opt out of it. You trust the parents to do the right thing.

And it’s worked. It is visibly working. Our standards have turned around in the time since he took over.

Cater: On the subject of domestic British politics, you have been quoted as saying that you think an association between the Conservatives and UKIP would be a better fit than a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Why is that?

Hannan: What I’m interested in, in the short term, is a Tory-UKIP accommodation of some kind at the next election. It is possible for Cameron to win without it, but it is much, much harder.

Cater: Yes, it seems to me that Australia is one of the few western democracies where there the Right hasn’t fractured. The mainstream Centre Right party hasn’t had a serious socially conservative, nationalist counterforce.

Hannan: That’s right. Obviously your voting system makes that easier in one sense. Nevertheless I think there is a prospect of this working in Britain because one guy who totally gets this is Lynton Crosby. His whole early life was in a place where that was taken for granted.

Cater: What about you? Have you any personal ambition to win a seat in Westminister?

Hannan: No. It’s not something I’m interested in.

Cater: And yet you have a high profile for a Euro MP. I noticed for instance that the YouTube recording of your devalued-prime minister attack on Gordon Brown has had more hits than Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech.

Hannan: Nobody ever believes me, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t particularly enjoy being a politician.  I’m in politics with a view to putting myself out of work. I’m longing for the days when there are no more British MEPs.