Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters


Daniel Hannan


London: Head of Zeus, 2015*

Paperback. x+399 pp. ISBN 978-1781857564. £9.99


Reviewed by Adam Stephenson

Université de Picardie Jules-Verne (Amiens)



This book was warmly reviewed when it first came out in the UK in 2013 and won the newly-created Paddy Power award for the Polemic of the Year. Now it has been considered worth republishing. Under the slightly different title, Inventing Freedom : How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, it has enjoyed great success in the USA, too.

The UK title gives a better idea of the book’s contents. On the one hand, there is a historical argument, a bold Whiggish sweep through the story of the English-speaking peoples stopping at key moments to show us How We Invented Freedom; on the other, there is a political argument, a series of remarks about contemporary politics, becoming more insistent as the book goes on and explaining Why It Matters. It matters because the ‘Anglosphere’, the world’s last best hope of freedom, has forgotten this story. Assailed by cultural relativism and a general loss of confidence, elites in the UK Kwish to abandon national sovereignty to the European Union and other international bodies that never really understood freedom, while in the US, the federal government is turning away from any Anglosphere ‘special relationship’ but increasingly following the British path all the same, socialising healthcare and taking a lower profile on the international stage.

That the book won the Polemic award is no surprise. Hannan mostly writes beautifully, alternating Aristotle’s three rhetorical means of persuasion with uninterrupted brio and enlivening each with memorable anecdotes and choice quotations. His ethos―his credibility as a serious historian, internationalist and connoisseur of European institutions―is established by academic acknowledgements, tales from his Anglo-Peruvian childhood and stories of his work as a Member of the European Parliament. The pathos he tries to arouse in the reader is twofold: on the one hand, delight and pride that the old school history was largely true after all and ‘we’ really did invent freedom; on the other, fear of losing that freedom and a resolution to prevent it happening. The logos―that which, according to Aristotle, ‘proves or seems to prove’ the author’s case―is what is most interesting in his book; however, errors of method, fact and reasoning mean that an even moderately sceptical reader who is unmoved by the ethos and the pathos is unlikely to be convinced by the logos either.


‘This book tells the story of freedom―which is to say, it tells the story of the Anglosphere,’ says Hannan, summing up his historical argument. If that sounds ‘smug, triumphalist, even racist,’ he assures us that it is not, for the Anglosphere is not a racial grouping. It is the countries where the rule of law, personal liberty and representative government are taken for granted, and which also turn out to be the countries where English is spoken. This useful 1990s neologism popularised by the American conservative James C. Bennett enables Hannan to tell the story of the civic principles that interest him while separating them from on the one hand the narrowly ‘tribal’ (insular, xenophobic, superstitious, racist, sexist, etc.) sentiments which accompanied them for much of the time, and on the other from universalising (and he thinks false) notions like ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, ‘Modernity’, and so on. Anglosphere countries share a historical narrative in which the Common Law, Magna Carta and the English and American Bills of Rights play vital roles. Today’s Anglosphere is a ‘network civilization’ including not only the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but also Ireland and South Africa, which have recently rejoined, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore and perhaps, says Hannan somewhat optimistically, India.


Probably the most important difference between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world, according to Hannan, is the distinction between common-law and civil-law countries. In the former, there is ‘the rule of law’, in the latter, most of the time, if the inhabitants are lucky, an état de droit or Rechtsstaat. In the former, Constitution, State and Government are all subject to this ‘law of the land’, which exists ‘on a higher plane’, to be interpreted by independent magistrates; in the latter, by contrast, the Constitution and a legal code have been drawn up by a governing group at some point and, together with statutes, are supposed to cover all eventualities, so that judges simply apply the law to the case in hand. In common law countries, laws and the Constitution itself are deduced Lockean-style from the individual’s rights, whereas in civil law countries, individual rights are deduced from the Constitution and the laws.

Having established that the essence of the Anglosphere is civic rather than ethnic, Hannan proceeds to show that this essence was already present in pre-Norman England, and even in first-century Germany where, Tacitus tells us, the chiefs governed by consent and the peoples participated in the administration of affairs. This, of course, was the Whig refrain from the 17th century onwards; indeed, already in the 12th century, there were people who looked back nostalgically to the ‘good old law’ and ‘immemorial custom’ enjoyed by the English before 1066. However, this kind of history went out of fashion in the 20th century, a period when Britain lost an Empire and much of its self-esteem and decided to let itself be absorbed into the European Union. Still, recently the story has come to seem more plausible again. ‘No one has been able to show convincingly that Tacitus was wrong’, argues Hannan and he goes on to quote the best recent medieval historians to demonstrate that ‘it does indeed look as if the history of constitutional liberty has important beginnings in Anglo-Saxon England’ (James Campbell); that ‘late Anglo-Saxon England was a nation-state (with) effective central authority, uniformly organized institutions, a national language, a national church, defined frontiers… and above all, a strong sense of national identity’ (Campbell again); that with the tenth-century Witan, ‘we are not so very far from the look of an early parliament’ (J.R. Maddicott).

The Norman Conquest (1066) almost destroyed all of this. It was ‘a cataclysm for the English people.’ However, even if English society had been decapitated, Hannan cites Patrick Wormald’s The Making of the English Law to show that ‘at the lower levels of administration, the principles and practice of common law survived almost unchanged’. The Anglosphere thus pulled through its worst crisis and over the next few centuries, the Norman Yoke was slowly lifted from the Saxon neck. The liberties were recovered (Magna Carta, 1215, the Glorious Revolution, 1689), spread round the world (1776…) and deepened, as the liberalism, democracy and human rights they contained in germ were gradually revealed. This was the Anglosphere exceptionalism. It survived, says Hannan, because the Anglosphere is an archipelago: Britain, but also North America, Australia and New Zealand are, in effect, so many islands. This meant that their liberties were difficult to extinguish: in time of war they remained almost unconquerable, and in time of peace they did without the standing army which alone might have allowed the sovereign to subjugate them.

Anglosphere exceptionalism is not simply a matter of abstract liberties, says Hannan; these have always been grounded in the common-law right to private property. And, contrary to what most historians argued until recently, this right did not emerge after the Renaissance as part of the process of modernisation, perhaps even its engine; no, it was present from the beginning. Even at the height of the supposedly ‘feudal’ Middle Ages, when something like the manorial system and the household economy apparently held sway ‘right across Eurasia, from the Pacific to the Atlantic,’ in England, land went on being bought and sold and labourers worked for wages. The 1381 ‘Peasants’ Revolt is a misnomer, for England was not a peasant society at all. Hannan quotes Alan Macfarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism: ‘The majority of ordinary people in England from at least the thirteenth century were rampant individualists, highly mobile both geographically and socially, economically rational, market-oriented and acquisitive, ego-centred in kinship and social life’. Elsewhere, the peasant household may have been ‘a miniature co-operative society’ (Tawney), but in England, the nuclear family was the rule, and ‘to the surprise and occasional disgust of overseas visitors’, children usually left home by their teens. 

Three striking consequences of this Anglosphere exceptionalism are, firstly, that the standard, one-size-fits-all view of modernisation is upended: in England, at least, the money-based market economy did not arrive at the end of the Middle Ages, dissolving all feudal—all human—relations, as Marx and others argued; on the contrary, it had been there from the start. The idea of ‘progress’ itself becomes unclear: in the 17th century, absolute monarchy was the coming thing, while the Levellers and others, who we tend to see as progressives, insisted that they were conserving traditional liberties; similarly in the 1930s, the future appeared to belong to Communism or Fascism, not to ‘decadent Anglo-Saxon liberalism’. Perhaps something similar was true in 1066; certainly it is true in today’s debates about Europe, says Hannan.

A second striking consequence is that the rights the English defended were in no way universal or ‘natural’, as Locke and the American Founding Fathers thought; on the contrary, they were the rights of Englishmen:

When settlers accustomed to common-law property rights arrived in North America, in Africa, in New Zealand—even, many centuries earlier, in Ireland—they found that their notions of property were literally beyond the comprehension of local people. The settlers would, as they saw it, purchase land. The natives, however, had no concept of permanently alienating land from their tribe. In their eyes, they were selling the right to make use of resources on territory which an individual might no more own than he could own the wind or the sunshine.... [This] fundamental incompatibility of understanding…made bloodshed almost inevitable.


The incompatibility is not only with extra-Europeans; Hannan recounts how as an MEP trying to harmonize inheritance laws across the EU, he came up against ‘the striking difference between British and Continental notions of property rights’. Under the common law, property ownership is absolute, and the owner may bequeath his or her estate as he or she wishes; in civil-law regimes, on the contrary, there are laws guaranteeing a portion of the estate to surviving widows and children: ‘ownership…is, in effect, a form of lease: an exclusive right to enjoy a given asset. Such a right will not usually be prolonged beyond death’.


A third consequence is that the revolutionary wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were really two ‘Anglosphere Civil Wars’ between defenders of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ theories of sovereignty, Tories and Whigs, the former ultimately descended from Norman conquerors, the latter, from common-law loving Anglo-Saxons. Hannan, who sees the American Constitution as the most perfect expression of Anglosphere values, shows how a nationalist American historiography has largely written this aspect of their ‘revolutionary war of independence’ out of the story.

The Norman Conquest is doubly important in Hannan’s story. Not only did the Normans try, and fail, to destroy Anglo-Saxon liberties; they also created for the English a constitutive Other who has shadowed them ever since; a liberticidal foe; a foe who, with his self-proclaimed cultural superiority, had many of the traits of a class enemy; a foe who speaks French. Down the centuries this enemy has renewed his attempts to smother English freedoms, most recently through the European Union, but each time the Anglosphere has managed to save itselfand, incidentally, the others. Hannan introduces the Norman Conquest in characteristically oblique fashion with an account of the British bombardment of the French fleet at Mers El-Kebir in July 1940 in which 1,300 French sailors were killed. Admiral Somerville, who gave the order to open fire, called it ‘the most unnatural and painful decision’ of his life and many of his officers had tears in their eyes. On the lower decks, in contrast, ‘a very different attitude prevailed, most sailors cheerfully declaring that they “never ’ad no use for them French bastards”.’ For Hannan, this illustrates the heritage of the Norman Conquest: Somerville was upper class and so naturally more sympathetic to the French than the men under him. (Indeed, as his name suggests, his ancestor, Sir Gaultier de Somerville, had come over with the Conqueror.)


Is Hannan right? Ignoring the silly hyperbole about inventing freedom, Andrew Roberts, a serious academic historian, is quoted on the cover as saying ‘Daniel Hannan has found the key to the success of the English-speaking peoples’. However, strictly speaking, as history, the book is of limited value. There are no bibliography or page references. Quotations are unsourced, often inaccurate and occasionally presented in such a way as to invert their meaning. Charles I’s minister, Sir Dudley Carleton, is quoted as if he were a forward-looking apologist for absolute monarchy:

In all Christian kingdoms, you know that parliaments were in use anciently, until the monarchs began to know their strength, and, seeing the turbulent nature of their parliaments, at length they by little and little began to stand upon their prerogatives, and at last overthrew the parliaments throughout Christendom, except only here with us.

Hannan calls this ‘a celebration of monarchical right,’ adding that ‘it was a matter of regret to this gentleman that England had remained stuck with its medieval parliamentary system’. This could hardly be further from the truth. He has discreetly removed from his quotation, after the words, ‘parliaments were in use anciently,’ the key words, ‘by which their kingdoms were governed in a most flourishing manner’ (my emphasis). He also omits the following sentence, where Carleton says that in countries where the parliaments have been overthrown, the subjects are ‘like so many ghosts, nothing but skin and bones… There is a misery beyond expression, and that which yet we are free from’. Not exactly ‘a celebration of monarchical right,’ one would have thought.

Another example: Hannan tells us that Abraham Lincoln borrowed his famous words on democracy, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, from John Wycliffe, who wrote them in 1384. No he didn’t. This nugget of folk history is fool’s gold. The words are sometimes said to be in the General Prologue to Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible but no one has ever been able to find them there. Anyway, this prologue was written in 1395, after Wycliffe’s death, probably by John Purvey. And, pace Hannan, the Anglosphere folk hero, Wycliffe was no friend of the rebels of 1381; he was a protégé of the King’s uncle, John of Gauntor should we say Jean de Gand?and condemned them vigorously. ‘In no other language’, says Hannan about Wycliffe’s supposed words, ‘could such a concept have been verbalised at that time.’ Really? ‘Government’ and ‘people’ are French. One is reminded of G.W. Bush’s complaint that the French have no word for entrepreneur. Ignorant claims about the special virtues of English are one of Hannan’s favourite themes.

It is continuities in Anglosphere history, like the supposed link between Wycliffe and Lincoln, that Hannan likes to celebrate, and this leads him to overlook the breaks. As a Parliamentarian, he ignores the times when Parliament was an instrument of Royal Power (Henry VIII does not even feature in his very thorough index) or, more recently, of an ‘elective dictatorship’ (Lord Hailsham); as a champion of free trade, he projects Britain’s nineteenth-century policy back onto ultra-protectionist 1689; as a common man proud of the lack of deference found in Voltaire’s England and Tocqueville’s America, he passes discreetly over the long period when, for most of the world, England was the society described in Thackeray’s Book of Snobs. More importantly, as an economic liberal, he trumpets the ‘successes’ of his version of the Anglosphere but does not mention the inequality and instability, the bad public services and worse infrastructure that dog them. Worst of all, he totally omits the socialist traditions. (‘Not English!’ Mr Podsnap would have said.)

His exaggeration of Anglosphere solidity across the centuries and continents is matched by the chasm he sees between it and the rest of the world. Nothing pleases him so much as stories supposedly showing a straight opposition between the two. The siege of his father’s Peruvian farm by a mob set on by dictator Juan Velasco illustrates the difference between Anglosphere and Hispanosphere America (although an examination of the dates tells us that his anecdote cannot be quite true); his tangles in Brussels over the regulation of herbal remedies supposedly show that ‘in Continental usage, “unregulated” and “illegal” are much closer concepts than in places where lawmaking happens in English’. With such a Manichean world-view, economic, social and political developments on the continent comparable to those in England are ignored; similarities between judicial practicesthe role of jurisprudence in civil law, the rarity of trial by jury in the UK and USare spirited away; and one is left wondering why on earth the greatest of all Whig historians, Thomas Babington Macaulay, should have done anything so un-English as to write a penal code for that promising new member of the Anglosphere, India.


The thinness of Hannan’s historical case might be thought to leave his political argument, Why it Matters, rather undernourished. However, this is not so. Even if the historical case were true, it would not show that what worked in the past still works today and conversely the validity or otherwise of the Euroscepticism, localism and Americanophilia on display here do not, logically, depend on any particular vision of history. Questions about, for instance, the advisability of closer European integration concern all EU member states, not just the English-speaking ones. Hannan himself can be seen on Youtube lecturing fellow MEPs in eloquent Spanish on why Spain should give up the Euro. The pros and cons of supranationality and localism, big government and small are questions confronting every state and every citizen, and Hannan is mistaken in supposing that his preferences for localism and small government are either peculiar to or defining features of the ‘Anglosphere’. A cool-headed ahistorical approach to these questions might have prevented the end of Hannan’s book descending into rant. (His last, hortatory chapter has the Miltonic title, ‘Consider What Nation It Is Whereof Ye Are’.) 

Still, while there is no logical connection between the history and the politics, clearly there is a psychological one, and unfortunately, it is the one that, explicitly at least, Hannan refuses throughout his book: the ethnic, ‘tribal’ interpretation of the Anglosphere: the ‘we’ of the embarrassing British title. This ‘we’ is ethos, pathos and logos all rolled into one: ethos, because it says ‘I am one of you, dear readers: trust me’; pathos, because it says ‘deep down, you and I can feel that we are one’; and logos, because it is a particularly radical example of what Aristotle in his Rhetoric calls an ‘enthymeme’: a syllogism in which both a premiss and the conclusion are unstated. The premiss is that any member of ‘we’ (here, the Anglosphere) is not a member of ‘not-we’ (Europe / the rest of the world) and vice versa; and the conclusion is that unless we go on not being ‘not-we’, we will cease to exist.

This is not just a debating point; nor, to be fair to Hannan, is it peculiar to his politico-historical confection: the use of ‘we’ continues to be a problem in serious English-language historiography. Still, such considerations should not prevent outsiders taking great pleasure and instruction from this excellent new Whig synthesis.


* Paperback reissue (first edition, 2013).


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.