POLITICS

Dan Hannan On US Conservatism, The Special Relationship, Ukip's Threat... And Joe Biden (INTERVIEW)

10/03/2014 07:17 GMT | Updated 10/03/2014 07:59 GMT
Paul Vale

WASHINGTON -- British Conservative MEP Dan Hannan first came to public attention in 2009 when a public castigation of the then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown became an unlikely hit on YouTube, transforming the outspoken Eurosceptic into something of a political celebrity among the British conservative movement.

An avowed Atlantacist, the 42-year-old has often expressed his admiration for the United States and, after initially proffering support, has became a vocal critic of Barack Obama and in particular the president’s “lack of interest” in America’s special relationship with the UK.

Hannan was first invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac), an annual gathering for American conservative activists, in 2012. He returned last week, delivering a stern and well-received rebuke to those in Britain and Europe that have been critical of "the greatest Republic in the world".

HuffPost UK caught up with Hannan at the conference in Washington to talk about UK-US relations, the future of the conservative movement and the Ukip threat ahead of the European Elections in May.

You’ve said there has been a diminishing of the special relationship between London and Washington. Why is this?

Barack Obama is the only president in 200 years who has not felt anything good about Britain’s place in the world. This has never happened before. We [Britain] have never had this lack of interest and this lack of sympathy from a president and the reason for that is very clear - it’s all about the anti-colonialism of the 1950s that Obama imbibed from his father.

However, the relationship between two large countries is always going to be bigger than heads of government. We don’t do bureaucratic government-to-government things very well. We’re much better at genuine organic unions of people and that’s what the Anglosphere is based on. If the Snowden affair has shown us anything, it has reminded us how incredibly close the ties are among the common law English speaking democracies.

Is this diminishing likely to continue?

The special relationship will survive. It survived and did very well under Clinton, it was strong under Carter, it was strong under Kennedy – there is common ground on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, in Britain the Conservatives are a little more Atlanticists than Labour, but in practical terms the alliance has never really suffered under Labour – Blair turned out just to be as Atlanticist as Thatcher had been. The current problems are all to do with the incumbent [president].

American conservatism looks to be in crisis. There are tensions between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans, generational tensions between younger libertarians and older social conservatives, while traditional planks such as strong defence and the free market seem to be getting drowned out by debates over drugs and reproductive rights. Is the movement in trouble?

Those tensions are a good thing to have. They are problems that come from enthusiasm, they are problems that come from activism and they are problems that come from numbers. There is more of a cache of ideas here [at Cpac] than you would find in any centre-right party in Europe or Britain and that is a very healthy position to stand from.

How do you harness the different visions of right of centre government? That’s a challenge but it’s not an insurmountable one. You concentrate on the things you have in common. I think there is a generational shift towards, for want of a better shorthand, libertarian values, but you see that in Britain as well as here. But I would say to my libertarian friends in the US what I always say in Britain: on 95 per cent of the issues we are part of the conservative mainstream and the reason for that is that the leftists state is so far removed from the conservative or libertarian ideal that 95 per cent of dismantling it we can do together.

School vouchers, welfare reform, tax cuts, Euroscepticism – all of these we don’t need to argue about so it makes no sense to have furious rows abut drugs or pornography, which are not central issues to most voters, when we can concentrate on things that do matter to people, particularly the economic issues so that we can construct a majority at the election.

Is it easier being a British or a European conservative and not having to deal with the social issues that arise from the historical entwining of religion and politics in the US?

When you say Britain and Europe they are two very separate things. In most of Europe social conservatism exists in the Christian Democratic tradition, which is quite statist on the economy and is not in any sense free market. The liberal parties in Europe are free market but they are also libertarian and socialist so there’s been a divide into two separate traditions there.

The British Conservative Party, like US Republicans, contains both and that’s partly a function of our first past the post voting system. Americans, like in Canada and Britain, have a majoritarian electoral system that tends to push people into two broad coalitions, so our right-wing parties have traditional conservatives and free marketers, which I think is potentially a great strength.

Margaret Thatcher was very good at understanding how to make a big enough coalition with a majority. I’m not sure that her successors have managed to pull it off in the same way but it can be done.

So consensus is the electoral challenge for the Tory Party?

The American Tea Party never went third party, it stayed in the tent… and with the happiest of results in the last congressional election. You can imagine how different the congressional vote would be if there were separate Republican and Tea Party candidates. That’s the danger for the Conservative Party. The existence of Ukip as a separate electoral force means that although there maybe a combined right of centre vote they would win very few seats. That’s the issue we have to sort out before the next general election.

You’ve spoken in the past about a coalition with Ukip - is that still the ideal?

No one is suggesting a merger of the two parties but some kind of understanding at least in the marginal seats where it would make a big difference so we don’t split the vote and put Labour in on a minority.

And what is the main barrier to that happening?

I think it comes down to personal animosities. If we were all rational calculating machines we’d have made this decision already, but because we’re dealing with complicated human beings it gets tied up with rivalries.

Nigel Farage has staked his Ukip leadership on the forthcoming European elections. Will they do well?

I think Ukip will do very well. They may win or they may come second to Labour. I would be very surprised if we [the Conservative Party] held our position. We won the last three European elections but we were against an incumbent Labour government at home when that happened. We’re now defending the incumbent national government, so I would be surprised if we could retain our position so I’m reconciled to losing some British MEPs.

However, around Europe as a whole I think we’ll do much better. I think there will be an advance for European conservatives in general. I could be wrong, but I would be disappointed if that group didn’t have more members than it did now.

And the 2016 US election – who do you see as the Republican nominee?

They are spoilt for choice. When I was here two years ago there was an element of reluctance. No one was really that enthusiastic about the candidates. There was a lot of "I’m voting for x because I can’t stand y". You don’t hear that now – there is real enthusiasm about a whole range of different people. I can think of at least half a dozen people – Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio – all whom would make superb candidates.

To stand against Hillary Clinton?

I think that has to be the working assumption. It is a symptom of an almost diseased polity that Joe Biden can seriously be considered the presidential nominee.

CPAC 2014 Speakers