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Dan Hannan's How We Invented Freedom

16/06/2014 11:54 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 10:59 BST

Historians are a faddish lot. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Stalinist historian Christopher Hill dominated thinking on the English Civil War. But ten years ago, while writing my PhD at Cambridge, I was warned that his work wasn't even worth refuting anymore. Meanwhile, in my own field of the history of science, practitioners have gone from believing the scientific revolution was the seminal event in history to not accepting that it happened at all. And, we've probably already seen the high-water mark of postmodernism, which dominated the humanities a generation ago.

In How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, Daniel Hannan MEP notes on many occasions how particular historical theories have waxed and waned with the times. In the nineteenth century, historians emphasised England's debt to the ancient German customs brought over by the Anglo-Saxons. But acknowledging our Teutonic antecedents fell from favour with the First World War. Dan, with a first class degree in history from Oxford himself, knows that "Whiggish" history has been an object of scorn since it was deconstructed by Herbert Butterfield in the 1930s.

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So while it is possible to dismiss How We Invented Freedom as deeply unfashionable, that doesn't tell us anything about whether the theory it presents is true. So, did we, the English, invent freedom? More to the point, can we even construct the kind of coherent narrative that Dan does to explain the success of free markets and liberal democracy? There's a long list a rookie errors that an author can make in trying to tell such a story. He might be anachronistic, or confuse contingency with causation. He will be tempted to project his own prejudices back onto the historical actors that he is describing. He might try to see everything through a single lens of geography, culture or even race. But Dan avoids all of these pitfalls. To him, the English are multi-ethnic and always have been. His heroes are often religious fundamentalists or radicals who are a very long way from Dan's own urbane libertarianism. He is well aware of how often the march of liberty might have been reversed and, with the Norman Conquest, how it was stopped in its tracks for centuries.

It goes without saying, so I'll say it anyway, that this book is excellently written and most entertaining to read. Illustrating his points with plenty of anecdotes, Dan argues that freedom developed in England and later America in a very particular way. People started off believing they were free and that this freedom was guaranteed by the law. The government, including the monarch, was a servant of the law and subject to it as much as everyone else. An alternative model, more associated with continental Europe, is that freedom is something granted to the people by the state through certain rights. A Frenchman has rights, but when any new activity is mooted, it is up to the state to decide whether it is permitted or not. An Englishman can do anything that is not specifically forbidden. Freedom is his default state. The current controversy over e-cigarettes is a case in point. Under the English system, these are not covered by any law and should not be unless the need for such a law is proven. As far as the European Union is concerned, such an unregulated status is intolerable.

How We Invented Freedom is structured as a series of episodes, each of which helped or hindered the march to modern liberty. But it might almost have been called "History You Didn't Learn at School but Your Parents Did". We start with Anglo-Saxons, suffer the Norman Conquest and then learn about Magna Carta. The historical sections round off with the English Civil War and the American War of Independence, or the two Anglosphere Civil Wars as Dan calls them.

Anyone familiar with Dan's writing and blog will not be surprised by the political dimension to this book. It is intended to show how the European Union is alien to England's native tradition of liberty and actively damaging to it. Although its author is a member of the British Conservative Party, the baddies in How We Invented Freedom are the Tories, men who rather admired the continental model of governance and were suspicious of giving the lower classes too much power. After reading this book, Dan's admiration for radical leftists like Michael Foot and Tony Benn makes more sense.

So did we invent freedom? I'm not best placed to provide an objective opinion on this book. Daniel Hannan is an old friend and he was kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgements of his book after I read through an early draft. British academia, which tends to take much of its inspiration from the continental left, is hardly likely to give us a considered answer either.

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Luckily, a pair of American economic historians, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, has unintentionally come to Dan's defence. Their book, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty is essentially an academic rewrite of How We Invented Freedom avant la lettre. Acemoglu and Robinson seek to explain why some countries are rich and others are not. They illustrate the problem by asking how it is that the southern half of the city of Nogales is so much poorer than the northern half. The answer is that Nogales is bisected by the US/Mexican border. In Why Nations Fail, we find that strong and benign institutions are what create prosperity. The US has them and Mexico doesn't. This is similar to what Dan calls Anglosphere exceptionalism - the way that the law in England applies to the highest and lowest, as well as providing security of tenure and contract. While Acemoglu and Robinson have much more time for the French Revolution than Dan does, they portray it as a case of continental Europe catching up with the freedoms that England already possessed. And it was these freedoms that meant the industrial revolution took off in England. Economic liberty can create a virtuous circle that leads to increased political reform.

Reading Why Nations Fail and How We Invented Freedom one after the other, I was struck by how similar their messages are. Hannan concentrates on what went right in England. Acemoglu and Robinson spend much more time on what has gone wrong elsewhere, especially in Africa. Both books remind us that there are no shortcuts. Strong institutions can take centuries to build and historical contingencies, such as the Norman Conquest, can destroy them in an instant. Both books explain why it is so important that power is dissipated to the people. Elites will always arrange things to suit themselves even while they claim to be on the side of the masses. A good example is the way that the "right" to privacy benefits the elite while free speech benefits ordinary people. It is no surprise to see the European Court of Justice and the British Establishment supporting the former while curtailing the latter.

Both of these books are classical liberal manifestos. They transcend the modern political left and right to show how the combination of both social and economic liberalism has brought about an enormous amelioration of the condition of the human race over the last two centuries. Spreading those benefits even wider will require yet more free markets, free trade and free speech. All three must still be fought for.