It’s rare to read a book about politics and be actually excited to get back to it, like you’re on holiday and lost in a novel; but that’s what I felt with How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, Daniel Hannan’s account of the development of English law and politics. But then again, I am quite weird.
The book begins with Hannan’s native Peru, and his father’s farm being threatened by a mob during one of that country’s various periods of political instability. Although a Hispanophile (and Francophone), Hannan goes on to explain why those of us in Britain, the United States and the other Anglosphere nations should be so grateful to live with the English system of law.
The cornerstone of that system is the Magna Carta, a document that some rebellious barons forced on King John in 1215, and which became established as the basis of English liberties over the next four centuries (although John, true to form, had reneged on his promises before his little lamented death).
Because of America’s political, military and cultural power, and the post-war language of rights that emphasises an almost Rousseauian belief in a natural state of freedom, we tend to assume that this is somehow the human norm. But as Hannan points out, the things that we have come to take for granted, such as the jury system, innocence until proven guilty, the rule of law and representative government, are highly unusual, developing only in England, Denmark and Iceland. Alongside this, other crucially important developments paved the way for the modern world, notably the decline of clan/family power vs the individual, a free market in property, and the Dutch system of capitalism.
Like any good historian Hannan has an eye for an amusing story, and my favourite involves the American who wrote to Teddy Roosevelt after going off to fight for the Afrikaners, and who explained: ‘Dear Teddy, I came over here meaning to join the Boers, who I was told were Republicans fighting monarchists; but when I got here I found the Boers talked Dutch while the British talked English, so I joined the latter.’
Can’t understand a damn word they’re saying!
Although the Protestantism that once held together British and American identity has faded, and notions of blood ties too, these countries are still held together by a common language and shared values.
That’s what makes the book important, as well as enjoyable. There’s lots of confusion about national identity these days, and questions about what holds a society together, and How We Invented Freedom makes the convincing argument that in our case it is 1215 and all that. And thanks to the capitalist system that helped give us our freedom, right now it’s going for just 99p on Kindle. Happy New Year!Tags: Books, Britain, Daniel Hannan, Freedom, Liberty, United States