Last Friday I went to hear Daniel Hannan, member of the European parliament and one of the leaders of the anti-European wing in the British Conservative Party, at a lunch organised by the Centre for Independent Studies.
The first thing to say is that Hannan is a very fine speaker, well worth listening to if you get the chance. (You can see why he’s something of an internet sensation.) Indeed, the very quality of his address rather undercut his claim that Australia has preserved more of the values of liberty and independent thinking than Britain has. As even a quick survey of British newspapers will demonstrate, the quality of public debate there is streets ahead of what we are served in Australia.
Hannan’s suggestion to the contrary was no doubt partly a matter of flattering his audience, but it was also part of his demonisation of the European Union. The British spirit just must have atrophied as a result of being in the EU for 40 years.
If it was flattery, I think he carried it too far with his claim that British voters care about Australian opinion, and therefore we should let them know what we think about the proposed referendum on EU membership. Some of us remember the 2011 referendum on preferential voting, where the situation seemed quite the opposite: opponents of the move, primarily from Hannan’s side of politics, took the fact that it is used in Australia as sufficient reason for rejecting it.
But there’s a deeper ideological import to Hannan’s praise of Australia, namely the idea of the Anglosphere. Australia has to be important, because Australia is British, and being British is what matters.
Hannan, in other words, is a British nationalist. Not a fascist on the lines of the British Nationalist Party, but a nationalist nonetheless. That’s an uncomplicated thing in Britain (or at least England – the Scots muddy the waters a bit), but it’s alien to the Australian experience. Hence it was appropriate that Hannan was given a vote of thanks by News Limited’s Nick Cater, who has tried hard to promote nationalism here: a project crippled by equivocation as to whether it’s supposed to be an independent Australian nationalism or just an emanation of British nationalism.
And of course the claims of British nationalism on the world’s gratitude are not fanciful. Magna Carta really was an important milestone; Britain really did pioneer constitutional government and important views about personal liberty. It’s just that Hannan’s is a very one-sided perspective. As one might expect from British nationalism, its most obvious shortcoming is trying to write out the influence of France, Britain’s hereditary enemy.
The modern incarnation of that enmity is the idea of EU tyranny versus British freedom. I’ve talked about this before – here, for example, and also here – and suggested that there’s rather more to it than that:
Of course regulatory power, whether it comes from Brussels or elsewhere, can be used for good as well as ill. But eurosceptics don’t just seem unwilling to acknowledge that the EU sometimes stands on the side of expanding individual freedom — they actually seem to count such cases among their key grievances.
What struck me on Friday was the oddness of Hannan talking up Britain as the home of freedom, while at the same time calling for alliance with the anti-immigrant bigots of the UK Independence Party (he said the Conservatives need to “sit down and make a deal” with UKIP) and praising Tony Abbott, whose refugee policies outrage European opinion, as a “statesman of the first rank”.
It’s particularly ironic because a major part of Britain’s strength over the years has been its openness to immigrants. I don’t think Hannan consciously wants to turn his back on that tradition, but he seems oblivious to the fact that his hostility to the EU plays into the hands of those who do.
If the British decide that they would be better off without the EU, that’s their right. But they shouldn’t kid themselves that leaving would necessarily be a gain for freedom.