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Book review: Magna Carta – the document that changed England and the world

We should be more grateful for our freedom, argues Daniel Hannan in How We Invented Freedom

By on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

American children in Philadelphia look at one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta (AP)

American children in Philadelphia look at one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta (AP)

How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters
by Dan Hannan
Head of Zeus, £20

Anyone who has visited Runnymede and risked the rather scary road that crosses through the historic spot will know that the agreement in 1215 between England’s leading barons and King John is prominently marked there by the American Bar Association. Americans take Magna Carta seriously – so seriously that when a copy was taken to New York in 1939 some 14 million people came to see it. Perhaps we should take it seriously too, because with the triumph of the English-speaking powers after 1945 we have forgotten how lucky we are to have individual freedom, the rule of law and property rights – or, indeed, how unusual these are.

How We Invented Freedom and Why it Matters, a celebration of the English-speaking world and its language and law by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan, provides a welcome reminder of just how important these things are. Hannan, a French and Spanish speaker who grew up in Latin America, emphasises how improbable the English system is. He writes: “The development of Parliament in Anglo-Saxon England – and in a handful of related, homogenous states, notably Denmark and Iceland – anticipated representative government in Europe by several centuries.”

On top of law and language the third leg of this structure is religion. Protestantism was central to the Whig vision. Yet Hannan, an Englishman who comes from mixed Irish/Scottish, Protestant/Catholic background, is sensitive to our sectarian history and puts it in context. His greatest achievement may be to have separated the Whig theory of history from its hallmark anti-Catholic prejudice. Long before the Reformation, or even before John Wycliffe translated his Bible, Catholic England was undergoing changes that would mark it out from its continental neighbours.

The author cites Cambridge academic Alan Macfarlane, who in the 1970s studied the parish records of medieval England. “What he found, to his astonishment, was a form of a social organisation that met none of the criteria of what is generally called a peasant society.” In England, in contrast to its neighbours, “there was almost no notion of shared ownership. A boy who had reached legal maturity was, in the eyes of the law, a wholly free agent: his father had neither claims over him nor duties to him.” This had a huge impact on English society, including on the system of law, for it is only once people no longer think of themselves as members of a clan but as peers that we get the idea of one law for all – or of a nation at all.

The Magna Carta was more than a mere document. It was an idea supported by the people of the kingdom. And what a document. As the 20th-century jurist Lord Denning declared: “Magna Carta is the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

Hannan traces this idea back to the Anglo-Saxon period and earlier. Although many are sceptical about the Tacitus idea that the Germanic tribes were great freedom lovers, Anglo-Saxon myths, whether true or not, had an influence on later Englishmen, especially when in the 17th-century tensions over how England should be governed came to the fore. A war that was triggered in 1637 by market trader Jenny Geddes. When the dean of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh started to read from the new royally approved prayerbook, wearing a white surplice, Geddes jumped to her feet and shouted: “The Devil give you colic in your stomach, you false thief! Do you dare to say a Mass in my ear?” She then took her folding stool and threw it at his head.

Hannan has a great eye for anecdote. Among his other stories is that of the American who goes to South Africa to fight for the Boers but upon finding that they speak Dutch, ends up fighting for the British. Another is that more than half of Harvard graduates in the 1640s fought on the Roundhead side in the English Civil War, for this was an ideological struggle that spanned the developing Anglosphere. As the less than impartial Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The division into Whig and Tory is founded in the nature of man; the weakly and nerveless, the rich and the corrupt, seeing more safety and accessibility in a strong executive; the healthy, firm, and virtuous, feeling confidence in their physical and moral resources, and willing to part with only so much power as is necessary for their good government.”

In America, as in Britain, “liberty” was entwined with anti-Catholic bigotry. But that was to do with ideology rather than theology. As Hannan notes: “We are now familiar with a great body of individualist Catholic social teaching … But contemporary English-speakers had an altogether more blinkered view of Catholicism, seeing it as intrinsically authoritarian and – because Catholics recognised the supremacy of the Pope – hard to reconcile with parliamentary government.”

That all mellowed in the 19th century, when England became home to refugees from a virulent anti-Catholic regime that professed a new ideology of abstract rights, one that English-speakers were effectively immune to. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “To the liberalism they profess, I prefer the liberty we enjoy; to the Rights of Man, the rights of Englishmen.”

Hannan creates a sparkling narrative that deserves to be read. Where I would diverge from him is his idea of the Anglosphere as being entirely about ideas, not ancestry. The “proposition nation” idea is actually relatively new, and as various sources in the book state, Englishmen and American alike saw their rights as a birthright; universalist ideas they left to the French revolutionaries. Indeed, with the “proposition nation” membership rests not on a birthright but on an adherence to a series of ideas – the very opposite of the liberal English tradition. The ultimate proposition nation of modern times is perhaps not the United States but the European Union.

These are mere quibbles. Hannan is a Whig and I am a weakly and nerveless Tory. I’m sure his rational optimism will provide not just an insightful look at the past, but also a beacon pointing to a future. His book deserves to be read more widely as the approach to the 800th anniversary of “the English Torah” approaches.

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends