Tory Truth-Telling From Across the Pond

By Sterling C. Beard

Daniel Hannan, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament from Britain, is a noted Eurosceptic and Atlanticist.I first became aware of Daniel Hannan a little under a year ago. A fellow from Edinburgh was doing a transfer quarter here at Dartmouth and we happened to share the same acting class. We became quick friends, often chatting over lunch or dinner about the special relationship between Britain and the United States and politics in general. He was a Liberal-Democrat, a member of what is essentially the centrist party in Britain that appears to be in the process of self-destructing as of this writing, but he told me about one conservative politician who was, as he said, “the closest thing Britain has to a Republican.” He then showed me Daniel Hannan’s blog on the Daily Telegraph and several YouTube videos. 

He was right; Dan Hannan would get along quite comfortably with Congress’ soon to be dynamic duo of Ron and Rand Paul. A native of Lima, Peru, he’s been South East England’s Member of European Parliament since 1999, when he was elected at the age of 27. He’s tri-lingual, a graduate of Oxford, a journalist, Eurosceptic, Atlanticist, well reasoned and when he speaks he’s so eloquent he’s almost mesmerizing. One only has to view the YouTube video in which he expertly takes Gordon Brown apart, declaring the then PM to be the, “devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” to see what I’m talking about. In other words, he’s a member of the species of statesmen who’s supposed to be long extinct. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic when I received his newest book, The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America, for Christmas. 

Don’t let the title fool you, it’s not intended to be a sequel to the original Road to Serfdom, an important, albeit thick and difficult tome. I slogged though F.A. Hayek’s classic during my off quarter in the spring and, though it’s an interesting book, nobody can accuse Hayek of being a riveting writer. It’s not his fault; his purpose wasn’t to entertain but to explain in measured terms why control of markets was inferior to keeping them free. 

Hannan’s book isn’t concerned with markets in the abstract at all. Instead, the book is not based nearly as much in economic arguments, though they are a part of his thesis: for America to become more European—more socialist, more jaded, more deferential to unelected elites—it must necessarily become less confident, less hopeful, less, well, American. To alter the United States thus would be a betrayal of America’s history and our ancestors. 

Unfortunately, Hannan writes, that process has already begun. As he writes in the introduction, while he stood in the Jefferson Memorial on his most recent trip to the States, “I fancied I heard a clanking noise. Doubtless it was Jefferson’s shade rattling his chains in protest at what is being done to his country…The characteristics that once set America apart are being eliminated. The United States is becoming just another country.”

  To argue his position, Hannan hits a broad number of topics in a short amount of paper (counting the introduction, the whole book checks in at 198 pages), but concerns himself the most with the culture and size of government. Most of what he has to say are things American conservatives are familiar with already: the government is growing too large to the detriment of freedom, federalism is breaking down, Europeanizing the economy will lead to disaster, etc. Chances are, you’ve just yawned and snarked that you could get the same points if you watched a week of Fox News, Glenn Beck or Hannity.

The difference between The New Road to Serfdom and any other conservative TV show or book flying off the shelves these days is the perspective Hannan writes from. Rather than being just another red-state, “angry white guy” that liberals on both sides of the pond can dismiss out of hand, Hannan views things through a British lens grinded by Burke, Locke and other classical liberals from the Isles. The more skeptical out there might assume that this is just some intellectual façade put on to appeal to American readers, but his Atlanticist feelings and beliefs on the proper role of government, both in the European Parliament and his blog, are entirely consistent with what he has written. He believes in devolving power back to the people in the States every bit as much as he believes it in Britain.

It’s a nice change of pace to read someone defend small government, American exceptionalism and culture who isn’t American himself, especially against European anti-Americans and Americans who seem to be most interested in proving to you that they didn’t vote for Bush. The introduction is devoted to dispelling certain myths about the United States, namely that Americans are crass and rude, that we have no culture and that we are a young country amongst other things. Soon after, in a brief anecdote, he relates meeting a lady from Jersey City in the French Basque country who repeated, “we don’t have anything like this in the States” so often that he finally snapped and retorted, “Yes you do: they’re called restaurants for heaven’s sake.” How refreshing!

Because of this, Hannan’s rhetorical punches launch from unusual angles and connect with force. After all, how many books by British politicians begin with a quote from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? He manages to avoid sounding trite while talking about the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution, even something as blasé as voter turnout. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t come across as admiring. In fact, he marvels at so many aspects of the United States that it is difficult to think of something he doesn’t hold in high regard. One shouldn’t mistake this for simple naiveté, of course; he qualifies his admiration by acknowledging early on, “Like every nation on Earth, the United States can behave selfishly and hypocritically. It doesn’t always live up to the ideals of its constitution.

Then again, occasional failure is part of the human condition. To say that the American dream has not always been realized is no more than to say that perfection is not of this world.” He isn’t blind to America’s faults; he just believes that the country’s strengths outweigh them. It’s a lack of cynicism, a sort of “guileless enthusiasm” as he puts it.

The book is a short read, not only because of the low page count, but because Hannan can write just as well as he can speak. There are occasional graphs and charts throughout, but the book’s conversational tone and steadfast refusal to get too bogged down in statistics or jargon will keep almost any reader turning its pages. Assuming you have a couple of hours to kill, you could easily finish the book in one sitting and they’d be hours well spent. 

This is, in fact, the book’s only real flaw. I finished far before I was ready to. One gets the sense that Hannan could write at great length on the subject but decided to keep the book small in order to maintain its clout and the reader’s attention. It works, but I imagine that many readers will be left wanting something a little thicker. Another hundred pages could hardly have hurt. Hannan’s a sheer pleasure to read.

Despite its small size, I still had a few moments of déjà vu while tearing through; some portions can be easily recognized as modified text from blog posts he has made, such as the beginning of chapter two. For the vast majority of readers, however, this will be irrelevant. His blog posts are well written and flow smoothly enough that, unless one has been reading him for the past nine months, one would never know they weren’t originally written for the book.

Overall, The New Road to Serfdom is a fine book. Tightly written and readable, it admires the United States and our governing document without drifting into starry-eyed idealism or unreasoned love. While it isn’t the next Conscience of a Conservative or even a call to arms, it instead functions exactly as its subtitle suggests: a letter of warning to America. “I am living in your future,” he writes. “Let me tell you a few things about it.” We would do well to listen.