The Anglosphere is everywhere. In this engaging and tendentious popular history, Daniel Hannan offers an unofficial update of Winston Churchill’s massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-58). A British member of the European parliament, Hannan has taken upon himself the mission of saving his native land from sinister, supranational, statist Brussels—a goal many voters across Europe seem to share. The real significance lies in Hannan’s multidisciplinary analysis of Anglosphere culture’s distinctiveness and influence.
Churchill’s career was concerned with defending civilization against totalitarians and empire against its nonwhite subjects’ demands for self-rule. Hannan is the product of a United Kingdom that is diminished militarily and economically, even as the Anglosphere (whose core identity was once ethnically Anglo/Scots) has transmuted into a multinational, multi-ethnic culture at peak influence. English is the world’s lingua franca, while groups in developing countries around the world value the Anglosphere’s ideals of liberty, law, and democracy.
Despite this, Hannan is gloomy. Wrapping himself in Herbert Butterfield’s Whig interpretation of history (though he purports to disclaim Butterfield’s more extreme formulations), Hannan argues that the Norman Conquest marked the fall of a medieval Germanic Eden and launched a millennium-long struggle between Whig forces of liberty and Tory forces of statism and aristocracy. This eternal bright line never existed, and it is odd that Hannan, himself a member of the British Conservative party, thinks it does. The Normans, rather than importing continental villainy, were themselves Germanic (from the Scandinavian branch), and the later, unimpeachably Germanic Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns were no lovers of freedom. Hannan even claims that people think more clearly in the good old Germanic tongue of English, using himself as prime example. While English grammar, thanks to multiple medieval invasions, actually is simpler than its Germanic kin and the Romance languages, most English vocabulary is French-derived. In this, as in many aspects of Anglosphere culture, the hybridity is what is most distinctive.
The Manichean model downplays the increasing trade, transportation improvements, and arms technology that led large states commanding centralized military power to coalesce, starting in the later Middle Ages. Louis XIV exemplified the absolutist trend, but it is absurd to call him a “totalitarian”—his scorched-earth wars and personality cult notwithstanding. Hannan also downplays the incentives for oligarchic elites throughout history to feather their own nests. Even medieval Italian and German city-states—which shared with England cheap water transport, strong commercial classes, relatively broad franchises, and admixtures of Germanic culture—either fell under the control of larger states or became absolutist or oligarchic. In grabbing for power, England’s aggressive monarchs may have produced enough centralization to fend off other expanding absolutist states, as well as the triumph of a closed English oligarchy.
The question is why the United Kingdom was able to resist the absolutist trend and ultimately become the template for modern democracy. Hannan correctly observes that Great Britain’s island status limited monarchs’ ability to justify standing armies. This made it easier for elites to organize politically and grow their commercial power beyond central control. Similar processes were at work in Britain’s close cultural kin, the Dutch Republic, with its landscape of river deltas, islands, and inland sea at the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. Ironically, the United Kingdom was launched to world power when the Dutch stadholder and aspiring English-Scottish King William III turned its water barrier into a water highway with the amphibious invasion that triggered 1688’s Glorious Revolution and a 25-year war with Louis XIV. The Glorious Revolution imported Dutch concepts of a limited monarchial executive with military powers, as well as religious freedom.
Hannan traces the growth of freedom through three Anglosphere civil wars that, he argues, were conservative in their efforts to restore lost liberties. The English Civil War of the 1640s damaged absolutist monarchy, while the Glorious Revolution secured a constitutional monarchy. The third and culminating revolution was the American, which set the model for the descendants of the British settler colonies. Hannan poses these decentralized, self-governing independent nations with universal franchises, open economies, and tight informal ties against the overweening European Union.