Romney’s Right: Brits & Americans Are Joint Heirs to Anglo-Saxon Liberties
by DANIEL HANNAN
August 2, 2012
Americans take justified pride in their successful assimilation of newcomers. Millions have been drawn to their country, from every continent and archipelago, determined to become American.
What do we mean by becoming American? When we break it down, there are three irreducible elements. First, accepting the values encoded in the US Constitution: free speech, the division of powers, religious toleration and so on. Second, understanding the unwritten codes bound up with those values: civic engagement, open competition, private contract. Third, speaking English.
And where do these characteristics have their roots? In Anglo-Saxon civilization. When a Romney aide told this newspaper that the US and Britain shared an ‘Anglo-Saxon heritage', he or she was stating the obvious. Those Lefties pretending to be upset - the Obama campaign called the remark ‘stunningly offensive' - know perfectly well that the reference was cultural rather than racial. When the French talk of ‘les anglo-saxons' or the Spanish of ‘los anglosajones', they don't mean Cerdic and Oswine and Æthelstan. They mean people who speak English and believe in small government.
It hardly needs saying that the United States is not genetically Anglo-Saxon. Nor is the United Kingdom: it's full of people with non-Saxon surnames such as Hannan. And nor, for that matter, is England. Recent DNA tests have confirmed what place-name studies have been insisting with increasing stridency for the past century, namely that the English are descended as much from the pre-fifth century population as from the settlers who came after the departure of Rome's legions. The notion of mass population displacement comes largely from one later and tendentious source: Gildas's De Excidio Brittonum. It's odd, in retrospect, that historians ever took it seriously.
If Anglo-Saxon is of limited value as an ethnic category, though, it is of huge value as a cultural denominator. Until the mid-twentieth century, most historians traced the notions of personal freedom, the rule of law and representative government to the Anglo-Saxon period. A free people, ran the story, governed by a folkright of common law, and ordering their affairs increasingly through popular assemblies - folkmoots - found themselves subjected to feudalism by the Normans.
Nor was the idea confined to historians. Six centuries after the Conquest, during English civil war, parliamentary soldiers told themselves that that they were fighting to ‘throw off the Norman yoke'. The idea of recovering the native liberty of the Anglo-Saxons, suppressed by an alien aristocracy, was very real to them.
During the second half of the twentieth century, some historians, sneering at what they saw as Victorian jingoism, challenged this narrative. But, as Professor James Campbell, arguably our foremost authority on the period, has shown, the Victorians were onto something: Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism was real enough.
It was certainly real to America's founders. The histories most widely read in the colonies - Nathaniel Bacon's Historical Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England; Henry Care's English Liberties; Lord Kames's British Antiquities - all told the same story: in 1066, a free people had lost their liberties to a Continental invader. Even in those days, of course, there were Americans who were aware of having non-English ancestry, yet they cheerfully bought into a self-consciously Anglo-Saxon political identity.
When the first shots were fired in 1775, it didn't occur to Americans that they were fighting a foreign power. The idea of the American Revolution as a war between two nations - a War of Independence - came much later. Paul Revere never shouted ‘The British are coming!' - an absurd thing, if you think about it, to shout at a wholly British population. What he actually yelled, during his famous ride, was ‘The regulars are out!'
Indeed, when Americans called themselves patriots, they meant that they were British patriots, fighting for their ancestral freedoms against a German king and his Hessian hirelings. How else are we to understand their complaint in the Declaration of Independence about ‘abolishing the free System of English Laws' and ‘transporting large Armies of foreign [ie not British] Mercenaries'?
Mitt Romney - or, rather, his staffer - is on absolutely solid ground. The US is built on values which have become so uncontroversial that they are considered almost universal: representative government, the rule of law, private property, religious liberty, free speech, habeas corpus, trial by jury. It's easy to forget that these precepts, at least in the form that the founders recognized, were products of a specifically British political culture.
Even the dimmest Romney aide must be aware that non-Anglo-Saxons form the vast majority of the US electorate. It is surely fair game, though, to draw attention to Obama's anti-British prejudices (see here for the full charge-sheet). It is fair game, too, to posit a connection between Obama's dislike of Britain and his contempt for those US institutions - the common law, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights - that were inherited from Britain.
One thing that Britain and the US have in common is that they define nationhood in civic rather than ethnic terms. A hundred years ago, 80 per cent of British subjects were neither white nor Christian. You become British, as you become American, by signing up to a set of values.
And a pretty decent set of values they are. In two world wars, hundreds of millions of men crossed half the world in order to take up arms in their defense. Whether they were from Jamaica or Australia, India or Canada, they understood that they were fighting for freedom against tyranny. Not every country got the big calls of the last century - the two world wars and the Cold War - right. The Anglosphere peoples, by and large, did.
During the first half of 2012, I toured the main English-speaking democracies to make the case for the Anglosphere. I was struck by the warmth with which people of non-British backgrounds, especially in Australia and Canada, endorsed the concept.
If (as I hope) Mitt Romney becomes president, and if (as I hope) Tony Abbott wins in Australia then, for the first time, there will be a conservative and Anglospherist full house. It would be a pity if the opportunity to move towards an Anglosphere free trade area were lost because of Britain's outdated membership of a European customs union. In the mean time, though, let's at least show that we can accept a compliment graciously.
Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.