Daniel Hannan has been a Member of the European Parliament since 1999, but he is not averse to biting the hand that feeds him. In “A Doomed Marriage” he is full of passionate intensity, making the case for Brexit while dressing up routine arguments with frequent references to literature and history. Perhaps this is to persuade us that Hannan, who was born in Lima, Peru and speaks three languages, is no ordinary Little Englander but a sophisticated advocate for the benefits of divorce.
When Hannan sets out his stall, however, his sense of British exceptionalism could hardly be more profound. The British, he argues, are essentially a homogenous mass of loveable eccentrics, trainspotters and jaywalkers, free from written constitutions and served by autonomous institutions “like Oxford and Cambridge and the BBC.” A long list of uniquely British qualities contrasts with their absence among French and Germans who are centrists by nature. “The attempt to force an eccentric society like the British into an alien, concentric structure”, he predicts, “will have devastating consequences.”
From this problematic foundation, Hannan details the supposed devastating consequences of remaining in the EU. The first, inevitably, is that the home of parliamentary democracy could forever be yoked to the profoundly undemocratic union if it doesn’t act soon. A list MEP from a country with an unelected upper house and bishops and royalty embedded in the political process should certainly recognise democratic deficit. But instead of a glass house, Hannan sees only an unelected EU bureaucracy which is prepared to manipulate referenda results and spend a small fortune rewriting history while channelling propaganda through the soon-to-be-opened House of European History in Brussels.
Hannan is a lot more interesting when his arguments start to echo some of those heard before the Scottish independence referendum. First, the idea that small states work better than bigger ones, especially in terms of wealth generation. He argues that “the notion that size is a precondition of prosperity is belied by the facts” and produces two top-ten tables to show that the world’s richest people tend to live in small polities. Second, in a chapter called “The Case for Nationalism” he states that multi-national democracies are rarely stable and argues for national self-determination and small nation states based on “a community of identity” as ideal organising units. Smaller polities, he believes, bring out the best in the people and make them happier, better neighbours.
Apart from the fact that Hannan’s community of identity is reductive rather than expansive, you might think that this is an argument for Scottish independence but you would be wrong: “Indeed, it is far from clear that Scottish identity is of the kind that generally constitutes national separateness. On most of the usual denominators, Scotland forms part of the same national continuum as the rest of the United Kingdom. Scots watch the same television programmes, follow the same sports, eat the same food, shop at the same chains and speak the same language as people elsewhere in Britain.”
A shared interest in Coronation Street is one thing, but polls suggest that Scots feel differently about the EU and Hannan’s quixotic little Britain argument takes no account of this. Perhaps workers rights are in safer hands in the EU than at Westminster; European human rights legislation is mostly effectual; the Schengen agreement is a nice basis for a holiday; the opportunity to work in Europe should not to be lightly discarded; EU investment benefits the Highland “transition region” in particular; the free movement of people has helped Scotland diversify its “community of identity”, address its demographic challenges and so on.
It’s obvious that the EU isn’t perfect. Scotland’s former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, a lifelong Europhile, wrote of planning to vote “remain” but without enthusiasm and described the impoverishment of the Greek people as the nadir of the European dream. Strangely, “A Doomed Marriage” has little to say about Greece beyond the fact that it shouldn’t have been allowed to join the EU in the first place. At the risk of mimicking Hannan’s penchant for literary references, writer Hugh Kingsmill once coined the term “New Dawnists” to describe those wedded to utopian ideas that would never come to pass. Hannan, by contrast, is a kind of Old Dawnist yearning for the restoration of an idyllic England that doesn’t exist. Being trapped with him and his ilk after “leave” is a consummation devoutly to be avoided.
[This review first appeared in The National]