Dan Hannan delivered a bravura performance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday morning, demanding a room full of predominantly American political activists “act worthy of themselves” as heirs to a common inheritance of Western values.
In a 20-minute address increasingly punctuated by applause, the British Eurosceptic intellectualised the conservative position, a rare approach at a convention in which the word “Benghazi” is enough to provoke a paranoid squeal, while invoking a brand of Atlantacism that honoured Britain and the US as the standard-bearers for constitutional freedom in an increasingly divided world.
“Think about the world as it stood in 1941,” said Hannan, invoking Winston Churchill, a character whose reverence in these parts is second only to Reagan. “Constitutional freedom was confined to the Anglosphere,” freedoms that were retained, Hannan argued, as a result of specific military victories in the Second World War and the Cold War.
“The easiest temptation to get into my friends is to take things for granted and become blasé about the unique privileges into which we’ve been born. We could all so easily fall into the error of assuming that freedom – free contracts, free elections, the freedom of newspapers, habeas corpus, equality between men and women – that these things are somehow the natural condition. But history tells us a different story. Those precepts were overwhelmingly developed in the language in which you’re listening to now.”
Moving into contemporary territory, Hannan highlighted the increasingly vocal critics of the US, but said, “They would be a lot quicker to complain if it went. You don’t have to look to far to see some of the alternatives”.
“Forty million people around the world tuned in to see your presidential inauguration – it would have been nicer if it was another president – but can you imagine anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings of the Russian Duma or the National People’s Conference in Beijing or the European parliament, God forbid?”
The MEP drew a series of standing ovations for lambasting Washington over the US Federal debt, which he said acted as a hindrance on the authority and legitimacy of the US to spread Western values around the globe.
“When you’re faced with a debt of $17 trillion that becomes an issue of national security,” he said, reminding those in the Potomac Ballroom that the interest on that debt alone is equivalent to a third of the Chinese defence budget and a half of the Russia defence budget. “When we are talking about numbers on that scale it’s not just your problem any more, it becomes a problem for the Western world in general.”
At a conference that to outsiders can appear inward looking, heralding such bastions of insularity as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, it was unusual to see a Briton take the podium talking about American domestic policy in an accent cut from the spires of Oxford. This is, after all, the encampment of the Tea Party, a movement whose very name evokes hatred of the British.
It was an incongruity that Hannan highlighted himself and redressed: “I’ll answer frankly, my friends. No English speaker can be indifferent to the fortunes of this Republic. We’ve been through too much together. You are a separate country but you are not a foreign country.”
“You are citizens of the greatest Republic on this planet and that carries responsibilities as well as privileges. It is for you to keep fast the freedoms that you inherited from your parents and to pass them on in tact to your children. Act worthy of yourselves.”
Hannan’s message may have its critics (many in the UK), but at an event in which the political parade prefers to spit bumper sticker charges at Obama or pontificate on the banal tensions between Republicans and Libertarians, the Briton’s performance was a welcome piece of theatre, while perhaps also highlighting a scarcity of genuine intellectual talent within the leading figures of the American political right.