An unashamedly whiggish history of English legal exceptionalism scores a topical point.
By the end of this year we're going to be waist-deep in 800th anniversary commemorations of Magna Carta. We'll hear innumerable calls to heed the reeds of Runnymede and no doubt be battered by revisionist opinion about King John being a thoroughly Good Thing after all.
At such times, it's a wise author who gets his interpretation in early. In How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters (Head of Zeus Books), Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for south-east England, enlists the charter in his eloquent campaign for withdrawal from the European Union in favour of closer engagement with a resurgent Anglosphere (more on which later).
In an unashamedly whiggish history - the approach of explaining past events as progressive steps towards the happy modern world - Hannan presents Magna Carta as a unique step for humanity, rooted in the exceptional tradition of English common law. Its authors, he reminds us, did not see themselves as innovators but heirs to ancient liberties: likewise the parliamentarian opponents of Charles I, the Levellers, and the drafters of the 1689 bill of rights 'the most successful and enduring constitution in the world'.
But a habit of imposing reciprocal contracts on monarchs was not the only legacy of common law. Another, arguably more fundamental, was the concept of inalienable property rights and in turn the habit of primogeniture, of estates being passed in their entirety to the eldest son rather than being shared out by extended families.
Here, says Hannan, citing Alan MacFarlane's 1970s research on the origins of English exceptionalism, lies the root of a lively market economy. In a Churchillian turn of phrase, 'The roots of statism claw their way deep into the cold soil of the Middle Ages.'
Primogeniture had other consequences: farms would be tended by hired labour rather than subsistence peasants. It produced a surfeit of literate younger sons needing to make their way in the world - in the professions, as entrepreneurs - and empire builders.
And hence to the wider Anglosphere. Hannan argues that the British Empire always had 'a self-dissolving quality, in the sense that the political rights and values it disseminated tended to promote local autonomy and self-reliance'. The exemplar is of course the United States, born of what he describes as the second Anglosphere civil war in which Englishmen who, as their ancestors had done during the 1640s, asserted their rights against a monarchy that they viewed as alien and innovatory.'
It culminated in 'the consummation of English whig philosophy in the form of the US Constitution and the US Bill of Rights'.
You'll see where this is going. Hannan argues that the Anglosphere, defined as English-speaking nations with a common law tradition, remains the UK's natural world partner, as against the statist continental model. He also maintains that the Anglosphere is growing, with members that once defined themselves by their hard won independence quietly returning to the fold thanks to the internet-enabled cultural links. Here, the examples are Ireland and, more significantly, India.
In short, the Anglosphere rather than Europe is the place to be.
If true, this is just as well, because barring extraordinary political turnarounds, the UK is heading towards an EU exit. Let’s hope the reeds of Runnymede are in good voice.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor