Back in November, the New Statesman web team held a meeting to discuss new things we could do to the internet. For some reason that is now lost to me, my first thought was a left-wing equivalent of Quentin Letts’ 50 people who buggered up Britain, with the slight twist that every single week it would be about Daniel Hannan. As I recall, approximately two of us hooted with laughter at this idea, while everyone else in the room looked vaguely perplexed.
Seven months and 18 columns later, I was speaking to a student media conference in Leeds about my decade in the trade press. All the way through my talk, I knew full well that all the questions would be about something else entirely (houses, the tube map, Jeremy Corbyn); but I was still taken aback when the first was, “Do you think there are any… concerns about writing an ongoing column about one individual?”
Or, to put it another way: was I bullying Daniel Hannan?
Well, no, I don’t think that what I’ve been doing, obviously. If you’re in politics, part of the job is accepting that everything you say or do is going to be open to public scrutiny. That seems to go double for one as determined to influence public mood and national destiny as Hannan.
And I’ve tried, however imperfectly, to play the ball not the man; to critique Hannan’s views and ideas rather than write anything that veered into the personal. (Two mutual friends have now assured me that he’s actually quite pleasant.)
But nonetheless, if this reads as bullying, that’s not a great look. And there are other reasons my enthusiasm has waned. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find new things to say, and as I began to see the same ludicrous ideas pop up in Hannan’s output for the second or third time, there was a danger I’d begin to repeat myself, too.
What’s more, he’s responded to my work in the most infuriating way that he could, which is to say that he’s not responded at all. I know for a fact he’s aware of this column; I suspect he’s read much of it. But he’s declined to answer questions about it, and, other than the time he briefly followed me on Twitter before instantly blocking me once again, he has not deigned to acknowledge my existence. This is of course intensely irritating, so kudos to him for playing his hand so well.
And so, I’m going to stop: this is the last instalment of Hannan fodder.
The previous one was subtitled Hannan: Origins, so by that logic this one should be titled, simply, “Daniel”.
This week, though, I’m not going to write about any specific thing Hannan has said or done recently. I’m instead going to try to answer a question I’ve been pondering for months now: why is it that he inspires such rage? Enough to make me write this, and to make enough people click that nobody tried to stop me. Why does this obscure Tory MEP, who most normal people have probably never even heard of, inspire such loathing?
It can’t just be his ideas: I know a lot of Tories and a lot of Leavers, in both politics and the real world, and none of them have anything like the same effect. Partly, I suppose, my dislike is in proportion to the zeal with which he’s tried to conjure the national catastrophe of Brexit into being. And partly, of course, it’s because he succeeded.
But having spent more time thinking about Daniel Hannan than any non-relative really should, I have concluded that there are three other reasons why he gets my hackles up like almost nobody else.
One is his pretence that he is always the reasonable man in any conversation. He expresses fringe positions – that the British Empire was a bastion of liberty; that the NHS is a national disaster – with the calm, self-assurance of a man who thinks they are the most obvious stance in the world. He stands at one extreme of mainstream British politics, yet always speaks like he represents the rational centre. I find this sinister, in the same I’d find it so if someone kept wrongly insisting it was Tuesday.
Related to that, there’s the sanctimony. Daniel Hannan is always polite. He always acts like a man open to genuine debate. And he is noisily and, I think, genuinely horrified by the idea that the vote for Brexit could be in any way viewed as a reactionary or racist.
Yet whatever his own views, the referendum he spent a quarter of a century fighting for was ultimately won not by talk of liberty or the greatness of the Commonwealth, but by fears of immigration and xenophobic posters about queues of Turks.
Does he think the end justifies the mean? It’s difficult to know because, best I can tell, he’s simply not acknowledged any connection between the rise of the new nativism and Brexit. His articles, indeed, are more concerned with showing that it is in fact the left who are the nasty, unreasonable ones. There’s remarkably little self-criticism on show. He’s too busy being pleased with himself.
Lastly, there is what I’ve come to think of as his cargo-cult intellectualism. He pitches himself as a thinker, a great public intellectual, with deep knowledge of history, and packs his speeches with the quotes and references to prove it.
But finding those quotes is as about deep as his intellectual inquiry goes. The best way to test a hypothesis is to attempt to disprove it – and such uncertainty is alien to Daniel Hannan. He doesn’t need to ask questions, for he already has his answers. His articles and speeches, beautifully written though they are, deploy those literary and classical references to build to a conclusion he reached some time in the late 1980s. He uses the forms of intellectual discourse, but not its substance.
The public have had enough of experts, Michael Gove said, ludicrously, during last year’s referendum. Well – I quite like experts. They teach me things I don’t already know, and do many critical jobs I am not qualified to do.
What I have had enough of is obsessive ideologues who quote long-dead Romans to make themselves look like experts. Those charlatans can sod right off.
Daniel Hannan will not be standing in next week’s election. The Conservative party in Aldershot were keen to have him; CCHQ, alas, declined. Consequently, he will continue to sit, intermittently, in the European Parliament until 2019, when he is out of a job.
In some ways I feel almost sorry for him. Like Nelson dying at Trafalgar (see? I can do this too, Dan), his career is over at his moment of greatest triumph. He has won the battle, but he will not be around to enjoy the results. He might well be finished.
But then again, he’s hardly going to be busy with European legislation, so in effect he has two years to work out his next steps while earning a remarkably good salary. The rest of us, by contrast, will be living with the consequences of his success for a very long time. He doesn’t deserve our sympathy. We deserve his.
Thank you, Daniel, for giving me so much to write about these last few months. But I really wish you hadn’t fucked up my country.
Thanks to Anna Leszkiewicz who is due the credit for the name Hannan Fodder. And apologies to those who wanted this to end with the two of us wrestling on top of the Atomium in Brussels: if you’re reading, Daniel, that offer is still open.