People sometimes accuse me of being obsessed with Daniel Hannan. And I reply, just because I’ve written 18 columns about an obscure MEP who doesn’t even have actual power to speak of, that doesn’t mean I’m obsessed. Was Heathcliff obsessed with Cathy? Was Ahab obsessed with the whale? Exactly. I’m fine. Stop asking annoying questions when I’m trying to finish my Daniel Hannan darts board, I need to concentrate.
Actually, people don’t know the half of it. My dislike of the Braggart of Brussels dates back a lot further than the start of this column; I hated him before Brexit, before the referendum was so much as a glimmer in David Cameron’s eye. I’ve disliked Daniel Hannan ever since I first learned his name, all the way back in 2009.
Back then, Hannan was still an obscure figure, pottering about Brussels, contributing to the Daily Telegraph, and, one suspects, keen to make a name for himself as a right-wing firebrand.
So it was that in 2009 he did a number of things that served to raise his profile. In March, he launched a blistering attack on then prime minister Gordon Brown, referring to him as “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government”. The video promptly went viral.
On the night of the European Elections that June, Hannan made another speech, arguing that “parliament had lost the moral mandate to carry on”, and demanded Brown call an election. History doesn’t record if he felt the same after the Tories received a similar series of beatings back in the mid-1990s.
But back then, I was a news reporter covering health policy for a newspaper for GPs. So the thing that caught my eye was the series of interviews he gave to assorted Fox News correspondents, warning the US not to make the same mistake that the UK had. What he feared, he said, was that Barack Obama’s America was about to abandon its world-beating system of private healthcare (“freedom medicine”, let’s call it) in favour of NHS-style socialised healthcare.
Here’s Daniel talking to Sean Hannity in April, telling him, “If you see a friend about to make a terrible mistake, you try and warn him. And we’ve lived through this mistake for 60 years now.”
Here he is a few months later, telling Glenn Beck that the most striking thing about the NHS is that “you are very often just sent to the back of the queue”, and that “the worst thing to be is elderly”. The interview, charmingly, begins with Beck asking Hannan if he fancies running for president; Hannan modestly replies that, as a strict-constructionist and a foreigner, he is sadly not eligible.
For some months these interviews went under the radar. But in August they came to the attention of Andy Burnham, then the health secretary, who argued that Hannan’s views showed that the Conservative party could still not be trusted with the NHS. David Cameron was forced to do some firefighting by describing the NHS as a “great national institution” and claiming it was his party’s “number one mission” to improve it. (That afternoon, Roger Helmer MEP popped up on Radio 4’s PM programme to noisily support Hannan, no doubt earning Cameron’s eternal gratitude in the process.)
Hannan is entitled to his opinions, of course, and entitled to express them on whatever television programmes he fancies. So why did his intervention seem so obnoxious to me?
Partly, I think, it’s for the reason Burnham identified: it felt like Hannan, by attacking the UK’s most beloved institution to a foreign audience, was being unpatriotic. It’s all very well when we moan about waiting lists and bad hospital food in our own papers. But to do it to Americans? It’s like hearing someone slagging off your family.
And to do it on Fox News of all places? Which, even in 2009 – back when alt right was a keyboard shortcut not a political movement – was already known as the home of the craziest of right-wing opinions? Throw the traitor in the Tower.
The other thing that was so obnoxious about Hannan’s intervention, though, was that it was so incredibly myopic. Yes, the NHS has flaws – but one of the things it does well is to ensure that healthcare is available to everybody. The US healthcare system very obviously doesn’t do that. It gets great results if you are insured; but it’s entirely abysmal if you’re not, and many millions of people weren’t. What’s more, it’s enormously expensive, keeps people trapped in jobs they don’t want, and means that in the world’s biggest economy “medical bankruptcy” is a serious problem and not, as it obviously should be, entirely unimaginable.
If Daniel Hannan was concerned by the plight of the uninsured, he gave no sign of it in any of his interviews. Nor did he seem to understand that it’s the very universality of the NHS, the reassurance of the safety net that it provides, the social solidarity it implies, that has made it so popular. At one point, he suggests to Glenn Beck that the main explanation for its popularity is that it employs so many people. He had no idea. He still doesn’t.
I’m sure Hannan considers himself a patriot. I’m sure he believes he loves Britain. But he doesn’t love my Britain. He doesn’t share our values.
Which just makes it all the more infuriating that he and his ideological allies went on to bloody win the EU referendum.