Tom Spencer's Blog

Two Hundred Years of Europe

My wife’s family always kept a picture of the Emperor Napoleon on their downstairs loo. This was a practice which I do not follow, feeling it to be vaguely anti-European. In fact I should have recognised it as a tribute to the closeness in personal time of the Battle of Waterloo. Liz’s father had married late as had his father. Three lifetimes took you back to the time of Waterloo.


It was with a sense of a new departure that I took to reading the new biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by Andrew Roberts . Having been destined at one stage for a career in the Royal Navy, my childhood was dominated by the figure of Nelson rather then Wellington. In fact of course the proper counterpoint to Napoleon is neither of these military figures. It should be William Pitt the Younger who articulated successive continental coalitions that eventually brought down the power of France, with its challenge to the basic principle of British foreign policy, that no continental super power should control the mouth of the Scheldt.


The Bonaparte that emerges from this long but very readable book is a suitable corrective to the attitude which condemns a pompous little man to the downstairs loo. Napoleon it turns out was voracious reader from the age of seven. He was always much more than just a lucky or talented general. Roberts makes the case for Napoleon as polymath, revolutionary and law giver. Springing from minor gentry in the confused situation of Corsica, and always speaking French with a heavy accent, he became the classic outsider-turned-insider, capable of fundamental reform and rooting the revolution in the longer perspective of French history. The author further makes the point that Napoleon’s only experience of fighting the British in set piece battles was at Waterloo. There are two minor skirmishes earlier in his career when he did engage with the British. For most of his time however he was the land animal unable to understand or effectively counter the Royal Navy’s control of the sea.


When cut off in Egypt by the British he restlessly marched east into the Holy Land, flirting with the achievement of his childhood heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Eventually he abandoned the thought of marching on India and his expedition into Palestine effectively ended with what Arab historians regard as a massacre at Jaffa. Napoleon’s view of symbolic violence was surprisingly similar to that of today’s ISIS. He believed that ritual violence was justifiable if it cowed a civilian population and avoided a succession of bloody incidents. Better to be feared on the basis of one event rather than involved in a whole series. However it is notable that his treatment of Arab prisoners was undoubtedly racist and that he would never have treated European prisoners in the same way. Similarly his attitudes from childhood onwards were undoubtedly misogynist. He has left his mark in the attitude of Civil Codes across Europe which until recently discriminated against women.


I conclude therefore that two centuries is a remarkably short time in the history of Europe. We should re-examine all our simple national images of heroes and villains. Waterloo was indeed “a damn close run thing”, but it should also be seen as a victory for a pan-European coalition. A visit to the battlefield itself is revealing. My eldest daughter recently married a Belgian. In his company we went to the battlefield on a cold spring day earlier this year. We climbed the pyramid erected on the spot where a future king of the Netherlands was wounded in the battle. From such a vantage point, it becomes clear that the battle was long, complicated and finely balanced. There is no doubt that the valour and tactics of the British played a key role in victory. But it was a continent-wide coalition, sustained over twenty years by British gold that brought the eventual victory. Rather than being a triumph of British arms, Waterloo should be a reminder to Euro-sceptics of how closely Britain’s national interest is tied up with the balance of power on the nainland.

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