Friday, October 28, 2005

Sic transit gloria ...

By Tom Utley

At daybreak 200 years ago this morning, the people of Britain woke with the long-familiar threat of an invasion from France hanging over them. Napoleon had had his plan of attack ready for more than two years. He had built a vast fleet of barges to carry his Grande Armée of more than 100,000 battle-hardened troops over the Channel from Boulogne. All that stood in his way was that narrow strip of water and a couple of dozen ships of the Royal Navy.

By nightfall on October 21, 1805, the threat of invasion had been lifted for good - although it was not until November 4, a fortnight later, that news of what had happened reached England's shores aboard the schooner Pickle.

The crushing victory inflicted on Villeneuve's combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar had set history on a new course that would guarantee Britain's independence for as far ahead as men could see. It was Trafalgar that established Britannia as the undisputed ruler of the waves, Trafalgar that cleared the seas for the greatest trading empire that the world has ever known.

In not much more than five hours of battle, Nelson and Collingwood had made their country a superpower and ensured that Britons would continue to be ruled by governments of their own choosing for more than a century and a half to come.

A game that historians have always liked to play is What If…? It is usually a silly exercise, involving a great deal of guesswork. But we don't need to indulge in much fantasy to answer the question: "What would have happened if Nelson had lost Trafalgar, and Napoleon had been able to launch his invasion of England?" The question is fairly easy to answer, because we know how the French emperor treated the territories that he conquered, and there is no reason to believe that he would have treated us very differently.

It is safe to say, for a start, that the French invasion would have succeeded, with the Royal Navy out of the way. The Grande Armée was the most efficient fighting machine in the world at the time, and these islands were ill prepared to meet the threat that it posed. Within a matter of weeks, Napoleon would have established himself in power, perhaps crowning himself or one of his relations as King of England.

One of the new regime's first acts, apart from sending any organisers of resistance to the guillotine, would have been to sweep away the Common Law, and to establish in its place the Napoleonic Code. Like so many dictators - from the Roman emperors to Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot - Napoleon was a tidy-minded rationalist who believed in universal laws, applicable to all mankind. From a dictator's point of view, the trouble with Britain's common law is that it is an organic growth, based not on first principles, but on human nature and accumulated experience.

We can be quite sure, too, that Napoleon would have imposed on Britain his uniform system of decimal weights and measures - his absurd metres and centimetres, based on mathematical calculations (which have since been shown to be wildly inaccurate) of the dimensions of the earth. Another safe bet is that, before long, he would have imposed a single currency on Britain and the rest of his European empire.

Unlike the earlier French revolutionaries, who thought that Italy should be governed by Italians and Spain by Spaniards, Napoleon was never a believer in nation states. He believed in centralised European government - one law and one authority for the whole of his empire. This was the fate from which Nelson and Collingwood saved the peoples of Britain, 200 years ago today.

Readers will already have seen the direction of my thoughts: on this bicentenary of Trafalgar, the similarities between Napoleon's vision of Europe and the regime now being imposed upon Britain from Brussels are simply too glaring to be allowed to pass without comment.

Like Napoleon, the champions of the European Union believe that one law, one currency, one system of weights and measures, one centralised authority should be imposed upon all the peoples of Europe, whether they like it or not. Like him, they see no place for the nation state in the modern world. They insist that European law should always take precedence over the laws of national parliaments - and to hell with the principle that people should be allowed to choose for themselves how they are governed.

One of the great triumphs of the Europhiles has been to plant the thought in so many people's minds that Europe is the future, and that anyone who suggests withdrawing from the European Union is seeking to "put the clock back". Somehow they have made it the received wisdom that pulling out now would be: (a) an extremely complicated matter; and (b) ruinous to the British economy.

In fact, nothing could be easier than withdrawal. Parliament could achieve it in a single afternoon's business, simply by repealing sections two and three of the European Communities Act, 1972. These are the pernicious clauses that provide for the supremacy of European law over British law. Nor is there any reason to believe that the British economy would suffer from withdrawal. On the contrary, as my occasional colleague, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, points out in his brilliant pamphlet for Politeia, Voting on the Constitution, there is every reason to believe that our economy would prosper, freed from the daily increasing burden of European regulation. Europe is the only continent on earth, after all, with which Britain runs a trade deficit. The other nations of Europe need our markets more even than we need theirs.

If Nelson had lost at Trafalgar, Britain would have been locked into a centralised, protectionist Europe. Instead, his victory opened up the markets of the whole wide world to British enterprise. Two hundred years on, we could do with another Nelson.