Napoleon Was (not) Here

What if a member country’s relationship with the European Union depended on the achievements of the most famous Corsican in History?

Take…the United Kingdom (please! I mean, as an example)

What about the UK? Don’t we all know that the Emperor of France was unable to cross the Channel? Those 25 miles of sea had seen the advance of Julius Cesar, Claudius Augustus and William the Conqueror, but were impenetrable to the Victor of Austerlitz, either by sea (with his fleet destroyed at Trafalgar by Admiral Nelson), or by a risky tunnel from the Calais area.

But that is the point: having endured no French invasion, the English (and Welshmen, and Scots) did not experience some important changes, “details” that are now native to cultures and societies of the European Countries, that around the year 1800 were under the hegemony of Paris

From this point of view, many of the clashes and misunderstandings between the British nations and the rest of Europe are consequences… of the Fall of the Bastille (a reminder to Chinese President Mao’s 1950s answer about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: “Too early to tell” )

Some differences between Great Britain and the Continent are self-evident: for example, Napoleon deliberated for cemeteries to be transferred outside cities, whilst most London Churches sport quite more recent tombstones nearby

But the real break with past after the violent end of King Louis XVI of France, was something more meaningful than simple administrative decisions concerning public hygiene

In fact, the French (people and elites) moved on to export the Principles of the Revolution: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Those were extraordinarily new concepts and revolutionary indeed for an Europe rigidly divided then (as now) in sovereign States keen to defend their own (ruling classes’) interests

Amid all the chaos of war, French armies propagated those Principles in the popular consciences in Germany, Spain, Italy and beyond. The administrations that followed had the stated goal of freeing their “brothers”, that is all nearby nations, reorganizing them around the idea that all the Citizens have the same rights, and are equal in front of the Law

The very notion of a European Union proceeds from the idea of a Militant Fraternity between Peoples (curiously, an attitude currently disliked as “American”). More: in its fit of destruction against the Ancien Regime France allowed a person like Napoleon Bonaparte, born far away from the old Bourbon elites, to become first a General, then a Head of State, and finally an Emperor

Of Italian origins, with little links to the Upper Strata of society, and without a large inheritance to sustain himself, Napoleon came from Corsica, a restive island itself far away from the command centres of the Kingdom and then the Republic

The conquering French Emperor and his armies, powerful and invincible masters and liberators of Europe (apart from the British islands and little more), showed thus to all the people of the continent that lineage, commercial interests, money were not needed (not even a good accent) to soar to power

In the United Kingdom instead, there is no historical trace of a popular revolution capable to change the nation and subvert the Establishment, nor of a non-Establishment person (no matter how exceptional), to take control of the State

Popular uprisings, of course, did happen in centuries past, but they all failed. The most serious, in 1381, saw thousands of peasants march only to see a young king renege on his promises (and execute their ringmasters)

The one Revolution that succeeded brought to power nobleman Oliver Cromwell in 1646: but he refused to let himself proclaimed Head of State (in stark contrast, Napoleon crowned himself in Paris in front of a reluctant Pope)

Europhile Ireland, also untouched by Napoleon, managed instead a popular revolution to free itself from United Kingdom at the beginning of XX the century, reinforcing the feeling that British ambivalence towards the European Union is linked to a its (un-) revolutionary history

The consequences are not difficult to imagine. The British population has become allergic to any thought of an uprising, and has maintained a strong sense of Authority. In what other modern state could one find the citizens officially defined as “subjects” of the Queen?

And with all the wars and revolutions of the XIX and XX century, where else is power firmly in the hands of the (old) ruling classes, the so-called “The Great and the Good”, a mixture of nobility and hereditary merchant classes uninterruptedly in control, at least from the age of Wilhelm of Orange (King since 1688 having been “invited over” by a group of English parliamentarians)?

Obviously not all the UK political leaders of last three centuries were of high lineage or coming from powerful, rich families: but all of them effectively belonged to, or became part of the Establishment. Margaret Thatcher, potentially an outsider woman in a world of men, worked instead to re-establish the most cliched idea of what the British society ought to be (centred, not by chance, around her person as a sort of Queen-in-all-but-name)

The British tradition of Authority is continuously renewed also in the apparently more democratic aspects. For example, governmental planning, a process theoretically opened to the opinions of all citizens, is so mysterious and forcefully dedicated to reach a consensus, that is almost impossible for plans not to be watered down, let alone be able to change the status quo

The British citizen is educated never to complain in an effective manner. The tradition of the “stiff upper lip” is waning but not disappearing: think of a person that does not reveal feelings nor emotions, and whose mouth never betrays joy nor anxiety: whose passions, and whose angers therefore, remain hidden, to leave Society undisturbed. People may complain about the quality of the trains, but they will do nothing more, stoically enduring antiquated pre-modern services reminding of 1980’s continental Europe.

True, the National Health System (NHS) is now at the forefront of contemporary provision: at the wrong forefront, one might say, as it is showing the rest of Europe that nurses can cheaply (but how effectively?) “diagnose” illnesses simply by following rigid criteria based on the patient’s own reporting of symptoms, rather than with a careful analysis and an experienced doctor

The dutiful “customers” accept the situation as a necessity, unaware of the fact that today’s awful service will become tomorrow’s standard. Healthcare managers of course are very happy with the savings, and further encouraged to find out how to spend less, without consideration to the actual health benefits to the patients

Particularly rigid and unmovable, cold and impersonal, the British bureaucracy is clearly geared to satisfy superiors rather than citizens. The year 2006 opened with the case of an old couple separated by social workers: he, a veteran of the Second World war; she, blind. The husband’s GP ordered him to enter a clinic specialised in the treatment of the elderly. Alas, the wife could not follow, as her situation did not fulfil obscure criteria established by the local Council

Last I checked on this piece of news, paradoxes were piling up, all related to an excessive importance given to the “Authority”. The husband is unwillingly parked in the clinic, but does not return home as he is following doctor’s orders. The wife is home just as lonely with the family taking care of her now. Some letter-based protest had been lodged by their children, but they did not move their father back nor considered using a private healthcare provider

The social workers, instead of improving the citizens lives, became responsible of a serious and self-evident injustice that ruined the life of two old innocents. Why couldn’t they do differently? Because there is no alternative

Any “personal interpretation” of the rules (the shock! The horror!) would be considered an act of insubordination and the career of the “guilty” probably finished to the moment. And of course there is no official channel where to ask exceptions to the regulations in exceptional circumstances.

In a centre-driven, hard, harsh, pyramidal and frozen structure, even the social worker, as any other representative of the State or any organization, is just a messenger

There is also a European aspect that is directly affected by this attitude. The EU is famous for its “directives”: technically, “a legislative act of the European Union which requires member states to achieve a particular result without dictating the means of achieving that result

Peculiarly, those directives do not have the same consequences in the UK as elsewhere. For example recently hundreds of local British abattoirs have been closed due to some EU directive, whilst nothing of the sort has happened in the rest of the European Union.

Some fundamental cultural misunderstanding must be at work: so whereas most countries consider a “directive” as a “strong suggestion”, a rule indicating the direction of things to come, in the UK it is interpreted as a mandatory law that must be followed to the letter: exactly the difference between guidelines expressed by popular representatives, and the imperative commands of a King/Ruling Prime Minister.

Even in 1968, to the rioters in France, Italy and Germany the English youth answered with pointless rebellions as seen in movies like Quadrophenia. And today, instead of blocking crowded trains like in Turin or Milan, London commuters find refuge in witticisms about the state of the railroads

It’s not by chance that British humour is famous worldwide, well developed (and widely tolerated). It’s one of the three main discharge valves for life-stressed citizens. Another valve is the creation and destruction of myths (like Tony Blair). And the third is the ambiguous celebration of alcohol and alcoholism, but these topics deserve their own articles.

And so consider Bonaparte’s disasters at Trafalgar and Waterloo, when trying to understand British idiosyncrasies about “Europe”. For now let’s just heave a sigh whilst lamenting: Napoleon, why didn’t you come here?