Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, I: Waterloo

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now in the run up to a referendum on ‘renegotiated’ membership of the European Union which will supposedly return some sovereignty to UK political institutions. The date of the referendum and the details of the ‘renegotiation’, which in all likelihood will consist of changes of a secondary kind particularly since changes to the relevant treaties would trigger referendums in other EU member states with unpredictable consequence. The Conservative government is also making gestures towards repealing the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, and replacing it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, and at the extreme may withdraw from the European Convention, leaving the UK as the only European nation apart from Belarus in that situation.

It looks like the Prime Minister David Cameron is happy to stay in the EU after minor changes and to keep the Human Rights Act and that he is not at all aiming to withdraw from the ECHR. I say this because he is an extreme pragmatist who does not aim for big shifts in Britain’s constitutional arrangements and relations with Europe, though as an extreme pragmatist he appears to send different signals to different people, so there may be some with a different impression.

I introduce these issues in current British politics in order to discuss the ideas of national sovereignty, laws, and institutions at stake along with the understanding of Britain’s historical relation with Europe. These are not necessarily at the centre of all political debate on the matters introduced above, but they are part of the debate and the ‘Eurosceptics’ – who both want to reduce Britain’s connection with European institutions and promote an idea of absolute national sovereignty – are already on the offensive with their vision of history. Two historical anniversaries have been used for this agenda: the two hundred year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and the nine eight hundred year anniversary of Magna Carta. More on Magna Carta when I get onto issues of law and institutions in this series of posts. First a few post posts about the general history.

What is partly as stake here is a debate between two wings of the liberty movement. The Eurosceptics in Britain have a strong element of conservative-libertarian fusionism while the Europhiles have an element of more cosmopolitan culturally pluralist libertarianism. The most obvious issue after European institutions dividing these two groups is immigration, with cosmo-Europhile libertarians much more inclined to open immigration than the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic libertarians. There are of course grey areas, overlaps and exceptions, but the overall pattern is very clear. Strictly speaking Eurosceptic and Europhile here refer to attitudes towards cross-European institutions, not other Europeans, but it cannot be denied that behind the more tolerant sounding version of Euroscepticism there are a lot of resentful people who don’t like foreigners, Europeans and people who are not like us, and think of democracy as preserving majority cultures and communities as dominant and unchanging. The sovereigntist-Eurosceptics tend to be very influenced by conservative-libertarian circles in the USA and to promote an ‘Anglosphere’ idea in which Britain is essentially part of a community with the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (i.e. white majority countries which used to be part of the British Empire), and is essentially not European.

What I present in today’s post is a critical response to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic version of British history. The Waterloo anniversary for Eurosceptics is commemorated for being a moment when Britain played a decisive role in undermining the claims of autocratic rulers to dominate Europe. In the late sixteenth century it was Philip II of Spain, in the early eighteenth century it was Louis XIV of France, in the early twentieth century it was William II, Emperor of Germany, King of Prussia, and in the mid-twentieth century it was Adolf Hitler, Führer of National Socialist Germany. There is some truth in this. Britain’s place as a powerful offshore part of Europe has suited it to hold out against a continental hegemon and provide a focus for turning back the hegemon’s power; nevertheless the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic version of this is bombastic and evasive.

Focusing on Waterloo, since that is the key anniversary of the moment, it was not a single-handed victory by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (who was born and brought up in what is now the Republic of Ireland) and a British army. The battle was only won because of the arrival of a Prussian-German army led by Marshall Blücher, who has a claim to be a commander of greater vision and imagination than Wellesley (though it should be said that he was superlative in all other aspects of command). The majority of Wellesley’s army was Dutch, Belgian or German (even excluding soldiers from Hanover which at that time shared its royal family with Britain) and many of the ‘British’ were, like Wellesley, from what is now the Republic of Ireland. While Wellesley and the British soldiers at Waterloo undoubtedly showed the greatest courage and determination in the battle, the image of Britain defeating the returning European hegemon, Napoleon Bonaparte, is false, if a falsity that became a major part of the more mythical aspects of British history.

Coming next: Britain before and after Waterloo

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