Tuesday, 17 July 2018

On EU debates and Waterloo

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After the Clegg-Farage EU exchange, Anthony Peters takes us on a continental history trip.

(*Corrections appended)

I’m not sure whether Wednesday was a good or a bad day for politics in this country for last night Nick Clegg, leader of the fervently pro-European Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, and Nigel Farage, leader of the slightly “fringy” but equally eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party, held the first of two scheduled TV debates on issue of this country’s continuing membership of the EU.

Oscar Wilde once described fox hunting as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable and a debate amongst party leaders in the absence of both the Prime Minister, David “call me Dave” Cameron, and the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, Ed Milliboy, probably ended up being not more much than that.

According to the YouGov poll taken before and after the debate, Nigel Farage won hands down but his impact on the size of the majority which would vote to stay within the Union if asked to vote on it today was not significantly impacted. It should maybe be added at this point that the pro camp did not enjoy an absolute majority even before the punch-up of the two, at best medium-weight, party leaders.

There is a slight irony in all of this as I shall be departing early today and shall be away tomorrow when I cross the Channel, travel through the edge of Northern France into Belgium, turn right and head for that suburb of the capital of Europe, Brussels, which is Waterloo. I have not visited that particular battlefield for a long time but have been planning to take a particular friend to see the site for many years.

Almost any schoolboy and all ABBA fans will know that it was at Waterloo where Napoleon did surrender. Most will know that it was in 1815 and a few will recall that the battle was fought on June 18. Napoleon to the South, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, to the North. England versus France just as at Azincourt (Agincourt) exactly 600 years (less a few months) earlier? Not in the slightest for Wellington commanded something we have seen neither before nor since namely a bona fide pan-European army.

Wellington’s “infamous army” only contained a minority of British troops and was principally made up of Dutch, Belgian, Nassauers and Hanoverians and the conflict was brought to an end when the famous Prussians under the indomitable 72- year old General Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher joined the battle late in the day. There have only been four principal conflicts on Western European soil since then – the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, the First World War of 1914–1918, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and of course World War II of 1939–1945. All of these saw armies from different nations involved but never quite as unified as they were under Duke of Wellington’s command at Waterloo. He really did field the closest we have ever come to the Army of Europe. Despite all the EU rhetoric about Russia, the Ukraine and the Crimea, we are unlikely to see the like again.

I wonder whether Nigel Farage is aware of that – or whether he even cares? And do I visit Waterloo as a true born Englishman or as an enthusiastic European? I suppose that it irrelevant, so long as I don’t have to be (wry smile) French.

The year 2014 of course brings with it the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War and much is being done to commemorate the event but next year will bring with it the 800th* anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the 600th anniversary** of King Harry trashing the Gallic cousins at Azincourt and of course the 200th anniversary of Bonaparte meeting his Waterloo.

In World War I terms, 1915 was relatively uneventful but in May next year we will be either celebrating or commemorating, depending on which side you were on, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. If my now 92-year old Dad hangs on, he will be one of the few remaining veterans who can claim to have been involved in that particular one from start to finish.

Of course none of this will be talked about as we approach the European parliamentary elections from 22–25 May. Peace and unity reigns. Although Farage and Clegg tried to put a bit of life into the campaign, the absence of Cameron and Miliband just four weeks before the poll demonstrates just how unimportant the European parliament remains in most leading politicians’ and citizens’ consciousness. The literal translation of parliament is, after all, talking shop – and that is, apparently, all it is taken to be.

And while Brussels and the European parliament try to convey the image of a unified continent, some rather loopy Scots are busily trying to break this United Kingdom asunder, Belgium itself is at substantial risk of splitting up and Spain is struggling to deal with, apart from the Basques, some very uppity and separatist Catalans.

None of these, I’m afraid, can be dealt with by the ECB and “whatever it takes”. For once the politicians will actually have to do something themselves – other than get voted out and retire on healthy defined-benefit pensions.


Alas, for me it is, a day early, that time of the week again and all that remains is for me to wish you and yours a happy and peaceful week-end. I have nothing more to add.

(*Corrects from 600th in previous version; Corrects from **400th in previous version) 

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