All’s quiet on the Trafalgar front

Why the British elite won't utter the v-word on the bicentennial of Nelson's battle.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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In the event, the bicentennial celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar have proved curiously muted. Nelson’s victory over French vice-admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve and Napoleon’s First Empire seems a long time ago, of course. Yet given how it laid the basis for the British Empire, the Sterling Area and thus the world’s first extensive round of globalisation, Trafalgar hasn’t really had the fanfare that is its historical due.

The Royal Mint has issued £5 crowns; the Royal Mail, six stamps. Tomorrow the Royal Family will light beacons, beginning with the Queen at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, alongside HMS Victory. In the House of Commons, however, there is silence.

Ministers do not feel good about the Empire, and they don’t feel very good about victories in its name. In May 2005 Geoff Hoon, leader of the house, told the Commons that he was ‘delighted’ that one of the largest ships in the June international fleet review off Portsmouth would be provided by…France (1). In June, when Clwyd Conservative MP David Jones begged to attack New Labour’s commitment to a common European defence policy, defence secretary John Reid replied that Jones had made a ‘particularly churlish remark on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when we are attempting to bring nations together’ (2).

Maybe New Labour doesn’t feel good about Britain winning any kind of victory at any time, in fact. Take 2003, the year of Gulf War Two. In April, speaking of the need to make the newly won ‘peace’ in Iraq worth the war that had preceded it, UK prime minister Tony Blair declared that he would succeed ‘not in any spirit of elation – still less of triumphalism – but with a fixed and steady resolve that the cause was just, the victory right’ (3). By December, Blair insisted that ‘the final victory’ in Iraq would that of ‘the Iraqi people’ (4).

Any victory is okay, as long as it isn’t that of Old Blighty. As a result, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has an exhibition that celebrates ‘Black Sailors in Nelson’s Navy’. The Independent is on hand to explain that 1805 was the work of the third of the crew of the Victory who came from outside England, including one member from Africa, one Manxman, and three from France (5). Michael Portillo’s BBC1 documentary Nelson’s Trafalgar, shown on 22 June, paralleled Channel 4 coverage of Trafalgar in registering the contribution that women made below decks.

In all of this, 1805 is interpreted not as a victory for the British Empire, but as one for that New Labour idol, diversity. In the same way, the unbeatable rapid rates of fire mounted by British seamen are partly attributed to the onions and lemons Nelson acquired in places like Tangier, the better to fight scurvy. On British ships, it seems, the lash was bad, but the diet was wonderful.

Here Nelson is revealed as the Jamie Oliver of his day. For others, Nelson was ‘the first self-made super-celebrity of modern times’, and ‘a David Beckham of the high seas’ (6). One commentator recently contrasted the leadership shown by Nelson to that available from today’s leaders. Significantly, however, the point made was that today’s leaders are in need, among other things, of Horatio’s conciliatory management style (7).

In 2005 the tendency in any public debate on organisational leadership is to play up the weaknesses of leaders as much as their strengths. This tendency applies also to treatments of Nelson. After no fewer than 1300 biographies, much of the contemporary fascination lies with Nelson’s somewhat twenty-first century private life, his egoism and his ostentatious dress sense. What recedes into the background are the personal skills and historical circumstances which allowed Nelson to become the architect of a worldwide British naval hegemony that lasted almost 100 years.

Nelson was indeed a brilliant leader of men. Within a century of his death, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan of the US Navy, the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History and the father of modern naval thinking, remarked:

‘Attention may here fitly be drawn to the effect of a certain cordiality and goodwill on the part of superiors toward their subordinates. It is not perhaps essential to military success, but it undoubtedly contributes to the other elements of that success a spirit, a breath of life, which makes possible what would otherwise be impossible; which reaches heights of devotion and achievement that the strictest discipline, not so enkindled, cannot attain. Doubtless it is a natural gift. The highest example of it possibly ever known among seamen was Nelson.’ (8)

Note, however, that in 1890 Mahan was anxious to combine the cordiality and goodwill that contemporary critics play up with what he called ‘the strictest discipline’.

In a Britain where John Reid interrupts his August 2005 holiday to meet his French counterpart, Michèle Alliot-Marie, to discuss the joint construction of perhaps £5billion-worth of aircraft carriers, naval matters are clearly still important. But at the same time, a one-armed, diminutive rival of Nelson’s – Napoleon – made a still grander contribution to military doctrine and practice than did Nelson. That is a fact, even if the petit caporal lost out to Nelson in the waters of the Nile (1798) and of Trafalgar.

Napoleon’s conquests, in fact, were not just those of his armies on land. Although he reflected the fact that the French Revolution of 1789 had no sooner triumphed than it turned toward reaction, Napoleon’s routing of aristocratic power all around Europe was a big step forward for humanity.

In establishing an efficient bureaucracy in place of the Court, Napoleon’s administrative reforms laid the basis for modern government. Napoleonic law resisted the British legal preference for history and precedent with a more rational system. The same is true of Napoleon’s metric system, as against Britain’s ancien regime of Imperial weights and measures.

Nelson was great, but Napoleon could also claim the bourgeois revolution to his name.

Today, conciliation with the French is a necessity for Britain. Alliances in defence extend beyond putative aircraft carriers, to live projects in sonar, ground-to-air missiles, and unmanned drones for aerial surveillance and target acquisition. Times have changed.

Right now, New Labour wants to go on the record as not being ‘triumphalist’ about the French – even in economic matters. Those interested in genuine internationalism, and a proper register of France’s gifts to mankind, will see things a little differently.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and an associate of the Future Foundation. He is coauthor of Why Is Construction So Backward? (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), See his website.

(1) Hansard, 26 May 2005: Column 871

(2) Hansard, 6 June 2005: Column 990

(3) Hansard, 14 April 2003: Column 617

(4) Hansard, 15 December 2003: Column 1318

(5) Colin Brown, ‘The black heroes of Trafalgar’, Independent, 19 October 2005, pp10-11.

(6) Ben Macintryre, ‘Nelson: enough blind-hero worship’, The Times, 25 June 2005

(7) Magnus Linklater , ‘The very model of a modern hero’, The Times, 19 October 2005

(8) Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London, 1890, p267

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Topics Politics


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