Colin Brazier: France is a more volatile country than Britain
'Violent protest and heavy-handed policing are part of the French Republic’s DNA'
An anniversary today to raise a cheer from fans of our Queen. It was on this day in 1815 that history’s most notorious anti-monarchist, the French dictator Napoleon was captured by the Royal Navy.
The French Revolution and Bonaparte’s rise to power is less taught in our schools than it once was. Perhaps the lesson of how a Revolution came to – metaphorically - eat its own children isn’t one teachers want to dwell on.
Certainly, it’s hard not tell the story of the Terror as anything other than a parable. An account from history about how something starts off as well-meaning; a Utopian dream in which the aristocracy is cancelled – but ends up with the guillotine going ten to the dozen.
The way the French Revolution turned spectacularly sour is a lesson every British student – especially those currently craving radical change – should be educated in. Instead the history syllabus in our schools can often feel like a manual for social engineering.
My children really should be experts by now in the Suffragettes, American civil rights and the rise of the Nazis. All worthy topics, but subjects which can portray history reductively. Everything that’s ever gone wrong is the fault of nasty, dead, white men.
How then is the French Revolution relevant now? Look at yesterday’s covid riots in Paris and you’ll find an answer.
Violent protest and heavy-handed policing are part of the French Republic’s DNA, in a way it just isn’t in ours. You think I exaggerate? Ten weeks ago, a group of retired French Army generals wrote an open letter advocating a military coup to stop the country disintegrating into civil war. If you think that could happen here, I’d say you’d been at the Pernod for too long.
France is a more volatile country than Britain, which partly explains why migrants don’t want to stop there on their way here. And one reason for that historic volatility is because the French executed their royal family and chose a president to embody their nation.
By contrast, Britain’s Head of State is an accident of birth, which a fifth of Britons object to.
But most of us recognise the unifying stability a monarchy can bring. At the height of lockdown, when the Queen spoke to the nation and said “We will meet again”, she did so as our unelected sovereign, not as a politician with an eye to the opinion polls.
Our Queen is almost uniquely popular. One day she will be succeeded by her son. At which point Napoleon’s republican British heirs will seize their chance. Those of us who believe in the institution of monarchy, who can see its point even while acknowledging that some sovereigns are better than others, will be needed at the barricades then.
Our Queen is the most famous person on the planet, in part because she’s been in the top job for decades, longevity which no legitimate politician can emulate. Our royal family gives Britain unrivalled soft power – advantages in trade, tourism and diplomacy – advantages denied to a here-today, gone-tomorrow Emmanuel Macron.
I’m tempted to say we’re lucky to have them. But luck doesn’t come into it. Our ancestors chose to retain the royals, just as France murdered theirs. Ours was the right choice. God save the Queen.
That’s tonight’s Viewpoint