Arts Culture Travel

The rise and fall of empire

Brian Milne is in charge of this potted (or potty) history of how England made enemies, nearly made friends, lost them, lost their way and now has lost it.  

2019 is the year of Brexit. There is an increasingly slim chance it may not happen except that the government of Theresa May seems to be willing to go to great lengths to leave the European Union at any price. It will be the end of the UK’s real influence in the world, reducing the centre of a huge empire a century earlier to a small union surviving to keep its membership, its final parts of that one great empire, intact. However, this is part of a very ancient history in which England is always central but France, Scotland and a number other countries such as Ireland play an important role.

In a recent post on Facebook, Jose Antonio Macedo reminded me of something that should have shaped Europe far more and somewhat earlier than the roots of what is now the European Union that, very much ironically, the UK proposes to leave at the end of March. An article in The Guardian in 2007 told the story of a union between France and the UK that came quite close to happening. Documents that came to light at the beginning of 2007 shocked some historians because they revealed how, in the 1950s, UK and France discussed the possibility of uniting and Queen Elizabeth II becoming France’s head of state.

Those documents had become available around 20 years earlier but had never attracted the attention they did when rediscovered. They told how the French prime minister at that time, Guy Mollet, a former English teacher and WW2 resistance fighter, went to London to discuss the possibility of a union between the two nations with Anthony Eden, then PM, during September 1956. Eden turned down the proposal but gave positive consideration to Mollet’s other suggestion, which was that France could join the Commonwealth. It was a meeting that took place just a few weeks before the 29 October Israeli invasion of the Egyptian Sinai. The UK and France issued a joint ultimatum to cease fire. It was ignored.  A few days later on 5 November, the UK and France landed paratroopers along the Suez Canal who defeated the Egyptians who nonetheless managed to block the canal to all shipping. It eventually became clear that the Israeli and subsequent Anglo-French invasions had been planned beforehand by the three countries. Despite achieving military objectives the canal was useless. The USA and Soviet Union had exerted heavy political pressure, including President Dwight Eisenhower directly warning the UK not to invade. Since then historians have concluded the Suez Crisis signified the end of the UK’s role as one of the world’s major powers. It was also the last time that France and the UK ever collaborated as closely.

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Guy Mollet

The beginning of a slow death by indecision

A government document dated 28 September 1956 shows that Eden recommended ‘immediate consideration’ of France’s Commonwealth membership proposition whereby Mollet ‘had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of Her Majesty and that the French would welcome a common citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis’. This was at the time France was confronted with serious economic problems, the Suez crisis was escalating and a bloody Algerian war had begun just two years earlier. Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal was regarded as an act of war by Mollet. He was also very angry about Nasser’s support of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Thus Mollet was attempting to consolidate international alliances, this time by turning to the UK who had been an unwavering ally during the two world wars. The discussions came to nothing. Just one year later France that had already been a member of the European Coal and Steel Community since 1951 became one of the founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC), known as the Common Market in the UK, the precursor of the EU when the Treaty of Rome was signed on 25 March 1957. The UK was not among the signatories and was to lose that close relationship, thus wait until 1973 to enter the EEC.

It was also the period when the former empire was undergoing rapid change as countries became independent, most peacefully but some through violent conflict against the colonial power. Historians tend to disagree about how and why the empire declined and ended but most tend to agree that war and a rapidly changing world economy played the key role in its decline. Before WW1 the UK was one of the richest countries of the world, if not still the richest since by then its strongest industry was the banking and finance trade. Many countries owed the UK sizeable debts. After four years of war that wealth was practically all gone. Most of the UK’s debts were by then with the USA. Although the UK recovered some of its strength after WW1, it was more or less completely bankrupted by the end of WW2. Debts were even greater than in 1918, therefore enormous loans and grants from the USA were necessary to get the nation back on its feet. The empire and its people had played a crucial role in Britain’s survival and victory in both world wars, but by the end of WW2 people felt that rebuilding their own country was more important than holding on to far off lands. At the same time, the economy was changing as trade with Europe and the USA became far more important than trade with the empire. Also, industry and supporting sectors such as coal mining, iron and steel were handicapped by the lack of funding to modernise, thus were being eclipsed by competitor nations. Eden’s decision not to take up Mollet’s proposition may well have been influenced by the fact that both countries were in a state of economic decline to the point of crisis and that the UK had nothing to really offer France and that even for the French to become part of the commonwealth really had little sense.

England and France, the potted history

The historical relationship between the two nations are long and multifaceted, they invasion and conquest, wars and alliances at various points in history. The Roman era found both countries invaded and occupied by Rome and whose structures such as defences can still be seen in both countries today. The Romans introduced a common alphabet along with what was to become and remain the language of ecclesiastic, legal, academic and other fields of scholarly pursuit for many centuries in both. In 1066 Norman invasion and subjugation of England shaped English history and gave birth to the language. Throughout the medieval period, they were often bitter enemies whose monarchs claimed control over France. The Hundred Years War lasted from 1337 to 1453 with the French victory that marked the final separation that lasts to this day. They fought five major wars that ended when the Coalition defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. There were some serious differences such as the Suez Canal and competition for African colonies from around 1880 on, however peace prevailed. Closer ties began with the 1904 Entente Cordiale, which were to consolidate the relationship that formed the alliances in WW1 and WW2 in which both countries fought against Germany. In the former, the UK helped prevent a German defeat and occupation of France and in the latter helped to liberate them from the Nazi occupation. The stood should to shoulder in the confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and were founding members of NATO. Charles de Gaulle distrusted the UK for being too close to the US, thus until the end of his political and earthly life opposed UK entry into the EEC. De Gaulle took France out of an active role in NATO because it was too heavily dominated by Washington. Once de Gaulle was dead the UK was allowed to join the EEC and France returned to being a full, active member of NATO.

The thorn in England’s side

Parts of the history between France and the UK are complicated. The UK as it is now did not exist before the Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. That relationship has never entirely died. Prior to the 1707 union that was not the will of the overwhelming majority of Scots there was an older relationship between France and Scotland that dated back to 1295; the ‘Vieille Alliance’ or ‘Auld Alliance’ that had forged a unique relationship between France and Scotland. The Auld Alliance was built upon Scotland and France’s shared interests in controlling England’s aggressive expansion plans, thus forged by John Balliol of Scotland and Philip IV of France as first and foremost a military and diplomatic alliance, but for most ordinary Scots it brought more obvious benefits through jobs as mercenaries in France’s armies and a steady supply of fine French wines. It was due to the special relationship that Scots merchants had the privilege of selecting the finest wines for themselves which much to the annoyance of wine merchants and drinkers in England. The wine that was landed in barrels at ports like Leith was mostly for consumption by the elite of Scottish society, with most of the common people apparent content to drink beer of whisky. However, even then the most favoured spirit in Scotland was cognac that was taken there by the same merchants.

It was fear that the Reformation would affect trade between Protestant Scotland and Catholic France which it did significantly with the exception of claret. Records show that Scots merchants were still going to Bordeaux in order to bring back claret and cognac as late as 1670. Even after 1707, claret continued to be smuggled into Scotland thus avoiding taxes. Over the subsequent three centuries Scots have continued to demonstrate their affinity with France by traditionally toasting ‘the king o’er the water’ with a glass of claret or snifter of cognac. For many of the finest malt whiskies oak cognac barrels are used to this day.

The original alliance had granted dual citizenship in both countries, but on the back of the Entente Cordiale was revoked by the French Government in 1905 that created a special bond between the peoples of Scotland and France which survives to this day. The Alliance was born out of political and military expedience against their common enemy England. A personal bodyguard to the kings of France known as the Garde Écossaise was an elite Scottish military unit founded in 1418 by the Charles VII of France, formed from Scots soldiers who fought for France in the Hundred Years War.  When Henry V defeated France at Agincourt in 1415 it was a disaster on a scale that nearly led to the collapse of the entire country. The Dauphin turned to the Scots, England’s traditional enemy, for help. More than 12,000 Scots went to France where in 1421 at the Battle of Bauge they defeated the English army, killing the Duke of Clarence.

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Patriotic conquest that benefits its subjects?

Many of the Scots mercenaries remained in France, some of them with Joan of Arc during her famous relief of Orleans. Many of them formed the Garde Écossaise, which became the fiercely loyal bodyguard of French kings. The terms of the alliance allowed many of the mercenaries to settle in France, although then as to, as immigrants they would always think of themselves as Scots first, as indeed I do today and know other Scots of the same mind. The four companies of the bodyguard were formally disbanded in 1791, although the aristocratic element of the regiment had dispersed when Versailles ceased to be the royal palace in October 1789. The Garde Écossaise was re-established by the First Bourbon Restoration under an ordinance in 1814 to survive until final dissolution in 1830 with the the senior company of the Garde known as ‘les fiers Ecossais’, ‘the proud Scots’.

Over the centuries a close relationship developed through trade, culture, art and philosophy. The half-Scots, half-French Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Queen of France, imported French customs, culture and language with her to the Scots Court upon her return to Scotland in 1561. France was to be the model for Scotland’s cultural revival, the Scottish Enlightenment was much admired in France and of which Voltaire said: “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”. The Enlightenment combined with Scotland’s admiration of French culture and philosophy has been described as an example of how the proper and dignified relationship between people and nations is intellectual and imaginative, not political. In June 1942, Charles de Gaulle, then in exile with the Free French Army in England during the worst days of WW2, visited Edinburgh. He gave a speech that began:

“I do not think that a Frenchman could have come to Scotland at any time without being sensible of a special emotion. Scarcely can he set foot in this ancient and glorious land before he finds countless natural affinities between your country and ours dating from the very earliest times. In the same moment, awareness of the thousand links, still living and cherished, of the Franco-Scottish Alliance, the oldest alliance in the world, leaps to his mind.

When I say “Franco-Scottish Alliance,” I am thinking, firstly, of course, of that close political and military entente which, in the Middle Ages, was established between our ancient monarchy and yours.

I am thinking of the Scottish blood which flowed in the veins of our kings and of the French blood which flowed in the veins of your kings, of glory shared on past battlefields, from the siege of Orleans, raised by Joan of Arc, to Valmy, where Goethe recognised that a new age was dawning for the world.

In every combat where for five centuries the destiny of France was at stake, there were always men of Scotland to fight side by side with men of France, and what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship.”

It is said that in the 1560, after more than 250 years of formal treaties between Scotland and France, they were ended by the Treaty of Edinburgh that was agreed  between the Commissioners of Elizabeth I of England with the assent of the Scots Lords of the Congregation, and the representatives of Francis II of France, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, that replaces the Auld Alliance  with a new Anglo-Scottish accord, while maintaining the peace between England and France agreed by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. In 2011, historian Dr Siobhan Talbott published the result of her research on this matter and concluded accordingly that the Auld Alliance was never actually formally revoked after all. Many Scots know of the Auld Alliance and understand the historic reasons for that union. Not as many French people are aware of the alliance and reasons behind it that existed for hundreds of years between Scotland and France, however in the light of Brexit at present whilst opinion of the English is deteriorating it seems to that the natural affinity for one another and the awareness of an ancient bond is resurgent. There are Auld Alliance groups and clubs throughout France that has a tartan and a flag that combine the French Tricolour with the Saltire. Westminster may not take this ancient relationship too seriously, but it may yet prove to be a ‘thistle thorn’ in the side of UK unity when Scotland bids for independence in the near future.

The Celtic Fringe and dreams of confederation

At present there is often talk about both a Celtic Fringe and the notion of a Celtic confederation that would particularly tie Ireland and Scotland together. Of course, that would depend on the secession of Scotland from the UK for any kind of confederation to be formed. By extension it is often extend to all of the Brythonic and Goidelic language branches of the Indo-Celtic people of Bretagne, Cornwall and Wales in the former and Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland in the latter. It is more of an ideal that a practical proposition. From the time of the Norman invasion of what was to become England in 1066, followed by invasions of Wales from 1081 until 1283 when it came entirely under English rule, successive invasions of Ireland from 1169 until the uneasy peace with the Acts of Union of 1801, invasions of Scotland from the 12 century and interchanges between crowns until the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and then the Acts of Union in 1707, there was no such place as the UK. Even then, its life was little more than 122 years until Ireland left the UK, even leaving the commonwealth in 1949. Over the centuries of Anglo-Saxon domination the old languages were gradually diminished to the point that when formal then compulsory education was establish English became compulsory and local cultures suppressed. Recent revivals have seen those languages and a modern version of the older cultures drawing those Celtic areas away from England, thus threatening the existence of the last outposts of a once huge world empire. It is with that renewed identity that independence movements and the concept of a Celtic confederation have developed. It is unlikely that Cornwall will ever have more than its present county status and Wales limited devolution within the union, the Isle of Man has always had a kind of independence and a crown dependency but Scotland is on the way to leaving it and at some point in time Ireland will be reunified. In France it is highly unlikely the Bretons will ever be allowed independence and given that France and the UK did not merge in the 1950s, they would certainly never be in one that has had its roots in a UK founded by England.

The state of the disunion and how it created itself

Thus we find that what has for a long time been considered to be a single country, the United Kingdom, is actually several parts, at present moving into a state of disunity. It is, of courses, ironic that the 1904 Entente Cordiale appears largely forgotten now. It had the potential to be the beginnings of what is now the EU, particularly in the wake of WW1. In June 1940 following the allied evacuation from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill proposed an ‘indissoluble union’ between France and the UK. In December 1939, Jean Monnet as head of the French Economic Mission in London became the head of the Anglo-French Coordinating Committee, which was responsible for coordinated joint planning of the two countries’ wartime economies, proposed a post-war United States of Europe and saw Anglo-French political union as the initial step toward this goal. He inspired Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill to agree on an Anglo-French union, in an attempt to rival the alliance between Germany and Italy. It was accepted as a serious proposition, however since the prospect of a successful German invasion was dismissed, it was never enacted. The ‘Declaration of Union’ in 1940 that stated that: ‘France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.’ During 1943, he became a member of the National Liberation Committee, De Gaulle’s French government in exile in Algiers; he was designated Commissaire à l’Armement. At a meeting on 5 August of that year he declared to the Committee:

There will be no peace in Europe, if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty… The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation…”

At the end of WW2 it was not until September 1956 that French Guy Mollet proposed a union between the UKand the France as an outcome of the alliance during the Suez Crisis. When Mollet furthermore proposed that the alternative was France joining the commonwealth, Anthony Eden rejected both proposals. Thus France signed up to the Treaty of Rome which established the EEC and strengthened Franco-German cooperation. De Gaulle who had originally supported the idea of the union in 1940 believed the UK was becoming a satellite of the USA, in terms of the EEC acting as a ‘Trojan horse’. Thus the UK was kept out of the EEC until 1973.

Winston Churchill’s 1940 offer of a Franco-British union is well known, but French academics and politicians were shocked to hear of Mollet’s bid that was contained in documents which were declassified in 1987 years ago but had remained unnoticed in the National Archives in London. Reactions to the revelations were of shock and horror. Gilles Savary, then a socialist party MEP and EU adviser to the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, said the merger would be unthinkable today, saying that a merger of the countries would today be politically and diplomatically out of the question. Others suggested Mollet may well have found himself in court in 2007 and his place in history reconsidered quite negatively. Jean-Pierre Maulny, then deputy head of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations, said the proposition seemed ‘very logical’ and added that if France and Britain moved on from their differences over such topics at that time as Iraq, globalisation and liberalism, “this type of proposal could even come to the surface again”. In the UK, Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister, said the revelations showed that the “best bits of history are its footnotes” but also that “France and England are like an old married couple who often think of killing each other, but would never dream of divorcing.” However, the author of the Guardian article, Angelique Chrisafis, in 2007 would have been entirely unaware of what would happen in 2016.

The unpredictable made real

What was at that time probably far more unpredictable was that once we arrive at 2016, not only but that historians who had concluded the Suez Crisis in 1956 signified the end of the UK’s role as one of the world’s major powers were to now about to complete the history of the fall of an empire and the union that was at the heart of it with probably the worst decision made by England since their serious error of judgement with the Stamp Act of 1765 when the UK government began to impose taxes in a way that deliberately provoked the American colonists, who complained that they were alien to the unwritten English Constitution because they were not represented in parliament. It was to lead to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that ended the first period of UK as a world power until the second empire was established. Now that second empire no longer exists and the union that is more or less all that England holds of real value is crumbling. Perhaps one of the greater ironies is that it was the government’s campaign to keep the union in 2014 when the Scots held their referendum in which they were told the only way for them to remain in the EU was by voting against independence. In 2016, although Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, the decision by the Westminster government to take the entire UK out of the EU has renewed the chances that Scotland will leave the UK and apply for EU membership in the foreseeable future. In that event, Scotland will eventually be in an alliance that England could have played a far greater role in had they aligned with the Scots’ ancient ally France. Had Monnet’s proposition been advanced by Churchill and de Gaulle, France and the UK together would have been the dominant force in Europe. West Germany, still recovering from WW2, with Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands may well still have formed the European Coal and Steel Community but with the Anglo-French union at the spearhead of what became the EEC in 1957, thus being part of what had the potential to be the most powerful political union in the world, in its diversity rivalling the USA and any other power.

It may have been that some commonwealth countries and French colonies would have chosen to remain within that union. One can only speculate on what the situation would be today except we know now that many things that have come to be found their birth in the technology of WW2 and its aftermath. It is possible that a unified Europe may have tempered Soviet ambitions, allowing nations they had occupied in the wake of the war to take control of their own destinies. The world may, as a result, have been a safer, more peaceful place.

Although Mollet’s proposal in 1956 was probably too late, the wartime possibility having been missed and de Gaulle, then France’s national hero, already convinced the UK was in thrall to the USA, Eden’s decision closed a door on what could have kept the status of his country stable instead of beginning its slow but inexorable path to decline. Within a strong European union, the UK itself would probably have remained intact, in the passage of time rejoined with Ireland as a partner in what is now the EU. We shall never know. History cannot be undone then re-enacted, better the second time round. History will one day tell the full story, by then the once mighty British Empire will have found its place alongside the Romans, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, The Holy Roman Empire and other empires that have outlived their time. It may be that the sense of exceptionalism that the English ruling classes so nostalgically bear today will be long forgotten with a few people remaining devotees of those long gone days. Brexit is the scene that may be a re-enactment of the story that tells that Nero fiddled whilst Rome burned. The difference is that he had Rome rebuilt, but the substance upon which the empire England once built is gone.

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2 replies »

  1. I know Brian from a Group , his writings on history of politics in UK and Scotland have taught me so much , I was ignorant of so many facts , Thank you Brian I am still no e+pert but a little more enlightened about these topics.

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  2. A woman on another forum recently said that she “couldn’t be bothered” to read or listen to lengthy comment pieces in the media or on the internet but, for some unexplained reason, had read a long article on that particular forum and had – to her surprise – found it to be fascinating and rewarding.
    I remember, from my days working for the press, being told that most newspapers used a restricted palette of around 600 words, their writers were encouraged to make their points as briefly and simply as possible and, if they didn’t comply, the editor’s censoring ‘red pencil’ was a constant threat. The internet, too, brings its own problems – write “Theresa May is a twat” and you’ll be guaranteed a blizzard of responses. Write a longer, well-researched and informative piece like Brian’s here, which melds the present with the past and offers you a springboard for further investigation, and many people treat such journalism like they might a potentially dangerous animal lurking in the undergrowth, poking it with a stick before running away.
    A while back, I taught photographic workshops and always relished the challenge of producing caption-less and ambiguous photos for students to interpret – and their diverse explanations were regularly fascinating to us all. The same should be true of multi-layered and complex long articles that ought to be a starting pistol for your own research as well as a fait accompli. Too many sound-bites and too little nuanced recognition that everything isn’t black or white and needs to be teased gently to some understanding that works for you.

    Liked by 1 person

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