Napoleon, and doing as we are told under COVID-19

The massive extension of the power of the state under COVID-19 has exposed some deep historical differences between Britain and Europe. How does your Napoleon complex look today?

Boris trying hard to be Napoleon
Tim Hedges
On 26 March 2020 06:58

What kept pressing on my mind was a discussion I had had with an old friend in the early days of Brexit. I don’t know if you remember Brexit, it was something important in the Pre Coronavirus Era (PCE).

We were talking about non tariff barriers - regulations and so on - stuff we talked about quite a lot in the PCE, and he said ‘of course the worst non-tariff barrier is Napoleon’.

Now, it may well be that Napoleon has had a greater effect on civilisation than any mortal man, but the oddest thing is that the old rogue is still causing trouble today.

As well as France, Napoleon went on to conquer - in just 16 years - pretty well the whole of Europe: Prussia, Austria, Italy, even Russia and Egypt for a while. And Europe just can’t forget him. All over the place, even, to an extent, in Louisiana which he sold to the USA, there is the Code Napoleon, his set of laws.

It’s the metres and litres, the law which says you can’t leave your money to a cats’ home but that the state will tell you how to provide for your children (even in Louisiana), the driving on the left, everything.

But above all, Napoleonic Law means an acceptance of the state as a force in your life. It is not just the way criminal prosecution is carried out (you are for a while ‘under official investigation’ by the state), it is the everyday intrusion. It has been said that in Britain you are free to do anything except that which is illegal, whereas in Europe you may only do whatever the state permits you to.

This informs the lives of each of the EU's 450 million citizens and it determines the structure of the EU itself. Not bad for a guy who died, in his early 50s, nearly 200 years ago.

But Napoleon did not conquer Britain and that is one of the reasons we had to leave the EU. Here on mainland Europe there is a general acceptance of the all-pervading influence of the state, making it easier to impose a superstate; in Britain there is scant acceptance of the state and repeated questioning of it.

And so we come to the current Era, that of the Coronavirus. In France, Italy and Germany it has been quite straightforward for the governments to impose a lockdown. Here in continental Europe you are not imbued with inalienable rights but can walk around, go to bars and so on, because the Government says you can. Now you can’t.

Contrast this with Boris Johnson’s embarrassed squirming as he reluctantly admitted he was withdrawing the British people’s right to go to the pub. To the man’s credit, he was genuinely reluctant to do this, as if he had been interfering with the people’s DNA.

The other side of the coin is that once reluctantly agreed, the British are far more likely to obey the rules than the mainland continentals. When years ago the European Commission wanted to shame bad Europeans they adopted as their definition of good and bad how many of the European Directives a country had adopted into its laws. It turned out that the trouble makers of Europe, the UK, were the best Europeans by that definition. So of course they dropped the definition.

Code Napoleonistes, by contrast, accept the jurisdiction of the State then try to find some way of weaselling round it, scivolare as the Italians put it, to swerve round State imposed obstacles like a slalom.

It follows, therefore, that the Europeans might have found it enough to do what Johnson did and simply say the State didn’t want you associating with others in public; whereas Johnson, instead of just hinting at it, perhaps should have made it a law, which the British would instinctively obey. Indeed that seems, increasingly, to be the future.

Next week the disease is due to peak in Italy, or so they say. There will still be a lot of new contagions, a lot of deaths, but seeing a future end to it will boost morale. Britain came late to this unhappy party and with its jovial Prime Minister may find it still has some way to go. It might all have been easier if we had lost at Waterloo.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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