Crashing through the dour dark times of Covid, the lockdown, state control and the long shadow of BLM, the British have woken to something that could not give them more joy. The prospect of war with France.
Yesterday Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, sent two (small) warships, HMS Tamar and HMS Severn to defend the Island of Jersey from the French who, for the first time since 1805, are attempting to blockade a UK port. In retaliation, President Macron has ordered two of theirs, one delightfully named after a Musketeer, the Athos, to protect French interests. Just pause and think about this, the French are sending military vessels towards UK territorial water in a hostile fashion. The French, you know, NATO allies, are now behaving like a rogue state.
Well sort of, the Channel Islands are themselves a splendid anomaly. They are not part of England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. Instead, they are the last remaining part of the Duchy of Normandy, which have been part of the monarchy’s private holding since 1066. To this day at official functions, islanders raise the loyal toast to 'The Duke of Normandy, our Queen'.
But for most people here on the mainland it must be understood that if we must go to war with anybody, well it’s obvious who we would choose isn’t it. The French.
Yes, we had to fight the German’s a couple of times in the last century, what with the holocaust, the arrogance, the uniforms, and the pointy hats, but that was out of necessity, not pleasure. War with France, now that is pleasure personified. We have not had a chance really since 1815 (I don’t count attacking the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940, as we were doing on behalf of the Free French at the time).
I can count over 30 wars between England and France over the centuries and will admit that we have not always won. It would be no fun if one side always wins. If the local derby game only has one winner, interest will inevitably flag. Precedent however is good. After a particular low point for the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake between 1793 and 1812, the French Navy lost 377 ships to the British, while the British lost 10 ships. Back to the present.
Yes, the whole thing is utterly risible, and nobody is taking it seriously. But the utterly crazy thing is that it is happening at all.
This in many ways has its roots in Brexit, or at least the way that British fishing interests were sold out in 1974 when we joined the then European Economic Community. As part of the secret deal our then Prime minister gave up our exclusive rights to our own waters, as an under the table bribe. Since then, the fishing industry has been in a prolonged freefall with less than half the number of fishermen employed today as there were before we joined. Post Brexit it is up to the UK, and in the case of the Channel Islands, it is under their sole discretion who is, and who is not, allowed to fish in their waters.
In January new rules were created that allowed French boats (who had historically fished these waters) to fish there. But the licences would only be granted if the boats were equipped with permanent tracking devices to allow the Jersey authorities to know what they were up to. This detail is thought necessary as there have been thousands of recent examples in recent years of French and other EU boats fishing illegally in UK waters, or turning trackers off to hide illegal fishing.
In response the French trawlers (who hadn’t got round to filling in the paperwork over 4 months) have been rather annoyed. To support them, the French Maritime Minister, Annick Girardin threatened to cut the power lines to the islands (currently 95% of electricity is routed via France).
In response to this threat, the island’s electricity company pointed out that they had the capacity to replace the French power (metaphorically- stuff you).
With that bit of sabre-rattling failing, about 80 French trawlers have decided to blockade the port of St Helier. And a large number have congregated in the harbour mouth. Meanwhile the war of words continues with one French Euro-Parliamentarian, Stephanie Yon-Courtin, saying on the BBC, "these are only words we are not ready for war", but she added "all retaliatory measures will be explored".
On the Jersey side of the argument, Ian Gorst, the Island’s Minister for external affairs has made it clear that we will “absolutely not” go to war over the issue.
Of course not, but that he has to say this at all just shows how bizarre the whole situation has become.
France's behavior is true to form. On the day of the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon and attempts to impose a mini version of his ‘Continental System’ blockade. It will fail, of course it will. The whole thing is ridiculous, but shows how the French, amongst many on the continent under-estimated the impact that Brexit would have upon them. They thought that the downsides were all for the UK, now they are learning that was not the case.
After all this I should leave this with a comment made to a green midshipman on HMS Agamemnon in 1793 by Admiral Nelson, whose victory at Trafalgar in 1805 ended French naval ambitions to date,
“Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."
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