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Culture clash: “La Bataille de Mont-Saint-Jean, dite de Waterloo”, lithograph, c.1820, by Carle Vernet and  Jean François Swebach

In Britain we have just celebrated two great anniversaries: Magna Carta and the Battle of Waterloo. To us, these two milestones in our history represent two of the most important British contributions to Western civilisation. Magna Carta symbolises liberty under the rule of law; Waterloo symbolises the defence of a free society against tyranny.

Magna Carta is all about the rights of the “free man”: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed . . . save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” The King too is subject to the rule of law, the integrity and impartiality of which he is also obliged to uphold: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.” In much of the world today, including parts of Europe, the rule of law cannot be taken for granted by individuals. Even within the European Union, it is by no means always and everywhere clear that the state is indeed beneath the law, or that the judiciary is impartial and incorruptible. The punishment of Nazi war criminals, for example, has been delayed in some cases for up to 70 years; many escaped justice entirely; others who were put on trial were acquitted or sentenced far too leniently, while their victims and their heirs have in many cases been denied restitution of their property (for example works of art) or adequate reparation for their suffering.

Waterloo, for the British, is all about the independence of the nation state from the domination of an imperial despot. The British fought Napoleon Bonaparte, not merely to preserve their own freedom, but that of Europe as a whole. In a famous debate in the House of Commons in 1807 George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, justified a resumption of hostilities with France in pragmatic terms: “The single rule for the conduct of a British statesman is, attachment to the interests of Great Britain.” But he went on to explain why British and European interests must coincide in the defeat of Bonapartism. “The country has the means, and I am confident it has the spirit and determination, to persevere with firmness in a struggle, from which there is no escape or retreat; and which cannot be concluded, with safety to Great Britain, but in proportion as with that object is united the liberty and tranquillity of Europe.”

This refusal to accept any domination of the Continent by one power has been the biggest British contribution to European peace and prosperity: we saw it in both world wars and in the Cold War. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1878, Disraeli recalled Britain’s decision to stand, if necessary alone, during the Napoleonic wars: “[Britain] was isolated at the commencement of this century because among the craven communities of Europe it alone asserted and vindicated the cause of national independence . . . If that cause were again at stake, if there were a Power that threatened the peace of the world with a predominance fatal to public liberty and national independence, I feel confident that your Lordships would not be afraid of the charge of being isolated if you stood alone in maintaining such a cause and in fighting for such precious interests.”

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