The Nelson Touch

“In her first two months on the bridge, Theresa May has skilfully steered the ship of state away from hazardous Continental rocks and into the open sea”

Manchester Square
Theresa May: Captaining the ship of state (Illustration by Michael Daley)

An aeon ago, when the last issue of Standpoint went to press in early July, it was still unclear who would take the helm in Downing Street. Unexpectedly, we now have a captain who, we must hope, is blessed with the courage of Horatio Nelson and the charm of Emma Hamilton. In her first two months on the bridge, at any rate, Theresa May has skilfully steered the ship of state away from hazardous Continental rocks and into the open sea. Like Nelson and her German counterpart, Angela Merkel, she is a clergyman’s daughter: classless, relentless and fearless. Mrs May’s England, like Nelson’s, expects that every man will do his duty. She insists that Brexit must mean control over borders; she has stood up to China on Hinkley Point; and when asked if she would use the Trident nuclear deterrent, she replied: “Yes.”

One danger, however, that won’t be avoided by leaving the shallows of the EU is that of Islamism. This summer of discontent has seen a wave of terrorism across Germany and France. At the time of writing Britain has so far been spared. But it would be foolish to pretend that the threat has been averted. That terrorism is not our only problem was underlined by the fact that the murder of an Ahmadiyya Muslim newsagent in Glasgow for the “crime” of “blasphemy” could be condoned by some Sunnis; outside the court, the killer’s admirers chanted in his support.

Elsewhere in the magazine, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali calls on the West to respond to the latest attacks by reaffirming the Judaeo-Christian values in which our laws and liberties are rooted. But we must also encourage those in the Islamic world who show solidarity with the victims of terror, as did the thousands of Muslims who attended Mass in France and Italy soon after the July 14 massacre in Nice and the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel at his altar near Rouen.

Such interfaith gestures may be significant, but they must be judged by results. It may be too soon to assess the outcome of the meeting last May of Pope Francis with Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The Cairo university, often described as the Vatican of Sunni Islam, has resumed dialogue with Rome because Francis is seen as more conciliatory than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. After the murder of Fr Jacques, the Pope referred to his conversation with the Grand Imam: “I believe that it’s not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true,” he told reporters on the plane en route to World Youth Day at Krakow. “I know how they think. They look for peace, encounter.”

On the face of it, this seems a worryingly tepid response from Francis to the martyrdom of one of his priests. But it got worse. The Pope continued: “It’s war, we don’t have to be afraid to say this . . . a war of interests, for money, resources. I am not speaking of a war of religions. Religions don’t want war. The others want war.”

I cannot agree with the Pope’s analysis. There is a problem with Islam and violence, as many Muslims (but evidently not at Al-Azhar) now recognise. Benedict XVI was closer to the mark in his 2006 Regensburg address, which quoted a Byzantine emperor reminding the West of Muhammad’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. Much criticised at the time, it has proved to be prophetic. A significant minority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims do want a war of religion.

This view accords with Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”, published 20 years ago, to which John Torode pays tribute. What, though, can we do, when even the arsenal of democracy, the United States, seems tempted to turn its back on the Atlantic alliance that has sustained the West for 75 years? In August 1941, Winston Churchill met Franklin Delano Roosevelt on board the battleship Prince of Wales so that the two leaders could sign the Atlantic Charter. This was no declaration of war on Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, but a general declaration of faith in democratic values, carefully drafted to accommodate American isolationism. It included an article pledging that “all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force.” Now, as then, the West is reluctant to accept that turning the other cheek just won’t do. Yet Churchill saw the Charter as “a plain and bold intimation that after the war the United States would join with us in policing the world”. Alexander Woolfson defends Nato, the nearest thing we have to a global police force, against its detractors. It has kept the peace for generations — but only by deploying overwhelming force.

After the signing, Churchill, Roosevelt and their crews gathered for a joint service. Among the hymns they sang was “O God, our help in ages past”, a rousing version of Psalm 90 set by Isaac Watts that has always been popular among sailors for its invocation of God as “our shelter from the stormy blast”. Churchill’s choice of David’s ancient Psalm — as holy to Jew as to Christian, as poignant to the godless as to the God-fearing — moved his American guests more than any political declaration. Four months after this, the inauguration of Atlanticism, the Prince of Wales would be sunk by the Japanese. Churchill noted: “Nearly half of those who sang were soon to die.”

Despite our parting, Britain and Europe both still need shelter from the stormy blast of Islamist terror. On the eve of Trafalgar,  Nelson prayed: “May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory.” Today, as Theresa May seeks to unite a newly independent nation with our allies against the common foes of Western Civilisation, we need her to show a little of the Nelson touch.