Thursday, 18 April 2013

Lord Nelson and Baroness Thatcher

 It is difficult to overstate the importance of British naval sea power at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain's growing domination of the sea was a major contributor to the successful creation of the British Empire. The naval dockyard at Portsmouth was the base for much of this activity and is now the resting place of HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the critical battle of Trafalgar. Nelson's death at the battle elevated him beyond heroism to a place among the major iconic figures of British history. My recent visit to HMS Victory was memorable. The place below decks where Nelson breathed his last after being shot by a sniper from the Redoutable is especially poignant, marked by a crown of oak leaves and a replica of the barrel in which his remains were transported back to England. 
     At the same time you have to marvel at how a ship like HMS Victory worked and the secrets of the success of the navy at that time. The most obvious point is that they could, through drill and order, fire their guns three times faster than the enemy, so in a close battle of attrition there could only be one winner. HMS Victory was a first rate ship of the line with 100 guns arranged over three decks and capable of delivering a murderous broadside. In addition the ordinary sailors were better looked after than their foreign counterparts by the standards of the time. They were well fed and enjoyed healthcare unavailable to land lubbers. They were also better led than the French and Spanish sailors who had to contend with the narrow talent pool of their respective aristocracies. Nelson didn't have a privileged background; his father was a vicar from Norfolk.
I broke off writing this blog to watch Baroness Thatcher's funeral on TV. Inside St Paul's Cathedral I realised that the Iron Lady's coffin was sitting directly above Nelson's tomb in the crypt below, placed there after his much more elaborate state funeral 207 years ago. Are there any connections between the two of them? Nelson's attack philosophy was simple, 'straight at them' was his approach to the enemy. That was more or less her policy as well. The first hymn sung at her funeral service was 'He who would valiant be,' a rather muscular John Bunyan belter. The first reading from Ephesians 6, robustly read by her granddaughter backed that up.
 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.'
Thatcher saw enemies everywhere but except for Galtieri, they were nearly all within; in the conservatism of the British state establishment and the City of London. She was suspicious of the toffs who ran the Tory party, in their own class interest. She was equally disdainful of the trades unions especially their role in the state controlled industries of the day. Defeating internal enemies creates losers and resentment, hence the accusations of division and confusion about her true legacy, but remember that cuddly Harold Wilson closed more coal mines than she did. Her Falklands campaign came straight from Nelson's textbook; he would have loved it, although she would not have approved of his relationship with Lady Hamilton. 
It's also interesting to note that the advantages for Britain won by Nelson and the Navy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries led to the creation of the world's greatest empire. Economic success peaked in about 1870 after which Britain embarked on a long slow decline relative to her main competitors. That continued into the 1970's and was only arrested by the dramatic Thatcher reforms of the 1980s. 
    The congregation contained many familiar faces from her governments, in old age caricatures of their former selves, more closely resembling their spitting images than they did at the time.
She's now firmly in the hands of the historians and will no doubt be the subject of  many revisions in the years and centuries to come. We're unlikely ever to see her equal at the political helm again. 

Alan is the author of The Glorious Twelfth published by Museitup.

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon


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