It’s the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon’s army in 1815 put an end to Napoleon’s ambitions to rule all of Europe.
But what if Napoleon had won?
“Waterloo is interesting, because it’s won by the forces of reaction and Blucher and Wellington are supreme reactionaries,” General Sir Richard Shirreff told BBC’s Newsnight programme.
“They are in a sense beating the forces unleashed by the French revolution.”
Liberté, égalité, fraternité were, nominally at least, the values of the revolution. They remain the official motto of the French Republic to this day.
Napoleon is still a controversial figure in France. In one sense, he is a military dictator. But he’s also a muscular embodiment of the ideals at the core of French political thought.
The French ruler had ambitions to invade and rule Britain. A decade earlier from 1803 to 1805 Napoleon has gathered an ‘Armée d'Angleterre’ or “Army of England” at Boulogne.
It never made it across the English Channel because of the supremacy of the Royal Navy, but Napoleon still talked of invading Britain in his later years.
If the Emperor of France had got here, he might have brought a bit of the French revolution with him. In exile in St Helena after his defeat, he was asked what he would have done if he’d manage to get an army to the British Isles.
“I would have hastened over my flotilla with two hundred thousand men, landed as near Chatham as possible and proceeded direct to London, where I calculated to arrive in four days from the time of my landing,” he said.
“I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”
We’ll never know whether Napoleon could be taken at his word on this – but the programme he outlined would certainly have appealed to at least some people at the time.
Today, too, some might feel a twinge of regret that Britain never got its dose of the French Revolution.
The British monarchy is popular – at least for now – but House of Lords is seen as an anachronism by the majority of the public. Likewise, redistribution of property and popular sovereignty are principles with a lot of traction today.
The change may never have lasted – Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t, though it did leave a long-lasting constitutional legacy that is widely seen as positive today.
William Cobbett, the English diarist and reformist MP, summarised the thoughts of many radicals after the victory at Waterloo well:
“The war is over. Social order is restored; the French are again in the power of the Bourbons; the revolution is at an end; no change has been effected in England; our boroughs, and our Church, and nobility and all have been preserved; our government tells us that we have covered ourselves with glory.”