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Leader comment: Putin, Napoleon III, and the abuse of power

29 April 2022

A LITTLE more than 150 years ago, the Revd Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, describing it as “the wickedest, most unjust, most unreasonable war that ever was entered into to gratify the ambition of one man”. That man was Emperor Napoleon III. Kilvert supposes: “Perhaps the war was a dire necessity to the Emperor to save himself and his dynasty.” Historical parallels with the present day are instructive. Having been elected President of France, Napoleon III moved to secure his position by changing the constitution. Unpopular with the metropolitan and urban elite, he relied for support on the less well-informed rural population, particularly the most religious, won over by his protection of the Pope during the unification of Italy. By 1870, the new North German Confederation on France’s eastern borders was challenging France’s influence with its neighbours, and Napoleon III marched his army over the border into Prussia. It was a blunder: having over-estimated the quality of its military forces, France was quickly defeated.

The parallels with President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are not exact, of course. The Emperor Napoleon was, in fact, less keen on warfare than his ministers or the French public at the time: by 1870, he was seriously unwell with gallstones and a variety of other conditions. He was to die, defeated and in exile, three years later. It is true that there have been repeated rumours about President Putin’s health, but any ailments, or their remedies, appear to have made him more aggressive and unbalanced than before.

The enduring lesson — one that seems never to be learnt — is the unfortunate consequence of putting such power into the hands of one individual. In general, electorates appear to be ill-equipped to judge those dangerous moments when the reins of accountability are loosened. Many leaders simply seize power by force of arms, of course, or subvert democratic processes, either by extending their term of office, as Mr Putin has done, or abolishing a limit altogether, as in the case of President Xi Jinping. Last weekend, France had to choose between an individual who has displayed a disdain for democracy and someone from a political tradition that considers democracy to be anathema. The vote was understandably close, but the French constitution is probably strong enough to keep its re-elected President in check.

In the UK last week, Conservative MPs were invited to overlook one of these dangerous moments and give their unquestioning support to the present Prime Minister. They chose not to. Next week’s local elections ought to be about local issues, but they will be widely interpreted as a judgement on Boris Johnson’s behaviour. It is a fault in the system to allow an individual to dominate the debate to such an extent, but at least the public has a say.

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