Meeting George Osborne at Waterloo

An encounter with the Chancellor’s less cynical side

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

The defence of Hougoumont is one of the great British feats of arms. If the farmhouse had fallen to Bonaparte’s forces during the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s 100 days would have become a French 100 years. But history has not been kind to Hougoumont; it fell into disuse as a farm at the end of the last century and has become increasingly dilapidated. Now, however, Hougoumont has an unlikely champion: the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

George Osborne first visited the site two years ago and was shocked by what he found. Souvenir hunters were simply removing bricks from the building. Osborne is a bit of a battlefield buff — he tries to visit a US Civil War site every time he goes to Washington for an International Monetary Fund meeting. He felt that something should be done, and started by looking to private philanthropy, writing to various companies urging them to donate to the restoration project.

But when Osborne heard that the crucifix had recently been stolen from the chapel in which the besieged soldiers had prayed, he decided that the rescue effort needed to be stepped up. The result: a government commitment to have the farmhouse restored in time for Waterloo’s bicentenary in June 2015.

At the site itself a different, less cynical, more passionate side to the Chancellor emerges. He seems thrilled when describing how the British fought back to shut the gates after the French had breached the farmhouse walls. He clambers around the site, trying to see the view that the guards defending the farmhouse had.

In this 24-hour media environment, front rank politicians need the ability to switch off. Osborne has clearly learnt that skill — during the afternoon, he produces histelephone only to photograph the battlefield and memorials. But when the conversation turns to politics and the economy, he has a settled analysis. He knows what he wants to do next.

Osborne does not need to be told what follows hubris, and is determined to avoid any premature triumphalism. He insists that there is still much hard pounding ahead and repeats the mantra that ‘a Chancellor is only as good as his last set of economic numbers’ at every opportunity in our conversation. He also points out that the Ukraine crisis, which is strikingly prominent in his thoughts, could hit European growth and possibly even prompt another flare-up of the Eurozone crisis. But he is confident enough about the near-term prospects of the UK economy to have started thinking about the longer-term challenges facing it.

Decisive moment: ‘Closing the Gates of Hougoumont’, by Robert Gibb
Decisive moment: ‘Closing the Gates of Hougoumont’, by Robert Gibb     Photo: National Museums Scotland

Somewhat surprisingly, Osborne is keen to talk about problems that remain with the British economy. He is the first to say that this country needs to make and export more. He also feels that the financial crisis rather hid the challenge of British competitiveness in this global century. He’s clear that a re-elected Tory government would move quickly to reform welfare and education further. He is also keeping a watching brief on corporation tax, determined to maintain the UK’s advantage on this over other major economies.

The economy (or to use the campaign argot, the ‘long-term economic plan’) will be central to the Tory message in 2015. Politically, Osborne seems unbothered by Ed Miliband’s opening up of ‘clear red water’ between the parties. He is adamant that even in this post-crash world, elections are won by holding the centre, winning the economic argument and having the better leader. But when I ask him about Miliband’s agenda, he gives a reminder that the general election will provide a stark choice. The Chancellor takes it as a given that the British economy needs low taxes to attract inward investment. He seems genuinely baffled as to why Miliband would want to increase business taxes, with the message that this sends out.

If the Tories do win the next election, their second term will be dominated by Cameron’s commitment to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership. Osborne is confident a deal can be done. The Eurozone crisis has led him to spend a considerable amount of time in Brussels and he thinks he know how Britain can obtain the reforms it wants.

He argues that the northern Europeans, led by the Germans, want Britain in as a liberal and free market influence. Added to this, the eastern European and the Baltic states would, especially in this era of Russian revanchism, be loath to lose hawkish Britain, with our willingness to invest in and deploy the military. More broadly, Osborne believes that the other member states would not want to let Britain go, knowing the awful message that this would send out to the world about the European Union.

The recent economic upturn has transformed Osborne’s political standing. It has also guaranteed the Tories a decent chance in next year’s election. But when it comes to the prospect of a second-term Tory government securing a satisfactory EU deal for Britain, Wellington’s verdict on Waterloo seems apt: it will be ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’.

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  • an ex-tory voter

    Osborne and Cameron cannot be taken seriously about “renogiation and the return of powers” until such time as they reveal exactly what they will be demanding by way of changes to the Acquis Communautaire and the various regulations and directives which have flowed flow from it.

    Until then “renegotiation is just so much hot air”, especially when due regard is given to David Cameron’s personal record of dishonesty and failure on the subject of the EU.

  • S&A

    ‘Added to this, the eastern European and the Baltic states would, especially in this era of Russian revanchism, be loath to lose hawkish Britain, with our willingness to invest in and deploy the military’.

    ‘Invest’ in the armed forces?

    Are you on drugs, Forsyth?

    • perdix

      Compared with other EU nations we do invest and deploy.

      • S&A

        That’s like saying that compared to Warwick Davis John Bercow is a giant.

        Are you familiar with the cuts initiated as a result of the so-called ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’? Loss of the carrier and maritime aviation capability? Reduction of the army to 80,000 effectives?

        Does that sound like an ‘investment’ in military capability to you?

  • Bill Quango MP

    The French and Belgians not keen on preserving Waterloo then?
    The Belgians were French then, anyway. And the French don’t really want a memorial to their defeat, quite understandable.

    We don’t think much about battlefields in Europe like they do in America. proably as there so very many of them.

  • Dogzzz

    The tory Eu referendum is purely a dishonest bait and switch. There is no way that Cameron can secure reform by 2017, so he will offer a promise of reform, and when we vote for it, the EU will veto it and we will be trapped in the same old EU.

    • perdix

      If we are not happy with the EU’s approach to our requests for reform, we can and should leave. You have the kipper syndrome – nothing is possible by non kippers.

  • Robert Basset

    I respect him for this. Nice one George.

  • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

    As far as I’m concerned his is a traitor and should be treated as such.

    • justejudexultionis

      Planet UKIP is a cold, dark and lonely place. The atmosphere is very thin and only the most basic of amoeba may survive there.

      • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

        No rational arguments? Typical.

  • Terry Field

    I repeat my excised comment. The English army was saved from defeat by the Prussian hussars. That is the uncomfortable truth. The rest is eyewash. Truth matters; propaganda should be avoided. Lets watch this get taken down by jingoists.

    • flexdream

      That’ll be the Allied Army comprising British, Dutch-Belgians, King’s German Legion etc. then? Yes truth matters. Wellington, a superlative commander, ground the French Army to a halt, and made no secret of how close the outcome was. The arrival of the Prussians tipped it, but the French Army was already broken. Watch the film if you can’t read a book.

      • Terry Field

        “The arrival of the Prussians tipped it, but the French Army was already broken”

        That is not the case.
        Read the history; seen the films.
        You are over-egging the pudding I am afraid.
        I am more than pleased that the French were defeated, but it was undoubtedly the Prussians who tipped the scales. You are corrct that Wellington was a superb commander, and you are correct there were some other participants, but the day would have gone to the French is the re had been no attack by the Prussian hussars.
        Holding the farm was unlikely to lead to success in itself. I am not diminishing the English – and others- in my comments. I just like to see the jingoism stripped away to show the reality. You seem to prefer the gloss effect.

        • MikeF

          Wellington’s plan for Waterloo was always to hold the ground until the Prussians arrived. Yes there would probably have been a stalemate but for the eventual arrival of the Prussians but if the Prussians by themselves had met the French it is highly unlikely they would have won. It was a combined allied victory.

          • Terry Field

            Sounds a reasonable comment. I wlll end on that note of reasonableness,
            The film with Sydney Poitier as Napolean was good I thought.

          • MikeF

            I think you mean Rod Steiger, though Christopher Plummer’s Wellington was very good. But as the real Wellington said: “It was a damn fine thing – the closest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

          • Terry Field

            Yes i was just being playful. Steiger was great, as was Plummer.
            I agree with your comments.
            It would have been fun to recast it with Lenny Henry as Napolean, and Jaques Delors as Wellington, with Berlusconi as Ney.
            I can but dream……………

          • MikeF

            I assumed you were – probably. Rowan Atkinson might make a good Napoleon.

          • Terry Field

            Indeed – could call it Mr HasBean

  • John Hawkins Totnes

    ‘Closing the Gates of Hougoumont’, by Robert Gibb. This picture is an apt and somewhat ironic metaphor. The aggressive French trying to enforce their ideology/worldview on the resisting British. It sort of resonates today!

  • justejudexultionis


    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “Give me night or give me Blucher”
      A quote from the Iron Duke.