The Victorian historian Edward Freeman wrote that ‘history is past politics and politics present history’. Last week’s decision by Emanuel Macron to give Britain the Bayeux tapestry for the first time in its near 900 year history demonstrates he was correct in the most literal sense, with one of the world’s most famous historical items being gifted to Britain at a time intended to coincide with a key summit between Emanuel Macron and Theresa May.
Firstly, a word on the tapestry itself before setting it in a political context. In short, it’s stunning, and regardless of how bored year eight history may have left you I defy anybody to visit it and not be thoroughly impressed. Unlike some famous pieces of history (I’m looking at you Stonehenge) it fully lives up to the esteem it is held in, with one of the most significant periods in British (and European) history laid out in painstaking detail on an embroidery seventy metres long and half a metre tall. When it is finally brought to the UK I would encourage anyone to pay it a visit.
Regrettably for anyone with an interest in History, however, the tapestry appears to be at least in part a politically motivated gesture. President Macron is probably, following recent electoral setbacks for Angela Merkel and Theresa May, Europe’s most powerful leader and thus his meeting with May is extremely significant. Macron’s desire that Britain and France make ‘a new tapestry together’ is welcome, particularly given our impending exit from the European Union, and illustrates that Britain can still play a role in European affairs (as you might expect given we are Europe’s second largest economy and largest defence spender). More tangibly, the two discussed Europe’s current migration crisis and agreed a treaty which will speed up the processing of people hoping to come to the UK from France. The latter should prevent some of the distressing scenes we are all too familiar with even after the ‘jungle’ camp at Calais. This was coupled with an extra £44 million from the UK government to strengthen border security- this drew gasps from the usual suspects but seems entirely reasonable in the light of the current scale of the crisis.
In summary then, unfortunate as it is for the tapestry to be used as a political tool, it seems to have done the trick. Good relations with our closest neighbour are always important, and particularly so given the current issues both countries face. Naturally the two countries will not always agree; Macron and May seemed to clash over whether the City of London should enjoy the same customs benefits after our departure from the EU. However, on the big issues Britain and France will agree far more than we disagree, and thus Macron’s gesture is welcome. We’ll ignore the fact the tapestry depicts a famous French victory against the English for a second.
(Image courtesy of Sky News)