One of the more colourful episodes of British imperialism – and, let’s face it, there’s a lot to choose from – took place around the ‘misspent youth’ of empire at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign – when its full might was put behind the somewhat embarrassing pursuit of drug-pushing.
In 1839 China’s Daoguang Emperor responded to rising opium addiction among his subjects by quite understandably, if not foolishly, attempting to abolish the trade through blockades and confiscation. This was considered unacceptable by then Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston and thus ‘gunboat diplomacy’ was born. Why? Well, we were supplying the opium, old boy.
The 1842 Treaty of Nanking which ended the subsequent war was the first of what the Chinese now call the ‘unequal treaties’. And they’re still quite sore about it. To be fair, it’s not difficult to see why. Apart from ceding Hong Kong Island to Britain, it was notable for introducing the concept of extraterritoriality to China, which was quickly copied by the other Western nations with their snouts in the ‘all you can eat’ trough.
This meant that, for example, if a British citizen stole a Chinese man’s pig, he could only be tried by a British consular court, and even then only if stealing said pig was a crime under British law. Which, I imagine, it was. Nonetheless, the humiliation for the Chinese was immense, regardless of how robust their legal system actually was. Think of a band of Western ‘barbarians’ trotting about saying “diplomatic immunity” like that South African from Lethal Weapon 2 and you get the idea. This continued more than 100 years until Britain officially surrendered her extraterritorial rights in 1943.
Us Brits have never really been on the receiving end of this sort of arrangement – the idea of a foreign power having jurisdiction in another country falling out of fashion after the war for some reason – but we might be about to get a taste of it if the EU gets its way. European Commission negotiating guidelines which were leaked last week revealed Brussels intends to subject Britain to its own ‘unequal treaty’ after it leaves the EU which would give the European Court of Justice extraterritorial rights in the UK.
Under the guidelines the ECJ, which fittingly has all the pomposity of a British colonist or South African diplomat, would have the authority to rule on the pensions, employment and welfare rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Presumably making the same assumption about Britain’s competence in employment law as we did with the Chinese on the theft of pigs.
It has more of a whiff of imperial extraterritoriality to it, not to mention imperial Chinese levels of humiliation, and to quote Bill Cash “would suggest that we are not leaving the EU at all.” Hopefully the Gibraltar dispute doesn’t lead to us reviving gunboat diplomacy, but here’s to the general election giving Theresa May the clout to save our bacon.
Paul is Creative Editor for Conservatives for Liberty. Follow him on Twitter: @Whiggery
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty