The money-go-round

Napoleon and his Collaborators: the making of a dictatorship

Isser Woloch<em> W W Norton, 281pp, £

Hume long ago pointed out that not even the most absolute ruler has total power - even Nero relied on his praetorians, and Stalin needed the apparatus of the NKVD. There is much loose talk of fuhrers, despots and dictators, but far less solid research into the mechanics and levers of power. In particular, we must always ask of any authoritarian regime: who besides the leader is benefiting? Who is being bought off or co-opted? Studies of Napoleon have tended to concentrate on the army and the marshalate as the obvious beneficiaries, but the emperor had many important civilian collaborators, too. In this original study, Isser Woloch puts these civilians under the microscope.

Napoleon's shrewd political instincts led him to co-opt his political support from the moderate right and left, marginalising, exiling or even executing royalists and Jacobins. He needed strategically placed aides at three critical points in his career: when planning the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799; when consolidating his power as First Consul from 1800-4; and when gelding the constitutional opposition to his empire after 1804. Woloch identifies five important people who made straight the Napoleonic ways: Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, Theophile Berlier, Antoine Thibaudeau, Regnaud de St Jean d'Angely and Jean-Jacques-Regis Cambaceres. These were former revolutionaries (loosely defined) who made Faustian pacts with the emperor. So Woloch poses the question: what sacrifice of principle was involved? To what extent was a moral compromise possible, or was the synergy of these five individuals abject, Vichy-like collaboration?

Unfortunately, in Woloch's narrative, the collaborators have a wraith-like existence as human beings. How old were they? What did they look like? To whom were they married? Woloch does not tell us. He concentrates instead on describing what they did. Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe was the skilled fixer in the Assembly of Five Hundred who moved the decrees abolishing the Directory and setting up the Consulate on 18 Brumaire; he was rewarded by being made president of the legislative section of the new Council of State. Regnaud de St Jean d'Angely was the major collaborator in the transition from consulate to empire; he was a fine administrator and a political technician who specialised in the subordination of local authorities to central government. Theophile Berlier was a clever lawyer who worked behind the scenes in the Council of State. But the most blatant trimmer was Antoine Thibaudeau, who began as a regicide and Jacobin from 1791-93, was a pillar of Thermidorean reaction after 1794, and was then a supporter of the Directory before becoming a "convinced" Bonapartist after 1799.

Certain historical dilettantes have affected to believe that Napoleon did not control his marshals and other collaborators through money, but by some other magical (but unexplained) means. It is therefore pleasing to have confirmation from Woloch's careful scholarship that money did indeed make the Napoleonic world go round. Berlier frankly admitted he could not kiss off the 25,000 francs a year he received as Counsellor of State, and similar considerations weighed with the others.

Woloch's erudition is put to particularly good use in his portrait of Cambaceres, originally Second Consul and later Imperial Chancellor. He provides a thorough analysis of his income from land and investments in the national debt and other stock. This is the sort of expose that makes the exhaustive archival sleuthing truly worthwhile. We begin to understand how richly Napoleon's collaborators were rewarded when we correlate Cambaceres's burgeoning wealth with his vital role as acting vice-president when Napoleon was on campaign. In effect, Cambaceres ran the country for one-third of the years between 1800 and 1814 while the emperor was winning laurels on the battlefields of Europe.

The portrait of Cambaceres is what gives this book a touch of class. He hankered after the "grace, security and order" of the ancien regime, and was brilliant at finding a veneer of legality for Napoleon's most outrageous actions. He was expert at stalling tactics, rationalisations and other machiavellianisms that would translate the emperor's wishes into policy. He was inspired in the way he truncated the powers of the imperial Senate, Council of State and the troublesome Tribunate, but his Achilles heel was money.

Notably keen on the chancellor, Woloch defends Cambaceres against the conventional charge that he was an epic gourmand and bon viveur, and claims that most of his legendary "hospitality" was official entertaining rather than the conspicuous consumption of an epicure. However, Woloch is naive in his insistence on requiring "direct proof" of Cambaceres's homosexuality, even though it was common knowledge at the time. The author seems to expect that one of the chancellor's scribes should have written a minute to this effect, which is the "archive fallacy" with a vengeance. There are some things so well known in any given society that people take them for granted and think not of drawing up memoranda about them. It is a pity that Woloch's psychological naivety detracts from his sterling qualities as a scholar.

Frank McLynn is the author of Napoleon: a biography

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis