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Brexit Trade Deal: A Fishy Tale from History

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, finds historic parallels in the on-going Brexit discussions relating to the sovereignty of the seas and the battle for fishing rights.

By Professor Keith McLay - 14 December 2020

Cooking up a storm

'The day broke grey and unappealing and the Channel's swell caused the Captain much queasiness on the Quarterdeck. Contemplating another day of tedious inshore patrolling, the cry rang out: "sails over yonder, Sir". Struggling to see through the gloom, the Captain replied, "Midshipman take a glass to the masthead". In seconds, the Midshipman had scaled the mizzen top and reported, "It's a French bateau, Captain, and it's fishing." In our sovereign waters, thought the Captain, and with no deal. The Captain knew his duty. "Master, turnabout and run out the decks."'

An inelegant parody from the 18th Century? Well, not so much according to the weekend's media which, depending on political preference, reported gleefully or with dismay that in the absence of an UK-EU Brexit trade deal the Royal Navy would be dispatched to patrol the nation's inshore waters to ward off any 'European' fishing transgressions.

Tensions between Britain and European (and non-European) nations over fishing rights have ebbed and flowed across history. In 2020, 2018 and 2012, there were various iterations of the guerre de la coquille in which French and British trawlers faced off over differences in scallop fishing restrictions with the French aggrieved at Britain's all year scalloping compared to their six months.

With a delicious eye to the ironic, the French trawlers' favoured weapon of choice in this dispute was the frying pan lobbed on to British vessels with some oil in which to cook the scallops.

Atlantic battles

In the context of the recent media reports, the Cod Wars with Iceland of the 1950s and 1970s are the oft cited comparison. Then, Britain deployed Royal Navy warships to protect its interests in fishing cod and other whitefish in the North Atlantic.

Another less well-known example of European-British tensions over fishing was the 1904 Dogger Bank Incident.

Enveloped in North Sea fog in late October 1904, the Russian Imperial Navy's Baltic Fleet confused a flotilla of British trawlers operating out of Kingston upon Hull for Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire. War between Britain and Russia was only avoided when both sides agreed to accept the balanced findings of an International Commission of Enquiry which reported from Paris in the following year.

Tracking further back in time to the 25 years of warfare between Britain and France at the end of the 18th and into the early 19th century, successively the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, fishing hoves into view as an economic battleground.

The Atlantic waters off Newfoundland and Labrador were a seasonal destination of choice for French and British fishermen who arrived in spring and fished through to autumn.

Napoleonic intervention

In the 18th century, the British had come to dominate this industry, depressing both France's and the Newfoundlanders' trade. British ascendancy continued until the conflict with France at the end of the century but came undone as a result of the strictures of Napoleon's Continental System.

In response to a British blockade of French ports, from 1806 Napoleon embargoed British trade cross-continent. Although Napoleon's Continental System did not inflict the wholesale damage to the British economy that was intended, across different sectors it did have a substantial impact.

Combined with the necessity to impress British fisherman for service aboard naval warships, Napoleon's prohibition on British trade saw fishing on the retreat until the war's end in 1815. Even then in the North Atlantic, there would be no return to the dominance of the 18th century because the resident fishery in Newfoundland, for example, had developed and filled the wartime gap.

An instrument of power

So, as so often in the Brexit drama, we've been here before in history and, given the examples from the past, we are left wondering quite how we've arrived here again.

Rather than briefing the media on the might of the Royal Naval flag to be deployed against our former European allies, particularly the French, the government might have given thought to how the nation's most famous French adversary, Napoleon, successfully used fishing and fishing rights as an economic, rather than military or naval, instrument of power.

For Britain, the issue at that time was not one of enforcement by the Royal Navy but rather one of industry capacity and free trade. Might it, then, be the same now?

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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