Most of us only know Lord Acton for one notable quotation, but he was in fact an interesting man for far more than that. A confidant of Gladstone, a historian of no little standing, a part of the catholic aristocracy of Britain; in today’s febrile, social media-dominated public space, a prime candidate for cancellation. Why? Well, during the American Civil war, he was an outspoken supporter of the Confederacy, because he believed that it stood for the defence of States’ rights, which would otherwise be overtaken by a centralised government which, he believed on the basis of precedent he had seen through history, would inevitably turn tyrannical. That thought is the underpinning of the remark we all know him for: “all power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Well, we can find lots of examples of that. King Leopold II’s absolute power in nineteenth century Congo wasn’t very pretty. And then there are the various of Karl Marx’s acolytes: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Chavez, Castro - they had total control over the reins, and between them they managed to clock up a good 100 million-odd deaths, to say nothing of the ravages they inflicted also on those who survived. As well, of course, there was Hitler, and a handful of Latin American despots who also help to provide confirmation of Lord Acton’s premise. In fact, let’s be clear about this: totalitarian regimes are where absolute power basically resides, and I can’t think of one where that power hasn’t been perverted and corrupted. It still goes on, as sadly evidenced by the treatment of its Uyghur population by the absolutist Chinese Communist Party regime.
Bur I read today of a new infamy, perpetrated by none other than Vladimir Putin, an absolutist to his fingertips despite the ‘elections’ Russia holds from time to time.
So what has Vlad done now?
Well, it is reported that from now on, in Russia, the only fizzy wine that will be allowed to be sold with the name ‘champagne’ on the label will be that produced within Russia’s own borders. The French product, the one we all call ‘champagne’ because it is produced in the geographic region of France which has been known as ‘Champagne’ for many hundreds of years, will have to be re-labelled as ‘sparking wine’. Moët-Hennessy (Moët et Chandon, Dom Perignon) have suspended deliveries pending possible re-branding, while others have simply stated they are not prepared to go along with Vlad and will no longer supply Russia.
So much to unpick here. First, it is undoubtedly true that some years ago, France and other EU countries agitated to institute protection for geographic products - like Champagne and Roquefort, Prosciutto di Parma for the Italians, Stilton and Cheddar for the British (yes, we were involved, then) and so on. So is it just revenge, served cold, years later? That’s difficult to argue, since geographic protection does depend upon the product coming from the region involved, and Champagne is definitely in France - although, of course, maybe Vlad is thinking ahead to some sort of reverse Napoléon….
To suggest an equivalence in the quality of the product would, I feel one must admit, require a palate deadened by years of vodka-consumption, so that can’t be it. I think it’s a case of doing something because one can - which sort of reflects Lord Acton’s remark - and we just have to accept that where war is peace, freedom is slavery, there is another entry in the lexicon of Newspeak - ‘champagne is Russian’……
Oh, give me Lord Acton in preference to any of the other public figures I’ve mentioned here - well, perhaps apart from Dom Perignon.