When John McDonnell recently pointed out that the memory of Winston Churchill was not universally revered in Welsh mining communities, where, as home secretary, he had authorised the use of military force to put down strikes, the reaction was predictable.
Conservative commentators jumped on the comments. McDonnell was denounced as a “Poundland Lenin” by Churchill’s grandson, the Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames. Meanwhile, left-liberal commentators highlighted the many times when Churchill had been on the wrong side of history, from his opposition to votes for women, to Indian independence and his often crude belief in white racial supremacy.
Churchill is a political version of Shakespeare or the Bible. We can take from him almost anything we want. His decades of words and political activity contain endlessly different lines and contradictory positions.
Yet there is one Churchill cause that never changed and to which he devoted considerable resources, money, speech-making, and political organisation. That cause is European unity.
It is the focus of a recent book, Churchill’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Unite Europe, by Dutch historian Felix Klos. He has ranged far and wide in archives, diaries and memoirs both in English and continental languages, to explore the former prime minister’s enthusiasm for European unity, before, after and during the war.
The book is in stark contrast to other recent Churchill historiography, not least the works by high profile biographers – and eurosceptics – Boris Johnson and Andrew Roberts, which seek to downplay or sidestep his pro-European credentials.
Johnson referred to a “Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU” in his biography, The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History. He quotes, as do most Churchill biographers, his 1930 article for the American Saturday Evening Post, in response to the first stirring of pan-European unity. Churchill supported the principle but added that Britain would be “interested and associated, but not absorbed”.
But this quick dismissal does no justice to Churchill’s political commitment to European unity. He applauded the speech at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1929 of the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand, who made the case for an abolition of economic frontiers between the nations of Europe. Briande was honorary president of the Pan-European Union set up in the 1920s to promote European unification in response to the disaster of the First World War.
Churchill praised Briand’s call for “some ‘federal link’ established between all the different states (of Europe)”. The most important component of that link should be “economic agreement”. But it was more than commerce. Why can’t the citizen of different countries “realize himself as French, German, Spanish or Dutch, and simultaneously as a European and, finally as citizen of the world?” Churchill wrote.
Churchill often returned to the idea of European citizenship worrying at the concept like a favourite bone. Speaking in 1948, he said: “We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their own native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain they will truly feel ‘Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too’.”
A decade earlier, in the News of the World, Churchill said Britain should promote “every practical step which the nations of Europe may take to reduce the barriers which divide them and to nourish their common interests and their common welfare”.
At the high-water mark of Tory isolationism under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, Churchill urged the creation of common European postage stamps, a single currency and a tariff union. He argued the menace of fascism and the threat of war would “draw together the peace-loving states and so contribute indirectly to the development of the pan-European ideal”.
Nothing enrages today’s anti-Europeans more than the claim Europe is a peace project. Many Tories of 1938 also hated Churchill’s visionary Europeanism and made serious moves to de-select him as an MP early in 1939.
In 1942, in the darkest period of Nazi domination of Europe, Churchill sent a minute to cabinet colleagues stating: “I look forward to a United States of Europe in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible.”
In November 1945 he told the Belgian parliament of his wish for “the United States of Europe within which all its peoples may dwell together in prosperity, in justice, and in peace.”
The following year, Churchill set up a secretariat to campaign for Europe, hiring pan-European federalists to organise giant meetings in London and on the continent. He used his own money to finance the campaign, pulling in younger MPs like Duncan Sandys, Harold Macmillan, and Robert Boothby to form a high-level political unit to make the case for European integration. That same year, in Zurich, he made the speech which set Europe ablaze with the vision of European Union – calling “for a kind of United States of Europe”.
Churchill’s post-war, pro-European fervour was in stark contrast to others. In 1939, the Labour leader Clement Attlee had declared “Europe must federate or perish”. Yet after 1945, his Labour government opted for a sturdy British nationalism in foreign affairs with a close alignment to Washington and hostility to European construction. The intellectual architect of post-1945 Labour hostility to European integration was the secretary of the party’s international department, Denis Healey, a Eurosceptic avant la lettre. He told the New Statesman shortly before he died in 2015 that he would vote Brexit in the forthcoming plebiscite.
Churchill by contrast took on Labour’s post-1945 focus on national sovereignty and rejection of European partnership. When Labour’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the House of Commons in 1948, he wanted to avoid “any reference to the surrender of sovereign rights” Churchill replied that he preferred to argue for “countries acquiring an enlarged or enriched sovereignty through membership of a European Union”.
In 1950, Churchill called for “the immediate creation of a unified European army subject to proper European democratic control” and said that for the Conservative Party “national sovereignty is not inviolable, and that it may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all the men in all the lands finding their way home together”.
Of course, Britain as one of the big three victors of the Second World War was not going to fuse itself into a federal Europe. A Britain trying to take over Europe after 1945 or 1950 would have made the European unity boat top-heavy and likely to capsize.
Yet Churchill the European has been written out of history. In his biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Andew Roberts finds space for one paragraph on page 975 to discuss Churchill’s fairly obvious point that on European integration: “We play a part, but we are not merged with and do not forfeit our insular or Commonwealth character. Our first object is the unity, and consolidation of the British Commonwealth… Our second, the ‘fraternal association’ of the English-speaking world; and, third united Europe, to which we are a separate, closely – and specially related ally and friend… It is only when plans for uniting Europe take a federal form that we ourselves cannot take part, because we cannot subordinate ourselves or the control to federal authorities.”
But that was the same position of the French who had and have no intention of dissolving their nation into a federal Europe. Ditto, the independent Dutch, Italians and others. Ninety nine per cent of UK public spending is still decided by the House of Commons and our elected government. The spectre of a federal EU super-state is often mentioned but it is a fantasy.
So today, seven decades after the first steps to European union with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, we are no closer to a fully federal Europe.
Churchill was thus stating the obvious. But after he returned to power in 1951 he enthusiastically supported the creation of the European Court of Human Rights whose judgements are superior to national British law just as those of the EU’s Court of Justice are.
In the last major speech he made in October 1959 Churchill said: “The outlook for a closer unity of those who share the common fruit of Western civilization is full of promise. There is no reason why these developments should conflict with our ever closer association with the countries of the Commonwealth and the United States. In all this we in Britain have a great part to play, a leading part.”
If this speech was as well known as Churchill’s tub-thumping oratory of the war, the UK would likely be a very different place. It is well past time to reclaim Churchill the pro-European he undoubtedly was.
Denis MacShane is the UK former Minister of Europe. His next book is Brexeternity