David Poyser / Aug 2020
Commemorative plaque of Winston Churchill's speech at the University of Zurich, 19 September 1946. Photo: Shutterstock
When the Conservative Party attempted to join the Common Market in the early sixties (only to be rebuffed by De Gaulle) the Conservative MP for Woodford felt the need to write a letter to his constituency chair‘man’, a certain Mrs. Moss, in August 1961 clarifying his views on this important matter “I think that the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community…..” he wrote.
As the author of this letter was no less than Winston Churchill, himself very embodiment of John Bull, when anti-EEC elements were making trouble falsely claiming Churchill as ‘one of theirs’ (plus ça change) Churchill’s longstanding private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne lost no time in getting this letter published in the Press. Lady Soames, Churchill’s daughter later said “what I remember clearly is that not only my father, but all of us — particularly my mother — were outraged” at the suggestion that Churchill opposed UK entry into the EU and the perpetrator of this early euro-myth “was roundly rebuked” (even though he was a war hero). Edward Heath calls this letter to the Constituency Chair(man) “celebrated.”
Is it slightly odd, then, that in a 2014 Churchill biography a whole chapter devoted to ‘Churchill the European’ fails even to mention this ‘celebrated’ letter. Perhaps not, when the author of the Churchill biography is a journalist who, after being sacked by the Times for inventing implausible quotes, made his name as the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph peddling ‘euro-myths’, still untrue thirty years later, including EU plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins”, establish a “banana police force” to regulate the shape of the curved yellow fruit, and ban prawn cocktail crisps. The author of this top-selling Churchill biography is of course no less than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Churchill had been a great European even before the War, but frequently with the important proviso, sometimes hidden in some small print, that “we are with Europe, but not of it,” …. “We are linked but not comprised.” He appears to have wanted Britain to be a close sibling of a united Europe but not fully enmeshed in it.
In his own words to his constituency Chair in 1961, the letter quoted above began “for many years, I have believed that measures to promote European unity were ultimately essential to the well-being of the West. In a speech at Zurich in 1946, I urged the creation of the European Family, and I am sometimes given credit for stimulating the ideals of European unity”…“In the aftermath of the Second World War, the key to these endeavours lay in partnership between France and Germany. At that time this happy outcome seemed a fantasy, but it is now accomplished…..”
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe,” are his oft-quoted words in Zurich in 1946, and he repeated the phrase many times in many speeches as he toured continental Europe during his years in opposition after he was booted out of office in 1945 (the phrase itself is sometimes attributed to him, but it had been used in the thirties and also - perhaps unfortunately - by the German Kaiser in 1940).
At the first Congress of Europe in the Hague in 1948 its keynote speaker and ‘initiator’, Winston Churchill, clearly ‘got’ the idea of the European federalism. He declared “it is said with truth that this involves some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty..(but) it is also possible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption, by all nations concerned, of that larger sovereign unity which can also protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics, and their national traditions.” Churchill was of course a key player in the setting up of the Council of Europe after this Conference (with Britain, of course, a member at the heart of from its inception till the present day) having proposed a setting up a post-War Council of Europe in 1943.
Another Churchill biographer (this one not known for a lifetime’s distortion of facts) Roy Jenkins, the former EEC (European Economic Community) Commission President, discussing the issue of whether Churchill’s ‘United States of Europe’ excluded Britain says he finds the evidence ‘conflicting’. In the Hague, Jenkins writes ‘referring to the progress which had been made in the year and a half since his Zurich speech, Churchill declared “sixteen European states are now associated for economic purposes, five have entered into close economic and military relationship. We hope that this nucleus will in due course be joined by the people of Scandinavia and of the Iberian Peninsula as well as by Italy….” as he counted Britain not merely among the sixteen but among the five he was obviously then regarding his country as not merely part of Europe but part of its core’.
There can be little doubt that a voice as internationally respected as Winston Churchill in the forties significantly contributed to the events that set up the currently EU’s predecessors in the fifties.
Churchill therefore ‘harshly criticised’ the 1945-51 Labour government for not being there at the establishment of the European project though when he was himself back in government in the fifties his foreign secretary and successor as Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was not a ‘keen European’ and his Europeanism became lost as his health and energy failed (he was 76 and not in good health when he became Prime Minister for the second time, and his time in office was very preoccupied with domestic issues and the atom bomb).
By the time of his letter to his constituency in 1961, however things had very much changed for Britain in a ‘wind of change’ in the sixties. The idea of there being a British Commonwealth/empire, an equal player on the world stage playing a pivotal role linking its close ally Europe with its close ally the US was clearly no longer a runner.
As Britain had by then missed the boat in setting up the EEC (in broad terms, the 1961 EEC arguably favoured agricultural protection and industrial free trade, neither of which suited the UK economy) Churchill’s letter to the constituency made it clear that the McMillan government’s EU-UK negotiations were required “because there appears to be no other way by which we can find out exactly whether the conditions of membership are acceptable.”
Ted Heath (later the Prime Minister who took Britain into the EEC in 1973) was very close to Churchill in the fifties and makes it clear in his autobiography that Churchill was ‘never in principle against our membership of the European Economic Community’. Churchill was ‘overjoyed’, Heath says, when, invited to speak at Churchill’s constituency association in 1962, he played a gramophone record of the Zurich speech.
No-one can of course know what Churchill would have made of the terms of Heath’s entry into the EU in the 70s, Thatcher’s Single European Act ruffled by her extreme euro-scepticism, or the referenda in 1975 and 2016, had he lived a ridiculously long time. Given that even when Britain was a full member of the EU it was not part of the Schengen agreement, not part the euro the EU’s central project, and (with a couple of others) not even in the same time zone or ‘on the same side of the road’ it could surely be argued Britain’s membership of EU fulfilled Churchill’s dream - ‘in it but not of it’.