Copyright © 1998 Hugo Young. All rights reserved.
In May 1945, when the second German war ended, British self-esteemwas higher than it had been in living memory. The little island nationhad played a decisive part in liberating the continent from the abominationsof Hitler. Britain was Europe's rescuer, the only power in the landmass and archipelago that could be so described. The United States andthe Soviet Union may have had greater armies, and taken most of themilitary pain. But Britain was unique, indisputably the chief amongEuropean equals. Directly from that fact that exquisite sense of nationalselfhood, and the experience of vindication going with it stemmed allthe large decisions of British foreign policy for the next fifteen years.These were the formative years, of crucial choices and chances. Theinfluence of this history did not stop in 1960, but reached decadesfurther forward. It was the defining experience, at different levels ofconsciousness, of every British leader for half a century.
Bestriding the fifty-year story is the man who set it on course. Threemonths after winning the war, Winston Churchill lost the election andsurrendered his post as Prime Minister. But the people who flung himfrom office were unable to remove him from their minds. He was theleader round whom the entire nation from left to right had gathered,and his political defeat in no way diminished the hold he exerted overthe British imagination. This effect, too, reached far beyond his owntime. When Margaret Thatcher placed herself in direct descent from`Winston', as she often called him, she knew what she was doing. Hewas the hero from whom the British weakness for nostalgia gained itsrichest nourishment. The belief that Britain, under Churchill, had wonthe war in 1945 retained its grip, twitching the nerve-ends and coursingthrough the bloodstream of Euro-sceptics in the 1990s.
Anyone wishing to explore the puzzle of Britain's relations withcontinental Europe in the twentieth century's second part must beginwith Churchill, and not just because he came first. In the history,Churchill's record plays as important a part as the aura that came afterhim. The last begetter of British greatness, he was also the primeexponent of British ambiguity. In him the two strains mingling inBritain's post-war presentation of herself illusion and uncertainty hadtheir most potent source. He epitomized the characteristic consistentlydisplayed by almost every politician, irrespective of party, whocame after him: an absence of steady vision on the greatest questionconcerning the future of Britain in the last fifty years. But he also spoke,none louder, for the reasons why such unsteadiness did not matter: whythe issue of Europe could always be the plaything of fickle Britishpoliticians, because there always existed other possibilities for Britain,growing out of imperial history and military triumph.
Churchill was called the father of `Europe', and he said much tojustify that label. But he was also the father of misunderstandings aboutBritain's part in this Europe. He encouraged Europe to misunderstandBritain, and Britain to misunderstand herself.
Nobody stood closer to history than Churchill. He had studied it,written it, made it. But Harold Macmillan once said that his realgreatness lay in `his extraordinary power always to look forward, neverback'. This prophetic quality was his chief claim to public trust. Thepeople believed what he said and promised. He was the last British leaderwhose reputation for sagacity was incontestable. Such a man might havebeen expected to rise above some of the comfortable illusions thatgripped the British in the aftermath of war. Instead, he was the first in along line of leaders who shared them. Indeed, his very presence, asLeader of the Opposition, did an enormous amount to endorse thegeneral sense that Britain, after the war, did not have too much to worryabout.
This was, after all, a united as well as a triumphant nation. War hadbeen a unifying experience. National unity, wrote Sir William Beveridgein 1943, was the great moral achievement of the Second World War. Itrested not on temporary deals or party coalitions but on `the mutualunderstanding between Government and people', and expressed `thedetermination of the British democracy to look beyond victory to theuses of victory'. Common sacrifices had produced a common sense ofthe future, in which even the class system, among other divisive Britishtraditions, seemed to have liquefied. When a Labour government waselected in July to replace Churchill's wartime coalition, the peacefultransfer of power to a party of the left, summarily despatching the hero,registered a country apparently at ease with its capacity for renovation.
This country also appeared to be strong. It possessed not only thearmy but many elements of the economy of a great power, on course forpost-war recovery. Despite heavy German bombing of many significantcentres, Britain's industrial capacity was higher in 1945 than it had beenin 1939. Although exports had fallen during the war, they recoveredswiftly under a determined government and a stoically purposefulworkforce, in which almost nobody was unemployed. In 1947, Britishexports were five times those of France, as large, in fact, as those ofFrance, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norwayand Denmark combined.
The most devastated war powers Germany, France, Italy, theNetherlands ran huge and persistent deficits, whereas Britain was acreditor with the whole of Europe. Whereas Britain was in every respecta giant, Germany was a devastated country, her industrial power dismantled,her housing stock decimated. Germany's national income in 1946was less than one-third of what it had been in 1938, and France's onlyone-half, with the franc an all but valueless international currency. InItaly, the national output in 1945 was at the level it had been in 1911,down by nearly half since 1938. Britain, by contrast, was galvanized bywar to new levels of output, based on a sense of national endeavour thatvictory did not dissipate.
On the contrary, victory confirmed a good many things that thecountry wanted to know about itself. The expression of it of theassurance it supplied to an idea of nation that long preceded it reachedbeyond economists, generals and politicians. If you look at what Britishwriters were saying about England before and after the war, you read forthe most part a seamless paean to the virtues of the nation's strengthand identity. It occurred to hardly anyone, whether in 1935 or 1945, todoubt the value of being British (for which `English' was then a synonymthe Scots and the Welsh tamely put up with). In both decades, plenty ofargument raged around the British national interest in rearmament ordisarmament, central planning or market economics. The value andpurpose of Britain's contribution to the world was the natural sub-textof a lot of these debates. But the greatness of its scale, like the historybehind it, was not a matter over which many of the British yet agonized;and the war confirmed them in their complacency. Almost all writers,from left to right, believed in the qualities of their country. It neveroccurred to them to do otherwise. The notion that Britain/Englandmight reconsider her role in the world, relinquishing her status as aglobal power or doubting her contribution to the welfare of mankind,did not arise. Nor was this confined to little Englanders, or celebratorsof narrowly English cultural virtues in the mould of J. B. Priestley. It wasa `European', Herbert Read, a high-flown prophet of the continentalavant-garde, who in the mid-1930s caught a note that the defeat ofGermany did nothing to diminish. Introducing his anthology, TheEnglish Vision, the dangerous anarchist sounded like a man withIndestructible pride in the special qualities of his country. `What I wish toemphasise most is the universal validity of this our vision,' Read wrote.`Alone of national ideals, the English ideal transcends nationality.'
This unquestioning sense of nation persisted through and after thewar. There was a striking contrast with the national attitude after theFirst World War, with its powerful aura of hope betrayed. `I feel a doomover the country, and a shadow of despair over the hearts of men, whichleaves me no rest,' wrote D. H. Lawrence at that time. The 1940s satiresof Evelyn Waugh derided the English middle classes. But they stoppedwell short of apocalypse in their prediction for the future of England.Nobody in any walk of life imagined that this was a country whosefuture might have been rendered more rather than less problematic bymilitary victory.
George Orwell's odyssey through the England of the war maps thetypical experience. Orwell was an honest, unposturing man, whom theright wing disliked because he was a socialist and the left wing dislikedbecause he told the truth. His writings trace the evolution of a nation'sfeeling about itself.
Back from Spain, after fighting for the republicans in the civil war,Orwell rediscovers a country offering wonderful reassurance in the placesof his childhood but he also senses the imminence of some kind ofexplosion. The year is 1938, in `the huge peaceful wilderness of outerLondon', with `the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, theposters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowlerhats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen-- all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimesfear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar ofbombs'.
When the bombs fall, however, Orwell's ambivalence vanishes.Mockery is overcome by patriotism, and the man of the people emergesto castigate the intelligentsia whose love of country he does not alwaystrust. He still calls England `the most class-ridden country under thesun', but is adamant about his belief in the virtues of simple nationalpride. `We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater orgrow less, we must go forward or backward,' he writes at the height ofthe Blitz. `I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.'
When it is all over, this belief is shaken only slightly, if at all. Orwellexpresses the sober, but ultimately sure, conviction that Britain couldclaim a role in the world sufficient unto itself. His conviction fell onreceptive ears. The war was a period when the people especially revelledin their past. Huge commercial success, for example, attended G. M.Trevelyan's triumphalist English Social History, published in 1944.Orwell's version of how Britain could expect to perform after 1945 wasno less gratifying than Trevelyan's account of the past.
He caught a glimpse of the problem that might beckon. If globalconflict continued, he said, there might be room for only two or threegreat powers, and he conceded that `in the long run Britain will not beone of them'. She was just too small. But she had great things to give theworld, one of them `the highly original quality of the English ... theirhabit of not killing one another'. There was now a decent chance of thisimposing itself on others, as Britain/England defined a new kind ofdomination. `If the English took the trouble to make their own democracywork, they would become the political leaders of western Europe,'he concluded, `and probably of some other parts of the world as well.They would provide the much-needed alternative to Russian authoritarianismon the one hand and American materialism on the other.'
Leadership, of course, was the point. Although a mere essayist,Orwell was quite influential at the time far more so than any suchwriter in the 1990s and his description was consistent with Britain'sobjective position vis-à-vis the mainland countries. If there was to be aleader, she was it. Her democracy, meanwhile, had in Orwell's termsworked. A few months after he set down these sentiments, the ordinaryEnglish did, as he advocated, `get their hands on power' through theagency of a people's government led by Clement Attlee. They haddemonstrated the proof of what the war was about, the capacity of mento choose and defend the peaceful transfer of democratic power.
Churchill's part in that, his humble acceptance of an almost incomprehensibleresult, served to increase his prophetic stature. Although hewas rejected by the voters, who decided that the fruits of victory wouldbe better distributed by the people's party, his was still the voice thatresounded loudest through the opening discussion about the future ofEurope, after Europe had been saved.
Winston Churchill had no objection, emotional or political, to theidea of the unification of Europe. Compared with the defenders ofsovereignty who took control of his party in the 1990s, he wasuntroubled by its impact on the sovereign nation. His attitude waspragmatic, and it had an instructive history.
As early as 1930, he came out straight. Writing in an Americanmagazine, he argued the case for creating a United States of Europe. Heunderstood better than many contemporaries the failure of the Treaty ofVersailles, after the 1914-18 war, to produce a secure settlement of thehistoric enmity of France and Germany. `The conception of a UnitedStates of Europe is right,' he wrote. `Every step taken to that end whichappeases the obsolete hatreds and vanished oppressions, which makeseasier the traffic and reciprocal services of Europe, which encouragesnations to lay aside their precautionary panoply, is good in itself.' So hebelieved in a USE for political reasons. But he also saw `Europe' ineconomic terms. He noted the underlying dynamism of the Americaneconomy, especially its respect for `science and organisation', and ponderedhow the Old World might emulate the New. He proposed, as themodel for his United States of Europe, the single market and unifiedgoverning principle of the United States of America.
This was not the utterance of a serving statesman, nor even of arepresentative party politician. Churchill at the time was parading roundthe political wilderness, earning what he could by his pen. His piece wassufficient to the moment and its market. Besides, as anyone quicklylearns who ventures beyond the bare facts of political history, judgementson matters that don't require an immediate answer are always open toshifts of nuance, if not outright reversal. Politicians do not expect to beheld to all their visions. The discussion of foreign affairs is a paradise formusing soothsayers whose ideas at any given time seldom have to passexacting tests of consistency. They can drift from one interesting propositionto its opposite in the reassuring knowledge that disproof byevents is unlikely. On the future of Britain in the world more exactly,the future of the world as it revolved around Britain there was roomin the middle decades of the century for incessant adjustment of thepoint of view.
Above all other questions, in fact, Europe has been the primeexample of such uncertainty among modern British politicians. Thehabit of constant revision, with violent contradictions sometimes emanatingfrom a single mind, is an unvarying feature of the history. Thesole consistent pattern to be found, from the moment debate began inearnest, is the inconsistency casual or tormented, selfless orself-indulgent that almost every protagonist has brought to it. Fittingly, itis Churchill, Britain's last geo-strategist of world significance, whoestablished the pattern.
Nonetheless, what he wrote in 1930 has to be taken seriously. Itindicated a willingness to think irregular thoughts. A man of largehorizons was casting about to meet a crisis he believed the nation-statemight not be able to avert. And when war happened, he continued tothink adventurously about the future of the continent whose freedomshe was fighting to preserve.
Wartime diaries and papers, his own and those of others, reveal theconstructive restlessness of a mind not content with the shape of thingsas they had been. It was moved by the horrors of the fighting to explorepossibilities which, at the time, seemed to the colleagues who heard theminexplicably bold. For example, in December 1940, only six months afterbecoming Prime Minister, Churchill discussed with some intimates aversion of the future that bore resemblance to the model of Europeanunity that in fact came to evolve by the end of the 1980s. He saw aEurope of five single powers England, France, Italy, Spain and what hecalled Prussia along with four confederations covering the rest of thecontinent: `These nine powers would meet in a Council of Europe whichwould have a supreme judiciary and a Supreme Economic Council tosettle currency questions etc.' The Council, moreover, would take thepower to deal with any breach of the peace. This foreshadowed thecourt, council and commission of the European Community.
Two years later, he was still musing about a Council of Europe,which would also interest itself in a common continental market. In aminute to Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, he identified `Russianbarbarism' as the future enemy and a united Europe as the necessarybulwark against it. `Hard as it is to say now, I trust that the Europeanfamily may act unitedly as one, under a Council of Europe in which thebarriers between nations will be greatly minimised and unrestrictedtravel will be possible.' He also hoped to see 'the economy of Europestudied as a whole'.
He continued to amplify this line of thinking. At the beginning of1943, in a paper dictated from his bed on an Orient Express wagon-litin the middle of Turkey, where he had gone to consult about the dangersof Soviet influence when the war was over, Churchill reiterated the needfor a Council of Europe. He called these `Morning Thoughts', to markthe informality of their composition. But the paper had a perennialinfluence, if only on debate inside a sceptical Foreign Office. An`instrument of European government' was at the heart of it, to bedistinguished from the project of world government so ineffectuallyexpressed by the pre-war League of Nations. He followed this, in March,with one of his grander wartime broadcasts, publicly explaining the needto start thinking now about `the largest common measure of theintegrated life of Europe that is possible, without destroying the individualcharacteristics and traditions of its many ancient and historic races'.A little later, in May the same year, a mixture of these half-formedthoughts appeared in a conversation Churchill had with a group ofAmericans at lunch in the Washington embassy. The European `instrument',consisting of twelve states and confederations, had now evolvedin his mind into one of three regional bodies covering the globe, whichwould be answerable to a World Council.
So Churchill was fertile in his wartime thinking. The constraints ofnational politics did not inhibit his creative reach. Frontiers did nottrouble him, as he cast forward from the terrible time through which hewas living. Indeed, within a month of taking office he had put his nameto the most ambitious plan for the voluntary subsuming and remakingof two great nations that had ever been conceived, when, in response tothe fall of France, he took up the embryonic proposal for an Anglo-FrenchUnion. The way to sustain France, it was felt by leaders fromboth sides of the Channel, was to sublimate these two nations into an`indissoluble union'. They would `no longer be two nations, but oneFranco-British Union', and every citizen of each would immediatelybecome a citizen of the other. There would be a single cabinet and asingle parliament.
This project never came to pass. Dreamed up by senior Britishofficials working together with some of the leading Frenchmen intemporary exile in London, it briefly attracted the interest of the FrenchGovernment. But the Government fell before the extravagant idea, someof whose progenitors would later become very important in the granderpost-war European project, could be put to the test. Churchill's interestin it cannot be read as indicating any more than the extremes to whichhe was prepared to go to sustain the war effort and defeat Hitler. It wasplainly not intended to form a template for the Europe he might beexpected to favour when hostilities were over. Nonetheless, it showed asupple approach to nationhood. It suggested that a national interest, inChurchill's conception, might in certain circumstances transcend theboundaries of national sovereignty as usually understood. It is one of theearly bases there were more important ones to come of the claim bylater `Europeans' in British debates that Churchill was one of them.
Even at this stage, however, such a claim was seriously flawed. Andthe fault in this version of Churchillism is relevant to the argument thatcame after him. It doesn't amount to anything so crude as the notionthat Churchill was in reality a serious anti-European: the greatestConservative icon made available, on further inspection, for retrospectiverecruitment by the Euro-sceptic camp. This, at times, was how `Winston'was later claimed. But the claim was empty. On the contrary, heremained always a European of highly romantic disposition. His idea ofEurope was benign and passionate, informed by the prescience of thehistorian as well as of the public man. The flaw lay in his description ofwhat Europe was, where its limits lay. Although in the east these hadgenerous scope, encompassing his Danubian and Balkan confederations,to the west they stopped at the English Channel. In short, Britain didnot belong inside the Churchillian concept of `Europe'.
At times this appeared to be a product of mere muddle andoversight. In the grand sweep of mid-war speculation about how thetectonic plates of the global system might ultimately be redesigned,confusion about Britain's exact place in it was perhaps a trivial detail.When Churchill propounded his first big scheme in December 1940, heassigned England both to the great new Council of Europe, with its newsupreme judiciary and economic union, yet also to some place beyondit. Britain would belong, and yet not belong. For `the English-speakingworld', he wrote, `would be apart from this', while at the same timebeing in some unspecified way `closely connected'.
Most of Churchill's blueprints, however, placed Britain/Englandoutside the European construct. Even his 1930 account, untouched bythe triumphalism of victory in the war, put the country above andbeyond the continent. `We have our own dream and our own task,' hewrote. `We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but notcomprised.' Thirteen years later, in his notion of three RegionalCouncils responsible to a World Council, he instinctively distancedBritain from the role of equal partner in any European enterprise. Britainwould be a kind of godmother or broker, her relationship to Europevery similar to that of the US. America was more like Britain's equalpartner than Europe could ever be. Together the two Anglo-Saxonpeoples, Churchill opined, would share the common problem of maintaining`large numbers of men indefinitely on guard', to keep thecontinental peace.
For the visionary had other dreams, and the historian other romanticattachments. These coexisted with his ideas about Europe and, thoughhe seldom discussed the contradiction, in practice overshadowed them.
The war-winner could in no way surrender his belief that the Britishpurpose must be to sustain the status of a great power, as near aspossible equal in political weight with the US and the Soviet Union: abelief in which Churchill was unexceptional in either the public worldwhere national prestige could never be compromised or the privatecircles in which he moved. Hardly anywhere, on the left or the right, inthe journalistic or literary or political milieus, was the concept ofBritain's solitary greatness, uniquely positioned at the hub of severalglobal groupings, subjected to serious reassessment. At the same time,the strategist could never forget the concept of the English-speakingworld. He had written a four-volume history of it. Empire, and thenCommonwealth, formed bonds that were a part of many British families'inheritance and every British leader's responsibility. They had helped towin the war. Here were truly indissoluble unions, and they were inconflict with any simple idea of European Britain.
Churchill's failure to resolve this conflict, or come anywhere neardoing so, was not surprising. Most of his successors in differingmeasures and with varying commitment, some addressing the sameconflict, others discovering new fields of difference failed in the sameway.
The contradiction, however, did not inhibit Churchill from makingthe unity of post-war Europe the great cause of his years as Leader ofthe Opposition. He proposed himself as the intellectual prophet of theEuropean idea, investing in it a large portion of such emotional reservesas were left over from political defeat. In doing so, moreover, he was nota lonely eccentric, but was speaking to a country already to some extentacquainted with the grand notions for which he appeared to be speaking:the idea that there might be a worthwhile entity larger than the nation-state,and a way of organizing Europe that might better guarantee theavoidance of war.
Federalism, a word which by 1995 epitomized all that was alien inthe project of `Europe', possessed a different aura fifty years earlier. Ithad a certain purchase on parts of the British consciousness. So did theconcept of union, as applied to Europe.
Federalism had blossomed before the war. By June 1940, when theflame of Anglo-French Union briefly lit the scene, the British federalistmovement, called Federal Union, had more than 10,000 members inover 200 branches. The failure of the League of Nations and the shockof Munich had spurred more support, sometimes from names that werewidely known, for a federation of free peoples, a union of sovereignstates, or whatever similar arrangement might lower the possibility ofconflict. Adherents came from the usual cadre of pious dreamers. `Thewhole scheme of Federal Union has made a staggeringly effective appealto the British mind,' the Archbishop of York enthused in 1939. Theabandonment of sovereignty made a natural appeal to the parsonicaltendency, hoping to avoid war at a stroke. But serious men of affairs alsoput themselves behind the cause. William Beveridge was a federalist, andso was Harold Laski. The Manchester Guardian and the NewStatesman came out for the federal idea, as did a former editor of TheTimes, Wickham Steed. Lord Lothian, former Cabinet minister and laterambassador to Washington, was a federalist of long standing. Richard Law MP,son of Bonar Law, the Conservative Prime Minister, wrote a pamphleton the subject. There was also heavy academic support. The historianArnold Toynbee, the constitutional jurist Ivor Jennings and the two mostillustrious economists of the day, Lionel Robbins and Friedrich vonHayek, all did serious work on the practicalities of a federal constitutionand its implications for defence, economic policy, tax, justice and therest of state activity.
So federalism at this time was not the obsession of some irrelevantcranks' corner of British public life. Important people had begun to seeit as perhaps the only solid guarantor of peaceful coexistence betweenpeoples. There was a sizeable British literature on the subject, with rootsin the thinking of John Locke, and extended by such varied politicalthinkers as Lord Acton, James Bryce and Ernest Barker. A famouscontinental federalist, Altiero Spinelli, prime author of a 1944 manifestofor federalism, and a man of deep conceptual influence on the post-waridea of Europe, when reflecting on his own intellectual formation,attributed much to `the clean, precise thinking of these Englishfederalists'.
This was part of the context into which Churchill projected himselfin 1945. By then, admittedly, the federal idea had suffered some degradation.Strong at the beginning of the war, it lost support when the factof battle, especially of victorious battle, exalted the loyalties attaching tothe nation-state. Federal Union closed down many branches. The Europeandimension, moreover, was overtaken in many minds by thenecessity for something much wider. Among British federalists, disputesbroke out between those still mainly interested in a federation of WesternEurope and those who thought that a world potentially at ransom tonuclear super-powers required nothing less than a complete WorldFederation. Crankdom beckoned. The limited project of a federalEurope, itself requiring enough massive adjustments in the thinking ofseveral ancient nations, tended to become engulfed by the case for worldgovernment, which had the early effect of returning such credibility asfederation had to parsonical irrelevance.
Churchill was never seduced by world government. But he had ideasfor Europe that, while eschewing federalism, made the case for aEuropean Union. He set about promoting them in irresistible style.Three great meetings, of which the highlight in each case was aChurchillian oration, have become benchmarks of his career as a hero ofthe European peace.
The first was in Zurich on 19 September 1946. One must rememberthe mantle of inextinguishable gallantry in which he was arrayed by hiscollaborators in the war. Nobody regarded him as less than the greatestman in Europe, even though his own people had rejected him. He cameto the University of Zurich, in a country at the confluence of the peoplesand languages that had almost destroyed the continent, to deliver ajudgement which, he said, would `astonish' his audience. What he calledthe United States of Europe, an idea then only vestigially dreamed of,was a project on which `we must begin now'. And at the heart of it thiswas the astonishing bit there had to be a partnership betweenFrance and Germany. `In this way only can France recover the moraland cultural leadership of Europe,' he insisted. `There can be no revivalof Europe without a spiritually great Germany,' he added. `We must recreatethe European family in a regional structure called, as it may be,the United States of Europe.'
The Zurich speech made a very great impact. It is less commonlyremembered now than the speech Churchill gave earlier that year inFulton, Missouri, when he publicized the phrase and fashioned thethinking about the Iron Curtain which the Soviet Union had broughtdown between the free and unfree worlds. But Zurich was a beacon. Itinspired many continental politicians, then struggling to remake theirruined countries. It roused enthusiasts for a united Europe to ecstaticexcitement. They really seemed to think it meant that Churchill, forBritain, was making a choice. Leo Amery MP, Churchill's Tory comrade,who along with his son Julian was one of the few politicians who saw noconflict between strong attachment to the British Empire and a commitmentto European Union, marked his leader's card. `The French arestartled, as they were bound to be, but the idea will sink in all the same,'he wrote. `As for the Germans, your speech may have been just in timeto save them from going Bolshevist. You have done few bigger things,even in the great years behind us.'
The Zurich speech, however, was once again `European' only in asense that placed Britain outside Europe. It was the speech of a grandiloquentmap-maker who wanted to dissolve the emotional frontiersbetween warring continental countries, but was rooted in a system thatcast Britain as facilitator, even mere spectator, of the process. It does notseem to have entered Churchill's mind that the destiny he envisaged forEurope, as the only way to prevent a repetition of the war, was somethinghis own country should embrace. Far from plotting a clear courseforward, Churchill's spumes of oratory proposed a feel-good world inwhich just about every country was involved. Britain and the Commonwealthand `mighty America', he said at Zurich, `and I trust SovietRussia, for then all would be well', must be `friends and sponsors of thenew Europe, and must champion its right to live and shine'.
Britain, in other words, was separate from Europe. Her sense ofnational independence, enhanced by her unique empire, absorbed by allcreeds and classes and spoken for by virtually every analyst, could not befractured. Churchill urged Europe to become united, and set aboutcreating a movement with this as its purpose. But to be achieved bywhat means, exactly? His only practical proposal involved a quite limitedform of unity. He reiterated what he had said in private, and sometimesin public, during the war: that the first step should be the formationof a Council of Europe, which would not be some grandiose agent ofEuropean governance, still less a federalist super-state, but a forum forassociation between sovereign governments. The extravagances that hesometimes gave voice to `supreme judiciary ... supreme economiccouncil' were by now abandoned.
As a blueprint, Zurich was therefore quite a modest affair. It drippedwith symbolism, and in its time and place, less than eighteen monthsafter the slaughter had ended, was a bold response to popular alarms. Itsparticular genius, perhaps, lay in launching the idea of Franco-Germanpartnership, allied to the concept, for these other countries, of a UnitedStates of Europe. It was attacked in The Times, by a young leader-writerwho later became a famous European, Con O'Neill, on the ground thatit was anti-Russian, when the world needed unity more than it neededsome divisive new European institution. It was a grand idea, and gavebirth in Britain to a United Europe Movement to which Churchilloffered himself as chairman, and some excited old-style federalistsimmediately pledged their support. But it was never intended to befederalist.
For Churchill certainly wasn't a federalist, and nor was his chieflieutenant in these matters, Duncan Sandys, his son-in-law. Sandys,having lost his parliamentary seat in the Attlee landslide, became themain functionary of United Europe, a potent behind-the-scenes figure inthe evolution of the Great European that Churchill gave such a largeimpression of being. Sandys's talents were not for the arts of persuasion.He was more the scheming manager. His energy helped shape thevaporous effusions of his father-in-law in a direction that was at oncestrongly European and quite unspecific as to what this might reallymean. `Duncan was an organizer and intriguer with a great capacity tomanipulate people,' Lord Hailsham told me in 1993. `I was at Eton withhim, and he was a manipulator of great skill even as a schoolboy. Iexpect he manipulated Churchill.'
Sandys locked United Europe into a non-federalist platform, butabove all was anxious to ensure that Churchill got fully and publiclycommitted. This is what places Sandys among the most significant of theearly British Europeans. At this stage, the movement stood for a looseand cautious association of governments, and the old man used his nextgreat opportunity to rally support for the missionary undertaking. `LetEurope Arise' was the title of his address to the Primrose League on 18April 1947. The Albert Hall in London heard another Zurichean summonsto European destiny. But, again, the inconveniences were glossedover. United Europe was the expansive theme, but Churchill's tone alsoreflected a message Sandys sent him the day before, warning thatConservative back-bench MPs felt out of touch with his European ideas,and urging him to do more to secure their support for `our movement'.So the speech insisted on giving a higher place in the scheme of thingsto people who did not speak French, German or any other of the alienmainland tongues. `We shall allow no wedge', the great voice intoned,`to be driven between Great Britain and the United States of America, orbe led into any course which would mar the growing unity in thoughtand action, in ideals and purpose, of the English-speaking nations,spread so widely about the globe, but joined together by history and bydestiny.'
This was no more than an oratorical hors d'oeuvre. The movementexpanded, and made links with similar groupings, more copious and stillmore passionately committed, across the Channel. With Duncan Sandysactive in the back room, the idea was conceived for a great internationalcongress to give continent-wide impetus to a European Union. The firstCongress of Europe met in The Hague on 7 May 1948, with Churchill asthe keynote speaker.
It was an extraordinary assembly. The big names gathered from allover West Europe. From France came Léon Blum, Paul Reynaud andJean Monnet, from Italy Alcide De Gasperi, from Belgium Paul-HenriSpaak and Paul van Zeeland. From all over came many others who makeprominent appearances later in this story. Altogether there were eightformer prime ministers and twenty-eight former foreign ministers. Nofewer than 140 British participants turned up, out of some 800 delegatesall told, including Harold Macmillan and twenty-three of his partycolleagues. Adrian Boult, the orchestral conductor, and John Masefield,the Poet Laureate, were among those whose presence showed that thiswas a movement appealing to instincts much deeper than the merelypolitical. Among younger attenders, later to be leaders of their ownpolitical generation, were François Mitterrand and Christopher Soames.Soames, whom Churchill designated his personal assistant at The Hague,was another of his sons-in-law, thus a second lifelong `European' in thefamily.
The assembly, however, was shot through with ambivalence. Its mainpromoters were federalists, of whom there were many more in highplaces in Europe than there ever were in Britain. Though Churchill wasnot a federalist, his presence at The Hague again blurred the truth aboutwhere he stood. His eminence persuaded continentals they had to havehim, and his rhetoric gave small indication that he did not in his heartbelong on their side. The occasion was the high point of Churchill'sambiguity, arrived at not by any calculating deviousness, but as thenatural emanation of a man immersed in certainty that history entitledBritain to ordain the best of all worlds for herself.
The United Europe movement, Churchill told the Congress, was notof parties but of peoples. His speech was rich in the highest-flownrhetoric, and this style was more than decorative. It was meant to rouseand dramatize. Read half a century later, it still summons up the horrorof war, and recalls the idly forgotten fact that fear of war and thirst forpeace, above all else, were the sources for the extraordinary idea thatnational frontiers might be lowered. For many of those present at theHague assembly, their project was a matter of life or death. Churchillappeared to speak to and for them. `We shall only save ourselves fromthe perils which draw near', he said, `by forgetting the hatreds of thepast, by letting national rancours and revenges die, by progressivelyeffacing frontiers and barriers which aggravate and congeal our divisions,and by rejoicing together in that glorious treasure of literature, ofromance, of ethics, of thought and toleration belonging to us all, whichis the inheritance of Europe.'
Political unity, he went on, must `inevitably' accompany economicand military collaboration, a process, as he explained, that did notnecessarily damage a nation. What he said about that might have had aspecial resonance down the years. It touched on the issue that raised themost enduring anxieties among the British, and was an occasion whereChurchill got closer than he often did to a practical description of whathe meant. `It is said with truth that this involves some sacrifice or mergerof national sovereignty,' he began. But then he added that `it is alsopossible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption, byall nations concerned, of that larger sovereignty which can also protecttheir diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics, and theirnational traditions'.
These words could have served as a text for the proponents of Britishentry into the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. The`pooling' of sovereignty, with its implication that all participants drewgreater sustenance from a pond bigger than their own, became afavourite way of describing what happened inside the Community. Butthe national sovereignties Churchill contemplated curtailing again didnot include Britain's. That appears to have been an idea beyond thereach of his imagination. As a result, his speech at The Hague, whichwas regarded at the time as an historic address, could in due course bemore exactly seen as a source-book for the confusion he created,simultaneously giving succour to the federalists while intending to do nosuch thing.
What happened as a result of the Hague Congress was also, in theend, ambivalent. Churchill made a concrete proposal, building on hisfrequent allusions to a future Council of Europe. He now suggested thatit was time for a new institution `in one form or another', which hespecified as a quasi-parliamentary annexe to the Council, some kind ofEuropean Assembly, to enable the voice of United Europe `to make itselfcontinuously heard'. Three months later, France formally proposed thatthe Assembly should be created, and within a year the statute of theCouncil was agreed and the inaugural meeting of the Assembly arranged,at Strasbourg. The first institution of `Europe' was in place, dividedbetween a Council of Ministers and a Consultative Assembly.
In its beginnings, moreover, the Council fulfilled both the federalistand the Churchillian ideals. They were apparently conjoined within it.Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian federalist, was its first president, andChurchill its first hero. On the evening it opened, 10 August 1949,Churchill addressed a rally of 20,000 people crammed into the PlaceKléber. Every corner was filled with people from the city closest to theheart of Franco-German Europe, to hear the great man address them,which he did in better French than usual. Then, as the Assembly debatesbegan, he threw himself into its proceedings with a verve that impresseda fellow delegate. `This extraordinary man', Harold Macmillan wrote ina letter home, `seemed to come down almost too rapidly to the level ofnormal political agitation.' His early interventions were calculated `toreveal him as a parliamentarian, rather than as a great internationalfigure. He certainly took more trouble to listen to the debates than Ihave ever known him to do in the House of Commons. He walkedabout, chatted to each representative, went into the smoking room, andgenerally took a lot of trouble to win the sympathetic affection of hisnew parliamentary colleagues.'
He also made another speech. Again it had a grand, uplifting effect.He saw the Council of Europe as `a European unit' in the UnitedNations, which had lately been formed. He regretted the absence of thecountries of Eastern Europe, now suffering under the tyrannies ofcommunism, and asked that empty chairs be left for their representativesto fill in good time. He also inquired, dramatically, `Where are theGermans?', and demanded that the Government of West Germanyshould be invited into the Council, alongside France, Belgium, Italy,Holland and the rest, without delay. He had never lost the sense heexpressed at Zurich three years before, that, if European harmony was toendure, Germany must be in the concert.
At the same time, Churchill never intended the Council to break thenation-state. Having apparently scorned the narrow view of sovereigntyjust a year before, he was now unwilling to investigate the ways in whichit might be modified, even for countries other than Britain. Whatinterested him was the development of mood and feeling. `I hope weshall not put our trust in formulae or in machinery,' he told theAssembly. It was by `the growth and gathering of the united sentimentof Europeanism, vocal here and listened to all over the world, that weshall succeed in taking, not executive decision, but ... a leading andactive part in the revival of the greatest of continents which has falleninto the worst of misery'.
The Europeans didn't see the limits this implied. They allowedthemselves to be deceived. And Churchill allowed himself to soundterribly confused. Many years later, Macmillan wrote in his memoirsthat Churchill had `had no clear or well-defined plan'. He wasn'tinterested in details. He merely wanted to `give an impetus towardsmovements already at work'. But that wasn't quite how Europeanleaders, desperate to be led out of the ante-chamber of another war, sawthe matter. They exulted in Churchill's compelling rhetoric, withoutthinking very hard about the realities that underlay it. And the price oftheir deception was going to be quite great, both for them and forBritain.
There was, besides, another kind of deception. This wasn't so muchin Churchill's rhetoric as in the British mind, and it concerned the stateof Britain herself. The Churchillian view, against which there was verylittle argument, took for granted Britain's capacity for independentdecision-making in any area her leaders chose. This rested on imperialsentiment and national pride and the other outgrowths of the victorythat saved Europe. But it also made assumptions about Britain's enduringeconomic strength that did not entirely stand up to examination.Anglo-Saxon triumphalism blinded even as it exulted. The figures ofcomparative growth and production immediately after the war told thetruth but not the whole truth. They said what was true in 1945, andeven in 1948, but they ignored the trends that told what might well betrue by, say, 1955.
Behind the superficial encouragement of selected statistics wasanother kind of reality. While Britain was by some measures strong, byothers she was weak. The struggle against Germany had been immenselycostly. During the war, a quarter of the national wealth, £7,000 million,was lost: twice as much as in the First World War and more, proportionately,than in any other combatant country. The exports of this tradingnation had not just declined but plummeted: in 1944 they were only31 per cent of their level in 1938. The gold and dollar reserves wereseriously run down, and in November 1945 it was necessary, with greatdifficulty, to arrange an American loan of £3.75 billion. In a famousmemorandum, the man who negotiated it, John Maynard Keynes,warned the Attlee Government of the scale of the crisis which was beingmasked by public euphoria. `The financial problems of the war', hewrote in August 1945, `have been surmounted so easily and silently thatthe average man sees no reason to suppose that the financial problemsof the peace will be any more difficult.' But Britain, he judged, wasfacing `a financial Dunkirk'.
This ominous phrase remained in the private realm, for the eyes ofministers alone. In any case, the US cavalry arrived in the shape of theloan. In 1945, Keynes's meaning, reinforced by his warning that `agreater degree of austerity would be necessary than we have experiencedat any time during the war', did not seriously impress itself on thepoliticians of any party. They agreed the loan, but did not draw theconclusion, or even register the question, that Britain might no longerbe able to afford her imperial role, stretched round the globe, whilebuilding a welfare state at home.
Other truths were also disguised. Although the speed of the post-wareconomic recovery was impressive, especially on the exports side, it wasless impressive than that of other countries. The important figures werecomparative. In isolation they might look reasonably encouraging, butin fact the competitive decline that was to continue for the next half-centurystarted now. Growth among the defeated or ravaged powers wasconsistently faster than it was in Britain. An assortment of reasons contributedto this. With no unemployment and hardly any immigration,Britain had no surplus labour to cope with expansion: the continentalshad a surfeit. Britain had huge overseas obligations, not least the cost ofpolicing the defeated countries: Germany and Italy had no such costs.Britain under a Labour government was preoccupied with wealth redistribution,and operated a top tax rate of over 90 per cent: on thecontinent there was far greater concern to create the incentives thatwould remake mined economies.
Victory, in other words, produced decidedly less dynamic energythan did defeat. As a result, between 1947 and 1951, while Britishindustrial production rose by a gratifying 30 per cent, France and Italyachieved 50 per cent, and Germany 300 per cent. By the end of 1950,German production, after the devastation of the infrastructure, not tomention the controls imposed by the occupying powers, was back atpre-war levels. It is true that in that year the British economy, measuredby gross national product per head of the population, remained thesecond strongest in the world, with only the US ahead of it. But Germanyand even France were closing steadily.
This was knowable at the time. The trends and statistics were nosecret. But it wasn't commonly apprehended, least of all in the quarterswhere it might have been most expected that the details would be closelystudied, and the lessons honestly drawn. In government circles where,Keynes excepted, victory in the war had done more to fortify theconceptions of the past than provoke new ones for the future, theevidence was received, as it were, blindfold. Anyone who saw behind itto the truth tended to be ostracized.
One man who did was Sir Henry Tizard, chief scientific adviser atthe Ministry of Defence. In 1949, he composed a telling minute,contesting the wisdom of the age. `We persist in regarding ourselves as aGreat Power,' Tizard wrote, `capable of everything and only temporarilyhandicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a Great Power andnever will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behavelike a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.'
This fine and prescient distinction gave an answer to Orwell'squestion. It did not go down well. Whitehall received Tizard's warning`with the kind of horror one would expect if one made a disrespectfulremark about the King'.
So an imposing consensus presented itself. On the question ofBritain's place in the world, most pillars of the society took a similarattitude. The spirit of the times said that Britain's destiny had beendetermined by her military victory, and nourished the illusion that warhad increased the country's inherent strength, not sapped it. Thisstrength was imperial and global, another source, almost everyonebelieved, of advantage rather than burden. `Our empire illustrated co-operationwithout domination for the whole of the world co-operationbetween countries without the domination of one over the other,' theDean of St Paul's preached on Empire Day, 1945. `It was probably thegreatest creation of British political genius.' The Dean spoke in the pasttense, no doubt, because the Empire was in process of being convertedinto the Commonwealth. But this remained the British Commonwealth,run by one nation, to which others still owed fealty. As the historian ofEmpire has written of the British at the end of the 1940s, `They believedin their hearts that things British were necessarily things best. Theybelieved that they, above all their Allies, had won the war. They sawthemselves still, like their grandfathers, as a senior and superior race.'
This was the Zeitgeist with which British political leadership afterthe war had its ambivalent relationship. Churchill spoke for part of it. Hecontinued to assure the Americans that `only the English-speakingpeoples count; that together they can rule the world'. Although out ofoffice, he carried the weight of ages with him. This massive iconic figure,absolved from bothering with details or structures, set the tone thatmany on the continent desired to hear. His oracular pronouncementswere as ambivalent as those of the goddess-seer at Delphi, but with lesscunning intent. They were as devoid of clarity about European institutionsas they were of rigour about Britain's economic prospects. Theyhad enormous force. But they addressed less than half the picture.
On the one hand, there was Churchill's world. Proud nation.Inventive people. Stubborn, stoical, self-confident people. Future stretchingindefinitely ahead. Second great power of the Western world watchingwith sympathy, seldom with alarm, the efforts of its neighbours acrossthe Channel to remake themselves. Europe a place to which the Britishfelt ineffable superiority. Little Attlee, no less than Churchill, was fatedto personify this national pride, which it had become impossible formost Englishmen to question.
On the other hand, there was the world as seen by Henry Tizard. Tothis world, Churchill was absolutely blind. So, as we shall discover, weremost of the people who, unlike Churchill, had to deal with it asresponsible ministers. The consensus in favour of being a great powerwas impossible to challenge. On the left as well as the right, it was agiven of national politics. After all, `greatness' expresses the commonestof all ideas that, in one form or another, democratic politicians promisetheir electors. `If we continue to behave like a Great Power, we shallsoon cease to be a great nation.' Such a possibility of loss was unimaginableto British leaders in the post-war world as it has been to most oftheir successors.