Would Churchill have voted for Brexit?

Would Churchill support Brexit? 

There’s something innately wrong with Brexit proponents Brexit citing Winston Churchill as a ‘would-be’ supporter of leaving the EU. It’s not that his views aren’t relevant or worth speculating on, but they must surely be the most decontextualised of any political leader in British history. 

The blame for this rests squarely at Churchill’s feet. The man lived for 90 years, and few ever take the time to acknowledge that political positions can change; never more so for than for someone who took part in the British Empire’s last cavalry charge and died when The Beatles topped the charts.  

The many Churchills, the many Europes

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill is almost exclusively remembered for having saved Britain and Europe from Nazi Germany in the Second World War. This fact alone is claimed both British nationalists and Europhiles as evidence for their own modern political causes, but usually after a selective reading of the facts. 

We shall fight them on the beaches” delivered to the House of Commons, 4 June 1940

Before the war, Churchill had favoured an isolationist attitude towards continental Europe. In 1930, he commented to the American The Saturday Evening Post that a “European Union” was possible between continental states but without Britain’s involvement:

“We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonality. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

Compare this to what he said 12 years later. When the tide turned in favour of Britain after the battle of El Alamein, Churchill began thinking more of what a new Europe would like after the defeat of the Third Reich. He wrote to his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, on 21 October 1942:

“Hard as it is to say now. 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.”

Churchill was, if nothing else, a pragmatist. He believed that world peace could only be secured by a collaborative effort between Britain, the US and Russia. In a speech in March 1943, he proposed a “Council of Europe” after the war to manage Europe with a series of states and federations formed from their own chosen representatives:

“We must try to make the Council of Europe…into a really effective League with all the strongest forces concerned woven into its texture; with a high court to adjust disputes and with forces, armed forces, national or international or both, ready to enforce these decisions.

“It is my earnest hope, though I can hardly expect to see it fulfilled in my lifetime, that we shall achieve the largest common measure of the integrated life of Europe that is possible without destroying the individual characteristics and traditions of its many ancient and historic races. All this will, 1 believe, be found to harmonize with the high permanent interests of Britain, the United States and Russia. It certainly cannot be accomplished without their cordial and concerted agreement and direct participation. Thus and thus only will the glory of Europe rise again, I only mention these matters to you to show you the magnitude of the task that will lie before us in Europe alone.”

In a May 1943 memorandum on a trip to Washington, Churchill expounded that this regional European Council would comprise twelve federations, states and confederations and be policed mainly by Britain, seconded by the USA. 

It would be one of three global, regional councils (for the Americas, Pacific and Europe) forming part of a “Supreme World Council” with the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and perhaps China. Churchill argued that the ‘Big Three’ would sit on the regional councils of which they were directly interested – thus ensuring control and influence. 

The “regional principle”, as he called it, would also include these regions sitting on the World Council by rotation to ensure the Council rested on a “three-legged stool”, whereby no one region could gain the upper hand over the others.

This is key: at this stage, Churchill believed that the United Kingdom and the United States should play an active overseeing role in the new European order and that the UK should be in an integral position, all while respecting the autonomy of European states.

By the end of the year, however, the Americans and the Soviet Union were reluctant to commit to European regionalism because regional sub-organisations might one day provide competition to the preeminence of the USA and USSR and impede international trade.

The Americans favoured a global solution, and the British Foreign Office was also opposed to European regionalism. By the summer of 1944 Churchill, under pressure from all sides to shelve his ideas for Europe, was increasingly lukewarm to his original thinking and began to accept that the ‘Big Three’ would have to oversee matters a the United Nations-type organisation, without actually being part of Europe.

Nevertheless, by the time of his most famous and oft-quoted speech on Europe made at the University of Zurich on the 19th September 1946, Churchill reiterated his calls for a “Council of Europe” or “United States of Europe”:

“If we are to form a United States of Europe or whatever name it may take, we must begin now. In these present days, we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I even say protection, of the atomic bomb.

“There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis can only survive if it is founded upon broad natural groupings. There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere.

“We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary, they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support. And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the honourable destiny of man? In order that this may be accomplished, there must be an act of faith in which the millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part.”

He concluded, most famously, by saying: “Therefore, I say to you, let Europe arise!”

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe” delivered to University of Zurich, September 19, 1946

Churchill never did spell out the exact nature of the Council of Europe, and it is here that confusion can be found as to how far the British would have been involved in any European project. The ambiguity can be mainly explained by what was happening in the latter years of the conflict. The war was being won, but Britain’s preeminence has evidently waned with increased American and Russian involvement. Britain was economically decimated, to say nothing of Churchill being ejected from office in 1945 in favour of a Labour government with a more pressing social agenda 1945 

Churchill was a man of conflicting ideas. His commitment to the Commonwealth, the English-speaking peoples of the world and his desire to see a united Europe was a conflict at the heart of this thinking. In his lifetime he believed passionately in the “fraternal associations of English-speaking peoples” (particularly between the United States and the United Kingdom), but was likewise a passionate Francophile with a keen appreciation of French history and Britain’s historic place in Europe: 

“For more than thirty years in peace and war I have marched with you,” Churchill told the French in 1940: “je marche encore avec vous aujourd’hui, sur la même route.”

He was also slow to appreciate the eventual collapse of the British Empire, and just how irrelevant the British were becoming to the burgeoning Cold War between the United States and Russia. It was a conflict of thinking that would endure until his death in 1965. 

The Council of Europe of the European Union?

In October 1948, at a Conservative Party meeting, Churchill made clear that Britain held a unique position at the heart of “three majestic circles”: the “Empire and Commonwealth”, “the English-speaking world” and a “United Europe”. He described these three circles as “co-existent” and are “linked together” adding that:

“We are the only country which has a great part in every one of them. We stand, in fact, at the very point of junction, and here in this Island at the centre of the seaways and perhaps of the airways also, we have the opportunity of joining them all together.”

So after World War II, what vision of Europe came closest to his rhetoric?

Firstly, and most apparently, Churchill was committed to any effort to ensure peace on the European continent. The Congress of Europe in the Hague was the first federal moment in European history with 750 delegates participating from around continent, including observers from Canada and the United States. On May 7, 1948, Churchill addressed the meeting, saying:

“It must be all for all. Europe can only be united by the heartfelt wish and vehement expression of the great majority of all the peoples in all the parties in all the freedom-loving countries, no matter where they dwell or how they vote.

“Thus for us and for all who share our civilisation and our desire for peace and world government, there is only one duty and watchword: Persevere. That is the command which should rule us at this Congress. Persevere along all the main lines that have been made clear and imprinted upon us by the bitter experiences through which we have passed. Persevere towards those objectives which are lighted for us by all the wisdom and inspiration of the past.

“We must aim at nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to the day when that union will be achieved.”

Churchill was acutely aware of the horrors of the Nazi regime and wanted to see an organisation which committed to a “Charter of Human Rights and with the sincere expression of free democracy.” While this most resembles the Council of Europe, he also articulated a vision which describes a forebear to the European Union that we know today:

“It is impossible to separate economics and defence from the general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity.”

“We must aim at nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole” delivered to the Hall of Knights in The Hague, May 7, 1948

The Council of Europe came into being in 1949, with the Treaty of London, predating the European Economic Community by eight years (the precursor to the European Union). Article 1(a) of the statute states that: “The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”

Membership is open to all European states who seek harmony, cooperation, good governance and human rights and accept the principle of the rule of law and are able and willing to guarantee democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms. No sacrifice of sovereignty is required as it is with the European Union. Nevertheless, since its creation the Council has been powerless to make binding laws and to enforce a commitment and compliance to human rights, and it is only the EU which can make enforceable laws.

All Council of Europe member states have incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into national law, but there is no real enforcement mechanism against gross domestic human rights abuses. The Council of Europe can co-opt, promote and guilt-trip compliance to human rights, but before any allegations of human rights abuses can be considered domestic courts must be exhausted first before reaching the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2000, the EU adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights. This became legally binding in December 2009 when the Treaty of Lisbon came into force. Although the rights outlined in the Charter correspond to the rights in the ECHR, it’s the European Union which can give greater protection to them than the Council because of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The job of the Council of Europe in this context is to supervise the way in which governments give effect to ECHR, whereas the primary role of the CJEU is to interpret EU law and make sure it’s applied in the same way across the European Union.

The confusing nature of these protections gives rise to the debate of whether Churchill would have favoured the Council of Europe with its normative ambition or the European Union with its more practical enforcement powers. 

Churchill’s ambition for the protection of liberty and the prevention of war was unequivocal, but his preference for any one institution was not. Both the European Union and the Council of Europe can claim to be heirs to his ideas; unified by Churchill’s want for Britain to play an influencing role for peace. 

Europe, the Empire and America

The debate surrounding just how much Churchill envisioned Britain’s involvement in Europe primarily stems from his commitment to the British Commonwealth and the English-speaking peoples of the world. In the late 1950s, he even completed and published a four-volume history on the subject, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Churchill was a child of the British Empire: he had fought in the North-West Frontier of India, Sudan, South Africa and campaigned hard against granting India Dominion status in the 1930s (something which went against the grain of political opinion at the time and mostly contributed to his ‘wilderness years’). The man who partook in the British Army’s last cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 died as Beatlemania was taking over the world in 1965. Nevertheless, a constant theme in his lifetime was Churchill’s commitment to the English-speaking nations and the successor to the Empire, the British Commonwealth.

Churchill was torn between his affections for the United States and a United Europe, both for the sake of Britain’s long-term economic and military benefit and because securing a lasting peace on the Continent was the culmination of years of war. He was half-American himself, and an ardent believer in both countries as beacons of liberty. 

Like Janus, Churchill looked both ways across the Atlantic and the Channel. At a meeting of the Primrose League at the Albert Hall on 18 May 1947, Churchill declared not only “let Europe arise” but was “absolutely clear…that we shall allow no wedge to be driven between Britain and the United States”. 

Speaking in London in 1949, he also opined that: “Our friends on the Continent need have no misgivings. Britain is an integral part of Europe, and we mean to play our part in the revival of her prosperity and greatness.”

“Britain is an integral part of Europe” delivered to Kingsway Hall in London, 28 November 1949

Churchill’s balancing act was again made clear during a House of Commons debate on Europe in June 1950. Churchill remarked that he could not “at present” foresee Britain being “a member of a Federal Union of Europe”, explaining that this was because of Britain’s position “at the centre of the British Empire and Commonwealth” and “our fraternal association with the United States of America.”

When asked directly by a fellow MP he was “prepared to part with any degree of national sovereignty in any circumstances for the sake of a larger synthesis?”, Churchill obfuscated:

“We are prepared to consider and, if convinced, to accept the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and the safeguards…national sovereignty is not inviolable, and it may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all men in all the lands finding their way home together.”

The following year in 1950, Churchill even went so far as to call for the creation of a European Army “under a unified command, and in which we should all bear a worthy and honourable part.” (The French objected to the idea).

Even though Churchill is evidently uncomfortable ever declaring himself in favour of Europe or America, what is subtly evident is just how frequently he indulges “we” to discuss the construction of a United States of Europe. The absence of ‘you’ or ‘they’ is revealing, as is the tightrope he walked between the three majestic circles he spoke of in 1948: 

“We are the only country which has a great part in every one of them. We stand, in fact, at the very point of junction, and here in this Island at the centre of the seaways and perhaps of the airways also, we have the opportunity of joining them all together.”

After returning as Prime Minister in 1951, Churchill issued a memo to his cabinet on 29 November listing British Foreign Policy priorities as “unity and consolidation of the British Commonwealth”, “fraternal association” of the English-speaking world” and a “United Europe, to which we are a 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 of British policy to federal authorities.”

By the time he had left office in 1955, his view had changed again. Churchill made a speech about European integration at London’s Central Hall, Westminster in July 1957; some four months after the six founding nations established the European Economic Community with the signing of the Treaty of Rome (France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg). Churchill welcomed the formation of a “common market” by the six countries, provided that “the whole of free Europe will have access”, adding:

“We genuinely wish to join…[yet]…If, on the other hand, the European trade community were to be permanently restricted to the six nations, the results might be worse than if nothing were done at all – worse for them as well as for us. It would tend not to unite Europe but to divide it and not only in the economic field.”

The reason for a more definite opinion on participation? The British debacle over the Suez Canal in 1956 under Prime Minister Anthony Eden signalled the end of Britain’s ability to conduct unilateral foreign policy in a world now dominated by the United States. 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened severe damage to the British financial system if the French, British and Israeli forces did not withdraw from Egypt over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The event was a humbling one for Britain as much as it was a humiliating one for Eden who resigned not long after in 1957.

Churchill knew that Britain’s preeminence was at an end and became determined that Britain must play a role on the European Continent while emphasising American economic, military and cultural ties. 

Before Eden’s departure, there were even discussions on bridging the “three circles” problem to the benefit of Britain. When the EEC emerged, newly independent African countries were joining the Commonwealth, and new ideas were floated about how to prevent Britain from becoming isolated in economic affairs. 

British trade with the Commonwealth was four times larger than trade with Europe. The British government under Eden considered in 1956 and 1957 a “plan G” to create a European free trade zone while also protecting the favoured status of the Commonwealth. Britain even considered inviting Scandinavian and other European countries to join the Commonwealth so it would become a significant economic common market. At one point in October 1956, Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed having France join the Commonwealth. Nothing came of any of the proposals.

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent” delivered to the Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town, 3 February 1960

Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, famously declared in 1960 in Cape Town that: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” The British Government wanted to avoid similar struggles as France in French Algeria and to preempt issues with African nationalism. Independence for many of its African territories, including South Africa occurred quickly, signalling the end of the British Empire and the relevance of the Commonwealth. As the American Secretary of State Dean Acheson quipped: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.”

Macmillan was equally insightful when he said that he had wanted the British to be to the Americans what the experience and wisdom of the Ancient Greeks were to the Roman Empire. The Suez Crisis guaranteed that would never truly be the case. 

Churchill was aware of all of this. During the 1960s his health was rapidly declining, although his support for a united Europe was not. According to Churchill’s last Private Secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Brown, in August 1961, Churchill wrote to his constituency Chairman:

“I think that the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community.”

In this letter, Churchill supported the “welding” of West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg into “an organic whole”, which he described as a “happy outcome” of the European Economic Community. He added that:

“We might well play a great part in these developments to the profit of not only ourselves, but of our European friends also.”

Critically, Sir Anthony confirmed that in 1963, just two years before Churchill died, he wrote in a private letter that “the future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed.”

Decades later in 1993, Montague-Brown, responded to an article in The Spectator titled ‘Would Winston Churchill have signed Maastricht?’.  He said that he had not attempted to reach a verdict and that it was a “vain exercise” to try. Nevertheless, in 1957 Montague-Brown remembers that Churchill said to him that:

“My message to Europe today is still the same as it was ten years ago: unite; Europe’s security and prosperity lie in unity.”

 Support for Brexit?

Would Churchill have supported a Brexit? Churchill believed in a Britain that stood for peace as power. He would not have been so foolhardy to dismiss 70 years of peace in Western Europe as a mere coincidence distinct from the closer linking of European countries. He believed, as he did after Britain was catastrophically diminished after the war, that the UK still had a part to play at the centre of world affairs and would unlikely have concluded that walking away from the EU was wise; the Commonwealth is largely ceremonial, and the “special relationship” with the USA is not America’s most important global connection.

Would Churchill have liked the European Union’s present structures, the sacrifice of sovereignty and the lazy diktats that emerge from Brussels? Most likely not. Yet Churchill’s realistic temperament, his youthful Liberalism and preference for free trade his commitment to freedom, the years spent warning about Germany and Russia, his lifelong commitment to the perseverance of life and his romantic belief that Britain was a force for good, serves as convincing evidence for how he would have seen the world today. 

Even in Churchill’s prime the loss of empire and the quest to find a role for Britain was an unrelentingly ambiguous challenge. By the time Prime Minister Ted Heath took the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain was too late to the party and thus never really felt a part of it. Great Britain’s immense contribution to securing Europe’s freedom from Hitler gave it a historical right to be at the heart of the EEC, but it was a place neither side fully encouraged. 

The enduring memory of global imperial hegemony and influence the country once still plays strong in the minds of many. The UK, and Edinburgh and London in particular are replete with statues and street names homaging a bygone age of imperial stature that has never been rivalled, and it’s a tension which remains to this day.

The cultural and popular memory of Britain’s imperial past should not be conflated with Churchill’s own appreciation for the entirety of British history. Churchill, with his cast iron understanding of Britain’s inextricable role in European affairs over the last thousand years, was first and foremost a student of the past. It is an exercise in sophistry to claim Churchill would be so parochial as to merely pick a side. 

The rise of fundamentalist Islam, particularly the Islamic State, the resurgent militarism of Russia, the economic ascendancy of China and the cheap labour market of India begs the question if the modern cultural relevancy of Western Civilisation will, one day, become a historical chapter. It was just presumed that these things would survive, that they would never be in jeopardy or, worse, decline because no one bothered to tend the garden that had always grown.

As the historian, Andrew Roberts said, if Churchill returned to the world today it wouldn’t take the British Cabinet long to brief him on the state of global affairs because they’ve not changed all that much since his day.

What is worth remembering is in 1956, after retiring as Prime Minister, Churchill went to Aachen in Germany to receive the Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European Unity. Today he is listed as one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

The European Union might have been too much at odds with Churchill’s romantic ideas of Britain at the head of the table. But in a world of such fragmented politics, dwindling resources, subsuming superpowers and the genuine decline of Western civilisation, we can make an informed guess about Churchill’s views today. Magnanimity, goodwill, and British survival would still form the basis of Churchill’s politics as would a shrewd pragmatism about what was honestly best for Britain’s long-term interests.

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