This blessed plot : Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair /
Hugo Young.
xiv, tock, NY : Overlook Press, 1998.
xiv, 558 p. : ill.
More Details
xiv, tock, NY : Overlook Press, 1998.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


Rule Britannia

In May 1945, when the second German war ended, British self-esteem was higher than it had been in living memory. The little island nation had played a decisive part in liberating the continent from the abominations of Hitler. Britain was Europe's rescuer, the only power in the land mass and archipelago that could be so described. The United States and the Soviet Union may have had greater armies, and taken most of the military pain. But Britain was unique, indisputably the chief among European equals. Directly from that fact -- that exquisite sense of national selfhood, and the experience of vindication going with it -- stemmed all the large decisions of British foreign policy for the next fifteen years. These were the formative years, of crucial choices and chances. The influence of this history did not stop in 1960, but reached decades further forward. It was the defining experience, at different levels of consciousness, of every British leader for half a century.

    Bestriding the fifty-year story is the man who set it on course. Three months after winning the war, Winston Churchill lost the election and surrendered his post as Prime Minister. But the people who flung him from office were unable to remove him from their minds. He was the leader round whom the entire nation from left to right had gathered, and his political defeat in no way diminished the hold he exerted over the British imagination. This effect, too, reached far beyond his own time. When Margaret Thatcher placed herself in direct descent from `Winston', as she often called him, she knew what she was doing. He was the hero from whom the British weakness for nostalgia gained its richest nourishment. The belief that Britain, under Churchill, had won the war in 1945 retained its grip, twitching the nerve-ends and coursing through the bloodstream of Euro-sceptics in the 1990s.

    Anyone wishing to explore the puzzle of Britain's relations with continental Europe in the twentieth century's second part must begin with Churchill, and not just because he came first. In the history, Churchill's record plays as important a part as the aura that came after him. The last begetter of British greatness, he was also the prime exponent of British ambiguity. In him the two strains mingling in Britain's post-war presentation of herself -- illusion and uncertainty -- had their most potent source. He epitomized the characteristic consistently displayed by almost every politician, irrespective of party, who came after him: an absence of steady vision on the greatest question concerning the future of Britain in the last fifty years. But he also spoke, none louder, for the reasons why such unsteadiness did not matter: why the issue of Europe could always be the plaything of fickle British politicians, 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 to justify that label. But he was also the father of misunderstandings about Britain's part in this Europe. He encouraged Europe to misunderstand Britain, 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 real greatness lay in `his extraordinary power always to look forward, never back'. This prophetic quality was his chief claim to public trust. The people believed what he said and promised. He was the last British leader whose reputation for sagacity was incontestable. Such a man might have been expected to rise above some of the comfortable illusions that gripped the British in the aftermath of war. Instead, he was the first in a long line of leaders who shared them. Indeed, his very presence, as Leader of the Opposition, did an enormous amount to endorse the general sense that Britain, after the war, did not have too much to worry about.

    This was, after all, a united as well as a triumphant nation. War had been a unifying experience. National unity, wrote Sir William Beveridge in 1943, was the great moral achievement of the Second World War. It rested not on temporary deals or party coalitions but on `the mutual understanding between Government and people', and expressed `the determination of the British democracy to look beyond victory to the uses of victory'. Common sacrifices had produced a common sense of the future, in which even the class system, among other divisive British traditions, seemed to have liquefied. When a Labour government was elected in July to replace Churchill's wartime coalition, the peaceful transfer 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 the army but many elements of the economy of a great power, on course for post-war recovery. Despite heavy German bombing of many significant centres, Britain's industrial capacity was higher in 1945 than it had been in 1939. Although exports had fallen during the war, they recovered swiftly under a determined government and a stoically purposeful workforce, in which almost nobody was unemployed. In 1947, British exports were five times those of France, as large, in fact, as those of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark combined.

    The most devastated war powers -- Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands -- ran huge and persistent deficits, whereas Britain was a creditor with the whole of Europe. Whereas Britain was in every respect a giant, Germany was a devastated country, her industrial power dismantled, her housing stock decimated. Germany's national income in 1946 was less than one-third of what it had been in 1938, and France's only one-half, with the franc an all but valueless international currency. In Italy, 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 by war to new levels of output, based on a sense of national endeavour that victory did not dissipate.

    On the contrary, victory confirmed a good many things that the country wanted to know about itself. The expression of it -- of the assurance it supplied to an idea of nation that long preceded it -- reached beyond economists, generals and politicians. If you look at what British writers were saying about England before and after the war, you read for the most part a seamless paean to the virtues of the nation's strength and identity. It occurred to hardly anyone, whether in 1935 or 1945, to doubt the value of being British (for which `English' was then a synonym the Scots and the Welsh tamely put up with). In both decades, plenty of argument raged around the British national interest in rearmament or disarmament, central planning or market economics. The value and purpose of Britain's contribution to the world was the natural sub-text of a lot of these debates. But the greatness of its scale, like the history behind 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 never occurred to them to do otherwise. The notion that Britain/England might reconsider her role in the world, relinquishing her status as a global power or doubting her contribution to the welfare of mankind, did not arise. Nor was this confined to little Englanders, or celebrators of narrowly English cultural virtues in the mould of J. B. Priestley. It was a `European', Herbert Read, a high-flown prophet of the continental avant-garde, who in the mid-1930s caught a note that the defeat of Germany did nothing to diminish. Introducing his anthology, The English Vision , the dangerous anarchist sounded like a man with Indestructible pride in the special qualities of his country. `What I wish to emphasise 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 the war. There was a striking contrast with the national attitude after the First World War, with its powerful aura of hope betrayed. `I feel a doom over the country, and a shadow of despair over the hearts of men, which leaves me no rest,' wrote D. H. Lawrence at that time. The 1940s satires of Evelyn Waugh derided the English middle classes. But they stopped well short of apocalypse in their prediction for the future of England. Nobody in any walk of life imagined that this was a country whose future might have been rendered more rather than less problematic by military victory.

    George Orwell's odyssey through the England of the war maps the typical experience. Orwell was an honest, unposturing man, whom the right wing disliked because he was a socialist and the left wing disliked because he told the truth. His writings trace the evolution of a nation's feeling about itself.

    Back from Spain, after fighting for the republicans in the civil war, Orwell rediscovers a country offering wonderful reassurance in the places of his childhood -- but he also senses the imminence of some kind of explosion. The year is 1938, in `the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London', with `the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen -- all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs'.

    When the bombs fall, however, Orwell's ambivalence vanishes. Mockery is overcome by patriotism, and the man of the people emerges to castigate the intelligentsia whose love of country he does not always trust. He still calls England `the most class-ridden country under the sun', but is adamant about his belief in the virtues of simple national pride. `We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward,' he writes at the height of the 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. Orwell expresses the sober, but ultimately sure, conviction that Britain could claim a role in the world sufficient unto itself. His conviction fell on receptive ears. The war was a period when the people especially revelled in 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 was no less gratifying than Trevelyan's account of the past.

    He caught a glimpse of the problem that might beckon. If global conflict continued, he said, there might be room for only two or three great powers, and he conceded that `in the long run Britain will not be one of them'. She was just too small. But she had great things to give the world, one of them `the highly original quality of the English ... their habit of not killing one another'. There was now a decent chance of this imposing itself on others, as Britain/England defined a new kind of domination. `If the English took the trouble to make their own democracy work, 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 authoritarianism on 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 such writer in the 1990s -- and his description was consistent with Britain's objective position vis-à-vis the mainland countries. If there was to be a leader, she was it. Her democracy, meanwhile, had in Orwell's terms worked. A few months after he set down these sentiments, the ordinary English did, as he advocated, `get their hands on power' through the agency of a people's government led by Clement Attlee. They had demonstrated the proof of what the war was about, the capacity of men to choose and defend the peaceful transfer of democratic power.

    Churchill's part in that, his humble acceptance of an almost incomprehensible result, served to increase his prophetic stature. Although he was rejected by the voters, who decided that the fruits of victory would be better distributed by the people's party, his was still the voice that resounded loudest through the opening discussion about the future of Europe, after Europe had been saved.


Winston Churchill had no objection, emotional or political, to the idea of the unification of Europe. Compared with the defenders of sovereignty who took control of his party in the 1990s, he was untroubled by its impact on the sovereign nation. His attitude was pragmatic, and it had an instructive history.

    As early as 1930, he came out straight. Writing in an American magazine, he argued the case for creating a United States of Europe. He understood better than many contemporaries the failure of the Treaty of Versailles, after the 1914-18 war, to produce a secure settlement of the historic enmity of France and Germany. `The conception of a United States of Europe is right,' he wrote. `Every step taken to that end which appeases the obsolete hatreds and vanished oppressions, which makes easier the traffic and reciprocal services of Europe, which encourages nations to lay aside their precautionary panoply, is good in itself.' So he believed in a USE for political reasons. But he also saw `Europe' in economic terms. He noted the underlying dynamism of the American economy, especially its respect for `science and organisation', and pondered how the Old World might emulate the New. He proposed, as the model for his United States of Europe, the single market and unified governing principle of the United States of America.

    This was not the utterance of a serving statesman, nor even of a representative party politician. Churchill at the time was parading round the political wilderness, earning what he could by his pen. His piece was sufficient to the moment and its market. Besides, as anyone quickly learns who ventures beyond the bare facts of political history, judgements on matters that don't require an immediate answer are always open to shifts of nuance, if not outright reversal. Politicians do not expect to be held to all their visions. The discussion of foreign affairs is a paradise for musing soothsayers whose ideas at any given time seldom have to pass exacting tests of consistency. They can drift from one interesting proposition to its opposite in the reassuring knowledge that disproof by events is unlikely. On the future of Britain in the world -- more exactly, the future of the world as it revolved around Britain -- there was room in the middle decades of the century for incessant adjustment of the point of view.

    Above all other questions, in fact, Europe has been the prime example of such uncertainty among modern British politicians. The habit of constant revision, with violent contradictions sometimes emanating from a single mind, is an unvarying feature of the history. The sole consistent pattern to be found, from the moment debate began in earnest, is the inconsistency -- casual or tormented, selfless or self-indulgent -- that almost every protagonist has brought to it. Fittingly, it is Churchill, Britain's last geo-strategist of world significance, who established the pattern.

    Nonetheless, what he wrote in 1930 has to be taken seriously. It indicated a willingness to think irregular thoughts. A man of large horizons was casting about to meet a crisis he believed the nation-state might not be able to avert. And when war happened, he continued to think adventurously about the future of the continent whose freedoms he was fighting to preserve.

    Wartime diaries and papers, his own and those of others, reveal the constructive restlessness of a mind not content with the shape of things as they had been. It was moved by the horrors of the fighting to explore possibilities which, at the time, seemed to the colleagues who heard them inexplicably bold. For example, in December 1940, only six months after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill discussed with some intimates a version of the future that bore resemblance to the model of European unity that in fact came to evolve by the end of the 1980s. He saw a Europe of five single powers -- England, France, Italy, Spain and what he called Prussia -- along with four confederations covering the rest of the continent: `These nine powers would meet in a Council of Europe which would have a supreme judiciary and a Supreme Economic Council to settle currency questions etc.' The Council, moreover, would take the power to deal with any breach of the peace. This foreshadowed the court, 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 a minute to Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, he identified `Russian barbarism' as the future enemy and a united Europe as the necessary bulwark against it. `Hard as it is to say now, I trust that the European family may act unitedly as one, under a Council of Europe in which the barriers between nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible.' He also hoped to see 'the economy of Europe studied as a whole'.

    He continued to amplify this line of thinking. At the beginning of 1943, in a paper dictated from his bed on an Orient Express wagon-lit in the middle of Turkey, where he had gone to consult about the dangers of Soviet influence when the war was over, Churchill reiterated the need for a Council of Europe. He called these `Morning Thoughts', to mark the informality of their composition. But the paper had a perennial influence, if only on debate inside a sceptical Foreign Office. An `instrument of European government' was at the heart of it, to be distinguished from the project of world government so ineffectually expressed by the pre-war League of Nations. He followed this, in March, with one of his grander wartime broadcasts, publicly explaining the need to start thinking now about `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'. A little later, in May the same year, a mixture of these half-formed thoughts appeared in a conversation Churchill had with a group of Americans at lunch in the Washington embassy. The European `instrument', consisting of twelve states and confederations, had now evolved in his mind into one of three regional bodies covering the globe, which would be answerable to a World Council.

    So Churchill was fertile in his wartime thinking. The constraints of national politics did not inhibit his creative reach. Frontiers did not trouble him, as he cast forward from the terrible time through which he was living. Indeed, within a month of taking office he had put his name to the most ambitious plan for the voluntary subsuming and remaking of two great nations that had ever been conceived, when, in response to the fall of France, he took up the embryonic proposal for an Anglo-French Union. The way to sustain France, it was felt by leaders from both sides of the Channel, was to sublimate these two nations into an `indissoluble union'. They would `no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union', and every citizen of each would immediately become a citizen of the other. There would be a single cabinet and a single parliament.

    This project never came to pass. Dreamed up by senior British officials working together with some of the leading Frenchmen in temporary exile in London, it briefly attracted the interest of the French Government. But the Government fell before the extravagant idea, some of whose progenitors would later become very important in the grander post-war European project, could be put to the test. Churchill's interest in it cannot be read as indicating any more than the extremes to which he was prepared to go to sustain the war effort and defeat Hitler. It was plainly not intended to form a template for the Europe he might be expected to favour when hostilities were over. Nonetheless, it showed a supple approach to nationhood. It suggested that a national interest, in Churchill's conception, might in certain circumstances transcend the boundaries of national sovereignty as usually understood. It is one of the early bases -- there were more important ones to come -- of the claim by later `Europeans' in British debates that Churchill was one of them.

    Even at this stage, however, such a claim was seriously flawed. And the fault in this version of Churchillism is relevant to the argument that came after him. It doesn't amount to anything so crude as the notion that Churchill was in reality a serious anti-European: the greatest Conservative icon made available, on further inspection, for retrospective recruitment by the Euro-sceptic camp. This, at times, was how `Winston' was later claimed. But the claim was empty. On the contrary, he remained always a European of highly romantic disposition. His idea of Europe was benign and passionate, informed by the prescience of the historian as well as of the public man. The flaw lay in his description of what Europe was, where its limits lay. Although in the east these had generous scope, encompassing his Danubian and Balkan confederations, to the west they stopped at the English Channel. In short, Britain did not belong inside the Churchillian concept of `Europe'.

    At times this appeared to be a product of mere muddle and oversight. In the grand sweep of mid-war speculation about how the tectonic 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, he assigned England both to the great new Council of Europe, with its new supreme judiciary and economic union, yet also to some place beyond it. Britain would belong, and yet not belong. For `the English-speaking world', he wrote, `would be apart from this', while at the same time being in some unspecified way `closely connected'.

    Most of Churchill's blueprints, however, placed Britain/England outside the European construct. Even his 1930 account, untouched by the triumphalism of victory in the war, put the country above and beyond the continent. `We have our own dream and our own task,' he wrote. `We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised.' Thirteen years later, in his notion of three Regional Councils responsible to a World Council, he instinctively distanced Britain from the role of equal partner in any European enterprise. Britain would be a kind of godmother or broker, her relationship to Europe very similar to that of the US. America was more like Britain's equal partner than Europe could ever be. Together the two Anglo-Saxon peoples, Churchill opined, would share the common problem of maintaining `large numbers of men indefinitely on guard', to keep the continental peace.

    For the visionary had other dreams, and the historian other romantic attachments. These coexisted with his ideas about Europe and, though he seldom discussed the contradiction, in practice overshadowed them.

    The war-winner could in no way surrender his belief that the British purpose must be to sustain the status of a great power, as near as possible equal in political weight with the US and the Soviet Union: a belief in which Churchill was unexceptional in either the public world where national prestige could never be compromised or the private circles in which he moved. Hardly anywhere, on the left or the right, in the journalistic or literary or political milieus, was the concept of Britain's solitary greatness, uniquely positioned at the hub of several global groupings, subjected to serious reassessment. At the same time, the strategist could never forget the concept of the English-speaking world. He had written a four-volume history of it. Empire, and then Commonwealth, formed bonds that were a part of many British families' inheritance and every British leader's responsibility. They had helped to win the war. Here were truly indissoluble unions, and they were in conflict with any simple idea of European Britain.

    Churchill's failure to resolve this conflict, or come anywhere near doing so, was not surprising. Most of his successors -- in differing measures and with varying commitment, some addressing the same conflict, others discovering new fields of difference -- failed in the same way.

    The contradiction, however, did not inhibit Churchill from making the unity of post-war Europe the great cause of his years as Leader of the Opposition. He proposed himself as the intellectual prophet of the European idea, investing in it a large portion of such emotional reserves as were left over from political defeat. In doing so, moreover, he was not a lonely eccentric, but was speaking to a country already to some extent acquainted 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 the avoidance of war.

    Federalism, a word which by 1995 epitomized all that was alien in the project of `Europe', possessed a different aura fifty years earlier. It had a certain purchase on parts of the British consciousness. So did the concept of union, as applied to Europe.

    Federalism had blossomed before the war. By June 1940, when the flame of Anglo-French Union briefly lit the scene, the British federalist movement, called Federal Union, had more than 10,000 members in over 200 branches. The failure of the League of Nations and the shock of Munich had spurred more support, sometimes from names that were widely known, for a federation of free peoples, a union of sovereign states, or whatever similar arrangement might lower the possibility of conflict. Adherents came from the usual cadre of pious dreamers. `The whole scheme of Federal Union has made a staggeringly effective appeal to the British mind,' the Archbishop of York enthused in 1939. The abandonment of sovereignty made a natural appeal to the parsonical tendency, hoping to avoid war at a stroke. But serious men of affairs also put themselves behind the cause. William Beveridge was a federalist, and so was Harold Laski. The Manchester Guardian and the New Statesman came out for the federal idea, as did a former editor of The Times , Wickham Steed. Lord Lothian, former Cabinet minister and later ambassador to Washington, was a federalist of long standing. Richard Law MP, son of Bonar Law, the Conservative Prime Minister, wrote a pamphlet on the subject. There was also heavy academic support. The historian Arnold Toynbee, the constitutional jurist Ivor Jennings and the two most illustrious economists of the day, Lionel Robbins and Friedrich von Hayek, all did serious work on the practicalities of a federal constitution and its implications for defence, economic policy, tax, justice and the rest of state activity.

    So federalism at this time was not the obsession of some irrelevant cranks' corner of British public life. Important people had begun to see it as perhaps the only solid guarantor of peaceful coexistence between peoples. There was a sizeable British literature on the subject, with roots in the thinking of John Locke, and extended by such varied political thinkers as Lord Acton, James Bryce and Ernest Barker. A famous continental federalist, Altiero Spinelli, prime author of a 1944 manifesto for federalism, and a man of deep conceptual influence on the post-war idea of Europe, when reflecting on his own intellectual formation, attributed much to `the clean, precise thinking of these English federalists'.

    This was part of the context into which Churchill projected himself in 1945. By then, admittedly, the federal idea had suffered some degradation. Strong at the beginning of the war, it lost support when the fact of battle, especially of victorious battle, exalted the loyalties attaching to the nation-state. Federal Union closed down many branches. The European dimension, moreover, was overtaken in many minds by the necessity for something much wider. Among British federalists, disputes broke out between those still mainly interested in a federation of Western Europe and those who thought that a world potentially at ransom to nuclear super-powers required nothing less than a complete World Federation. Crankdom beckoned. The limited project of a federal Europe, itself requiring enough massive adjustments in the thinking of several ancient nations, tended to become engulfed by the case for world government, which had the early effect of returning such credibility as federation had to parsonical irrelevance.

    Churchill was never seduced by world government. But he had ideas for Europe that, while eschewing federalism, made the case for a European Union. He set about promoting them in irresistible style. Three great meetings, of which the highlight in each case was a Churchillian oration, have become benchmarks of his career as a hero of the European peace.

    The first was in Zurich on 19 September 1946. One must remember the mantle of inextinguishable gallantry in which he was arrayed by his collaborators in the war. Nobody regarded him as less than the greatest man in Europe, even though his own people had rejected him. He came to the University of Zurich, in a country at the confluence of the peoples and languages that had almost destroyed the continent, to deliver a judgement which, he said, would `astonish' his audience. What he called the 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 -- this was the astonishing bit -- there had to be a partnership between France and Germany. `In this way only can France recover the moral and cultural leadership of Europe,' he insisted. `There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great Germany,' he added. `We must recreate the 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 commonly remembered now than the speech Churchill gave earlier that year in Fulton, Missouri, when he publicized the phrase and fashioned the thinking about the Iron Curtain which the Soviet Union had brought down between the free and unfree worlds. But Zurich was a beacon. It inspired many continental politicians, then struggling to remake their ruined countries. It roused enthusiasts for a united Europe to ecstatic excitement. They really seemed to think it meant that Churchill, for Britain, 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 no conflict between strong attachment to the British Empire and a commitment to European Union, marked his leader's card. `The French are startled, 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 time to 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 a sense that placed Britain outside Europe. It was the speech of a grandiloquent map-maker who wanted to dissolve the emotional frontiers between warring continental countries, but was rooted in a system that cast Britain as facilitator, even mere spectator, of the process. It does not seem to have entered Churchill's mind that the destiny he envisaged for Europe, as the only way to prevent a repetition of the war, was something his own country should embrace. Far from plotting a clear course forward, Churchill's spumes of oratory proposed a feel-good world in which just about every country was involved. Britain and the Commonwealth and `mighty America', he said at Zurich, `and I trust Soviet Russia, for then all would be well', must be `friends and sponsors of the new Europe, and must champion its right to live and shine'.

    Britain, in other words, was separate from Europe. Her sense of national independence, enhanced by her unique empire, absorbed by all creeds and classes and spoken for by virtually every analyst, could not be fractured. Churchill urged Europe to become united, and set about creating a movement with this as its purpose. But to be achieved by what means, exactly? His only practical proposal involved a quite limited form of unity. He reiterated what he had said in private, and sometimes in public, during the war: that the first step should be the formation of a Council of Europe, which would not be some grandiose agent of European governance, still less a federalist super-state, but a forum for association between sovereign governments. The extravagances that he sometimes gave voice to -- `supreme judiciary ... supreme economic council' -- were by now abandoned.

    As a blueprint, Zurich was therefore quite a modest affair. It dripped with symbolism, and in its time and place, less than eighteen months after the slaughter had ended, was a bold response to popular alarms. Its particular genius, perhaps, lay in launching the idea of Franco-German partnership, allied to the concept, for these other countries, of a United States of Europe. It was attacked in The Times , by a young leader-writer who later became a famous European, Con O'Neill, on the ground that it was anti-Russian, when the world needed unity more than it needed some divisive new European institution. It was a grand idea, and gave birth in Britain to a United Europe Movement to which Churchill offered himself as chairman, and some excited old-style federalists immediately pledged their support. But it was never intended to be federalist.

    For Churchill certainly wasn't a federalist, and nor was his chief lieutenant in these matters, Duncan Sandys, his son-in-law. Sandys, having lost his parliamentary seat in the Attlee landslide, became the main functionary of United Europe, a potent behind-the-scenes figure in the evolution of the Great European that Churchill gave such a large impression of being. Sandys's talents were not for the arts of persuasion. He was more the scheming manager. His energy helped shape the vaporous effusions of his father-in-law in a direction that was at once strongly European and quite unspecific as to what this might really mean. `Duncan was an organizer and intriguer with a great capacity to manipulate people,' Lord Hailsham told me in 1993. `I was at Eton with him, and he was a manipulator of great skill even as a schoolboy. I expect he manipulated Churchill.'

    Sandys locked United Europe into a non-federalist platform, but above all was anxious to ensure that Churchill got fully and publicly committed. This is what places Sandys among the most significant of the early British Europeans. At this stage, the movement stood for a loose and cautious association of governments, and the old man used his next great opportunity to rally support for the missionary undertaking. `Let Europe Arise' was the title of his address to the Primrose League on 18 April 1947. The Albert Hall in London heard another Zurichean summons to European destiny. But, again, the inconveniences were glossed over. United Europe was the expansive theme, but Churchill's tone also reflected a message Sandys sent him the day before, warning that Conservative 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 things to people who did not speak French, German or any other of the alien mainland tongues. `We shall allow no wedge', the great voice intoned, `to be driven between Great Britain and the United States of America, or be led into any course which would mar the growing unity in thought and action, in ideals and purpose, of the English-speaking nations, spread so widely about the globe, but joined together by history and by destiny.'

    This was no more than an oratorical hors d'oeuvre. The movement expanded, and made links with similar groupings, more copious and still more passionately committed, across the Channel. With Duncan Sandys active in the back room, the idea was conceived for a great international congress to give continent-wide impetus to a European Union. The first Congress of Europe met in The Hague on 7 May 1948, with Churchill as the keynote speaker.

    It was an extraordinary assembly. The big names gathered from all over West Europe. From France came Léon Blum, Paul Reynaud and Jean Monnet, from Italy Alcide De Gasperi, from Belgium Paul-Henri Spaak and Paul van Zeeland. From all over came many others who make prominent appearances later in this story. Altogether there were eight former prime ministers and twenty-eight former foreign ministers. No fewer than 140 British participants turned up, out of some 800 delegates all told, including Harold Macmillan and twenty-three of his party colleagues. Adrian Boult, the orchestral conductor, and John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, were among those whose presence showed that this was a movement appealing to instincts much deeper than the merely political. Among younger attenders, later to be leaders of their own political 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 the family.

    The assembly, however, was shot through with ambivalence. Its main promoters were federalists, of whom there were many more in high places in Europe than there ever were in Britain. Though Churchill was not a federalist, his presence at The Hague again blurred the truth about where he stood. His eminence persuaded continentals they had to have him, and his rhetoric gave small indication that he did not in his heart belong on their side. The occasion was the high point of Churchill's ambiguity, arrived at not by any calculating deviousness, but as the natural emanation of a man immersed in certainty that history entitled Britain to ordain the best of all worlds for herself.

    The United Europe movement, Churchill told the Congress, was not of parties but of peoples. His speech was rich in the highest-flown rhetoric, and this style was more than decorative. It was meant to rouse and dramatize. Read half a century later, it still summons up the horror of war, and recalls the idly forgotten fact that fear of war and thirst for peace, above all else, were the sources for the extraordinary idea that national frontiers might be lowered. For many of those present at the Hague assembly, their project was a matter of life or death. Churchill appeared to speak to and for them. `We shall only save ourselves from the perils which draw near', he said, `by forgetting the hatreds of the past, by letting national rancours and revenges die, by progressively effacing frontiers and barriers which aggravate and congeal our divisions, and by rejoicing together in that glorious treasure of literature, of romance, of ethics, of thought and toleration belonging to us all, which is the inheritance of Europe.'

    Political unity, he went on, must `inevitably' accompany economic and military collaboration, a process, as he explained, that did not necessarily damage a nation. What he said about that might have had a special resonance down the years. It touched on the issue that raised the most enduring anxieties among the British, and was an occasion where Churchill got closer than he often did to a practical description of what he meant. `It is said with truth that this involves some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty,' he began. But then he added that `it is also possible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption, by all nations concerned, of that larger sovereignty which can also protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics, and their national traditions'.

    These words could have served as a text for the proponents of British entry into the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. The `pooling' of sovereignty, with its implication that all participants drew greater sustenance from a pond bigger than their own, became a favourite way of describing what happened inside the Community. But the national sovereignties Churchill contemplated curtailing again did not include Britain's. That appears to have been an idea beyond the reach of his imagination. As a result, his speech at The Hague, which was regarded at the time as an historic address, could in due course be more exactly seen as a source-book for the confusion he created, simultaneously giving succour to the federalists while intending to do no such thing.

    What happened as a result of the Hague Congress was also, in the end, ambivalent. Churchill made a concrete proposal, building on his frequent allusions to a future Council of Europe. He now suggested that it was time for a new institution `in one form or another', which he specified as a quasi-parliamentary annexe to the Council, some kind of European Assembly, to enable the voice of United Europe `to make itself continuously heard'. Three months later, France formally proposed that the Assembly should be created, and within a year the statute of the Council was agreed and the inaugural meeting of the Assembly arranged, at Strasbourg. The first institution of `Europe' was in place, divided between a Council of Ministers and a Consultative Assembly.

    In its beginnings, moreover, the Council fulfilled both the federalist and the Churchillian ideals. They were apparently conjoined within it. Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian federalist, was its first president, and Churchill its first hero. On the evening it opened, 10 August 1949, Churchill addressed a rally of 20,000 people crammed into the Place Kléber. Every corner was filled with people from the city closest to the heart of Franco-German Europe, to hear the great man address them, which he did in better French than usual. Then, as the Assembly debates began, he threw himself into its proceedings with a verve that impressed a fellow delegate. `This extraordinary man', Harold Macmillan wrote in a letter home, `seemed to come down almost too rapidly to the level of normal political agitation.' His early interventions were calculated `to reveal him as a parliamentarian, rather than as a great international figure. He certainly took more trouble to listen to the debates than I have ever known him to do in the House of Commons. He walked about, chatted to each representative, went into the smoking room, and generally took a lot of trouble to win the sympathetic affection of his new 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 United Nations, which had lately been formed. He regretted the absence of the countries of Eastern Europe, now suffering under the tyrannies of communism, and asked that empty chairs be left for their representatives to fill in good time. He also inquired, dramatically, `Where are the Germans?', and demanded that the Government of West Germany should be invited into the Council, alongside France, Belgium, Italy, Holland and the rest, without delay. He had never lost the sense he expressed at Zurich three years before, that, if European harmony was to endure, Germany must be in the concert.

    At the same time, Churchill never intended the Council to break the nation-state. Having apparently scorned the narrow view of sovereignty just a year before, he was now unwilling to investigate the ways in which it might be modified, even for countries other than Britain. What interested him was the development of mood and feeling. `I hope we shall not put our trust in formulae or in machinery,' he told the Assembly. It was by `the growth and gathering of the united sentiment of Europeanism, vocal here and listened to all over the world, that we shall succeed in taking, not executive decision, but ... a leading and active part in the revival of the greatest of continents which has fallen into the worst of misery'.

    The Europeans didn't see the limits this implied. They allowed themselves to be deceived. And Churchill allowed himself to sound terribly confused. Many years later, Macmillan wrote in his memoirs that Churchill had `had no clear or well-defined plan'. He wasn't interested in details. He merely wanted to `give an impetus towards movements already at work'. But that wasn't quite how European leaders, desperate to be led out of the ante-chamber of another war, saw the matter. They exulted in Churchill's compelling rhetoric, without thinking very hard about the realities that underlay it. And the price of their deception was going to be quite great, both for them and for Britain.


There was, besides, another kind of deception. This wasn't so much in Churchill's rhetoric as in the British mind, and it concerned the state of Britain herself. The Churchillian view, against which there was very little argument, took for granted Britain's capacity for independent decision-making in any area her leaders chose. This rested on imperial sentiment and national pride and the other outgrowths of the victory that saved Europe. But it also made assumptions about Britain's enduring economic strength that did not entirely stand up to examination. Anglo-Saxon triumphalism blinded even as it exulted. The figures of comparative growth and production immediately after the war told the truth but not the whole truth. They said what was true in 1945, and even in 1948, but they ignored the trends that told what might well be true by, say, 1955.

    Behind the superficial encouragement of selected statistics was another kind of reality. While Britain was by some measures strong, by others she was weak. The struggle against Germany had been immensely costly. 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 trading nation had not just declined but plummeted: in 1944 they were only 31 per cent of their level in 1938. The gold and dollar reserves were seriously run down, and in November 1945 it was necessary, with great difficulty, to arrange an American loan of £3.75 billion. In a famous memorandum, the man who negotiated it, John Maynard Keynes, warned the Attlee Government of the scale of the crisis which was being masked by public euphoria. `The financial problems of the war', he wrote in August 1945, `have been surmounted so easily and silently that the average man sees no reason to suppose that the financial problems of the peace will be any more difficult.' But Britain, he judged, was facing `a financial Dunkirk'.

    This ominous phrase remained in the private realm, for the eyes of ministers alone. In any case, the US cavalry arrived in the shape of the loan. In 1945, Keynes's meaning, reinforced by his warning that `a greater degree of austerity would be necessary than we have experienced at any time during the war', did not seriously impress itself on the politicians of any party. They agreed the loan, but did not draw the conclusion, or even register the question, that Britain might no longer be able to afford her imperial role, stretched round the globe, while building a welfare state at home.

    Other truths were also disguised. Although the speed of the post-war economic recovery was impressive, especially on the exports side, it was less impressive than that of other countries. The important figures were comparative. In isolation they might look reasonably encouraging, but in fact the competitive decline that was to continue for the next half-century started now. Growth among the defeated or ravaged powers was consistently faster than it was in Britain. An assortment of reasons contributed to this. With no unemployment and hardly any immigration, Britain had no surplus labour to cope with expansion: the continentals had a surfeit. Britain had huge overseas obligations, not least the cost of policing 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 the continent there was far greater concern to create the incentives that would remake mined economies.

    Victory, in other words, produced decidedly less dynamic energy than did defeat. As a result, between 1947 and 1951, while British industrial production rose by a gratifying 30 per cent, France and Italy achieved 50 per cent, and Germany 300 per cent. By the end of 1950, German production, after the devastation of the infrastructure, not to mention the controls imposed by the occupying powers, was back at pre-war levels. It is true that in that year the British economy, measured by gross national product per head of the population, remained the second strongest in the world, with only the US ahead of it. But Germany and even France were closing steadily.

    This was knowable at the time. The trends and statistics were no secret. But it wasn't commonly apprehended, least of all in the quarters where it might have been most expected that the details would be closely studied, and the lessons honestly drawn. In government circles where, Keynes excepted, victory in the war had done more to fortify the conceptions of the past than provoke new ones for the future, the evidence was received, as it were, blindfold. Anyone who saw behind it to the truth tended to be ostracized.

    One man who did was Sir Henry Tizard, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence. In 1949, he composed a telling minute, contesting the wisdom of the age. `We persist in regarding ourselves as a Great Power,' Tizard wrote, `capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a Great Power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.'

    This fine and prescient distinction gave an answer to Orwell's question. It did not go down well. Whitehall received Tizard's warning `with the kind of horror one would expect if one made a disrespectful remark about the King'.

    So an imposing consensus presented itself. On the question of Britain's place in the world, most pillars of the society took a similar attitude. The spirit of the times said that Britain's destiny had been determined by her military victory, and nourished the illusion that war had increased the country's inherent strength, not sapped it. This strength was imperial and global, another source, almost everyone believed, of advantage rather than burden. `Our empire illustrated co-operation without domination for the whole of the world -- co-operation between countries without the domination of one over the other,' the Dean of St Paul's preached on Empire Day, 1945. `It was probably the greatest creation of British political genius.' The Dean spoke in the past tense, no doubt, because the Empire was in process of being converted into the Commonwealth. But this remained the British Commonwealth, run by one nation, to which others still owed fealty. As the historian of Empire has written of the British at the end of the 1940s, `They believed in their hearts that things British were necessarily things best. They believed that they, above all their Allies, had won the war. They saw themselves still, like their grandfathers, as a senior and superior race.'

    This was the Zeitgeist with which British political leadership after the war had its ambivalent relationship. Churchill spoke for part of it. He continued to assure the Americans that `only the English-speaking peoples count; that together they can rule the world'. Although out of office, he carried the weight of ages with him. This massive iconic figure, absolved from bothering with details or structures, set the tone that many on the continent desired to hear. His oracular pronouncements were as ambivalent as those of the goddess-seer at Delphi, but with less cunning intent. They were as devoid of clarity about European institutions as they were of rigour about Britain's economic prospects. They had 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 stretching indefinitely ahead. Second great power of the Western world watching with sympathy, seldom with alarm, the efforts of its neighbours across the Channel to remake themselves. Europe a place to which the British felt ineffable superiority. Little Attlee, no less than Churchill, was fated to personify this national pride, which it had become impossible for most Englishmen to question.

    On the other hand, there was the world as seen by Henry Tizard. To this world, Churchill was absolutely blind. So, as we shall discover, were most of the people who, unlike Churchill, had to deal with it as responsible ministers. The consensus in favour of being a great power was impossible to challenge. On the left as well as the right, it was a given of national politics. After all, `greatness' expresses the commonest of all ideas that, in one form or another, democratic politicians promise their electors. `If we continue to behave like a Great Power, we shall soon cease to be a great nation.' Such a possibility of loss was unimaginable to British leaders in the post-war world -- as it has been to most of their successors.

Copyright © 1998 Hugo Young. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-03-15:
With immense knowledge matched by a sure sense of narrative, Young has written the best book yet about Britain's attempt to make sense of itself after its era of empire. He takes a chronological approach, focusing on heads of state and those who carried out their policies, starting, as the subtitle indicates, with Winston Churchill and ending with Tony Blair. For 50 years, he writes, Britain has "struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid." The question that drives the book is whether Britain, with its mythology of exceptionalism (famously expressed by Shakespeare in Richard II, from which Young takes his title), can accept the reality that it will have to become merely another country bound in some sort of European union. In the end, Young predicts, most Britons will accept the reality of alignment with the Continental nations, an acceptance that could have come about far less painfully four decades earlier had Britain's leaders not clung so fiercely to an obsolete sense of imperial grandeur. Readers who enjoyed Young's biography of Thatcher (The Iron Lady) will be glad to learn that he has brought his sharp sense of the intersection of character and policy to his appraisals of major political figures. Young combines the best qualities of a historianÄthoroughness, context and a sense of the sweep of timeÄwith the best qualities of a journalistÄaccessibility, skepticism and pungent judgment. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Unpaid Annotation
In This Blessed Plot, Hugo Young, one of Britain's foremost political commentators, provides an insider's history of Britain and the European Community, utliziing a wealth of new material and the insight gained from a mass of interviews with the principal participants. Young builds this story of Britain's relationship with Europe around the role and record of each leading player in the drama, starting with Winston Churchill, the false prophet of what Europe would become, and concluding with Tony Blair, the first unambiguously pro-Europe prime minister to be elected since Britain joined the Common Market in 1973.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Plotp. 1
Winston Churchill: Rule Britanniap. 5
Ernest Bevin: Great Britp. 26
Russell Bretherton: The Sacrificial Agentp. 71
Harold Macmillan: Agonizing for Britainp. 99
Hugh Gaitskell: Progressively Backwardsp. 146
John Robinson: A Conspiracy of Like-Minded Menp. 172
Edward Heath: The Triumph of the Willp. 214
Roy Jenkins: The Fissile Effectp. 257
Margaret Thatcher: Deutschland Uber Allesp. 306
William Cash: Europe Made Mep. 375
John Major: At the Heart of Darknessp. 412
Tony Blair: Leading from the Edgep. 472
Notesp. 517
Bibliographyp. 539
Indexp. 545
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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