On Sovereignty: Churchill on the UK and Europe, 1933-1953
Sovereignty is back
Britain has left the European Union. “It was a transcendental night,” Andrew Roberts writes of January 31st. Read his excellent piece on Brexit and the UK’s regained sovereignty in the Daily Telegraph: “Britain has become an adult once again, taking ultimate responsibility for our own choices and actions. [It] has boldly stepped out on its own, taking a risk, certainly. But then which great historic national action has not involved some element of risk?…
By stating that no foreign law shall henceforth have jurisdiction over British law, we have thrown away the jurisprudence comfort blanket and become an adult, taking ultimate responsibility for our own choices and actions again…. “Where, by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles,” starts the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533, “it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world”…. Crucially, the word “empire” in that context merely meant a self-governing state, and had nothing to do with the later British Empire that spread across the globe in the following half-millennium.
For years Britons were told that the 2016 vote to leave was a nostalgia-trip back to the glory days of Empire. Not so. Absent Churchill, perhaps only Roberts could liken 2020’s sovereignty to 1533’s Restraint of Appeals. It’s not the 19th century they’re returning to—it’s the 16th!
There are enough words of mine on Brexit and the EU, to the extent that a foreigner has a right of comment. It is more appropriate to reflect on Winston Churchill’s words. Not for the sovereignty decision (he could never imagine) but for encouragement. They underline his respect for Europe, and his “sense of the British moment.”
“Trust the people,” Lord Randolph Churchill declared, as his son reminded the U.S. Congress: “I used to see him cheered at meetings and in the streets by crowds of working men way back in those aristocratic Victorian days when, as Disraeli said, the world was for the few, and for the very few.” Britain today has a broader electorate, but Lord Randolph’s words still apply.
There’s another aspect to last night that will impress thoughtful people. “In jam-packed Parliament Square,” Robert Hardman wrote, “no one was exactly swinging from the chandeliers. There were no hysterics, no tears—and no pyrotechnics, either. Just quiet pride. After all the polarised nastiness of the past three years, Britain’s departure from the European Union was for the most part good-natured and magnanimous, if tinged with a sense of weariness.”
Is there a lesson there for America—which has also spent three weary years in polarized nastiness? We can but hope.
Churchill on Britain and Europe:
“Our country has a very important part to play in Europe, but it is not so large a part as we have been attempting to play, and I advocate for us in future a more modest role than many of our peace-preservers and peace-lovers have sought to impose upon us.” —House of Commons, 13 April 1933
“[Our] worst difficulties…come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to its culture, take much from its strength. [And] from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians.… Nothing can save England if she will not save herself. If we lose faith in ourselves, in our capacity to guide and govern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our story is told.” —Albert Hall, 24 April 1933
“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…linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed. And should European statesmen address us in the words which were used of old, ‘Wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or the captain of the host?,’ we should reply, with the Shunammite woman: ‘I dwell among mine own people.’” —News of the World, 9 May 1938
In War: “Freedom is their life-blood”
“We may remember the words of old John Bright, after the American Civil War was over, when he said to an audience of English working folk: ‘At last after the smoke of the battlefield had cleared away, the horrid shape which had cast its shadow over the whole continent had vanished and was gone forever. ‘” —Broadcast, London, 1 October 1939
“[After the war] there would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this Federation with the new world and able to hold the balance between the two.” —Colville Papers, 10 August 1940
“We must beware of trying to build a society in which nobody counts for anything except a politician or an official, a society where enterprise gains no reward and thrift no privileges. I say ‘trying to build’ because of all races in the world our people would be the last to consent to be governed by a bureaucracy. Freedom is their life-blood.” —Broadcast, London, 21 March 1943
In Peace: “The larger hopes of humanity”
“I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. In this way only can France recover the moral leadership of Europe. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.” —Zürich, 19 September 1946
“We hope to reach again a Europe purged of the slavery of ancient days in which men will be as proud to say ‘I am a European’ as once they were to say ‘Civis Romanus sum.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land. —Albert Hall, 14 May 1947 [Quoted “in defiance” by EU diehard Guy Verhofstadt, yet perfectly consistent. I am happily a North American, at home in all its countries. But consider Churchill’s first fourteen words… As Mr. Verhofstadt honorably reminded colleagues, this is a nation that twice shed its blood to liberate Europe.]
“A high and a solemn responsibility rests upon us here this afternoon in this Congress of a Europe striving to be reborn.… If we all pull together and pool the luck and the comradeship…and grimly grasp the larger hopes of humanity, then it may be that we shall move into a happier sunlit age…. heirs of all the treasures of the past and the masters of all the science, the abundance and the glories of the future.” —The Hague, 7 May 1948
In his second Premiership: “Ally and friend”
“Our attitude towards further economic developments on the Schuman lines resembles that which we adopt about the European Army. We help, we dedicate, we play a part. But we are not merged with and do not forfeit our insular or commonwealth character. Our first object is the unity and consolidation of the British Commonwealth….Our second, “the fraternal association” of the English-speaking world; and third, United Europe, to which we are a separate closely- and specially-related ally and friend.” —Cabinet Memo, 29 November 1951
“You know my views about the particular kind of European Army into which the French are trying to force us. We must consider very carefully together how to deal with the certainly unfavourable reaction in American opinion. They would like us to fall into the general line of European pensioners which we have no intention of doing.” —To Anthony Eden, 13 December 1951
“I do not myself conceive that federalism is immediately possible within the Commonwealth. I have never been in favour of it in Europe.” —To Woodrow Wyatt MP, 8 July 1952
“We are not members of the EDC, nor do we intend to be merged in a federal European system. We feel we have a special relationship to both.” —Commons, 11 May 1953
“I care above all for the brotherhood of the English-speaking world. But there could be no true brotherhood without independence founded as it can only be on solvency. We do not want to live upon others and be kept by them, but faithfully and resolutely to earn our own living, without fear or favour, by the sweat of our brow, by the skill of our craftsmanship and the use of our brains.” —Margate, 10 October 1953
Back to the future
Andrew Roberts puts January 31st in context. “I’ve heard many things described as ‘historic’—football matches, TV programmes, even a speech by Theresa May. But, as an historian, I can certify for you that Brexit night truly is historic.” We may also take heart from Churchill’s words, thinking of history: “At last after the smoke of the battlefield had cleared away, the horrid shape which had cast its shadow over the whole continent had vanished, and was gone for ever.”
But sovereignty conveys its own challenges. Sovereignty means what happens now is very much up to Britons. There is no need to cower from that. Two great wars, Churchill said, “have made the British nation master in its own house.” Sovereignty conveys mastery. “The treasures of the past. The toil of the centuries, the long-built-up conceptions of decent government and fair play. The tolerance which comes from the free working of Parliamentary and electoral institutions…. All these constitute parts of this inheritance.”
And this is no Little England. Britain owns the world’s sixth largest economy, produced by 60 million skillful people. “There is no need to fear the future,” Churchill said in another time. “I could not stop it if I wished…. Let it roll! Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.”
One thought on “On Sovereignty: Churchill on the UK and Europe, 1933-1953”
A foreigner with the right to comment on Britain’s future? Most definitely. Your irresistible articles, like the Mississippi, just keep rolling along!