On Sovereignty: Churchill on the UK and Europe, 1933-1953

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!

“Quiet pride”

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

  1. A for­eign­er with the right to com­ment on Britain’s future? Most def­i­nite­ly. Your irre­sistible arti­cles, like the Mis­sis­sip­pi, just keep rolling along!

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