Old Man in A Hurry

Richard Toye
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History

Felix Klos, Churchill’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Unite Europe (I.B.Tauris, 2017)

Marco Duranti, The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention (Oxford University Press, 2017)

In the run-up to 2016 Brexit referendum, advocates of staying in the EU made significant efforts to invoke the memory of Winston Churchill. Remainers pointed to the fact that, in Zurich in 1946, he had urged the creation of ‘a kind of United States of Europe’. They seemed to regard him as something of a trump card – if Britain’s iconic wartime leader had been one of the fathers of the EU, who would dare to be against? However, as a persuasive tool, it never quite seemed to work. On the one hand, Leavers could legitimately point out that Churchill had said that Great Britain should be one of the ‘the friends and sponsors of the new Europe’, not one of its actual members. On the other hand, the message was just not quite simple enough; against the ingrained, popular bulldog image, it was tough to sell Churchill as a complex figure who was prepared to make concessions on British sovereignty in the interests of future peace.

It also didn’t help that Churchill’s pro-European campaign took place during a period of his life – the 1945-51 Opposition years – that few members of the public know much about. Popular memory of Churchill focuses to some extent on the 1930s but above all on the war years, and the summer of 1940 in particular. In fact, then, the referendum campaign’s most rhetorically effective invocation of Churchill was made by David Cameron during his appearance on Question Time. He did not attempt to argue that Churchill would have favoured membership of the EU as such, but rather – in response to an audience member who described him (Cameron) as a Twenty First Century Neville Chamberlain – he deployed a more emotionally powerful response:

At my office I sit two yards away from cabinet room where Winston Churchill decided in May to fight on against Hitler. The best and greatest decision perhaps anyone has made in our country. He didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be fighting with the French, the Poles and the others. But he didn’t quit. He didn’t quit on democracy, he didn’t quit on freedom.

We want to fight for those things today. You can’t win if you’re not in the room.

Moreover, when one actually looks at the details of Churchill’s position on Europe, it’s not clear that he fits neatly into either the Leave or the Remain narrative. The two books under review, both excellent in their different ways, illustrate the point. There is no doubt about the fundamental sympathies of the author of the first, Felix Klos, who regards Churchill as the ‘Father of Europe’.[1] Prior to the referendum he published a shorter version of this book, which concluded with a passionate plea: ‘A patriot and a leader until the end, Churchill came to the conclusion that Britain’s future lay “in” Europe.’ Let us not turn our backs.’ However, Klos ended his abbreviated story in the late 1940s, thus omitting the disappointments (for pro-Europeans) of Churchill’s second premiership. The new, longer volume is more thorough and more balanced, whilst still allowing a positive assessment of his contribution. ‘However Churchill might be judged for failing to translate his romantic idealism into policy after his return as prime minister, his spirit permeated the whole of the European project’, Klos argues. ‘The climate of opinion he created from the Zurich speech onwards allowed and directly inspired the continental federalists to launch their own proposals in the first place.’

Klos provides a clear, systematic, and very well researched account of Churchill’s European campaign. He draws on French, German, and Dutch language sources as well as British ones. He has discovered one key piece of evidence which subverts the argument of those such as Boris Johnson who claim that Churchill only ever wanted Britain to smile benevolently on an integrated Europe from the outside. This is an account written by a Swiss diplomat, who asked Churchill just prior to the Zurich speech if the UK would be able to be a member of the United States of Europe.

Churchill responded that he preferred not to emphasise this point, in order to leave to others the task of inviting Britain to join: ‘One must not give the impression that we wish to control Europe, even though it is clear that England alone is capable of leading her properly today.’[2] Moreover, if Russia were to be invited and refused, the way would be opened for British membership.

It is also notable, though, that Churchill does not seem to have repeated this rationale to others even in private. In many respects, Churchill’s evolving post-war vision of European unity – and the specific part to be played by the United Kingdom within it – was highly ambiguous. As Klos notes, in 1949, the Conservative MP Bob Boothby travelled with him from Italy to Strasbourg, where they were both to attend the founding session of the Council of Europe’s Consultative Assembly. On the Basel to Strasbourg leg, Boothby asked Churchill the true meaning of his phrase ‘a kind of United States of Europe’. His companion, however, ‘refused to be drawn. All he said was: “We are not making a machine, we are growing a living plant.” And then, changing the metaphor, he added: “We have lit a fire which will either blaze or go out; or perhaps the embers will die down and then, after a while, begin to glow again.”’ On the one hand, the ambiguity was strategic – Churchill, as an opposition politician, did not want to be pinned down to specific plans or formulae that could be exposed to criticism in detail. On the other hand, he was in declining health, and he was not able to grasp the complexities at hand with his former level of acuteness. More brutally, he could be seen as an early proponent of ‘cakeism’, arguing that Britain and its Empire would hold some very special and pivotal position with respect to Europe, without ever explaining how that could really be made to work.

Churchill’s strongest claim to European ‘fatherhood’ actually rests with his role in establishing the Council of Europe and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which are separate, of course, from the institutions of the EU and its forerunners. Klos does not give a great deal of attention to this, but the deficit is compensated for by Marco Duranti’s powerful and provocative account. Duranti too makes use of multilinguistic sources, and he offers an analysis that is bound to be a key point of reference in the field for years to come. (Caveat: the book is somewhat too long and the structure could have been rationalised.) It is not an especially comforting read for those who would like to see Churchill (or many of the other founders of the ECHR) as essentially progressive in their Europeanism. Duranti suggests that Churchill’s campaign was essentially about the quest for domestic advantage. In other words – to use the phrase Lord Randolph Churchill applied to Gladstone – he was an ‘old man in a hurry’ who wanted to seize the political initiative on the Continent to make up for his exclusion from power at home. The ECHR itself could be seen as a mechanism for constraining socialist governments from carrying out the policies which Conservatives believed were tyrannical – note, for example, Churchill’s notorious 1945 election broadcast in which he said that a labour government would have to fall back on ‘some form of Gestapo’.

More broadly:

Involvement in the creation of the European human rights system offered conservatives the opportunity to disavow right-wing authoritarianism, which many had once argued was preferable to left-wing revolution and democratic dysfunction, without requiring them to repudiate their pre-war worldviews. It placed a renewed emphasis on the anti-statist, libertarian dimensions of conservatism. Yet, given the various derogations, exceptions and limitations codified in European human rights law, conservatives were not compelled to renounce their support for extraordinary repressive measures against subversive forces at home and abroad.

Duranti’s claims are bound to provoke debate and are doubtless deserving of qualification in various ways; but he puts them forward in a commendably thoughtful and undogmatic manner. In summary, both of these valuable books enhance our understanding of Churchill, and of the origins of the European project more generally; and they also show us why drawing historical figures into current debate is fraught with difficulty, even when the intentions are of the best.


[1] That is the subtitle of the Dutch edition: Winston Churchill, vader van Europa (Hollands Diep, 2016).

[2] Here I have offered some slight amendments to the translation given by Klos.