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. Continue reading “Old Man in A Hurry”