May 25, 2016 | Commentary on European Union, United Kingdom

Would Churchill Have Backed Brexit?

London’s now-former mayor, Boris Johnson, a best-selling biographer of Winston Churchill, has claimed the Great Man for the side of Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU. Writing in the Guardian, journalist Martin Kettle offers the contrary argument that “everything we know” about Churchill suggests that would “be a committed voter to remain” inside the European Union

If everything Kettle knows about Churchill tells him this, he certainly doesn’t know very much. Here are a few things he missed, or didn’t see fit to mention, about Churchill that seem relevant to how Churchill would have thought about the European Union.

While Churchill began and ended his life as a Conservative, he was for much of it a liberal, in the late-19th century sense of that term. He was, above all, a free trader: indeed, he left the Conservative Party after 1903 when it began to move toward protectionism. He eventually accepted the system of imperial preference – tariffs that discriminated in favor of members of the Empire and Commonwealth – but this was a reflection of the pressure of the Great Depression, not of his deepest convictions, which remained constantly in favor of free trade.

Why does that matter today? Simple: The EU is a customs union. Churchill would have hated that. The EU has free trade inside the union, but not with the rest of the world. For a trading nation like Britain, the EU has always been a bad fit. That’s especially true because Britain is a food importer – and Churchill believed passionately in free trade in food, both because it was good for the British people, and because a lot of that food came from Commonwealth nations, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Churchill certainly believed that free trade would do the continent of Europe a world of good. As he put it to Anthony Eden in 1942, he hoped for a “United States of Europe” in which “the barriers between nations will be greatly minimized and unrestricted travel will be possible.” Or, even more evocatively, as recorded in volume seven of his official biography, in a 1944 meeting with Stalin:

The evil in Europe was that travelling across it one used many different currencies, passed a dozen frontiers, many customs barriers, and all this was a great obstacle to trade. He wanted to see Europe prosperous and some of the old glory return to her. In this way perhaps hatred would die. He thought this might be achieved by groupings for commercial and trade purposes.

Churchill’s vision was born of the 19th century. He regarded Europe as the center of civilization, and believed that, by the Great War and the Second World War (which he wanted to call “The Unnecessary War”) it had carelessly thrown away its rightful place at the pinnacle of world culture and power. The point of European cooperation was to re-create something akin to the old Congress of Vienna system, but more cooperative, softened by free trade, and with a larger place for the smaller nations.

This is a noble vision. But it bears no relationship to today’s bureaucratized, centralized European Union. Churchill believed, as he put it, in “the European family,” defined by a shared civilization. His “United States of Europe” would have been, as he put it in 1940 when speaking of Europe, “a house of many mansions where there will be room for all.” It is a great mistake to see the word “Europe” and assume, without awareness of Churchill’s long life and his deep interest in European history, art, religion and culture, that he was speaking about Brussels. His conception was larger, and greater.

But Churchill was also a man in the here and now, and a politician. Most of his great post-war speeches on Europe were given between 1946 (Zurich, in September) and 1948 (the Hague, in May). In other words, they came in those terrible months after the war before NATO, and before the Marshall Plan had been devised or come into operation, when it seemed likely that the U.S. would repeat its post-1918 error and leave Europe to its own devices. As soon as it became clear that the U.S. was going to stick around, and that Germany was not going to be broken up into separate federal republics – which is part of the Zurich speech that Europhiles today tend to ignore – Churchill stopped giving visionary speeches about Europe and began to limit himself to much more prosaic declarations of detached support.

Moreover, Churchill’s speeches on Europe after 1945 weren’t just about his anxieties that Europe, lacking U.S. support, would succumb to the Soviet Union. They were also political: Churchill wanted to paint the post-1945 Labour government as failing to lead in Europe. There was some truth in this charge, but it was that Labour government, after all, that took the lead in creating NATO, and when he returned to power in 1951, Churchill proved – much to the disappointment of some younger conservatives, such as Harold Macmillan – to be no more interested in participating in European schemes than Labour had been.

In short, Churchill’s Europe speeches are a mix of political calculation, strategic desperation and visionary idealism – a mix that is hard to untangle, and which doesn’t have anything to do with today’s European issues, or today’s EU. The best guide to what Churchill actually believed is what he actually did – and that was to keep Britain clear of participation in overtly political European causes. He regarded institutions like the failed European Defense Community as, in his words, a “sludgy amalgam,” and he had a lifelong contempt for the more machine-like attributes of bureaucracies. He didn’t jump to join the Coal and Steel Community, or any of the other nascent European institutions of his day.

Kettle refers in passing to a scheme for common citizenship between Britain and France, which came to the fore in the desperate days of the Battle of France in 1940. Contrary to Kettle, though, this was not an “enthusiastic attempt” on Churchill’s part. As his Private Secretary John Colville wrote, Churchill wanted French soldiers escaping the wreck to come and fight in Britain, but he was “less interested in the grandiose idea of a Franco-British union.” His chief whip described him as “bored and critical.” Churchill went along with the plan in the hope that it would keep France in the war. Once it became apparent that it would not, Churchill dropped the idea.

We don’t, sadly, have much evidence for what Churchill thought about the EEC, the predecessor to today’s EU. He said he supported the British application to join in 1961 – but that application was urged by his protégée Macmillan, and by supporting it, Churchill was backing up his man and his party. Against this, we have a report from Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who said that when he saw Churchill in mid-1962 that Churchill was sitting up in bed and declaiming against joining the EEC. Churchill afterwards described Monty’s behavior as “monstrous” – but Churchill had an understandable aversion to having his private conversations with friends reported in public, viewing it as a betrayal of trust.

My own view is that Monty’s report is probably accurate, though tactless. But we just don’t know what Churchill thought about the EEC (if, sadly, his worsening condition by that point allowed him to come to grips with the issue at all). And that is the point: everything Churchill said and thought about Europe was pre-EEC, and pre-EU. When he talked about Europe, we have to remember that he was a man, and an Englishman, born into the Victorian Era, who believed in free trade and free political institutions.

Which brings us to the matter of the House of Commons. Churchill believed profoundly in the Commons. He regarded it as the secret of Britain’s success, the reason why it had beaten the supposedly superior system of Imperial Germany in the Great War, and the reason why it would beat Nazi Germany. He did not agree that centralized systems were more efficient. On one memorable occasion in 1917, reported in volume six of his official biography, he led an MP into the Commons late at night, and launched into a speech on the virtues of the House:

‘Look at it!’ he said. ‘This little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we muddle through to success, and for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency will lead her to final disaster. This little room is the shrine of the world’s liberties.’

I leave it to the reader to decide if that Winston Churchill would be happily content to vote for Remain, in the knowledge that a majority of Britain’s rules and laws are passed down from Brussels, not subject to a meaningful vote – much less meaningful debate – in the House of Commons.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally published in Forbes Opinion