Probably not, is the honest answer.
There’s something innately wrong with proponents of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit) citing Winston Churchill as a ‘would-be’ supporter of leaving the EU. It’s not that his views aren’t relevant or worth speculating on, but they must surely be the most redacted and decontextualised of any political leader in the world. Anyone can cite a Churchill anecdote, aphorism or stirring quote, but few ever take the time to understand the man and how his views oscillated across his 90 years on this earth.
The blame for this rests squarely at the feet of the man himself. Churchill may be a historical legend but he was also deeply human. His verbosity, prolific speeches and writings are multifaceted, erudite, controversial, contradictory and occasionally downright facetious. His views changed, his opinions wavered and outright oscillated. Whether it was his views on the morality of war, history or Britain’s relationship with Europe, Churchill left behind a legacy and body of work which is wide open to interpretation.
The many Churchills, the many Europes
In place of dead certainty, Churchill’s personality often overshadows his oratory and writings. The pugnacious bulldog, perennially pissed or pissed-off, is held up as a defining example of the British spirit. It’s this, as many Brexit advocates say, which should form the self-pride to abandon the European project with confidence.
Nevertheless, Churchill has millions of words to his name from long before and long after the World War II. It’s a dangerous irony to indulge an obsession with all but a few of them just because they happen to be the most recognisable from the conflict which assured his place in history.
“We shall fight them on the beaches” delivered to the House of Commons, 4 June 1940
Churchill’s war years, for which he is largely exclusively remembered, forms only one part of Churchill’s world view. If Adolf Hitler had never risen to power, then Churchill would likely be remembered as a maverick politician of the late 19th and early 20th century whose career was unremarkable yet bombast. Hitler, on the other hand, would have survived in history one way or the other had Churchill not stood up against him.
Before WW2, Churchill had favoured an isolationist attitude towards continental Europe. In 1930, he commented to the American publication The Saturday Evening Post that a “European Union” was possible between continental states but without Britain’s involvement:
“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. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”
Compare this to what he said 12 years later. When the tide turned in favour of Britain after the battle of El Alamein, Churchill began thinking more of what a new Europe would like after the defeat of the Third Reich. He wrote to his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, on 21 October 1942:
“Hard as it is to say now. I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible.”
Churchill was, if nothing else, a pragmatist. He believed that world peace could only be secured by a collaborative effort between Britain, the US and Russia. In a speech in March 1943, he proposed a “Council of Europe” to manage Europe after the war with states and federations forming it with their own chosen representatives:
“We must try to make the Council of Europe…into a really effective League with all the strongest forces concerned woven into its texture; with a high court to adjust disputes and with forces, armed forces, national or international or both, ready to enforce these decisions…”
“It is my earnest hope, though I can hardly expect to see it fulfilled in my lifetime, that we shall achieve the largest common measure of the integrated life of Europe that is possible without destroying the individual characteristics and traditions of its many ancient and historic races. All this will, 1 believe, be found to harmonize with the high permanent interests of Britain, the United States and Russia. It certainly cannot be accomplished without their cordial and concerted agreement and direct participation. Thus and thus only will the glory of Europe rise again,I only mention these matters to you to show you the magnitude of the task that will lie before us in Europe alone.”
In a May 1943 memorandum produced on a trip to Washington, he reiterated the idea, expounding that this regional European Council would comprise twelve federations, states and confederations and be policed mainly by Britain, seconded by the USA. It would be one of three global regional councils (for the Americas, Pacific and Europe) forming part of a “Supreme World Council” with the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and perhaps China. Churchill argued that the ‘Big Three’ would sit on the regional councils of which they were directly interested – thus ensuring control and influence. The “regional principle”, as he called it, would also include these regions sitting on the World Council by rotation to ensure the Council rested on a “three-legged stool”, whereby no one region could gain the upper hand over the others.
This is key: at this stage, Churchill believed that the United Kingdom and the United States should play an active overseeing role in the new European order and that the UK should be in a controlling position, all while respecting the autonomy of Europe.
By the end of the year, however, the Americans and the Soviet Union were reluctant to commit to European regionalism because regional sub-organisations might one day provide competition to the preeminence of the USA and USSR and impede international trade. The Americans favoured a global solution and the British Foreign Office were also opposed to European regionalism. By the summer of 1944 Churchill, under pressure from all sides to shelve his ideas for Europe, was increasingly lukewarm to his original thinking and began to accept that the ‘Big Three’ would have to oversee matters a the United Nations-type organisation, without actually being part of Europe .
Nevertheless, by the time of his most famous and oft-quoited speech on Europe made at the University of Zurich on the 19th September 1946, Churchill reiterated his calls for a “Council of Europe” or “United States of Europe”:
“If we are to form a United States of Europe or whatever name it may take, we must begin now. In these present days, we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I even say protection, of the atomic bomb.
“There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis can only survive if it is founded upon broad natural groupings. There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere.
“We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary, they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support. And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the honourable destiny of man? In order that this may be accomplished, there must be an act of faith in which the millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part.”
He concluded, most famously, by saying: “therefore, I say to you, let Europe arise!”
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe” delivered to University of Zurich, September 19, 1946
Churchill never did spell out the exact nature of the Council of Europe and it is here that confusion can be found as to how far the British would have been involved in any European project. Churchill’s now explicit reaffirmation to the British participation in the European project can largely be explained by what happened after 1943. The war was won, but Britain’s preeminence waned and the Empire was the cost of victory; the UK was in large swathes destroyed, it was economically marooned to say nothing of Churchill himself being ejected from office in 1945.
Churchill was a man of conflicting ties. His commitment to the Commonwealth, the English-speaking peoples of the world and his desire to see a united Europe was a conflict at the heart of this thinking. In his lifetime he believed passionately in the “fraternal associations of English-speaking peoples” (particularly between the United States and the United Kingdom), but was likewise a passionate francophile with a keen appreciation of French history and Britain’s historic place in Europe: “For more than thirty years in peace and war I have marched with you,” Churchill told the French in 1940: “je marche encore avec vous aujourd’hui, sur la même route.“
It was a conflict that would endure for the rest of his life.
The Council of Europe of the European Union?
In October 1948, at a Conservative Party meeting, Churchill made clear that Britain held a unique position at the heart of “three majestic circles”: the “Empire and Commonwealth”, “the English-speaking world” and a “United Europe”. He described these three circles as “co-existent” and “linked together” adding that:
“We are the only country which has a great part in every one of them. We stand, in fact, at the very point of junction, and here in this Island at the centre of the seaways and perhaps of the airways also, we have the opportunity of joining them all together.”
So after World War II, what vision of Europe came closest to his rhetoric?
Firstly, and most apparently, Churchill was committed to any effort to ensure peace on the European continent. The Congress of Europe in the Hague is considered by many as the first federal moment of the European history with 750 delegates participating from around Europe, including observers from Canada and the United States. On May 7, 1948, Churchill address the meeting, saying:
“It must be all for all. Europe can only be united by the heartfelt wish and vehement expression of the great majority of all the peoples in all the parties in all the freedom-loving countries, no matter where they dwell or how they vote.
“Thus for us and for all who share our civilisation and our desire for peace and world government, there is only one duty and watchword: Persevere. That is the command which should rule us at this Congress. Persevere along all the main lines that have been made clear and imprinted upon us by the bitter experiences through which we have passed. Persevere towards those objectives which are lighted for us by all the wisdom and inspiration of the past.
“We must aim at nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to the day when that union will be achieved.”
Churchill was acutely aware of the horrors of the Nazi regime and wanted to see an organisation which committed to a “Charter of Human Rights and with the sincere expression of free democracy.” While this most resembles the Council of Europe, he also articulated a vision which describes a forebear to the European Union we know today:
“It is impossible to separate economics and defence from the general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity.
“We must aim at nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole” delivered to the Hall of Knights in The Hague, May 7, 1948
The Council of Europe came into being in 1949, with the Treaty of London, predating the European Economic Community by eight years (the precursor to the European Union). Article 1(a) of the statute states that “The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”
Membership is open to all European states who seek harmony, cooperation, good governance and human rights and accept the principle of the rule of law and are able and willing to guarantee democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms. No sacrifice of sovereignty is required as it is with the European Union today. Nevertheless, since its creation the CoE has been powerless to make binding laws and to enforce a commitment and compliance to human rights and it is only the EU which can make binding laws.
However, while nearly all Council of Europe member states have incorporated the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention) into national law, the Council of Europe has also made clear that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is not a substitute for national courts and is a subsidiary to national systems which protect human rights. Individuals or groups alleging violations of human rights provisions are required to first exhaust domestic remedies before a case can be considered admissible by a European tribunal.
There is no real enforcement mechanism for gross human rights abuses. The Council of Europe can co-opt, promote and guilt-trip compliance to human rights, but before any allegations of human rights abuses can be considered domestic courts must be exhausted first before the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2000, the EU adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights. This became legally binding in December 2009 when the Treaty of Lisbon came into force and the charter is consistent with the Human Rights Convention. Although the rights outlined in the Charter correspond to the rights in the Human Rights Convention, it’s the European Union which can give greater protection to them than the CoE because of its Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The job of the Council of Europe in this context is to supervise the way in which governments give effect to European Court of Human Rights whereas the main job of the CJEU is to interpret EU law and make sure it’s applied in the same way across the EU.
What is often conflated in error is whether Churchill would have favoured one or the other when he would most likely advocate that which gave meaning to the rhetoric he espoused. His ambition for the protection of liberty and the prevention of war was unequivocal, but his preference for an institution was not. In this case, it would be considered likely that Churchill would view the EU in practice and the CoE in principle as the heirs to his ideas.
Europe, the Empire and America
The central reason for confusion over Churchill’s preference for UK involvement in Europe stems primarily from his commitment to the British Commonwealth and the English-speaking peoples of the world. In the late 1950s, he even completed and published a four-volume history on the subject, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Churchill was a child of the British Empire: he had fought in the North-West Frontier of India, Sudan, South Africa and campaigned hard against granting India Dominion status in the 1930s (something which went against the grain of political opinion at the time and largely contributed to his ‘wilderness years’). The man who partook in the British Army’s last cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 died as Beatlemania was taking over the world in 1965. Nevertheless, a constant theme of his lifetime is Churchill’s commitment to the English-speaking nations and the successor to the Empire, the British Commonwealth.
He was torn between his affections for the United States and a United Europe, both for the sake of Britain’s long-term economic and military benefit and because securing a lasting peace on the Continent was the culmination of years of war. Like Janus, Churchill looked both ways across the Atlantic and across the Channel. For example, at a meeting of the Primrose League at the Albert Hall on 18 May 1947, Churchill declared not only “let Europe arise” but was also “absolutely clear…that we shall allow no wedge to be driven between Britain and the United States”. Yet, speaking in London in 1949, he also said: “Our friends on the Continent need have no misgivings. Britain is an integral part of Europe, and we mean to play our part in the revival of her prosperity and greatness.”
“Britain is an integral part of Europe”delivered to Kingsway Hall in London, 28 November 1949
He contradicted himself yet again during a House of Commons debate in June 1950 to discuss Europe. Churchill remarked that he could not “at present” foresee Britain being “a member of a Federal Union of Europe”, going on to explain that this was, primarily, because of Britain’s position “at the centre of the British Empire and Commonwealth” and “our fraternal association with the United States of America.”
Yet in answering the question “Are you prepared to part with any degree of national sovereignty in any circumstances for the sake of a larger synthesis?” from a fellow MP, Churchill responded:
“We are prepared to consider and, if convinced, to accept the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and the safeguards… national sovereignty is not inviolable, and it may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all men in all the lands finding their way home together.”
The following year in 1950, Churchill even went so far as to call for the creation of a European Army “under a unified command, and in which we should all bear a worthy and honourable part.” (The French objected to the idea).
Even though Churchill is evidently uncomfortable ever declaring himself in favour of Europe or America, what is subtly evident is just how frequently he indulges “we” to discuss the construction of a United States of Europe. The absence of ‘you’ or ‘they’ is revealing and it’s surely beyond doubt that Churchill wanted the UK to take part in the unification of Europe, but not at the cost of cutting ties with either the British Commonwealth, remaining imperial colonies in Africa or the United States.
The following year, after returning as Prime Minister, Churchill issued a note for the Cabinet on 29 November, 1951 where he listed British Foreign Policy priorities as Commonwealth unity and consolidation, “fraternal association” of the English-speaking world (i.e. the Commonwealth and the US), then thirdly “United Europe, to which we are a closely—and specially-related ally and friend … (it is) only when plans for uniting Europe take a federal form that we cannot take part because we cannot subordinate ourselves or the control of British policy to federal authorities”.
By the time he had left office in 1953 his view had changed again: Churchill made his last speech about Europe at London’s Central Hall, Westminster in July 1957; some four months after six founding nations established the European Economic Community by signing the Treaty of Rome (France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg). Churchill welcomed the formation of a “common market” by the six countries, provided that “the whole of free Europe will have access”, adding:
“We genuinely wish to join…[yet]…If, on the other hand, the European trade community were to be permanently restricted to the six nations, the results might be worse than if nothing were done at all – worse for them as well as for us. It would tend not to unite Europe but to divide it – and not only in the economic field.”
The reason for a more overt opinion on participation? The British debacle over the Suez Canal in 1956 under Prime Minister Anthony Eden signalled the end of Britain’s ability to conduct unilateral foreign policy in a world now dominated by the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened serious damage to the British financial system if the French, British and Israeli forces did not withdraw from Egypt over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The event was a humiliating one for Britain as much as it was a humbling one for Eden who resigned not long after in 1957.
The event signalled as much to the British political establishment as it did the world that the country’s position of preeminence was over. Churchill knew it and became entrenched that Britain must play a role on the European Continent while emphasising American economic, military and cultural ties. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once quipped that he wanted the British to be to the Americans what the experience and wisdom of the Ancient Greeks were to the Roman Empire. The Suez Crisis guaranteed that would never truly be the case.
There were even discussions on bridging the “three circles” problem to the benefit of Britain. At a time when Germany and France, together with Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, were planning for what later became the European Union, and newly independent African countries were joining the Commonwealth, new ideas were floated to prevent Britain from becoming isolated in economic affairs. British trade with the Commonwealth was four times larger than trade with Europe. The British government under Eden considered in 1956 and 1957 a “plan G” to create a European free trade zone while also protecting the favoured status of the Commonwealth. Britain also considered inviting Scandinavian and other European countries to join the Commonwealth so it would become a major economic common market. At one point in October 1956, Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed having France join the Commonwealth. Nothing came of any of the proposals.
“The wind of change is blowing through this continent”delivered to the Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town, 3 February, 1960
Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, famously declared in 1960 in Cape Town that: “the wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” The British Government wanted to avoid equivalent struggles as France in French Algeria and to preempt issues with African nationalism. Independence for many of its African territories, including South Africa occurred quickly, signalling the end of the British Empire. As the American Secretary of State Dean Acheson quipped: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.”
Churchill was aware of this. During the 1960s his health was rapidly declining, although his support for a united Europe was not. According to Churchill’s last Private Secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Brown, in August 1961, Churchill wrote to his constituency Chairman:
“I think that the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community.”
In this letter, Churchill supported the “welding” of West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg into “an organic whole”, which he described as a “happy outcome” of the European Economic Community. He added that:
“We might well play a great part in these developments to the profit of not only ourselves, but of our European friends also.”
Sir Anthony also confirmed that in 1963, just two years before Churchill died, he wrote in a private letter: “The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed.”
While we can debate whether Churchill would have condoned or rejected greater European integration, it is a fair estimation that he would have recoiled at the isolationist, hostile and jingoistic slamming of the door and melodramatic walk away from the Continent. Montague-Brown, in response to an article published in The Spectator titled ‘Would Winston Churchill have signed Maastricht?’ said that he himself had not attempted to reach a verdict and that it was a “vain exercise” to try. Nevertheless, in 1957 Montague-Brown remembers that Churchill said to him that:
“My message to Europe today is still the same as it was ten years ago: unite; Europe’s security and prosperity lie in unity.”
The mind of a poet, the heart of a soldier
Churchill comes across as equivocating on the details of Britain’s engagement with post-war Europe. There can be no avoiding the body of quotes and speeches which are at once ambitious or contradictory depending on what year or on what occasion you examine what Churchill has to say.
What is beyond doubt, is Churchill’s commitment to the preservation of human life, a fact often overlooked when his major accolades are for winning a war, often not without criticism. Would this have been subsumed on an ideational basis and a grand vision for the UK outside of the European Union?
Booted out of office in 1945, Churchill had lost the General Election to one of the most zealously innovative governments Labour governments in British history which gave the UK the welfare state and the National Health Service. Churchill wasn’t fit for the trivialities of domestic life or for anything other than total control as warlord; the qualities which made him great in war repeatedly proved disastrous in peace or if he was not controlling the direction of a war effort (as his previous appointments President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Admiralty demonstrate).
After his election loss, Churchill fashioned himself as the first global politician of the modern age. He was a natural macro-manager, good at what American President George H.W Bush once dubbed “the vision thing”. He might have enjoyed celebrity because of his leadership in the war, but his very presence elevated his commitment to peace about the domestic and international politics of the day; a curious and often overlooked aspect of the great war leader’s character.
Churchill was a soldier at heart and it’s his experiences of war which made him deeply conscious of the loss of life that war can bring, and the duty of statesmen to prevent war in peace. When he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill’s disastrous plan for Dardanelles Campaign resulted in the loss of 252,000 Allied soldiers, his own experiences in the trenches on the Western Front in the same year all formed in him an acute awareness of the tragic of mechanised, mass warfare.
Throughout his leadership in the World War II, Churchill was repeatedly reluctant to needlessly risk British lives unless absolutely necessary (he was shocked at early American calls in 1942 to invade France before the Allies were prepared and, along with the Chief of the Imperial Staff General Alan Brooke, was instrumental in deferring the plans to 1944 when casualties would be fewer).
It’s this zeal and passion that affords a greater understanding of his global vision for peace in a United Europe. This is the essence of Churchill’s third act after the war which was conducted with exactly the same emphasis on saving lives. Churchill’s prodigiousness and energy didn’t allow him to fall gently into old age (he was already in his 70s by the time he became prime minister again) and he found it in what became known as the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons).
Churchill believed that Russia should be negotiated with, as he had in the World War II with Stalin. He believed not that nuclear weapons should be kerbed, but that Britain should have them (it was actually Clement Attlee that ushered in the nuclear arsenal for Britain) and that European disunity should be avoided at all costs. As he said in his Zurich speech:
“In these present days, we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield and protection of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a State and nation which we know will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom. But it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and the catastrophe following from its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilisation but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself.”
He continued to try and curry favour with successive US presidents after Roosevelt’s death in a bid to defer the threat of nuclear weapons between the superpowers and to promote British prestige. In one of the most famous orations of the Cold War period, Churchill spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe. He famously declared:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
“An iron curtain has descended across the continent” delivered to Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946
Churchill’s speech is considered one of the opening volleys announcing the beginning of the Cold War. He praised the United States, which he declared stood “at the pinnacle of world power” and called for an even closer “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain as the great powers of the “English-speaking world” in organising and policing the postwar world, warning of the expansionistic policies of the Soviet Union.
While Stalin accused of “war-mongering”, Churchill understood that in dealing with the Soviets there was “nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.”
This is analogous to today’s Russia: Churchill understood strength is the condition of peace, and there was no shame in ensuring that.
“There is widespread belief throughout the free world that, but for American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status and the Iron Curtain would have reached the Atlantic and the Channel.
“I have said, like the United Kingdom and Western Europe, have had this outstanding vulnerability to carry. But the hydrogen bomb, with its vast range of destruction and the even wider area of contamination, would be effective also against nations whose population, hitherto, has been so widely dispersed over large land areas as to make them feel that they were not in any danger at all.
“The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
Churchill knew that war was man’s natural predilection and that certain conditions gave rise to his. His ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, fought in the War of the Spanish Succession and of whom the Churchill younger wrote a seven-tome biography. He understood national ambition, national restraint and national war and his only family’s place in it. Churchill always believed himself to be a man of destiny, but it wasn’t to bring war but lasting peace. This must be the paradigm through which we understand his sincerity about peace in Europe as he said in 1946 in Zurich:
“There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy. It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
It’s what drove him to continue as prime minister and as an international statesman working for a global resolution to the prospect of an atomic, despite the long-pleading of his wife Clementine to retire (particularly after a series of debilitating strokes in the early 1950s), but continue he did until he retired from the House of Commons in 1964. He died in January 1965.
The state funeral of Winston Churchill, 30 January, 1965
Support for Brexit?
Would Churchill have supported a Brexit? Churchill believed in a Britain that stood for peace as power and power as peace. He would not have been so foolhardy to dismiss 70 years of peace in Western Europe as a mere coincidence distinct from closer linking of European countries. He believed, as he did after Britain was catastrophically diminished after the war, that the UK still had a part to play at the centre of world affairs and would unlikely have concluded walking away from the EU when the Commonwealth is largely ceremonial and the “special relationship” with the USA is not America’s most important global connection.
Would Churchill have liked its present structures, the sacrifice of sovereignty and the lazy diktats that emerge from Brussels? Most likely not. Yet Churchill’s realistic temperament, his youthful Liberalism and preference for freed trade, his commitment to freedom, his decades spent warning of emerging threats from Germany and Russia, his lifelong commitment to the perseverance of life and his romantic belief that Britain was a force for good, serves as a convincing case that he would have seen the world today as one of fragmented fundamentalism, scarce resources, subsuming superpowers and the very real decline of Western civilisation.
The European Union might well be to Churchill a romantic and dramatic idea that sits with and not at odds with the Commonwealth. The latter, a largely unrealized sequel to the British Empire is now more an animated corpse of what the Empire was. A strong Britain, an unapologetic force and an avant-garde instigator of new institutions with a communal methodology with European partners to protect European values in an increasingly effective and powerful anti-Western value world.
Even in Churchill’s prime the loss of empire and the quest to find a role for Britain was an unrelentingly ambiguous challenge. By the time Prime Minister Ted Heath took the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain was too late to the party and thus never really felt a part of it. Great Britain’s immense contribution to securing Europe’s freedom from Hitler gave it a historical right to be at the heart of the EEC and to exert influence in its development. Yet, the reality is that the UK never truly embraced the EU because the enduring memory of the global hegemony and influence it once enjoyed with the Empire remained too strong. The UK, and Edinburgh and London in particular, are replete with statues and street names homaging a bygone age of imperial stature that has never been rivalled, and it’s a tension which remains to this day.
The cultural and popular memory of Britain’s imperial past should not be conflated with Churchill’s own appreciation for the entirety of British history. Churchill, with his cast iron understanding of Britain’s inextricable role in European affairs over the last thousand years, was first and foremost a student of the past. It is an exercise in sophistry to claim Churchill would be so parochial as to see the repatriation of British sovereignty today as a justification for leaving the European Union. He was eccentric, bombast and flawed, but never limited in his reason and scope.
The rise of fundamentalist Islam, particularly the Islamic State, the resurgent militarism of Russia, the economic ascendency of China and the cheap labour market of India makes very real the question if the modern cultural relevancy of Western Civilisation will, one day, become a historical chapter.
NATO might have guaranteed an alliance of nations against Russian-led communist bloc nations but little attention was ever given to the cultural survival of British and European values which, if different in manifestation, are wholly similar in their commitment to democracy, freedom of religion, movement, liberty and property rights. It was just sort of presumed that these things would survive, that they would never be in jeopardy or, worse, decline because no one bothered to tend the garden that had always grown.
As the historian Andrew Roberts said, if Churchill returned to the world today it wouldn’t take the British Cabinet long to brief him on the state of things because they’ve not changed all that much since his day.
What is worth remembering is in 1956, after retiring as Prime Minister, Churchill went to Aachen in Germany to receive the Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European Unity. Today he is listed as one of the founding fathers of the European Union.
With that, we can make an informed guess that magnanimity, goodwill, and survival would still form the basis of Churchill’s politics as would a shrewd pragmatism about what was honestly best for Britain’s long-term interests.