Among Brexit campaigners, the desire to reclaim Britain’s sovereignty is at the heart of the argument for leaving the European Union. So it’s worth recalling four extraordinary days back in June 1940 when the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill was prepared to sacrifice it – almost lock, stock and barrel.
For the first and very possibly the last time, a British government proposed a full-scale political union of Britain with her closest continental neighbour, France. And instrumental in persuading Churchill and his cabinet to sign up to this remarkable declaration was a French civil servant, Jean Monnet, who is now regarded as the ‘father of the European Union’.
The following is adapted from Roger Hermiston’s new book All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 (Aurum Press, 2016).
At lunchtime on Thursday 13 June 1940, Winston Churchill and his cabinet colleagues Lord Halifax, foreign secretary, and Lord Beaverbrook, minister of aircraft production, were sat round the conference table in Tours, the temporary seat of the retreating French government. The Wehrmacht armies were within hours of Paris, and the British contingent was desperately trying to stiffen the resolve of their Gallic partners on the Supreme War Council of the two nations.
It was proving a difficult task in a doom-laden atmosphere. French prime minister Paul Reynaud – the most defiant of a largely irresolute group, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain – asked Churchill to acknowledge that France had given ‘her best, her youth, her lifeblood … she can do no more, and that she is entitled, having nothing further to contribute to the common cause, to enter into a separate peace’.
While Churchill pleaded with Reynaud to stay in the war, to continue the fight south of Paris down to the sea and, if necessary, from North Africa, back in London at that moment three men were sitting down to dine in an elegant flat in Mayfair, to discuss a plan that they believed might just embolden the beleaguered French premier.
Leo Amery, the influential, veteran Conservative MP with a seat in the cabinet as India secretary, and Arthur Salter, Independent MP for Oxford University and a junior minister in the Ministry of Shipping, were the guests of Jean Monnet, the French diplomat who headed the Anglo-French Co-ordination Committee, which was charged with furthering the two countries’ economic interests in the war against Germany.
Monnet and Salter were old friends, having worked together at the League of Nations during the 1920s. Both were ardent believers in European political union, and Salter had set out his views in 1931 in a book entitled The United States of Europe, which foresaw a federal Europe working within the framework of the League.
Encouraged by the energetic Amery, the two men now seized this moment of crisis to put their theoretical beliefs into practice. It could be argued that Britain and France had not been bound together in any real constitutional, economic, linguistic or geographical sense since July 1453, when the Battle of Castillon effectively ended the Hundred Years’ War and sent the two countries firmly on their separate paths; what was needed now, in Amery’s words, was a ‘dramatic gesture emphasizing our unity’. So Monnet and Salter set to work on a memorandum that would reawaken memories of the uneasy alliance between the two countries in the past, but at this moment of crisis plot a truly revolutionary course for the future.
Joining them the next day, Friday June 14, to help draft the paper, were two equally committed champions of the European federal ideal, Monnet’s deputy René Pleven, and Robert Vansittart, for many years a leading figure at the Foreign Office but now languishing somewhat in the backwaters of government in the role of chief diplomatic adviser.
Amery spent the day furiously lobbying influential figures in and out of government over the Monnet-Salter plan. His overtures included an unsuccessful afternoon meeting with David Lloyd George, who had rejected a post in Churchill’s government but whose reputation ensured his opinions were still sought by politicians of all sides. But the India secretary had swiftly concluded after this encounter, ‘Except for the great name, LG would no longer be much use in a government … he wanders back into recriminations for the past’.
Amery seized his opportunity a few hours later, however. Following a ministers’ meeting chaired by Churchill, he thrust a copy of Monnet and Salter’s paper into the prime minister’s hand, highlighting one of its more acceptable ideas – a joint British/French war cabinet. Amery followed this up in a talk with the Lord Privy Seal, Clement Attlee, and later that evening dispatched further copies to Lord President Neville Chamberlain and Lloyd George.
The groundwork had now been laid. By the 15 June meeting of the war cabinet, the first full draft of the ‘Franco-British Union’, as it was entitled, was ready for consideration. It was discussed right at the end, with Chamberlain reading some extracts aloud and saying that though he agreed with much of the thinking it took ‘too gloomy a view’ in certain passages, while in others it was perhaps ‘somewhat misleading’. In particular, he felt the idea of joint parliaments and a joint cabinet ‘did not seem to be very fully thought out’.
Of the others present, Churchill and the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, minister for air, had given less thought to the document, remarking only that the Supreme War Council was already in place as a forum for the two cabinets to meet. With the complete collapse of France looming, they stated that their major preoccupations were still whether to release France from her agreement not to make a separate peace with Germany, and the possibility, even at this eleventh hour, of persuading America to intervene in some shape or form. Churchill’s principal military concern was that the French fleet might fall into the hands of the Germans.
Nevertheless, more time was granted for modifications to the proposal. Monnet and Salter went to work, and by late evening had the next draft ready for Amery to examine. The India secretary was startled by its ambition. ‘I thought it a little fantastic, with its references to the absolute unification of the two nations including such things as customs and currency’.
Whitehall was now buzzing with the news of the audacious ‘Union’ plan. Churchill’s special adviser Sir Desmond Morton and visiting French government representative Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle were among those who cast their eyes over the document at Downing Street the following morning, Sunday 16 June. The conversation about the proposal then continued over lunch at the Carlton Club, where Churchill was joined by de Gaulle, Charles Corbin (French ambassador to London), war secretary Anthony Eden, Sir John Dill, chief of the General Staff, and Monnet.
‘It is an enormous thing’, Churchill told de Gaulle of the proposed union. ‘Yes’, the General replied. ‘Its realization will take a long time. But the declaration can be made immediately. With things at the point they are, you should neglect nothing which can sustain France and maintain our alliance’.
At that, Churchill returned to Downing Street and summoned a special meeting of the war cabinet for 3 p.m., at which the fully revised document was unveiled. Its contents were quite breathtaking. The opening lines called this ‘the most fateful moment in the history of the modern world’. The governments of the United Kingdom and France were making this declaration ‘in their common defence of justice and freedom against subjection to a system which reduces mankind to a life of robots and slaves’. Paragraph two stated baldly that, ‘The two Governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one. There will thus be created a Franco-British Union. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France’. All customs were to be abolished, and there was to be a single currency. There would be one united war cabinet, one parliament, and a constitution would be drawn up ‘providing for joint organs of defence and economic policy’. The armies of Britain and France would be placed under a single, supreme command.
It finished with a flourish. ‘This unity, this union, will concentrate the whole of its strength against the concentrated strength of the enemy, no matter where the battle may be. And thus we will conquer’.
The eight politicians round the table, faced with this proposal for a political revolution – the establishment, in effect, of a new country – responded with remarkable equanimity. Sir Archibald Sinclair expressed his ‘warm support’, and said he was in favour of anything that would tighten the union between the two countries. Labour’s Arthur Greenwood, minister without portfolio, also had little criticism, only wanting the document to make clear that the ‘Union’ included the whole British Commonwealth of Nations and the French Empire. Lord Halifax said risks had to be taken, and the only phrase with which he would take issue was ‘France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one’.
Only Viscount Caldecote, secretary of state for dominion affairs, seemed to worry unduly. If the document was meant to cover the peace after the war, he warned that it raised issues which were ‘too stupendous’ to consider at such short notice. The breadth of the planned change might provoke great criticism in Britain. Churchill told his colleagues his first instinct had been against the idea, but in such a serious crisis the war cabinet must not be accused of a lack of imagination; a spectacular initiative was clearly needed to keep the French going.
After some discussion, the plans for the abolition of customs and the establishment of a single currency were dropped, as was the idea of a single parliament, although joint sessions of the two might take place from time to time. It was agreed a written constitution could be drafted, provided it was kept to ‘very broad lines’.
So there it was. After minor amendments this astounding, in a way inspiring, document, entitled ‘The Declaration of Union’, was complete. De Gaulle, who had embraced it ‘with an air of unwonted enthusiasm’, read its contents over the telephone to Reynaud in Bordeaux. So astonished was the French premier that he asked, ‘Does he agree to this? Did Churchill give you this personally?’ De Gaulle then handed the receiver to Churchill, who assured Reynaud the document was the decision of the whole cabinet.
‘He was transfigured with joy’, recalled General Edward Spears, Churchill’s personal emissary to the French prime minister, who was standing next to Reynaud. ‘The sense of the generosity of the offer was overwhelming, the sincerity of the gesture completely convincing’. Reynaud then prepared to submit it to his cabinet for approval in an hour’s time.
The atmosphere in the private secretary’s office at Number 10 was also one of elation. Jock Colville, with barely disguised excitement, pondered mischievously, ‘Meanwhile the King does not know what is being done to his Empire. The Lord President [Chamberlain] is going to see him at 7 p.m. and will break the news. Who knows, we may yet see the ‘Fleurs de Lys’ restored to the Royal Standard!’
Churchill, Attlee, Sinclair, and the chiefs of staff were all set to be transported by the cruiser Galatea that night to Concarneau, off the coast of Brittany, to discuss with Reynaud and his colleagues the prolonging of the battle – and the future of this new nation. They even got as far as Waterloo, where they took their seats in a special train primed to depart at 9.30 p.m. for Southampton.
But it was too late. The train never left the station. Churchill received a hand delivered note from a private secretary that the trip was off because of a ‘ministerial crisis’ in Bordeaux.
What he discovered on returning to Downing Street was that Reynaud had been ousted from power. Despite the support of President Albert Lebrun, he had run into a wall of criticism over the Declaration of Union, led by the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain from the pro-armistice grouping.
Reynaud had read the document twice to his cabinet, encountering a hostile silence on each occasion. ‘I commented on it, but it was no good’, he recounted. ‘Some were astonished, others taken aback, more were hostile’. Several suggested the plan was a last minute ruse by the British to steal France’s colonies; one even said it was preferable being ‘a Nazi province’ rather than a ‘British dominion’. Pétain himself described the proposal as ‘fusion with a dead corpse’.
In the end, the motion from deputy premier Camille Chautemps that the Declaration of Union should be rejected, won the day by thirteen votes to eleven. Reynaud resigned, and Pétain succeeded him, immediately announcing his intention to seek separate armistice terms.
The following day Colville reflected in his diary, ‘If only the Declaration had been approved twenty-four hours earlier, Reynaud, supported by Mandel [minister of the interior], de Gaulle – and who knows, by a whiff of grapeshot – might have saved the situation’. He was convinced it would have found a response in France and America and, misty-eyed, he pondered that ‘we had before us the bridge to a new world, the first elements of European or even World Federation’.
Roger Hermiston’s All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 was published on 7 April 2016 by Aurum Press. His previous books include The Greatest Traitor, a biography of the Cold War spy (and KGB mole) George Blake, and Clough and Revie, the story of the fierce rivalry between those two great football managers.
Before he turned to writing history full-time, Roger was a print and broadcast journalist. He was a reporter and feature writer on the Yorkshire Post and later joined the BBC in the early 1990s. The bulk of his career at the corporation was devoted to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where he was assistant editor from 1999-2010.