Euro Rights Blog: The Eurosceptic Reaction to Barroso’s Churchill Lecture – Misquoting Sir Winston

Winston Churchill at Strasbourg

One of the consequences of José Manuel Barroso’s Churchill Lecture in Zurich last week was to prompt a further airing of the great man’s view that: “We are with Europe but not of it; we are linked but not compromised. We are associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” This remark is frequently dated 1953, and cited as proof positive that whatever Churchill had said at Zurich he now intended that the United Kingdom would have nothing to do with the embryonic European Union. The quoted remarks were, in fact, made twenty three years earlier, when the world was very different.

The attraction of the quote for Eurosceptics is obvious. And consequently these remarks are frequently pressed into action in the debate surrounding the future of Britain in the European Union. But of course we do not know quite what Churchill would have thought about the contemporary EU and the broader issue of British membership.

Be that as it may, we know more about Churchill’s thoughts on the Council of Europe. Churchill was, of course, the Chairman of the United Europe Movement. And in his opening address to the Congress of Europe at The Hague Sir Winston argued (7 May 1948) that the movement ‘must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values .. it is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission … in the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.’ Later at Strasbourg he argued (photo above) in favour of the new court and human rights convention:

‘There is an urgency about this [work], because once the foundation of human rights is agreed on the lines of the decisions of the United Nations at Geneva but I trust in much shorter form we hope that a European Court might be set up, before which cases of violation of these rights in our own body of twelve nations might be brought to the judgment of the civilized world. Such a court, of course, would have no sanctions and would depend for the enforcement of its judgments on the individual decisions of the States now banded together in this Council of Europe. But these States would have subscribed beforehand to the process, and I have no doubt that the great body of public opinion in all these countries would press for action in accordance with the freely given decision.’ (17 August 1949)

Later in 1953 when Churchill was de facto Foreign Secretary he noted in the House of Commons ‘it is seven years since, at Zurich, I appealed to France to take Germany by the hand and lead her back into the European family. We have made great progress since then … We have Strasbourg and all that it stands for, and it is our duty to fortify its vitality and authority tirelessly as the years roll on.’ (Emphasis added)

How would Churchill approach the issue that so vexes British politicians today, namely of prisoner voting? People such as Messrs Hirst and Chester would be unlikely to attract much, if any, sympathy from a man who was a firm supporter of capital punishment. But Churchill also famously believed in the reform and rehabilitation of prisoners. As Home Secretary he had observed that:

‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.’

At the risk of conjecture, it is not hard to imagine the great man rising to the level of events, and arguing for a modest restoration of the franchise to some prisoners. Fortifying the vitality and authority of the European Court would require nothing less.

Add yours ↓

Comments are closed.