And he did it in 1934.
Debates about Britain and Europe are not new. Indeed, they long predate the creation of the EU.
In many ways – almost all of them depressing – Europe in 1934 resembles Europe now. There were severe economic problems brought on by a misguided attempt to maintain a transnational currency. And this was accompanied by a severe swing towards extremist ideologies and an upsurge in political violence.
Not surprisingly, many Brits concluded that they wanted nothing to do with this mess. Winston Churchill wasn’t one of them. In a speech broadcast on BBC radio, he explained:
There are those who say: Let us ignore the Continent of Europe. Let us leave it with its hatreds and armaments to stew in its own juice, to fight out its own quarrels. Let us turn our backs upon this alarming scene. Let us fix our gaze across the ocean and lead our own life in the midst of our peace-loving dominions and empire. There is much to be said for this plan if only we could unfasten the British islands from their rock foundations and could tow them 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and anchor them safely upon the smiling coasts of Canada. I have not heard of any way in which this could be done. No engineer has come forward with any scheme; even our best scientists are dumb. It would certainly in any case take a long time. Have we got a long time? At present we lie within a few minutes’ striking distance of the French, Dutch and Belgian coasts, and within a few hours of the great aerodromes of Central Europe. We are even within cannon shot of the Continent. Is it prudent? Is it possible, however we might desire it, to turn our backs upon Europe and ignore whatever may happen there. Everyone can judge this question for himself. And everyone ought to make up his mind, or her mind, about it, without delay. It lies at the heart of our problem.
Clearly this speech does not directly address the question Britain will shortly hold a referendum on. Churchill was focused on military issues rather than the social and economic ones that will be the focus of the campaign. And it is impossible to say with certainty what he would have made of an institution that did not emerge until after his death. He did call for a ‘United States of Europe‘ but it’s unclear what precisely he meant by that and what part Britain should play in it.
Nonetheless, what he identifies as “the heart of our problem” remains very relevant. A strand of Conservatism longs for us to become the 51st state. Another is nostalgic for deeper links with the Commonwealth. And there are those on both left and right who despise globalisation in its entirety and hope for isolation. Each of these notions is nullified by inconvenient facts of geography that no political decision is able to change.
Whether the British public vote to leave or remain, we will still be an island separated from the European continent by a channel so thin that it is sometimes possible to see across it with the naked eye. And along the border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland there is no gap at all, one can walk from the United Kingdom into another EU member state. Therefore, the most convenient locations to which to send our exports and receive imports from will always be in Europe. The same applies to migrants coming from and going out of this country. This near inevitable flow of people, money and objects between Britain and Europe means that whatever the outcome of the referendum, decisions made within the EU will still impact the UK. What is at stake is whether they are made with our input or not.
So while it’s probably a mistake for either side in the referendum to claim Churchill as a supporter, there are nonetheless clear Churchillian arguments for remaining. Britain’s entry, with his support, into both World Wars arose in large part from a conviction that what happens in Europe matters to Britain. It would be folly to imagine that this has changed. One fundamental point of continuity between 1934 and 2016 is that we still live on an island rather than a boat.