Brexit and the British Constitution: Part IV. The Roots of British Supranationalism.

The photo on the front is of David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1916 to 1922. His Liberal-Conservative government fell part in late 1922, and the Liberal Party remained out of power for nearly a century. Now and again, the party exerted some influence from the Opposition benches, or as in Churchill’s wartime government, some of their number occupied ministerial posts. But 1922 was the last time until 2010 that the Liberals participated in government. They were out of power, but their ideas ruled the country for the coming century. What follows is an analysis of the reasoning which led many leaders in UK political life to consider seriously that Europe and the UK needed a different political regime to the one that had led to the wars of the first part of the century. The regime, the dominant line of thought became, should be supranational, federal, and European in scope. The British supranationalists provided the main body of ideas, which resulted over seven decades later in the 2004 EU Constitutional Treaty. It entailed reducing the British parliament to the status of town council, and Whitehall to a subordinate to the European Commission.


The United Kingdom, it bears repeating, is one of the very few states in the world not to have a written constitution, or more accurately an uncodified constitution made up of rules that are found from various documents in the absence of a single document. The three main documents of the English Constitution are Magna Carta; the Petition of Right; and the Bill of Rights. The constitution’s three pillars are, and have been for centuries, the courts, parliament and executive. The rule of law, famously described by Bracton in the thirteenth century as “no rex where will rules rather than lex”, has been developed by a process of trial and error over the centuries, notably since the Glorious Revolution of 1689 laying the foundations for a constitutional monarchy,  freedom of the press, the rights of individuals against tyranny and abuses of all kinds, the right of appeal, freedom of religion and parliamentary sovereignty. This Whig view on British constitutional history was adopted by the radical constitutionalists of the century following Prime Minister Disraeli’s extension of the franchise in 1867, launching the country on the path to universal suffrage, the growth of modern political parties, and a more activist central and local government apparatus. As the last of the three radicals presented in Part III,  Jennings, the Fabian, considered democracy as the ultimate guarantor of freedoms, not any presumed separation of powers, as postulated by Montesquieu in the early 1730s.  Not only was the British Constitution deeply rooted in the affection of its people, its legitimacy stood confirmed in two mighty victories in two world wars. It’s crowning achievement was to have exported its specific arrangements all over the world, to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Malaysia , the United States, and in part to South Africa. It therefore requires some explanation how British leaders jettisoned their constitutional heritage, and decided to submit to the supranational authority of the European project.

End-of-century blues

The phenomenon of “declinism” is generally associated with the  UK of the 1960s. The birthrate sagged following the introduction of the pill in 1961, and the law legalizing abortions in 1967. Greater sexual freedom, and the consequent challenges to the  established rules of human intercourse, went along with a sharp upward tick in the rate of divorce, the growth of single parent households, and the resulting negative impact on children. Economic growth stalled relative to what was widely considered to be more dynamic continental economies; market shares were lost across the board of the UK’s major industries from textiles, to shipbuilding, steel, automobiles and electronics. Great Britain’s international influence shrunk as territories under Westminster rule gained independence; the great regiments which had sustained British influence over the centuries were cut back; the maritime economy which had supported British sea power was shrunk; investments in high technologies were cancelled, and the argument advanced that the UK had to trim its ambitions to its much reduced cloth. De Gaulle had said “Non” twice to British Prime Ministers, begging to enter the EEC. If the UK were to join the EEC, France-then the dominant power in western Europe- made clear, it would be on French not on British terms. Successive British governments were prepared to accept hook, line and sinker. In 1969, the decision was taken to withdraw the British presence from “East of Suez”. In 1972, Prime Minister Heath took the Great Britain into the EEC.  He did so without the backing of a large swathe of the British electorate.

Yet “declinism” may be considered ancestral, embedded in the collective British DNA, like the rain and the fog in the weather. Writing in 1796, the year before his death, Edmund Burke-the great Anglo-Irish statesman- wrote, miserably, that “Our Government and our Laws are beset by two different Enemies, which are sapping its foundations, Indianism, and Jacobinism. In some Cases they act separately, in some they act in conjunction: But of this I am sure; that the first is the worst by far, and the hardest to deal with; and for this amongst other reasons, that it weakens discredits, and ruins that force, which ought to be employed with the greatest Credit and Energy against the other; and that it furnishes Jacobinism with its strongest arms against all formal Government”.[1]This was the Irishman, son to a Catholic mother, airing his conviction that the ill-gotten gains of the East India company were corrupting British public life, undermining trust in the British constitution, inherited from 1689, and playing into the hands of Jacobinism-the reigning ideology of the French revolution, that he abhorred as incompatible with British freedoms.  Yet Waterloo, and British global hegemony, lay ahead. A century after Burke expressed his deep pessimism for the future, Rudyard Kipling penned his poem for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, as a solemn meditation on the mortality of empires. “Far-called, our navies melt away; On dune and headland sinks the fire; Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! Judge of the nations, spare us yet Lest we forget-lest we forget”. Four years later, Lord Curzon , then Viceroy of India, declared that « as long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straight away to a third-rate Power.» [2]Joining the EEC in 1972 was intended to avoid this terrible fate.

Where did the end-of-century blues originate? By any objective standard of comparison, it was definitely overwrought. The mid- to late nineteenth century saw Great Britain at the apogee of global power and influence, its leaders radiating a languid confidence only matched by a touch of arrogance. As famously described by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rdMarquess of Salisbury-three times Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister, and successor to Benjamin Disraeli as head of the Tory party- “English policy is to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.”  After a recession in the early 1870s, unemployment remained low; productivity continued to rise, and income per capita by 1900 exceeded French and German income by  over 50%. Exports were equivalent to those of Germany and the United States;  by  1880 more than 50 percent of world shipping was British owned, while British shipyards were constructing about four fifths of the world’s new vessels in the 1890s.  In addition to its own manufactures, Britain was the world’s greatest emporium for the goods and produce of other nations. The City of London was the world’s financial capital, with  the UK as  the largest exporter of capital by a wide margin. In addition, the United Kingdom was the centre of a world-spanning empire, both formal in India, Asia, Africa, Australasia and Canada, and informal in Latin America.

Nonetheless, there were regular recurrences of doubt about the benefits of free trade- the fall in farm incomes, the condition of the poor, the export of capital rather than its deployment at home.  In  the introduction to his Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, – the fifth book of his A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Elie Halévy, the renowned French historian of Victorian Britain, wrote that “England felt an increasingly powerful conviction that her vitality was less than that of certain other nations, and that if she was progressing, her rate of progress was less rapid than theirs…It was this loss of confidence which explains the far-reaching change in her foreign policy which took place towards the end of the nineteenth century. The British Government no longer certain that the country was sufficiently powerful to stand by herself, abandoned the policy of “isolation”, and sought external support in some system of alliances”.[3]

Great Britain seeks allies.

There were many strands to Great Britain’s fin de siècle sense of relative decadence.  The most immediate was the Boer war  of 1899 to 1902, and the defeats inflicted on the British forces in the field in the opening months of the war. Generalship was lacking; the logistical challenge of operating on the open savannah of the southern African uplands underestimated, and British manpower was found to be deficient. One third of recruits to the army were turned down, as unsuitable for service. Behind this stood the slums of Victorian Britain, prompting a spreading criticism of the doctrine of laissez-faire, which had prevailed for the past half century. Reformers, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb—the founders in 1895 of the Fabian Society (so named because of its gradualist approach to radical change)—looked to the example of Bismarck’s Germany, and its state provision of health, education and insurance. Theologians looked to German biblical scholarship as their prime source of inspiration. Modernizers in Britain’s leading universities turned to German universities as  the models to emulate. German philosophy grew to influence in Oxford. German, and American business organization attracted admiration and fear in equal measure. Shocked by the recurrent prospect of a pan-continental alliance taking shape against Great Britain in support of the Boers, Joseph Chamberlain launched a bid to forge a prior alliance with Emperor Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson. Germany, the prime power on the continent, and Great Britain, the prime global naval power, would link hands with the American Republic in a pan-Teutonic alliance.

The fact that Great Britain went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary is all the more surprising given that, for Germany, Great Britain was the ideal partner to avoid the German leadership’s fear of encirclement from a hostile Franco-Russian alliance. Not the least was the long history of Anglo-German alliances.  After all, German troops had marched with Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714); Prussia and Great Britain were bosom allies in the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, which swept France from most of northern America , from the Indian sub-continent, and confirmed Britain’s primacy in the Caribbean; at Waterloo in 1815, the Prussian general Blücher saved the day for Wellington’s army, to confirm the final defeat of Napoleonic France. Great Britain stood aside from the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, ending in the defeat of France yet again. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called to settle some of the outstanding problems in the Balkans flowing from the recent Russo-Turkish war, Chancellor Bismarck famously identified the British Prime Minister Disraeli as the pivotal personality of the Congress– “Der alte Jude.  Das is der Mann”-he is quoted as saying. French and British interests clashed in Africa at the end of the century. Siemens was heavily invested in the British economy. Hamburg bankers were prominent in London financial markets. Kaiser Wilhelm was an honorary Admiral of the Fleet. There was widespread sympathy in Great Britain  for Emperor Franz Josef  over the assassination by Serb terrorists, with the support of the Serb government, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, and of his wife in Sarajevo, on June 26 1914.

But British and German public opinion turned hostile to each other. These were early days for the “yellow press”- newspapers run by magnates interested in boosting sales to the new mass electorate. Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe,  bought the Daily Mail  in 1896, the Daily Mirror in 1903, and bought The Times in 1908. His brother, Viscount Rothermere (born Harold Harmsworth) joined him and together, they  created  one of the world’s largest media empires of its time, with a specific marketing slant towards the new reading public of literate working men and (especially) women. Lord Northcliffe beat the nationalist drum in his newspapers.With the backing of  its owner, Henry-Wickham Steed, The Times’ Germanophobe and anti-semitic Vienna correspondant,  campaigned to liquidate Austria-Hungary- the supposed prisoner of nations.  This was run-of-the-mill progressivism, with British progressives all gung-ho for national liberation, at least in the empires of others. The one exception, of course, was Germany where Chancellor Bismarck had defeated France in 1870, united the German lands, exclusive of Austria-Hungary, and upset the European balance of power. United Germany’s spectacular rise between 1870 and 1914 added grist to the anti-German mill in British public opinion, as did Kaiser Wilhelm’s bombast, his support for an ocean-going navy, capable of challenging British sea power, and his erratic diplomacy. In addition, there was much British heart-burn about Germany’s industrial and trade prowess on world markets .

Paradoxically, the person who campaigned assiduously to warn his compatriots of the threat to Great Britain occasioned by Germany’s rise to the status of continental Europe’s dominant power was Alfred, Lord Milner, part German by descent and educated at Balliol, Oxford, the nursery of generations of British leaders. Like the Webbs, he was much taken by Germany’s state-led development, and like other liberal imperialists, was wont to criticize “the barrenness of the Parliamentary machine”.[4] Milner had gained experience in the civil conduct of the Boer war;  laid the foundations of a united South Africa; in  1910,  become a founder of  The Round Table – A Quarterly Review of the Politics of the British Empire, which helped to promote the cause of imperial federation; and in December 1916, had been included by Prime Minister Lloyd George as Minister without Portfolio in his  five-man War Cabinet.  Lloyd George remained in office until 1922, at the head of a Liberal-Tory coalition. That was the last time that the Liberal Party occupied 10 Downing Street. Lloyd George was sidelined in the inter-war years, as was Winston Churchill, the maverick ex-member of the 1906-1914 Liberal Government, who joined the Tories at the end of the 1914-18 war, and always remained an outsider within the Tory party.

In The Round Table Movement and the Fall of the “Second” British Empire (1909-1919), [5] the historian Andrea Bosco argues that the two wars of 1914-18, and of 1939-45 should be seen as wars of succession to the British Empire.  He ascribes a central role in the drama to Milner’s Round Tablers who realized, he maintains, that Great Britain’s days as a world power were drawing to a close, and came to advocate a world federation, at the summit of which stood the United States and the British Empire. According to Bosco, they identified Germany as the prime challenge to British hegemony, and consequently engineered the wars, the better to kill off German pretensions. Bosco’s  contention that Great Britain willed the war in order to block the rise of a rival will find few takers; his contention that the roots of British supra-nationalist ideals may be traced to the Round Tablers has much greater credibility.  As evidence for his argument, he cites-among much else- that the very first issue in November, 1910 of The Round Table, the movement’s journal, featured an article entitled ‘Anglo-German Rivalry’ by Philip Kerr.

That the rivalry existed, there can be no doubt. It was a central feature of the years leading up to the outbreak of war, the key moment being the decision of British diplomacy to ally  with France in 1904. The ultimate justification for going to war against Germany in August 1914 was spelt out by the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in his famous speech of August 3, 1914, in the House of Commons.  [6]  His main argument was that Germany’s request to move troops across Belgian territory in preparation for an attack on France, flouted the 1839 Treaty whereby the European powers pledged to respect Belgium’s neutrality. With Germany in control of Antwerp, and the Channel ports, British vital interests were at stake. If London failed to stand by the Treaty, the British commitment to the neutrality of the smaller powers would be revealed as worthless. “I do not believe for a moment, that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us—if that had been the result of the war—falling under the domination of a single Power…”  If, Grey continued,  Britain were to stand aside, “we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world, and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences.” In other words, were Great Britain not to enter the war as France’s ally, France would align with Germany in a pan -European alliance against Great Britain. Better join with France than stand aside and let events take their course. This was Prime Minister Heath’s argument to the House of Commons in 1972.

As Max Hastings has written in his book, Catastrophe, “If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by a victory”. [7]“Until 1918, the fundamental options before the western allies were those of acquiescing in German hegemony on the continent, or of continuing to bear the ghastly cost of resisting this. It was, and remains, a huge delusion to suppose that a third path existed”. [8] “Those who fought and died, he concluded, did not do so in vain”.[9]

The inter-war years.

Over the coming twenty years, as the traumatized nations of Europe came to ponder the origins and causes of the disaster, this was a decreasingly popular viewpoint. The costs of war, recorded in dead and wounded, seemed out of proportion to the costs involved in resisting German aggression in 1914. According to Christopher Clark, the war mobilized 65 million troops; at its end claimed the demise of three empires (the Russian, Austrian-Hungarian, the Ottoman Empire, as well as the German empire of the Hohenzollerns); caused twenty million military and civilian deaths, and twenty-one million wounded. [10]The British Empire lost 2.1 million wounded, and about 1 million dead. Five out of the seven million British troops hailed from the British isles, the remaining 2 million equally from India and the Dominions.   For the Empire as a whole, the deaths as a percent of total population numbered around 0.30%.  For the British aristocracy,-still the governing class- the losses were infinitely higher: one in five sons of peers died. Of the 5,650 Old Etonians to serve in the armed forces, 1,157 died and 1,500 were wounded-a casualty rate of 47% of those enlisted. Old Etonians won 13 Victoria Crosses, 548 Distinguished Service Orders, and 750 Military Crosses. [11] There was no buying their way out of service. This exhorbitant rate of attrition among the United Kingdom’s ruling class, along with higher land taxes and death duties, prompted an unprecedented turnover in the sale of estates in the inter-war years, and informed the policy of appeasement in the 1930s.  It also lay at the heart of MacMillan’s bid in 1961 to join the newly formed European Economic Community.

Much hope for a peaceful and prosperous Europe had been placed in the League of Nations.  Since peace was a public good, the argument ran, it should be managed collectively. To achieve collective security, though,  required  information about how Europe had sought to maintain the peace in the previous centuries, and in particular why the peace had broken down, leading to August 1914. In a nutshell: what were the causes of the Great War?

They range along a spectrum from Germany as the initiator through to the European state system as the prime cause of war. The debate has spawned a huge library of 25,000 books.  Of recent books, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, may be placed at the systemic end of the spectrum; the problem is the system itself. He ends his book, comparing the European crisis of 2011-12 with that of August 1914. The only thing that has changed, he writes, is the presence of strong supranational institutions, that-he writes-provides a framework for defining tasks, mediating conflicts and identifying remedies that was conspicuously absent in 1914. Otherwise, little has changed. “All the key protagonists hoped that this would not happen, but in addition to this shared interest, they also had special-and conflicting- interests of their own. Given the inter-relationships across the system, the consequences of any one action depended on the responsive actions of others, which were hard to calculate in advance, because of the opacity of decision-making processes”.[12]Lloyd George, in his Memoirs, voiced the opinion, similar to Clark’s that “the nations slithered into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”.[13]

At the other end of the spectrum lies the classic study on the origins of the first world war by the correspondant of the Corriere della Sera,Luigi Albertini. [14]  Albertini’s three volumes demonstrate in magisterial detail that German policy was the prime cause of the 1914-18 war.  John Röhl is even more pointed: the slithering-into-war thesis can only be sustained, he says,  by deliberate omission of the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II, “the very last person who should have been entrusted with the immense powers of the Hohenzollern military monarchy..”. [15]   Kaiser Wilhelm’s contribution to the crisis of the first half of the twentieth century, writes Röhl,  was “his breathtaking ambition to lead his country to what he himself termed “Napoleonic supremacy’- by peaceful means if possible, by war if necessary..”[16]

Where historians are in agreement, is on the subject of the nature of the pre-democratic governments which launched, slithered, or were sucked into  the conflict. The catastrophe, writes Max Hastings,  came about, not because of publics clamouring for war.but  because of decisions of elites.[17]  These decisions, as Christopher Clark emphasizes, were taken in monarchical structures that shrouded power relations within each executive. Not only were these decisions taken in non-transparent conditions, the people who took them were often mediocrities. Max Hastings  quotes Germany’s Rear-Admiral Alfred Hopman as saying that “.. . absolutist governance was responsible for our failure to produce statesmen and instead only bureaucrats and lackeys”. [18]

There is another spectrum in the debate on the causes of the war, which ranges from the war as a mystery to a curse on all houses. “The First World war is a mystery.“, writes John Keegan.[19] It remains, he argues,  a mystery why it began, and even  more so, why it persisted. In the  first few months, the French suffered over a million casualties; the Germans suffered 800,000 casualties the small British professional army was decimated; the Hapsburg Empire suffered 1.27 million casualties; and the Russians suffered a devastating defeat in late August at the battle of Tannenberg, where 230,000 men—half of General Samsonov’s army- was killed. By the end of the war, one in six Serbs had died; Russia lost 6.5 million men. Yet Europe’s leaders soldiered on, as the costs rose and the visible benefits dwindled. Peace endeavours come  to nought. Richard Evans  takes a more robust position:  The statesmen who took these fateful decisions had not been carried into conflict on a wave of popular enthusiasm. They  had been taught by “ a quarter of a century of imperialist annexations, wars and conquests that only force mattered, and that the people on the other side were members of an inferior race that would be easy to defeat”.[20]In short, they glorified war and violence. The conclusion from Evans’ position is that Europe’s élites, and more importantly, the peoples of Europe, reaped what had been sown.

However much the Historikerstreit over the origins and conduct of the Great War remains unresolved, there was widespread agreement that future war had to be avoided. But how? British liberals and many conservatives, following Keynes, supported the idea of generous terms for Germany, in other words a remaking of the treaty of Versailles. The French leader, Clemençeau, thought the peace should be punitive. Keynes’ arguments were rubbished by the French economist Etienne Mantoux, in his book The Carthaginian Peace: or the Economic Consequences of Mr Keynes. Such arguments found hardly any echo in the UK. Mantoux accused Keynes of deploying falsifiable economic arguments against reparations, undermining the Versailles Treaty, and helping to foster much “misplaced sentimentalizing”.[21] Misplaced sentimentalizing is well represented by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian – a steadfast advocate through the 1920s of revising the Versailles Treaty in Germany’s favour. In the 1930s, he maintained that Hitler’s repression of domestic enemies- Jews, Social Democrats, Communists-was “largely the reflex of the external persecution to which Germans have been subject since the war”. [22]In early 1937, he met Hitler and reported that “Germany does not want war and is prepared to renounce it absolutely…provided she is given real equality”. [23]Only after Hitler violated the Munich Agreement in March 1939 did Lothian bend to the evidence that Hitler “ is in effect a fanatical gangster who will stop at nothing to beat down all possibility of resistance anywhere to his will.”[24]

The policy of appeasement, Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott have written, was an affair of the heart, rooted in pro-Germanism.[25]Dislike of France among its supporters  ran deep. The Versailles Treaty, the argument ran,  was a construct of French folly. Germany was a natural British ally. It lay at the heart of the European economy and would help create a European bloc with which it would be advantageous to trade. A strong Germany would stop the spread of communism, and provide leadership in eastern Europe where independence for its own sake was absurd even dangerous. Seen in this light an alliance with Hitler’s Germany lay in the British interest, as much as it was also to avoid war. As Horace Wilson, an arch-appeaser, wrote: “our policy was never designed just to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more united. The aim of appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time”.[26]  Hence the shock to the appeasers when Winston “and his rabble” gained power in May 1940. [27]As Andrew Roberts has written, the British Establishment never gave wholehearted support to Churchill. “At a deeper level, he could not be forgiven for having been proved right about their flagship policy of those years: appeasement”.” [28] This split in the British Establishment between the few who backed Churchill, and the majority who wanted a deal with Europe, opened up anew in May 1961 when Harold MacMillan announced his decision to bring the UK into the EEC.

Nationalism identified as  the enemy.

The new Europe, emerging from the Great War, was to be constructed on the principle of self-determination, while conflicts over frontiers and minorities were to be adjudicated through the League of Nations, based in Geneva in neutral Switzerland. The reality proved quite different. As John Keegan writes, “The legacy of the war’s political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilization, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or Nazi, ….the deliberate starvation of peasant enemies of the people by provinces, the extermination of racial outcasts, the persecution of ideology’s intellectual and cultural hate-objects, the massacre of ethnic minorities, the extinction of small national sovereignties, the elevation of commisars, gauleiters and warlords to power over voiceless millions, had its origins in the chaos it left behind”. [29]  The three empires of  Austria, Russia and the Ottoman’s collapsed, to be replaced by successor national states, with contested frontiers, often large ethnic minorities within their borders and with newly minted and contested constitutions. The franchise was widely extended, but did not survive long. Parliamentary regimes were brushed aside in Russia, and Italy, where Mussolini  installed himself as dictator in 1922, to Lenin’s acclaim. Lenin established close relations with Ataturk, who set up his one party, militantly secular state. Dictatorships became the norm across southern and eastern Europe.

Extreme violence continued unabated in the immediate post-war years, characterized by set piece battles between regular armies (as in the war between Poland and the Soviet Union, or the Greco-Turkish war);  the proliferation of civil wars, in Ireland and in the successor states to the now defunct empires of central-eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire;  and social or national revolutions, culminating in the rivalry between Fascism and Bolshevism. [30]While the centre of gravity of territorial revisionism was located in the lands of the old multi-national empires, in the mid-nineteen twenties, there was a general climate of rapprochement in western Europe, particularly in relations between France and Germany. But the economic collapse of 1929 undermined any remaining faith in constitutional democracy and in market mechanisms. Germany’s Weimar Republic collapsed as the centre parties, divided among themselves, succumbed to hostilities from the communists and national-socialists, precipitating the arrival to power of the National Socialists in Germany in 1933. In the inter-war years, France had 42 separate governments, as the factions fought for power in a Third Republic constitution that sourced absolute power in the National Assembly. Constitutional democracy as exercised in the mother country of the 1789 Revolution was hardly a model to imitate.

By the 1930s, alternative models became current in French politics, notably the anti-communist racial ideology of National Socialism, and the Soviet Union’s dictatorship of the international proletariat. Both of these ideologies were supra-national. Both saw the nation-states as at best tools for higher purposes. For Hitler, that higher purpose was expressed  in pan-national racialism; for Stalin, it was the international class war. As Robert Gerwarth points out, the new logic of violence permeating the conflicts of the immediate post-war years pointed straight to the extremes perpetrated in the wars of 1939-45. Europe returned to the savagery of the religious wars, from which she had issued through the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia, finally signed in 1648. The Treaty laid the foundations for the concept of national independence as the counter to the claims of empire.

In the nineteenth century, British liberals had fervently espoused the principle of national liberation, including Home Rule for Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The country had gone to war in 1914 to prevent German hegemony in Europe. Yet before even the ink was dried on the Treaties of Versailles and of St Germain, British liberals turned against the national idea.  The Lloyd George coalition of Liberal- and Conservative parties  fell apart in late 1922, and at the 1924, the once dominant Liberal party shrank to a shadow of its former self. Out of office for nearly a century, Liberal ideas nonetheless permeated the country. The prime architect of this ideational dominance was Milner. The members of his “Kindergarten”, as his followers were called, came to repent the severity of the Versailles Treaty.  They were both Liberal Imperialists, in favour of a politically de-centralised  but cohesive British Empire, as well as for a more generous treatment of Germany, along the lines argued by John Maynard Keynes in his  famous 1919 pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.   Milner’s men played  a central role in British politics- Philip Kerr, the Marquess of Lothian became British Ambassador to the United States in the crucial years of 1939-1940; Lionel Curtis, the founder of “Chatham House”, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London; Geoffrey Dawson, the near uninterrupted editor of The Times for thirty years from 1912 to 1941, and an ardent proponent of the 1930s policy of appeasement of Germany, as conducted by Prime Ministers Baldwin and Chamberlain;  John Buchan became Governor General, of Canada from 1935 to 1940.

Paradoxically, the national idea settled most firmly in Great Britain, as a nation of nations.  Its representative institutions  adapted quickly to the politics of mass electorates. Socialism was domesticated and constitutional monarchy survived. The United Kingdom retained a robust two plus party system.  One major reason for this successful transition was that the country emerged victorious from the war, whereas the successor states of Germany and Austria inherited the legacy of defeat. Unlike France the inherited British Constitution placed power in the hands of the “Crown in parliament”, based on a party system functioning on the first-past-the-post principle. Governments ran parliament between elections, rather than being the plaything of parliaments as in France. The country furthermore was not invaded, so that the rationale for the physical, financial and material losses of the war came to be ascribed to the abstract principle that Britain’s largely volunteer armies fought and died for the independence of others. Both Labour and Tory political leaders proved receptive to Indian demands for self-government; both accepted higher levels of taxation, and an expanding welfare state; the electorates of both major political parties supported Empire, King and Parliament. Their major difference by the 1930s was Labour’s support for extensive nationalization of the “means of production”, while the priority for Tory policy was the creation of a property-owning democracy.

The 1914-18 war helped to accelerate a trend already over a hundred years old in favour of a British Empire of self-governing nations. No other country in the Empire sought to follow the British example of cleaving to an unwritten constitution: the federation of Canada was set up in 1867; the federation of Australia in 1900; and the federation of South Africa in 1909. Nothing came of the idea to transform the House of Lords into an Imperial Chamber. In the UK, the Liberal government of 1906-1914, intended to institute Home Rule for Ireland, and Scotland and to take the first steps for Welsh Home Rule by dis-establishing the Church in Wales. But these initiatives were interrupted by war, and—despite the major contribution of Irish troops in the war—Ireland achieved independence in defiance of London by the ballot box and the gun. The war also furthered a sense of national identity in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and most importantly in India. In 1919, Parliament passed the India Act. As King George V announced, “the Act which has now become law entrusts the elected representative of the people with a definite share in the Government and points the way to full responsible Government hereafter”.[31]In the Round Table talks of the early 1930s, and then in the Government of India Act of 1935, the dimensions for  an All India Federation were established, with an electorate of 35 millions. By the mid-1930s, India, thus was well on the way to achieving parity of status with the Dominions as a self-governing country. In 1939, ; the Dominions all volunteered to join Great Britain on the outbreak of the second world war; only southern Ireland used its powers to declare neutrality. India’s Congress party did likewise, but was overridden by the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow.  Indian troops served with great distinction on all fronts. Indian independence came in 1947, a short twenty years after  Edwin Montagu,  Secretary of state for India, made an historic announcement in Parliament for “the  gradual development of self-governing institutions” in India.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the European empires closed shop, and did so in the name of national self-determination. Not so for Great Britain. To the luminaries of the British liberal left, the idea of national sovereignty was an “illusion”. [32]“Nationalism”, they convinced themselves,  was the problem. Unfortunately for their cause, the universal franchise came to the mass British electorate through the national idea. Surrendering sovereign powers to some international bureaucracy won minimal support. Hence, the need for subterfuge. As Arnold Toynbee, a leading light in the federalist movement,  explained, “If we are frank with ourselves, we shall admit that we are engaged on a deliberate and sustained and concentrated effort to impose limitations upon the sovereignty and independence of the 50 or 60 local independent States…It is just because we are really attacking the principle of local sovereignty that we keep on protesting our loyalty to it so loudly”.  [33]

Much more balanced than Toynbee was William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said in 1944 that the future of Europe should include “the creation and development of common institutions and agencies, in the social and economic as well as the political sphere, to give effect to those common purposes and to embody the growing sense of European unity”.[34]Toynbee’s formula of integration hy stealth became known as the “Monnet method”; the 1945-51 governments of Clement Attlee adopted Temple’s formula, more compatible with the democratic underpinnings of modern states.

Great Britain’s federalists were nothing if not determined.  Their success in propagating there views resided in their skills at networking the spectrum of British politics from the Round Tablers to Labour’s Fabians. They deployed their influence in the universities, the media, and all major political parties; they spoke to a broader public through the BBC, The Times and The Economist.  Both Kerr and Curtis were firm advocates of an “Atlantic Union of the democracies”, along the lines advanced by the American Rhodes scholar and New York Times journalist, Clarence Streit, whose advocacy for the cause of a world federation influenced the institutional structure of the post-1945 world. On the approach of war in 1939, they set up the Federal Union, to promote the idea of a federal Europe as an alternative to war, and to Hitler’s “New Order”. Here are some quotes from that period. “Until our reverence for this quite artificial theory of national sovereignty is dispersed there can be no hope of international order”. [35]“War is inherent in the relations between sovereign states”.[36]“Unless we destroy the sovereign states, the sovereign states will destroy us”.[37]Each state  “must surrender the primary prerogative of sovereignty, the right to make war…(and agree) to form a Federation”. [38]Ivor Jennings,-whom we have already met- proposed federal institutions for a European Union: a Congress, an executive, a judiciary to interpret a written constitution and a bill of human rights.[39]Federalists welcomed the Churchill government’s hasty proposal in May-June 1940 for a merger of France and Great Britain as the first attempt to build a European Union. [40]

The British federalists were, of course, not alone in Europe. Such people as Count Coundenhove Kalergi, Giovanni Agnelli, Luigi Einaudi, Konrad Adenauer, Aristide Briand, the author André Gide, and José Ortega y Gasset  actively backed the idea.  Jean Monnet, now revered as the founding father of the EU, had worked closely with a  British civil servant Arthur Salter, during the Great War. In his collection of papers, entitled The United States of Europe Salter proposed in 1931 to build a federal Europe within the framework of the League of Nations, by creating a “common market”, along the lines of the German Zollverein of the nineteenth century. The USE would derive its funds from a common external tariff, and its common political authority would be “even more important than the national Governments, and would in effect reduce the latter to the status of municipal authorities”. [41]Its organization would resemble that of the League of Nations – A Secretariat, a Council of Ministers, a parliamentary Assembly, and a Court of Justice – with one exception the “Secretariat’ (later, the Commission) would be a permanent body of international civil servants, loyal to the new organization, not to the member countries. As Christopher Booker and Richard North write, “what Salter was describing was precisely the “supranational” principle by which nearly three decades later his friend Monnet would inspire the setting up of the European Economic Community, deliberately intended as an embryionic ‘United States of Europe’. [42] To put it graphically, nationalism would be sent to sleep over time, in the manner of boiling frogs in  ever warmer water.

One significant difference between the Great Britain of the Great War and the Great Britain of the Second World War are the pages of The Times. In the Great War, Henry-Wickham Steed, argued his case for national independence from the Hapsburg monarchy. In the Second World War, E.H. Carr, who chaired the Chatham House Study Group on nationalism,  became The Times editorialist. The tone of his articles may be represented in an article of his,  “The New Europe”, published in July 1940, in which he stated that  “the first lesson of the war was that the conception of the small national unit, not strong enough for an active role in international politics, but enjoying all the prerogatives and responsibilities of sovereignty, had been rendered obsolete by modern armaments and the scope of modern warfare”. [43]Europe, he went on, “can no longer afford a multiplicity of economic units, each maintaining its economic system behind a barbed wire entanglement of tariffs, quotas, exchange restrictions and barter agreements”. In other words, the two criteria for successful policy is efficiency and power. “Common economic planning, he writes in a pamphlet, Nationalism and After, first published in 1945,  as well as joint military organization,, will alone enable western Europe, Britain included, to confront the future with united strength and confidence”. “Many old traditions will have to be discarded, before Europe and the world can recover their balance in the aftermath of the age of nationalism”. [44]

This was the strong conviction of Jean Monnet, the founding father of the EU, who considered in the light of his experience from two world wars, that the crowds of democracy had to be kept at bay, tamed, and their enthusiasms channelled. That could best be done by élites from member states gathering in enclave to settle complex business in the general interest. To limit the influence of nationalist demagogues, an a-political international space had to be created where trained technical élites could set the course of political evolution. In post-war Europe, Jean Monnet’s ratchet process of integration, whereby ever wider powers are placed in the European institutions, was the chosen method.  As Monnet wrote in a memorandum of 1943, ‘there will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstructed on the basis of national sovereignty…Prosperity and vital social progress will remain elusive until the nations of Europe form a federation of a ‘European entity” which will forge them into a single economic unit”.  As Monnet wrote in this memorandum, ”The British, the Americans, the Russians have worlds of their own into which they can temporarily retreat. France cannot opt out for her very existence hinges on a solution to the European problem…”[45]The evident contradiction here is that according to Monnet French and British interests are not the same. We are touching on the power politics here of European “integration” after 1945. Monnet’s memo was written for Charles de Gaulle.

British federalist thinking was vital to post-war federalist thinking. In 1941, while lingering in Mussolini’s prison, Altiero Spinelli—who may rank alongside Monnet as a founding father of the EU, composed with the help of Erensto Rossi a  fellow prisoner, the Ventotone Manifesto, entitled Towards a Free and United Europe. In his memoirs, Spoinelli writes: “’Since I was looking for mental clarity, and precision, I was not attracted by the foggy and contorted ideological federalism of a Proudhon or a Mazzini, but by the clean, precise thinking of these English federalists, in whose writings I found a pretty good key to understanding the chaos into which Europe was plunging and for devising alternatives”. [46]The direct heir to this thought was the holding of a convention to draw up a draft constitution for a United Europe, and opening in the European parliament building in February 2002. The draft constitution which resulted has been described as “the most radical reform of the institutions ever put forward”?[47]. The subordination of national parliaments to EU institutions was made clear by the provision that if a third of national parliaments believed that a proposed EU law exceeded the Union’s powers, they could force the European Commission to reconsider, but not to block the measure.  Article I-6 of the draft European Constitution stated that “The Constitution and law adopted by the institutions of the Union in exercising competences conferred on it shall have primacy over the law of the Member States.”[48] British ideas bore fruit over seven decades after being hatched.

They bore fruit in the Lisbon Treaty. Article I-6 was dropped, and fudge served up in its place. It was dropped because the French and Dutch electorates voted against it. Hence fudge, but on the proviso that all remained the same. Lisbon thus saw the victory of E.H. Carr’s argument that the key to international relations was size and efficiency. The smaller units of national states had to be subsumed in a larger federal entity. That entity’s constitution, as Jennings and others had outlined in 1940 or earlier, would be modelled on the US constitution: a separation of powers, an executive (the Commission) a Court interpreting the constitution, and upper house composed of national governments and a European parliament, much like the House of Representatives.

There is, and always has been, one major problem for this blueprint. Politics in Europe are national. The loyalties of Europeans remain national or regional first, and rarely European first. This is not a sound basis for an ambitious organisation.

Its basis is particularly unsound in the UK. There was never adequate public support for it. Heath took the UK into the EEC on the wing of a wave of renewed declinism,  whose symptoms were of domestic origin and curable by political action. The older generation who had experienced  the holocaust of British elites in the Great War, were moved to support the move, and Sir Edward Grey’s argument foe entering the war in August 1914 held as much in 1972: better inside the club than face a united and unfriendly Franco-German condominium from the outside. But the old, inherited British constitution had adapted rapidly and smoothly to the era of mass democracy. As a nation of nations, the British electorate felt at home with their constitutional arrangements. As Jennings pointed out, at each election, voters had the power to evict the ruling party if they considered that the time was up for a change. In addition, the British Empire had evolved into a Commonwealth of self-governing nations: how come that Great Britain would be the only Commonwealth  country after Empire that was not self-governing? The idea that the British electorate should lose its rights to vote out incumbent lawmakers in exchange for peace begged the question whether that was not too high a price to pay. And because there was no support to subordinate the UK as a province in a federal European super-state, membership had to be sold on economic grounds. Not surprisingly, British public opinion waxed and waned pro-EU according to the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

The vote of June 23 2016 to Leave the EU came as a thunderbolt to the British Establishment, almost to a man and woman in favour of Remaining. The subsequent three and a half years of rearguard action, though, revealed how far British sovereign powers had been handed over, frankly, on the sly-along Arnold Toynbee lines- through subterfuge, pretence and obfuscation. It was as if the half-boiled, drowsy British frog had hopped out of the cauldron at the very last minute, before-as UK supranationalists planned- it would be sooner rather than later melted into a new European soup.

The three highlights of this revelation may be listed thus:

  1. Lord Kerr,the architect of Article 50,  former UK Ambassador to the UK, and a key player in politics of the European Constitutional Convention, who predicted that the EU would soon bring the British dog to heal;
  2. Prime Minister May who morphed from Prime Minister to EU Governor of the province of Britain, and sought to confront the British public with an option as remaining in the EU as a province, or staying within its jurisdiction as a colony;
  3. and Lady Hale who delivered a verdict on Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament that was: unconstitutional, sloppy in draftsmanship, based on hearsay and internally inconsistent in its judgement. Like her fellow British EU federalists, Lady Hale carried on being an activist under the mantle of being a judge.

In the last Part of this series on Brexit and the British Constitution, I will briefly outline the arguments used in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The arguments for entry were presented by Prime Minister Heath and Roy Jenkins, then of the Labour Party; the arguments against joining were presented most powerfully by Enoch Powell and Wedgewood Benn. The rest of this final section of my series on Brexit and the British Constitution will present the impact of EU membership on the inherited UK Constitution.

My argument throughout this series is simple: Europe needs a regime, but that regime cannot be at the cost of democratic control by national parliaments of public policy. The EU, devised as an apolitical space beyond the direct influence of national electorates, lacks fundamental legitimacy. The regime which I consider sustainable in Europe is compatible with the inherited and venerable UK Constitution. The EU’s present arrangements are not. The UK public understood that when it voted to Leave on June 23, 2016.

[1]. R.B. McDowell (ed.), Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Cambridge University Press, 1989, Volume VIII, p. 432.

[2]Nicholas Mansergh, The Commonwealth Experience (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), p. 256.

[3]  Elie Halévy, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour,Second ed in English, Lon,don, Ernest Benn, 1951. p. viii.

[4]Robert Scally, Origins of the Lloyd George Coalition: The Politics of Social Imperialism, 1900-1918, Princetion University Press 1975. p.56

[5]Andrea Bosco, The Round Table Movement and the Fall of the “Second” British Empire (1909-1919,Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing , 2017

[6]HC Deb 03 August 1914 vol 65 cc1809-32, The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, (Sir Edward Grey).

[7]Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War,London, William Collins, 2013. p.xix.

[8]Ibid p. 553

[9]Ibid p 563.

[10]Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914, London, Penguins, 2015. p.xxi.

[11]Alexander Churchill, Blood and Thunder: The Boys of Eton College and the First World War, The History Press, 2014.

[12]Clarke, Sleepwalkers, p.555.

[13]David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol 1, London Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1936 ed. p. 52.

[14] Luigi Albertini, Origins of the War of 1914 (3 volumes). London, Oxford University Press, 1953.

[15]John C.Röhl, Kaiser Wilhelm II,Cambridge University Press, 2014. p.xv.

[16] Ibid ;p. xvi.

[17]Hastings, Catastrophe,p.123.

[18]Hastings, Catastrophe, p.432.

[19]John Keegan, The First World War, p. 456.

[20]Richard J. Evans,  The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914. Penguin 2016. Pp.713-714

[21]René Albrecht-Carrié, ‘The Carthaginian Peace—or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes’, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 2. , June, 1953, p. 273.

[22]J.R.M. Butler, Lord Lothian, London, MacMillan, 1960, p.206.

[23]Alex May, ‘Kerr, Philip Henry, eleventh Marques of Lothian (1882-1940) ,  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[24]  Butler, Lord Lothian, p.227.

[25]Martin Gilbert, Richard Gott, The Appeasers, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967

[26]Quoted in Martin Gilbert, Horace Wilson,: Man of Munich, History Today, Vo 32, 10 0ctàber, 1982. p.6.

[27]Jack Colville, Chapter 5, Change of Government and Dunkirk May 1940, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955,  Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2004.p. 90-117.

[28]Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Penguins, 2018. P.509.

[29]John Keegan, The First World War, London, Pimlico, p 450-451.

[30]Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, Penguin Books, 2017.

[31]   Quoted in Sir Courtenay Peregrine. The Government of India. Clarendon Press, 1922. p. 125

[32]  See Roy Jenkins Foreward to Richard Mayne, John Pinder,Federal Union: The Pioneers a History of Federal Union, MacMillan, 1990. P.viii.

[33]Cited in Lindsay Jenkins, Britain Held Hostage, Washington D.C., Orange State Press, 2ndedition, 1998. p.51.

[34]Walter Lipgens, Documents on the History of European Integration, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin for the European University Institute, Florence, 1985,Plans for European Union in Great Britain and in Exile, 1939-1945.  p.747.

[35]Patrick Ransome,”Federal Government,  Fortnightly Review, October 1939, p.417.

[36]Lord Lothian, The Ending of Armageddon, Federal Union, , 1939, p.3.

[37]Lionel Robbins, The Economic Consequences of War, Howard Fertig, 1939. p.105.

[38]H.N. Brailsford, The Federal Idea, , Federal Union, 1939, p.10.

[39]W. Ivor Jennings, A Federation for Western Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1940. Chapters V, VI.

[40]Andrea Bosco, June 1940, Great Britain and the First Attempt to Build a European Union.Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing , 2016

[41]Arthur Salter, The United States of Europe, London, George Allen and Unwin,1931.  p.92.

[42]Christopher Booker , The Great Deception: Can the European Union Survive? London, Continuum, 2005, p.21. Richard North

[43] Jonathan Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: A Biography of E.H.Carr, London, Verso, 1999, p.86.

[44]E.H. Car, Nationalism and After, London, MacMillan, 1968. p. 74.

[45]Quoted in Booker, North, p.31.

[46]Cited in Richard Mayne, John Pinder, Federal Union: the Pioneers. A History of Federal Union, London, MacMillan, p.84.

[47]Richard Bladwin, Mika Widgren, Decision-making and the Constitutional Treaty: Will the IGC discard Giscard? CEPS Policy Brief. No 37/August 2003.

[48]Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, Rome, 29 October 2004.


About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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