This is a book with a strong and challenging thesis, explicitly aimed at the post-Brexit world. It is that ‘the European Union is very much the creation of the British political tradition, as opposed to the Continental one’ (p. 3). Consequently, Brexit is seen by the author (Jean Monnet ad personam Chairholder on the History of European Integration at the School of Political Science at Florence) as not only a lamentable error, but as a renunciation of Britain’s own offspring. The climax of the book is the abortive proposal in June 1940 of an ‘indissoluble union’ of Britain and France, by which ‘France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union’ (an idea briefly and unsuccessfully resurrected by the French prime minister Guy Mollet during the 1956 Suez Crisis). This well-known episode has rarely (probably never) had such historic significance attributed to it as here. It is generally considered as a desperate stratagem seized on by Churchill to try to keep a tottering France in the war following the devastating German advances the previous month. The author, Andrea Bosco, sees it in a very different light. Rather than being an ad hoc improvisation, he sees the Union proposal as the culmination of a long-maturing development of federalist ideas within the British political and intellectual establishment, and potentially the seed of a united Europe. Indeed, the federalist vision retained enough momentum to inspire post-war British sponsorship of the Western European Union, the Council of Europe and, of course, the United Nations—all beyond the scope of the present book, which presents 1940 instead as a psychological break between the British and Europe. Besides, Bosco seems to see Monnet’s European Community as the sole legitimate heir to inter-war federalism. This lineage he traces in exhaustive detail. Interestingly, he shows that some of the exponents of federalism in 1940 had supported imperial federation under the auspices of Lord Milner before the First World War. Precisely who was to be federated, and how, seems to have been a secondary matter compared with the power of the very idea of federation—which the Foreign Office sometimes scoffed at as a ‘magic word’. Its magic was its supposed ability to transcend national rivalries and create harmonious systems, whether imperial, regional, European or even global. The spell it cast was particularly strong in progressive circles, where the League of Nations, disarmament and sometimes pacifism were also favoured, or had been for a time. The same names (some distinguished, some less so) recur, including H.G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, William Beveridge, Lord Lothian, Barbara Wootton and Count Coudenhove-Kalergi. So do certain organisations, notably the New Commonwealth Society, Federal Union and Chatham House. Bosco follows their activities with minute attention. (There are ample sections, for example, on the first and second ‘struggles for the secretaryship’ of the embryonic Federal Union.) No reader could be left in doubt of the tireless enthusiasm of the federalists, and Bosco also shows that they began to reach a wider audience in the late 1930s as faith in the League of Nations ebbed. In effect, the Federal Union stepped into the shoes of the League of Nations Union. What had originally been seen as a means of preventing war subsequently became an aid to winning it by contributing to an attractively idealistic post-war vision. In the words of Foreign Office minister R.A. Butler, ‘youth should have something to bite on’ (p. 239). Although Churchill may have seized on the Union idea in a desperate situation, for others (for example, Attlee) it drew on a familiar internationalist discourse—indeed, that was a large part of its attractiveness. This book is a pretty definitive study of federalist writings, organisations and individuals. It contains many huge footnotes giving long lists of primary and secondary sources, and it will doubtless be a valuable work of reference. As intellectual history, it has an old-fashioned feel, as the idea of federalism is traced teleologically through diverse incarnations. In consequence, the book is rather one-dimensional: in following the federalist thread wherever it emerges, there is little sense of how it fits into wider and constantly changing political and intellectual tissue, or even of how influential it really was. Amid the unblinking earnestness of the few thousand devotees (who seem, at first, barely aware that there was a war on), politicians and diplomats were sceptical, even dismissive about ‘the new religion’ of federalism: ‘few have any idea what it means’ (p. 178). When the climax comes in June 1940, the book changes focus to analyse a far wider political and strategic landscape. Here the author is less sure-footed. (There was no question of France surrendering unconditionally, for example (p. 217), nor was its fleet (p. 298) ever offered to the Germans.) The real question, as suggested earlier, is how seriously federalism was taken, or whether it is better understood as a ploy. What emerges is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that convinced federalists took it very seriously, and even felt that their moment had come. Others saw it as just about worth a try. Lord (Maurice) Hankey, chairing a committee to study the idea, accepted temporary ‘co-operation’ but no permanent ‘merging of sovereignty’ (p. 257). Bosco thinks that this was a historic opportunity disastrously missed, but the Hankey committee was prescient: it anticipated problems over tariffs, currency, the Commonwealth and of course sovereignty. But as it happened, these were problems for later decades, as in June 1940 the Union proposal was summarily rejected by the French cabinet, precipitating Paul Reynaud’s resignation and bringing Marshal Pétain to power. Though Bosco argues that, had the British acted a few days or even a few hours earlier, history would have taken a very different turn, not all will be convinced. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 19, 2018
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