This weekend, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Britain’s greatest war leader, Winston Churchill, a Tweeter has posted a ‘quote’ by Churchill, oft-repeated by Eurosceptics. But is it really what Churchill said at the time it's claimed?
The Tweet asserts that this is what Churchill told the House of Commons on 11 May 1953, during his second term in office as Prime Minister, about Britain's relationship with Europe:
“We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”
This is a remarkably revealing deception by those who have chosen to distribute and repeat this so-called quote by Churchill. It’s not that Churchill never wrote or uttered the words ascribed to him: it’s the claimed date and place of the quote that makes it misleading, and the fact that he said the last sentence some 14 years after the first four. (What Churchill actually said to Parliament on 11 May 1953 I shall more accurately quote shortly.)
Does it matter? It certainly does.
Post-war, Churchill is recognised as one of the founders of the European Union and consequently has a building named after him at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Churchill led the call for a sort of, ‘United States of Europe’; he promoted the concept of a ‘European Convention on Human Rights’ and a ‘Court of Human Rights; he envisioned the free movement of people across the continent; he perceived a ‘Union of Europe as a whole’, to which all the continent’s states would eventually join; and before he died, he supported the UK’s application to join the European Economic Community (later to be re-named, the European Union.)
So, how has this Tweeted Churchill misquote been constructed? Well, as with many mistruths, there is some truth in the quote, but not exactly as presented. To find out more, let’s take a minute to deconstruct from where this Churchill quote emanates.
Churchill wrote the first four sentences of the quote for America’s Saturday Evening Post published on 15 February 1930:
“We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”
I cannot find any record of Churchill exactly repeating these words again – but if anyone can offer me a later source, please do share with me so I can correct and update this article. Of course, it can be quite expected that Churchill’s view of the world – and Europe – would have changed from the 1930s to the post-World War situation of the 1950s.
Churchill made his last speech about Europe at London’s Central Hall, Westminster in July 1957; some four months after six founding nations established the European Economic Community by signing The Treaty of Rome (France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg). Churchill welcomed the formation of a ‘common market’ by the six, provided that ‘the whole of free Europe will have access’. Churchill added, “we genuinely wish to join”.
But Churchill also warned:
“If, on the other hand, the European trade community were to be permanently restricted to the six nations, the results might be worse than if nothing were done at all – worse for them as well as for us. It would tend not to unite Europe but to divide it – and not only in the economic field.*”
(*Source: Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches Vol. 8 page 8681)
And what about the last sentence of the Tweeted quote that Churchill was supposed to have told Parliament in 1953?
“If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”
Well, actually, that sentence was said at a completely different time and place to the first four sentences, and never said in the 1950s. Here are the facts:
Churchill shouted this remark to the French leader, General Charles de Gaulle, in a raging row on the eve of the Normandy landings in 1944. Churchill had a ‘roller coaster’ relationship with de Gaulle and wanted to show his loyalty to the US President, Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently, Churchill also angrily added to de Gaulle: “Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I will always choose Roosevelt.” (Later, they made up over dinner and fine wine.)*
(*For fuller details, see: ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’ by Antony Beevor.)
So, it’s clear that Eurosceptics have concocted this ‘Churchill quote’ by stitching together four sentences he wrote in 1930 with a remark he shouted in 1944, and then put them together to claim he said the whole lot in a speech to Parliament on 11 May 1953. Indeed, the quote could accurately be called a ‘stitch up’.
Still not sure? Well, you can easily check for yourself, by reading all that Churchill said to Parliament on 11 May 1953 by a look at Hansard for that day. It is true that in the early 1950s, Churchill did not envisage the UK being part of the sort-of “United States of Europe” that he had envisioned (although, I argue that Churchill changed his position later on in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it became clearer that the British Empire and Commonwealth were in decline).
On 11 May 1953, it’s true that Churchill did say:
"Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition "with" but not "of"—we are with them, but not of them. We have our own Commonwealth and Empire."
Since this is what Churchill did say, why have some Eurosceptics found it necessary to contrive and distribute a different quote that Churchill didn’t say to Parliament?
Also, what Churchilll actually said needs to be balanced by what he also said on 11 May 1953, as well as his other speeches before and after. He also said to Parliament that day:
“We shall continue to play a full and active part in plans for the political, military and economic association of Western Europe with the North Atlantic Alliance.”
A few years earlier, Churchill in his opening speech to the Congress of Europe in May 1948, proclaimed:
“We cannot aim at anything less than the Union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to the day when that Union will be achieved.”
And during a debate in June 1950 in the House of Commons to discuss a united Europe, Churchill said that he could not “at present” foresee Britain being “a member of a Federal Union of Europe”. However, Churchill went on to explain that this was primarily because of Britain’s position, “at the centre of the British Empire and Commonwealth”, and, “our fraternal association with the United States of America.” All that was to change during the course of the 1950s and 1960s.
And in August 1961, Churchill wrote:
“I think that the Government are right to apply to join the European Economic Community...”
To read more about the role Churchill played in the development of today’s European Union, please read my article: