Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time. Photo: Getty Images.
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Where were you when she left Downing St?

Piers Morgan, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and others tell us where they were on 22 November 1990.

Malcolm Rifkind

The day before she went she had a meeting individually with each member of her cabinet. We knew as a result of that discussion that she was considering stepping down before the second ballot, but I only knew her decision the following morning.

We had gathered in the anteroom outside the Cabinet Room for a cabinet meeting as we normally would, and at that point we still did not know if she was going to stand for the second ballot. She arrived in the anteroom and then went through to the Cabinet Room, and we followed. Normally the cabinet meeting would start with the formal business, but on this occasion she said she had a statement that she'd like to share with us, and that's when she announced that she was stepping down.

In making that statement she actually broke down – just for a couple of seconds, and I think it was Willie Whitelaw who passed her her glass of water and she collected herself and then carried on. She was really remarkable. Having made her statement, she began the cabinet meeting as normal, and for the next hour or hour and a half, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world.

At the end of formal business, we would normally have gathered our papers and left immediately, but because it was the final occasion, we sat around chatting informally.

I was one of those who – I didn't say, "You should step down," but that was the thrust of what I was saying. She asked, "If I stand again, will you support me?" I had voted for her in the secret ballot in the first round. But I said to her, "I can promise that I will never vote against you," meaning that I would abstain. She says in her memoirs that what I said was "some small comfort", rather sardonically.

Like many people, I had mixed feelings about her resignation. I feel she was the best peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, and at most times I'd have gone to the ends of the earth for her. But she was sometimes very difficult, and towards the end, in those later years, those times became more frequent. So I think the decision to step down was the right one.

Paddy Ashdown

I was walking through Glasgow Airport when it was announced over the Tannoy. The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well. People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup.

Helena Kennedy

I was at the Old Bailey, acting for a gangland boss in a series of armed robberies. At lunchtime someone came into the Bar mess and announced that Mrs T had resigned. There was wild jubilation, a cheer went up and wigs were tossed in the air. Even Conservative lawyers felt she had finally lost her purchase on reality and had to go. I was exhilarated. She had become such a hate figure.

Even police and prison officers were expressing pleasure to see the back of her. But there was my client, sitting with his head in his hands. "I'm gutted, sheer gutted. That woman put the Great back into Britain. She was tough. You 'ave to be. She didn't put up with all them slackers and wasters on the dole. Them immigrants. She loved this country, just like Churchill did. They've stabbed her in the back, that shower of nonces in the cabinet. You have to watch yer back when yer at the top."

He ranted on about the absence of testosterone in male Tories and the size of Mrs Thatcher's balls until we were called back to court. "'Elena, always remember to watch yer back. It's yer mates that always do for you in the end."

Roy Hattersley

All I can remember is that I did not believe it. I was driving into the House of Commons and a television journalist, complete with camera, seemed to shout, "She's gone." Who could she mean? Not Margaret Thatcher – or at least not gone permanently. I had seen her on television, the night before, saying she was staying. Surely her going to Brussels, Washington or Grantham would not be worth the fuss. I assumed the journalist had got it wrong. It sometimes happens. Then, in Neil Kinnock's office, one of his people told me it was true. I rejoiced – which was a mistake. Had Margaret Thatcher (and the poll tax) remained, Labour would have won the 1992 general election.

Piers Morgan

I was running the Sun's Bizarre show-business column at the time, and the newsroom was absolutely explosive all day long. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor, and always loved Margaret Thatcher, as did his boss Rupert Murdoch, so there was a real sense of sadness and anger. I felt curiously disengaged from the whole thing. My professional world was gripped by far more important things, like whether Bros were going to break up or not. But, on a personal level, I felt sorry for her that she was leaving in such demeaning and treacherous circumstances. I think she later went slightly power-mad and bonkers, but that should not negate the good things she did, the real sense of pride she brought back to the stamp "Made in Britain".

David Owen, from Time to Declare, 1991

Margaret Thatcher . . . had been brought down over the European Community, not the poll tax. She had beaten me in the 1987 election and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due, and in my case genuinely felt. I sensed at times we were partners in the counter-revolution and I shared some of her convictions. Nevertheless, I did not share her attitude to a whole range of social and civil liberty issues.

Margaret Thatcher's downfall was due to hubris. Her excessive self-confidence was by then being flaunted day by day in the face of friend or foe alike. The tragedy that the Greeks identified followed: Nemesis.

A N Wilson

I was working as a journalist on the London Evening Standard when Margaret Thatcher fell, so I was able to get into the House of Commons gallery and watch the drama of her final Commons appearance before she left office. I had never voted for her, but she struck me as truly magnificent on a human level. Her qualities of personal greatness outshone what you might think of her "policies".

Peregrine Worsthorne

My immediate reaction to the news – which I heard while sitting at the editor's desk in the Sunday Telegraph – was to write a piece saying that this act of modern "regicide" would rightly put the Tory party out of office for a generation. Almost certainly she would have lost the next election, but that would have done much less long-term damage to the party than the horrible spectacle of her treacherous colleagues, one by one, stabbing her in the back.

As it happened, I think I may have been the last person – outside of her family and staff – to visit her on her final night. It was a painful experience. Normally it was she who brought the proceedings to a close. Not on that night. I thought the long silences would never end. Finally, walking down the grand staircase after a farewell photograph, I ran into Carol coming up, carrying a string bag, which, she said, contained "Mum's cold chicken supper". The servants, it seemed, had already decamped.

Will Self

Sorry, can't remember – it was during the lost years (mine and hers).

Tony Benn

I was in London. My diary describes the occasion as follows:

"I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for Dispatches on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Absolutely dazzling news and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that.

"To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock's speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked. I spoke myself but the House was empty."

Lady Carla Powell

I was not very surprised when Margaret Thatcher resigned – Charles had been with her in Paris when the news came through that she had failed to get the majority she needed in the Conservative Party leadership election. The night before her resignation Charles came home from No 10 well after midnight and told me he thought it was all over, although she was going to sleep on her decision. He went in at 6am the next morning and rang to tell me she had made up her mind to go. He was pretty emotional about it for a normally buttoned-up Englishman.

I found it hard to believe that someone who had towered over British politics for so long could so easily be toppled by a cabal of frightened Lilliputians. It taught me that politics is as much of a dirty business in Britain as in any other country.

A L Kennedy

When Margaret Thatcher finally fell off her perch – or rather was pushed – I was out of the loop. At that time I was working as a writer with groups in hospitals and prisons and various types of centre, or visiting isolated writers with disabilities in their homes, so every day I saw people being ignored, bewildered, defrauded, bullied and humiliated by the benefit system, failed by what was left of the NHS and the welfare state.

I was helping people to write – which allowed them to vent, claw back a little dignity, maybe start making more demands, maybe have the satisfaction of creation – but it also woke them up and made them more aware of their grim situations. The days were long. And badly paid. And I had the least of the problems in any given day.

On the day she went I was getting a lift home through Glasgow and I noticed that people on the pavements were all smiling – laughing – folk were, in fact, dancing. They were making a point of dancing in the street. Literally. With strangers. Angry, on-your-grave dancing. Still here and you're not dancing. And in the car we turned on the radio and heard the news. Those people were still dancing, even in the early evening. And it did make me feel happy, but not that happy. I didn't think anything would be different in the morning . . . and it wasn't.

James Naughtie

I was in the editorial meeting for The World At One. Just after 9.30, someone noticed a strange piece of copy on the Reuters financial wire, of all places, and tentatively interrupted the meeting to say that the prime minister seemed to have resigned. Panic, excitement, adrenalin rushes . . . and then the ruling that Radio 4 couldn't mount a special programme at 10am because we wouldn't have enough to go on! So the news bulletin told listeners that the Thatcher era was over, and they then listened to a programme about birds until we were allowed to hit the airwaves at 10.30.

Looking back, it still seems inexplicable, and would strike producers today as utterly barmy. Even then it was bizarre, though we soon got into our stride, decamping to the green off Parliament Square and rolling interviews that went on all day, it seemed. But I still remember not getting on the air quickly enough . . .

Kitty Ussher

I was at my desk in my tiny little room, in my first year of university. I was trying to read something very complicated when a friend burst in shouting: "She's gone, she's gone!" I had Radio 1 on and there was a terrible 20 seconds, trying to find Radio 4.

After that we went out on to the streets in Oxford, normally a very reserved place, but that day there were just gaggles of people standing on the street talking to each other and celebrating.

All the day in the TV room we watched the news unfold. Someone placed a Thatcher Spitting Image candle on top of the TV and as the day wore on it just melted all the way down. We all had a great day, except one of my Tory friends who just stayed in her room and cried all night.

Iain Dale

I remember having had rows the night before the resignation with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn't surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before, my three-year-old niece, Emma, had asked: "Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?" We were about to find out.

Peter Preston

I was standing in the Guardian newsroom when John Cole told me she was out. I thought that the long Downing Street deep freeze could finally be over for the paper. I'd been inside No 10 only twice through the Thatcher years, once because the president of Italy, an ex-journalist, wanted to meet me, once because Bill Deedes got to choose who went to his farewell dinner. Now, maybe, normal relations might be back on the menu. That would make an immense difference to what we wrote, and how we thought – because, simply, we'd have to stop to listen more.

She'd only been to my office once, too, as it happened, a staff conference meeting while she was still opposition leader. "This room could do with an element of defenestration," she'd announced, bafflingly. It turned out to mean she was too hot and wanted a window open.

Simon Heffer

I was in Brisbane awaiting the start of the first Test match between Australia and England of the 1990-91 tour. With great foresight, my then editor had decreed that nothing much would happen in politics that winter and that I could spend part of it, therefore, writing about cricket.

I recall eating a room service dinner (I was trying to write a preview of the Test match) in a state of shock, watching on television film of Wapping, the miners' strike and the poll tax riots. I knew the rest of the Tory party, and I knew what was coming. I was not disappointed. The Australians I met were in disbelief, and mostly asked if she could have a retirement job running Australia.

England were thrashed in the Test match. I arrived home on the morning she left Downing Street in tears, and the man we now call Sir John Major left No 11 for the Palace.

Lynsey Hanley

I was in a history lesson at secondary school. Our teacher, Mrs Green, came in and said: "I don't know if anybody's interested, but Mrs Thatcher's just resigned." And the whole place just erupted. It felt like the end of this huge oppression, which sounds ridiculous – we were only 14. But it really was this massive feeling of relief, as big as when the Berlin Wall came down. The funny thing was, a lot of the parents loved Mrs Thatcher, because they were able to buy their council houses.

Michael Portillo

I was in the thick of things and I think my recollections might be worth something, so I think I will save them. Sorry!

Charles Kennedy

I was relaxing in the bath at my London flat when the newsflash announced the dramatic news. Before I'd had time to digest the enormity of what had happened, the phone rang. It was one of my closest friends – an ardent Scottish Nationalist – who was happy enough, but amazed by the perfidy of the Tories. We speculated about who would now emerge as her successor, agreeing that this would probably be an Alec Douglas-Home moment. So, step forward Douglas Hurd. That chat, looking back, was proof positive of how many of us Scots have never really understood the Tory party.

I had resigned as editor of the NS and saw the television news pictures at home after shopping. I actually felt sorry for Mrs Thatcher, watching the stricken old woman scuttling into the large black car, her power apparently over. So I was not sorry to miss Charter 88's impromptu celebratory party that night, I didn't even know about it.

Stuart Weir

I was teaching at a primary school in Kilburn. One of the teachers ran into the staffroom waving the Evening Standard with the headline that Thatcher had resigned. I suddenly noticed smiles on faces that I had never seen smiles on before. I rejoiced, too, just to stay in the vibe, but I had mixed feelings. To my mind – and I still feel this way – Thatcher should have faced the people, not be dragged offstage by a bunch of guys trying to hang on to power. Like her or loathe her, Mrs T gave Britain its groove.

Bonnie Greer

I remember coming up out of Westminster Tube station holding the Evening Standard, and it was the front-page story. I was looking at the back page and holding it out in front of me, and this group of women was looking at the front of it – a group of grannies from the north of England down for a day trip, as it turned out.

One of them came running up to me and said, oh, is it true, is it true? And I said yes it is. They were all whooping and beaming. Then at that moment a black car went past, and in it was the Queen Mum. So they went from whooping about Thatcher to whooping about that – I think it must have been the best day of their bloody lives. Then I was doing something on parliament green, and it was like a television studio, with cameras everywhere and MPs popping up to give their tuppence worth.

How did I feel about it? Wonderful! Not quick enough, in my view.

Peter York

Newsnight had convened a round table of the usual suspects to give their thoughts on the lady's political passing. I composed what I thought was a rather good conceit. Thatcher wanted a revolution within a revolution; she was always saying, "Let's redo this, let's not rest on our laurels." So I said, "Mrs T was a Maoist" – the kind of sarcastic soundbite I prided myself on.

Back in the green room, musing on what a clever chap I was, I was set upon by a rather attractive, clearly very right-wing American woman. She berated me for my sarcasm and told me, in a roundabout way, that I wasn't fit to lick the hem of the Great Lady's robe. Throughout this she was supported by a stern woman who looked to me like a classic north London left-winger.

It turns out that the "American" lady was the very Canadian Barbara Amiel – not yet Lady Black – and the stern north Londoner was Melanie Phillips. Shamefully, I can't remember who else was on the panel. But I do remember those two women and how the rest of the panel were entirely obliterated by their force field. Fitting, when you think about the circumstances.

Niall Ferguson

In 1990 I was a fellow of Peterhouse – one of the few bastions of Thatcherism in British academic life. The night she resigned the mood at High Table was despondent. Rather a large amount of Château Batailley was consumed and then I and John Adamson sat slumped in my rooms and listened to every single recording we could find of the "Siegfried Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung. As far as I was concerned, that was the night that Britain gave up any hope of seriously reforming its postwar institutions.

Stephen Pollard

I was in a tiny room with three members of the then shadow cabinet (I was a researcher for a Labour MP at the time), watching a tiny black-and-white TV. They were ecstatic, as if a dictator had been overthrown – although one had the perspicacity to say a few moments later that the next election was no longer in the bag.

My own view was less exultant. Far from hating Mrs Thatcher, I always felt that she had been a blessing for the country: a leader who had done exactly what was necessary, and which no patrician Tory or, even less, Labour PM would ever have been capable of.

Billy Bragg

I was in bed in a hotel in Dublin called Blooms. A friend of mine rang from England and said, "Switch on the telly," so I leaned over and switched it on. And there she was, tearfully resigning. And I must say that cheered me up no end. So I got out of bed and went round the corner for a celebratory fry-up, a full English – or a full Irish, I suppose.

The best thing was that I had a gig that night in Belfast. I came on stage holding the Belfast Telegraph above my head, and said, "She's resigned" – and the place just went mad. The adrenalin running through me, I think I could have done ten rounds with Mike Tyson if he'd been in the dressing room.

Belfast was a great place to be that night – people were literally dancing in the streets. It had an incredible vibe; I just don't think a gig in London would have been the same.

David Lammy

I was at SOAS, reading the first year of my law degree. I remember coming out of a lecture, when a real buzz started going around. A huge group of us ran down to a room with a TV to a really powerful scene: friends of mine, students and professors, crying tears of joy.

I had grown up in Tottenham just a street away from the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and had been involved in campaigns against the miscarriages of justice that convicted the Tottenham Three. By the time Maggie resigned, my friends and I at SOAS had been marching against the poll tax, campaigned for retrials for the Birmingham Six, had gone to the Court of Appeal when the Guildford Four were released. When Thatcher vowed to "fight on and fight to win" we thought we might never be rid of her – which is why we were so emotional when she finally went.

Anthony Seldon

I was teaching a lesson on Hitler when it happened. Somebody burst into the room and said: "Thatcher is gone." Everyone was completely silent, even though we knew it was on the cards. I said something pathetic like: "You'll remember this moment for the rest of your lives." I felt strangely moved – I thought she was beginning to get it right, beginning to cut free from many of the people around her and beginning to articulate what she truly believed in.

David Peace

I was a student at Manchester Polytechnic and I was living in Rusholme, in Manchester. I am pretty sure we went to the Hacienda and I am pretty sure Dave Haslam played "Bye Bye Badman" by the Stone Roses and "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey, and I am pretty sure we cheered and danced and partied like 1979 had never happened. And perhaps there will be similar scenes when she dies.

I did not mourn her resignation and I will not mourn her death, but nor will I celebrate and cheer in blame and hate. For it is much too late now and, to quote Chateaubriand, one should only use contempt with economy, because of the large number of people who deserve it. So I reserve my contempt for those who came after, for those who should have known better.

Roger Scruton

I learned of Margaret Thatcher's resignation in the same way as most: from the news. I was in England at the time, just beginning a new way of life which involved leaving the university and branching out as a self-employed writer and jack of all trades. Mrs Thatcher had not a little to do with this since, as one of her vocal supporters, I had in effect ruined my university career, and as a result of her policies I had discovered how to live outside the university in any case.

I was naturally upset by her resignation, but it convinced me that the old farts who ran the Conservative Party were just as chronically self-interested and anti-patriotic as the yuppies who were wrestling for control of the Labour Party. It was a great time to say "A plague on both your houses", and to recycle the Thatcher idea as a cherished memory rather than a pious hope.

Bel Mooney

I'd just got back from a meeting at my daughter's school when my then husband, Jonathan Dimbleby, rang to say Mrs Thatcher had resigned. It would be false to say it came as a total shock. We knew of rumblings.

I remember feeling first that it was time she went and that to resign was the right thing. A brave thing. But I never shared the visceral hatred of her which poisoned rational political discourse, so I did not share the mood of vicious glee on the liberal left.

As a feminist, I could not help but admire her. I could feel compassion for this woman who had outlived her time and pushed loyalty too far. Not everything that went wrong could possibly have been her fault.

John Harris

I was a 21-year-old undergraduate and part-time music journalist at the now-defunct weekly Sounds. What I most clearly remember is Cathi and Trish, the paper's two in-house Goths, giggling maniacally and singing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I was a bit less thrilled. My hope had been to see Thatcher – and Thatcherism – beaten in an election, and this end to the story made me quietly feel cheated.

Brian Walden

I was nowhere exciting, unfortunately, I was just at home. I switched on the television news and there she was. I wasn't surprised by that stage, although in a sense it was extraordinary – she'd stood for three elections and won them all. But by then there was growing hubris, and of course the poll tax, and she'd just become so unpopular. It wasn't anything to do with Europe, which is often cited as the reason. The Tory party wanted to win the election, which is why they got rid of her.

My overwhelming feeling was that there was bitter civil war within the Tory party. And that went on for a long time afterwards, for about 15 years – and that's a high price to pay. Less so now, but it's taken a long time to put out the fire. And that's because Cameron is going to win: the prospect of victory puts a stop to civil war, doesn't it?

Lady Annabel Goldsmith

I found out that Margaret Thatcher had resigned when I came home from walking the dogs and switched on the news. I was deeply upset for three reasons. First, she was an inspirational leader who was driven by ideals and her unshakeable determination. Second, I knew her personally through my husband, Jimmy Goldsmith, and beneath the armour was a kind and decent human being. Third, it made me so angry to see a strong woman brought down by a bunch of scheming, second-rate men.

David Aaronovitch

In the autumn of 1990 I was the BBC's head of political news, shuffling between the news centre in White City and the Westminster operation. So I was in a Tube train carriage when my pager went off with a loud buzz, and supplied me with the two words "Thatcher resigns".

I couldn't just sit there and say nothing. "She's gone," I told the seven or eight people sitting round me. A young black woman opposite looked serious, and then asked, shyly: "She can't come back, can she?" "No," I told her. Only then did she allow herself a smile.

Roger Law

I was at work at Spitting Image, on the modelling bench. I had a phone call from my producer Geoffrey Perkins, who is sadly now dead. He said: "We finally got rid of her. She's finally stepped down."

It was a kind of relief because everybody was sick to death of her. But you knew that she'd dismantled the whole fucking lot. I grew up in a mixed economy, where you paid higher taxes in return for services, and she just dismantled the whole fucking thing. It's abundantly clear that you can't just have expansion for ever.

To celebrate when she'd gone, we had an exhibition at the Barbican called "Cutting Edge". We had a tableau based on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and we had all the cabinet members there who'd brought her down. We had all the puppets. And Denis Thatcher was there, drunk under the table.

The irony is that all the shit we're in now started with Reagan and Thatcher – and now she can't remember a fucking thing.

Interviews by Kate Ferguson, Alyssa McDonald and David Patrikarakos.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

***

 

Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster