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20 ways to save Labour

Figures including Germaine Greer, Richard Dawkins and John Pilger suggest policies to revive Labour

Joan Bakewell
What this country needs now is a major reform of the constitution. Labour should launch a debate with the greatest speed, canvassing opinion about reform of the House of Lords, Fixed term Parliaments, proportional representation, wage rates for MPs, MEPs and Lords; We need to have a sense of a new broom sweeping away abuses and anachronisms and addressing the fundamentals of how we are to be governed. Urgency is of the essence: without it people will assume that Parliament is drifting on much as before with a few local abuses put right. There is already a sense that the days of the unbridled free market are over; it makes a natural parallel to revise our constitution at the same time. There is indeed opportunity in all this: a commitment to new thinking and open mindedness would raise the public mood. Is it too much to hope?

Germaine Greer
The Labour Party has a single asset – Gordon Brown. Brown may be a difficult character, impatient, judgmental, insecure, and often angry, but he was an able Chancellor and he is respected by the international community. The expenses shambles was neither his fault nor his responsibility, and it came at a time when he had rather weightier matters on his mind, matters that he handled with admirable dispatch, decision and courage.

The people who cut and ran from his cabinet were some of the least impressive individuals ever to be involved in the government of this country. He is better off without them.

Paul Mason, Newsnight economics editor
It's not my job to give Labour advice - but their predicament reminds me of a classic systems design problem. Computer programmers often start as follows: draw a blank circle with an arrow coming out of it, pointing to a stick figure representing a human being. The circle is your organisation; the stick figure is your customer or end-user. Next ask yourself: what does the stick figure want? Now, think of everything you would put inside that circle to satisfy the stick figure. Treat your organisation as a blank sheet of paper. Only what delivers the outcome goes in the circle; everything that does not deliver is scrapped. What lies behind Labour's crisis is: it can't decide who the stick figure represents.

Alexei Sayle
One of the central problems with politics, particularly Socialist politics as they are currently constructed, is that on a day to day basis they are incredibly boring.

This is not an accident but is a process designed to ensure that only a particular type of individual, specifically those with borderline personality disorders centred around extreme issues to do with the control and manipulation of the behaviour of others are attracted to the business of government and activism. All those with a different view are automatically locked out of the process.

One way to counter this exclusionism is to have balloons and music at all Labour Party meetings and possible an all-you-can eat buffet offered at a nominal cost. I would suggest £3.50-£4.00.

John Pilger
One specific policy change for Labour? Withdraw immediately from Afghanistan and entirely from Iraq and stop supplying arms to Israel , and demand that the regime in Tel Aviv obeys international law and gets out of occupied Palestine. At the very least, this will protect the people of this country from further 7/7 attacks.

Richard Dawkins
Stop toadying to Muslims and other “faith communities”, as part of a general abolition of all religious privilege. Withdraw government support from faith schools that abuse children by teaching them they belong to a particular religion (as opposed to teaching them about religions and letting them make up their own minds when they are old enough). Abolish the automatic right of religious organizations to charitable status, and the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

George Monbiot
Abandon PFI.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
Now that the Prime Minister has survived the crisis, he can shift his attention from fire-fighting to vision-building. Voters who’ve deserted the party need positive and inspiring reasons to return and the Government has less than a year to provide them.

There can be no clearer way to take the reins and show the electorate what a Brown premiership stands for than to roll back the excesses of the War on Terror. Now finally begin to walk the walk on human rights. So much dangerous and divisive legislation is still on the statute books – destroying lives and damaging Britain’s standing in the world. Terror suspects must be brought before the courts not left to go mad under “control orders” and indefinite house arrest. Secret commissions must be abolished and our justice system given back its integrity. Anti-terror surveillance and stop and search powers need re-drafting so that they are less ripe for use and abuse against innocent (and often black) people attempting to go about their lives.

Standing before the PLP and showing humility is one thing. But how much more powerful to stand like Obama in Cairo and draw a line under the Blair/Bush saga once and for all.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA
Labour needs to do three things to get back into contention and they have to happen in the right order. First, connect – unless the Prime Minister finds a way of being listened to it doesn’t matter what he says. Second, Labour needs to say something bold and brave enough to make its plan the story not its decline. The Government might, for example, unveil a credible and progressive plan for dealing with coming reductions in public expenditure; this is certainly not easy territory for the Conservatives. Third, Labour must then, and only then, try to define the choice at the next election. The electoral pendulum may swing one more time but only if Labour wins the right to be heard.

Robert Skidelsky, biographer of Keynes
The appointment of Andrew Adonis to the Cabinet is a huge gain. He is one of the few intellectual high flyers in the government, who has shown clear thinking and tenacity in his previous education job. As Transport Minister in the Cabinet he will have extra weight to push through his big plan for high speed rail links between London and the West Midlands and Scotland. Recession is a good time to accelerate big infrastructural projects of this kind. If he can get this dedicated high speed rail line quickly approved and started before the government leaves office, it will be a splendid legacy for its final year.

George Galloway, Respect MP
Labour should adopt a commitment to introduce proportional representation for a wholly elected parliament. This is in Labour's interest given the meltdown of their vote. It would wrong foot Cameron who has set his face against fair voting. Above all, it would enable the British people to elect the progressive majority which would then support the radical change of policies on a raft of issues the British people need. Without a solid commitment to a new constitutional settlement between government and parliament and parliament and people, bringing policies voters actually want and need, Labour cannot hope to revive its fortunes.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary, PCS
My union would like to see the government, in its last year, prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, not the rich and powerful.

Towards this end, rather than withholding benefits from the poorest in society and privatising basic functions of the welfare state, the welfare reform bill should be scrapped and more emphasis placed on closing tax loopholes. This would raise extra revenue to finance decent public services, including decent pay settlements.

Proportional representation should be introduced to show serious commitment to make every person’s vote count. It cannot be right that the votes of most people are hardly relevant apart from in marginal constituencies.

It is certainly not right that in a democratic society fascists can be employed by the state to administer public services to the very people they would choose to discriminate against and victimise. Therefore we believe that the BNP and other far right group members should be banned from working in public services.

In opposition the government promised to repeal the anti-trade union laws, which shackle our trade unions. The government should honour this pledge now.

These measures would go a small way towards redressing the balance in a society which is now deemed to be more unequal than at any time since the 1960’s.

Mary Riddell, columnist
On things to undo, scrap Trident and ID cards. On things to do, devise a more humane youth justice system. Of the 3000 or so children in custody in England and Wales, three-quarters of those released reoffend within a year. This Labour government is running apprenticeships in crime. Over-use of prison costs a fortune that the taxpayer can ill-afford, puts citizens at greater risk and ruins the lives of vulnerable young people. If the Brown government is to succeed, it needs a bolder and more human face, which means tackling the difficult issues rather than just focusing on populist causes.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, Oxford University
To bring forward the legislation raising the educational participation age to 18,which comes into effect in 2015, so that it has immediate effect. This will not mean that all 16 year olds stay at at school. It will mean that 16 year olds can no longer be dumped unqualified on the labour market. This is a long overdue reform, first advocated by Churchill in 1907! Its introduction now would be a valuable investment, helping to resolve the problem of youth unemployment and reducing the number of young, alienated and unemployed youths who may be tempted to vote BNP'.

Sigrid Rausing, publisher
There is one particular strength about the state of melt-down, and that is that it doesn’t matter any more how people see you. You can finally disregard opinion polls, editorials, and focus groups, because whatever you do now you are so unlikely to win the next election. There’s a certain freedom about that. It means that you can finally shed what people have disliked about new Labour for so long; the tedious and back-stabbing PR machinery, and the incessant quest for populist policies. The latter has led to betrayals, and a degree of moral loss, not least the notion that asylum seekers are the curse of Britain, deserving of nothing better than prison and deportation. Government language and actions have undoubtedly legitimised xenophobia, and made all refugees suspects, whatever hideous situation of state persecution they escaped from. Now you can close the detention centres, end the asylum dispersal policy (let refugees choose where they want to live), and allow asylum seekers to work, so that they won’t have to endure the humiliation of having to survive on £35 of supermarket vouchers a week. And get rid of all the other dubious compromises, the fakey PR language, and the curtailments of the civil liberties of terror suspects. Start answering questions rather than avoiding them – people might actually like it, and it will, in any case, make for much more interesting news programmes, which has to be a good thing.

Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim, co-directors, Institute for Public
Policy Research
The worst thing Labour can do is focus on what is needed to win the next general election, although this of course is what self-preservation demands. Short-termism is dangerous because the disconnect between politics and the people cannot be fixed with a few policy changes over the coming months; a fundamental shift in the way we do politics is required.

Labour needs a compelling vision for our future as a nation. At its heart should be a new constitutional deal - one that addresses the unequal sharing of power in society and challenges the professionalization of politics. Labour could start with establishing a Citizen's Convention, tasked with reviewing the political system. It would be made up of 150-200 ordinary citizens, selected by lot, and would take evidence at "town hall" meetings around the country and recommend options for reform. These could be voted on by parliament or by the public in a referendum. Such a move may not be sufficient to win Labour a general election, but it would secure its position as a party willing to respond to the public's distrust of politics and bold enough to take action. Ultimately this is more likely to determine Labour’s future than any short-term fix.

Lisa Appignanesi, president, English PEN
During its years in office, Labour has – in the name of security or the purportedly ‘offended’ - whittled away at that freedom which underpins all others: the right to speak, write and protest freely. I would like to see a robust statement on free expression in a bill of rights and in the statute books. This would include the freedom to discuss, scrutinize, criticize, ridicule, and express antipathy.

We need to get rid of musty laws of seditious and criminal libel, which though long dormant here, are pointed to by authoritarian regimes abroad and used to prop up their silencing of dissent.

Our civil libel laws also urgently need reform and this needs to be incorporated in policy. We’ve ended up with a regime which effectively privatizes censorship, as the recent case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh shows.

Rich corporates and individuals, often of little enough reputation, regularly use our libel courts to protect that reputation. We have become the libel capital of the world. Our present law is weighted so heavily against writers, is so exorbitantly expensive, that even the sniff of a possible suit is enough to quash a book or article. The law discourages argument and investigation. It silences writers, academics, publishers, serious journalists and NGOs, even where public interest can be proved.

Policy promises please.

Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor
1.Integrate the great public schools into the state system with a remit to cultivate a new tradition of meritocratic public service. Something desperately needed in this leaderless land.

2.Cancel Trident and instead launch a new programme of international nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War not renewing Trident would have seemed a crazy idea. Today it is its renewal that seems quite mad.

Clive Stafford Smith
Rather than focus on one policy, Labour needs to recall and follow the party’s founding principles instead of constantly trying to identify and appease the views of the Daily Mail. Gordon Brown might begin by giving everyone in the party (himself included) a copy of his own book, Courage, left permanently open at page 113. On that page Martin Luther King provides the catechism that should guide any politician: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? And vanity comes along, and asks the question is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?” Life is much simpler than most politicians would have us believe – if a particular policy takes us a step closer to our ideal society, we do it; if not, we reject it.

Martin Kettle, the Guardian
Labour urgently needs to widen the political agenda, to re-establish its lost reputation for modernity and change and to energise its working and middle-class base. One way to achieve all three would be to learn from the Germans and rediscover one of the great missed opportunities of the 20th century by reviving the issue of industrial democracy. Labour should dust off the Bullock report of 1977 and rediscover the idea of company codetermination along German lines through works councils in every medium-sized or large business.

The financial crisis has powerfully posed the question of how good businesses should be run. Labour remains hopelessly uncertain about the answer. Works councils, the central proposal in Bullock, would put flesh on the bone of the idea that all good post-recession businesses need to focus more on their stakeholders and less on their shareholders. Industrial democracy would be part of the middle way which post-credit crunch Labour needs to navigate between the Scylla of the Old Labour union-centred agenda and the Charybdis of New Labour's too often uncritical embrace of neo-liberalism. It could take British industrial policy beyond the them-and-us world in which too many unions still remain locked and give Labour's next generation of leaders a much clearer model of what a good business should look like.

Good businesses should continually reinvest in products and their employees, not just in management and shareholder rewards as in the past, to remain competitive. So in its manifesto Labour should propose elected works councils in all businesses employing more than 500 people. It should make clear that it intends the works council and employee representation to be independent of existing union recognition arrangements, if any, and to apply in all businesses irrespective of union recognition. The fact that proposals of this kind would come extremely naturally from the mouth of Alan Johnson is a further happy coincidence for a party that wishes to turn a new page..

Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass
Interviewed after her third election victory in 1987 Mrs Thatcher was asked wasn’t it only fair that Labour had a turn next. Never she exclaimed. Then they would introduce proportional representation and the Tories would never govern again. If only. But the case for PR is not just that it stop the Tories but it transforms politics into a full and open debate about competing visions of the good society. All of a sudden every vote counts so every voice is heard. The interests of the poor and those who know our life styles can’t be in conflict with our planet are no longer drowned out by a few swing voters and two reactionary media moguls. By introducing PR politicians show they trust the people and bust open the myth that first past the post politics delivers strong government. Politics and meaningful change come from winning the battle of ideas – not pretending that 30% of the vote is a mandate to reform anything. The steam age of politics by command and control are over – we need an electoral system for the wonderfully complex, diverse and less deferential world in which we live.

Richard Gott
The anniversary of D Day is a useful reminder that Britain and Europe have been occupied by the United States ever since 1944. Their troops and military bases have never left, ensuring that Britain can never escape from the American empire. A new project for the Labour Party would be to abandon the American alliance, to leave Nato, to withdraw British soldiers from Afghanistan, to send US troops home from their British bases, and to establish a fresh foreign policy free from American entanglements. No other policy would be such a sure-fire vote-winner from across the political spectrum.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Unless something quite extraordinary happens -- and that does not mean the replacement of Gordon Brown by Alan Johnson -- Labour are going to be very heavily defeated at the next election. What's more, and from any perspective other than that of abject "loyalists" or apparatchiks, they deserve to be. For what's left of Labour the best thing would be to start right now examining the failures of the past 12 years, and to see whether an honourable radical party can be constructed out of the rubble.

Jo Glanville,Editor, Index on Censorship
Part of the mess New Labour now finds itself in is down to its half-hearted commitment to open government. True, New Labour brought in the Freedom of Information Act, which was a milestone. But it then restricted the Act with so many exemptions while obstructing the more awkward inquiries (from the Iraq war to expenses) that it is only down to the most dogged campaigning (and ultimately a good old-fashioned leak to the press) that the more sensitive information has made it into the public domain. So I would like to see a solid commitment to transparency and accountability – not least by beginning the inquiry into the Iraq war – and holding it in public. David Miliband is at this moment attempting to stop information on British intelligence’s complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed (the former Guantanamo detainee) from coming into the public domain. If he were to drop his current request for a gagging order, it would win confidence and respect.

Jude Kelly,Artistic Director, Southbank Centre
I would like Labour to Google the ‘All Our Futures Report’, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – widely recognised at the time as both highly influential and controversial – and embrace its central principle of putting creativity at the heart of education, alongside the 3 Rs. This is not about the arts as a discipline, but about teaching the creative process and stimulating creative intelligence across every discipline – which is essential if we are going to excel in this post-industrial era. In making that commitment, Government would inevitably return to the idea that children and young people should be at the centre of everyone’s story.

David Goodhart
Gordon Brown has two huge drawbacks as a prime minister - he is no good with people close up (his colleagues) and he is no good with people at a distance (the voters). If we are stuck with him for another year we have to hope that he can indeed "do better" on the former but on the latter he should just give up and hand over almost all communication to Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson; he should announce the date of the election (in April or May next year) and his programme of work and then retire to become the eminence grise of his own government, chairing the cabinet, meeting important people, ploughing through policy options and generally staying out of sight. On policy, some sort of constitutional reform bill is probably unavoidable - it should focus on sorting out expenses, strengthening parliament by cutting the number of ministers drawn from the House of Commons to 50 (further ministers "of all the talents" could still be drawn from outside), and laying down a referendum on the Alternative Vote system to be held at the time of the next election. Otherwise everything he does should emphasise the solid and the long-term and economic renewal - which means infrastructure, physical and social, and intelligent support for manufacturing industry as the financial sector shrinks. On physical infrastructure the two priorities are nuclear power and high speed rail links - both agreed in principle. On social infrastructure he should announce six months compulsory civic service for all 16 to 25 year olds to combat both social fragmentation and youth unemployment, plus a guarantee of at least a full time minimum wage job income for any parent who wants to stay at home with a child for the first three years of his/her life. Finally, one big symbolic thing that would change Britain for ever - move the political capital out of London, the political class might find it easier to turn over a new leaf in a new location. Start with the new supreme court, then the new House of Lords and finally the House of Commons and the monarch. Where? With the new high speed rail links it doesn't really matter. But how about Doncaster?

Peter Tatchell
Voting reform, using the Scottish Parliament election system. It would make every vote count and ensure a more representative House of Commons and government. This would boost public confidence in politics. Because the British public is mostly left-of-centre, it would keep the Tories out of power, and give Labour a semi-permanent place in government. Labour would, of course, have to rule in coalition with the Lib Dems and Greens, but this is preferable to Conservative rule. Moreover, since the Greens and Lib Dems are more left-wing than Labour, they would have a progressive, radicalising influence on a Labour-led coalition government.

Interviews by Sophie Elmhirst and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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.

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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