A United Kingdom of Britain and France?

Revelations that the British and French discussed a merger in 1956 have been greeted with guffaws. It’s not that shocking.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

It has been revealed that, back in 1956, then French prime minister Guy Mollet proposed a merger between France and Britain to then British prime minister Anthony Eden. Eden replied that France could be a member of the Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth as Head of State and common citizenship, similar to the position that Ireland already enjoyed.

The discovery by BBC Radio 4’s Document programme of the Cabinet Minute of the conversation of 10 September 1956 has prompted a few laughs from commentators today, and even disbelief – especially from the French. But it is not as remarkable as it seems. The willingness of ruling elites to innovate in pooling sovereignty in the 1950s was extensive.

Mollet’s proposal had a precedent. French civil servant Jean Monnet records that the British Cabinet discussed a French proposal for a union in June 1940 as they were united in war with Germany. Then the proposal was sidelined by the realism of Churchill – ‘I am fighting a war and you come to talk to me about the future’ – and French military leaders Foch and Weygand, who made the armistice with Hitler.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the relative importance of national boundaries had changed, under new pressures. Those European powers whose clashing interests – and Empires – seemed so insurmountable before were all chastened before their new sponsor, the United States, which both financed them and opened up their Empires. They were beset on all sides by communists in the East and nationalists in the colonies, and were much more willing to cling together.

An Anglo-French Union would be a marvellous idea, of course. Unfortunately it has generally been made at a time of weakness. Mollet’s proposal came as America was using its authority to pull the plug on the cavalier Anglo-French intervention in Egypt that aimed to prevent President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

This was a moment of truth for the old imperialists. Britain’s overvalued pound – there were far too many of them in circulation, relative to the declining output of the Empire – was allowed to slide by the US treasury, as a punishment for acting unilaterally. When the British conceded and halted the attack, French paratroopers were so disgusted with their allies that they sold their rifles to EOKA guerrillas in Cyprus on the return journey.

Anthony Eden’s career was ruined, along with his health. Mollet was weakened by Suez, but broken by the revolt in Algeria, which saw wartime leader General Charles de Gaulle returned to power, with much pomp, but eventually to negotiate a withdrawal.

Union with Britain foundered on a prickly national defensiveness. But it would be wrong to think that it was just pie in the sky. Mollet did see a political union, not with Britain, but with Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg, in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

Attitudes in London to the European Union have always been overcast by President de Gaulle’s imperious blackballing of Britain’s applications for membership in 1963 – ‘Non!’. But now we know that Britain snubbed France’s request for an exclusive union with Britain eight years earlier.

And in those eight years, the conditions for unification were ebbing away. Political leaders in Britain and France were faced with a militant challenge to their authority from the organised working class at home, as well as from nationalists abroad. The looser attitude to national claims that prevailed in the immediate postwar period was changing again. In the face of challenges at home, characters like De Gaulle and Eden’s successor Harold Macmillan played the national card.

Less able to give the people what they wanted in material terms, they promised them much more in the giddy dreams of national prestige, and unfortunately national competition is a zero-sum game. All talk of national union and cooperation fell away as national rights were jealously defended, most often as a performance of sovereignty for domestic consumption.

Union with France might sound like a joke today, and could only have been a division of the spoils of Egypt, but that people thought it possible then at least showed that the meaning of self-government was not yet entirely entrenched in fixed territorial boundaries.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. His chapter on the European Union is published in Sovereignty Without Politics, edited by Christopher Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch, published by Taylor and Francis (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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