In This Review
The Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe From Churchill to Blair

The Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe From Churchill to Blair

By Hugo Young

Overlook, 1999, 543 pp.


By Ian Buruma

Random House, 1999, 304 pp.

On December 22, 1941, only a fortnight after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his entourage flew to a three-week conference in the New World code-named Arcadia. In the course of Arcadia, the two countries agreed to establish a combined Joint Chiefs of Staff to direct their armed forces worldwide, and the British agreed that these supreme commanders should be located not in London, but in Washington. It was a partnership weighted toward the Americans: day-to-day military decisions for both countries were to be made in the United States.

In September 1943, Churchill proposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that after victory had been achieved, the wartime arrangement -- a joint high command located in the United States -- should continue, initially on a ten-year renewable basis, but in the hope that one day it might become permanent. "Roosevelt liked the idea at first sight," the prime minister reported to his colleagues and to King George VI.

Although Churchill often was derided as a romantic reactionary, addicted to empire and unwilling to recognize the harsh realities of the twentieth century, he showed himself on this point able and willing to face facts. He saw that the United Kingdom was losing its place as the world's foremost power -- permanently. Relative economic decline was the main cause; it also was part of the price that fate exacted from Britain for having fought the German wars from start to finish. Changes in the ranks of great powers are normal in history. What is unusual -- perhaps even unique -- is that Britain relinquished its top position to its successor consciously and, to the extent that it had a choice, voluntarily.

At the time, not all British officials agreed that global supremacy had been lost. In 1945 it was the view of the Foreign Office that Britain "possesses all the skill and resources required to recover a dominating place in the economic world." But Sir Henry Tizard, chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defense, came closer to the mark a few years later when he wrote, "We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. [But] we are not a great power and never will be again."

Churchill had evidently hoped to maintain his country's global dominance by leaning on the Americans. But his Labour successors in office (1945-51) chose instead to wind down Britain's commitments when they found they could no longer afford them.


Surprisingly, the exact date and place at which Britain handed over leadership to the United States has been pinpointed both by participants and by historians. It was in Washington in the late afternoon of Friday, February 21, 1947 -- a cold, gray, and rainy day -- that the first secretary of the British embassy delivered to the Department of State a note that later was to become famous. The note told then Secretary of State General George C. Marshall that Great Britain no longer could shore up the free world's positions in the eastern Mediterranean in the face of a threatening Soviet Union. British aid to Greece and Turkey would terminate on March 31. If the United States wished to take Britain's place, it should prepare to do so effective April 1.

In a burst of energy and creativity, the American government took hold of the torch and ran with it, formulating the Truman Doctrine, the Greek-Turkish aid program, and the Marshall Plan. Europe reacted positively, for which a major part of the credit must go to Britain's Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in Clement Attlee's Labour administration. Like many Western European and American leaders at the time, he feared that the United States would withdraw into isolation after the Second World War, as it had after the First. It was Bevin who initiated the European response to the Marshall Plan. It was Bevin, too, who organized a European mutual defense league; and after Norway asked for support when threatened by the Soviets in 1948, it was Bevin who drew in the Americans to form NATO. For a few episodes in 1947-48, Britain played the role in world affairs that the United States wanted it to play, and America played the part that Britain wanted for it.

But from there on, their paths diverged. The role of the United States grew over the years. Before long America had a presence in most parts of the world. Instead of believing, as they once had, that nothing outside the western hemisphere concerned them, Americans came to believe that almost everything everywhere was their business. They entered a global conflict with the Soviet Union, one superpower against another, and ultimately emerged as the leader not just of the West, but of the world.


Less well explored, until now, is the story of how Britain missed its chance to adopt a new role in world politics as Europe's leader. The distinguished British journalist Hugo Young has provided a definitive account of how successive prime ministers, other politicians, and civil servants failed to meet that challenge. It should become the authoritative narrative, the point of reference in its field.

As Young tells it, Churchill left Britons a dazzling vision -- but one that became an excuse for strategic indecision. In Churchill's view, Britain was to be at the center of three concentric circles: a Europe that would unite, a commonwealth and empire that would cohere, and a United States that would serve as Britain's partner.

Yet by the war's end, one of the options was on the verge of becoming untenable. The Attlee government embarked on a program of dissolving the empire. India received independence. Later the Tory government of Macmillan and Macleod pushed forward decolonization in Africa as well.

Politically the empire ceased to exist as a cohesive unit. And in a world that aimed at free trade, the tariff barriers that bound the Commonwealth economically threatened to become an anachronism. So whereas in the first half of the twentieth century, Great Britain still played a central role on the world stage as leader of a commonwealth and an empire, in the latter half both had disintegrated and the role had become ceremonial.


The second of Churchill's concentric circles was to be the community of Europe. It leaped into existence in May 1950, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, a plan conceived of by France's postwar economic comissioner, Jean Monnet, welcomed by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and supported by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The plan for combining basic industries was the first step toward merging continental Europe's economies with the aim, among others, of preventing future wars.

Ernest Bevin balked. The Schuman Plan had been sprung on him as a surprise. It looked like a plot, a continental cartel, and aroused all sorts of English prejudices in him. By joining Europe, Britain might have taken the lead, but it chose instead to watch, to wait -- and to obstruct.

The European movement went forward anyway. It thrived. Time and again, Britain had a chance both to join it and to lead. There was a strong economic argument for becoming European. But the British remained reluctant to throw in their lot unreservedly with their neighbors, fearing for their independence and special character. When the United Kingdom finally moved to enter Europe, French President Charles de Gaulle barred the way. In the end, the United Kingdom got in in 1973, but as a dissenter, inclined to oppose moves toward further unification.

For hundreds of years, Britain has opposed the unification of the continent under one dominant power, seeing in it a threat to the vital interests of an island nation. England fought Louis XIV and Napoleon, whose Continental System excluded the British isles from European trade. Young quotes de Gaulle's memoirs on a meeting with Harold Macmillan: "The Common Market is the Continental System all over again," the British prime minister told his old friend, the French president. "Britain cannot accept it," Macmillan told him. "I beg you to give it up."

Young has interviewed extensively and tells a tale of Foreign Office officials and other civil servants as well as prime ministers and cabinet members. He offers a full and complete account, a sad tale of official waffling, missed chances, and human frailties. Faced with one of the greatest questions in their country's history, the few British officials who were wise and brave emerge with all the greater credit.


Reluctant to become European, many in British public life advocated an alternative alliance: the special relationship with the United States. A second argument against joining Europe often voiced was that it might jeopardize that relationship.

But it was not there to jeopardize. Repeatedly, America's leaders made it clear that this option was not available. The most frequently repeated statement of the American position was given by Dean Acheson when addressing a student conference at West Point in 1962: "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role, that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based primarily on a 'special relationship' with the United States, a role based on being head of the Commonwealth," is "about played out." The former secretary of state spoke at the time only as a private citizen. Yet his words carried weight, and accurately stated the American view.

The reality of national character is sometimes questioned, yet it is difficult to discount. Its existence, as Hans Morgenthau wrote long ago in Politics Among Nations, is "contested but . . . incontestable." Any discussion of Britain's relationship with the continent of Europe -- the only area in which Acheson allowed the British a role to play -- tends to end in an appreciation of how different Britons are from everybody else.

Ian Buruma considers Britain's relationship with Europe in that cultural context. In Anglomania he explores the notion of what it is to be British according to foreigners. It is a rewarding undertaking; Britain has had, and continues to have, such an odd character in the eyes of others. The non-British are fascinated by British whimsy, baÛed by British humor and eccentricity, and filled with admiration for British good-sportsmanship.

In her centuries as a top player in international politics, Britannia has made her share of enemies. What is striking is how many admirable traits foreigners nonetheless project on the English, and how widespread has been the passion for Englishness. All over the world, among peoples of various nationality, race, language, and religion, there are those who, regarding themselves as exceptional, believe that, deep down, they are English gentlemen.

Buruma recounts that Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, in sketching out the utopia he planned to establish, provided that "all boys born in the Jewish state would learn to play cricket." In a similar spirit, Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), founder of the modern Olympic games, decided to instill the spirit of fair play in his countrymen by introducing cricket into France.

But can Englishness be taught? Beneath the wonderful charm and gentle humor of Buruma's very personal book, filled with family anecdotes, lies that serious question. Buruma, who makes reading a pleasure and writing seem easy, entertains but also aims to instruct. He wants Britain to join Europe. He believes that Europe can change Britain for the better. But he also believes Britain can change Europe for the better: he wants the British to bring their special virtues of moderation, good sense, and humor into the great mix. But for that to work, Englishness must be exportable.

Buruma shows that whether Englishness is in fact exportable is the question on which all else depends, in assessing Britain's role in Europe's future -- and vice versa. But Anglomania is too tentative, too slight, too unsystematic -- dare one say, too English? -- to provide a definite answer, let alone a definitive one.

Just as much of the world has glorified Great Britain, there is also a book to be written about how the British, over the course of history, have defined themselves. Here, too, there would be much whimsy and eccentricity. More seriously, there would be traits that led to distinctive traditions in law and politics: traits that usually have been defined in terms of differences from continental Europeans.

The English Channel is not very wide. Even in earlier times, it did not provide much of a barrier. Julius Caesar crossed it, as did the legions of the emperor Claudius, who brought the Roman occupation. Centuries later, Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic tribes found their way to Britain's shores and swept over the land when the Romans left. Vikings raided in their longboats more than a millennium ago. William the Conqueror crossed from Normandy in 1066, bringing the British isles into the ambit of French and therefore continental politics.

In the Elizabethan era or thereabouts the English separated themselves from the continent by developing sea power. From then on, the islanders defended themselves by controlling the Channel rather than their own shoreline: the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 (even if an act of fate) was the symbolic beginning of that. The oceans provided the country, as a nascent sea power, with almost endless frontiers. And in repelling the Hapsburg empire, England stood for freedom, for the independence of smaller countries, and against all that was associated with the Spanish Inquisition. These strands were woven into the national myth.

In the seventeenth century the English took on new characteristics. After much political experimentation, they settled on moderate, liberal, constitutional democracy -- and came to believe, with John Locke, that an ancient and not entirely relevant Magna Carta guaranteed them the rule of law. The law in which they believed, moreover, was not the code of a divine or imperial lawgiver, but the Common Law: ancient wisdom, precedent, accreted case by case, the product of experience rather than pure logic.

This was how the British saw their character in law, government, and politics. It stood in stark contrast to that of France and the continent, their supposed partners in European union. France, for example, saw itself as Cartesian, ruthlessly logical; it governed from the center and micromanaged, passing laws based on principle rather than experience. And it was the British, not the European, approach that was handed down to and shared with the United States of America.


Acheson said that Britain never really had a choice between entering Europe and maintaining the special relationship with America. Hugo Young clearly believes that too, and quotes with approval Britain's current prime minister, Tony Blair, who said (in 1995) that Britain's role was to be "a major global player," but that it could fulfill that role only by using Europe as a base. Blair, Young tells us, was the first prime minister "elected on a ticket that said he was entirely comfortable to be a European." His coming to power was, in Young's view, the end of a half century of refusing to face reality. True enough, and yet Blair has not turned away from America in order to do so. He enjoys at least as special a relationship with the United States as did Margaret Thatcher and is looked on by the White House as a partner.

Adversaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain and America became allies early in the twentieth. They had always shared beliefs and values, language and literature; but theirs was less than a full alliance while their respective power standings remained in flux and while they engaged in cutthroat trade rivalry. That came to an end during and after the Second World War.

Yet even after the war, the United States still had one major quarrel with its mother country, one important enough to prevent a full alliance: the existence of the British Empire. America was always opposed to Europe's possession of overseas colonial empires, and showed it unmistakably over Suez in 1956, when the United States stood with the Soviet Union against Britain and France. Britain's dissolution of its empire in the 1960s changed the transatlantic dynamics. Now, in policies as in beliefs, the United Kingdom and the United States could be in full accord. Partnership finally became possible and remains so today.


The creation of a European union seemed a wildly improbable project in 1945. Yet here it is in 1999. Britain would be wise to play a full role in it, and to try to mitigate some of the EU's less attractive features (such as overcentralization and excessive bureaucracy).

But no longer is the American option, another of Churchill's concentric circles, unavailable. In fact, the partnership between the two countries has been revived. The Atlantic alliance is not merely available today; it is flourishing, as the world saw in the Kosovo campaign -- whatever its other merits or lack thereof.

Nor need a choice between allies be made; again, Churchill seems to have been right. The two spheres are not mutually exclusive. Ian Buruma suggests that Britain should commit to Europe in part because it has so much of value to contribute to the EU. But Britain as a partner may also have a great deal to contribute to the United States, including wisdom, restraint, humor, and experience. Is there really any reason for Britain to choose between Europe and America? Isn't there enough Englishness to go around?

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  • David Fromkin is Professor of International Relations, History, and Law at Boston University and author, most recently, of Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields.
  • More By David Fromkin