Opinion: it's instructive to look at the various speeches and articles by Johnson's hero Churchill on Britain's place in Europe

Much has been made of Boris Johnson's Churchillian self-conception. His rotundity, irreverence and maverick qualities ostensibly qualify him for the comparison. Now that he has ascended to the premiership, the connection is more immediate, even if the compatibility remains debatable. Johnson’s great political gambit has been his support for Brexit and his leadership (along with Michael Gove) of the campaign to leave the European Union.

But it is here that his supposed ties with Churchill are at their most contentious. As Johnson himself has admitted, Churchill was hardly an enemy of European integration. Johnson confronted the issue in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. It's an often puerile and certainly self-serving volume, which includes, for example, the line "these days it is probably fair to say that thrusting young Tories—and especially males—will regard Winston Churchill as a sort of divinity."

Where the book gets interesting is the chapter on Churchill the European where Johnson reviews the often challenging evidence of a pro-unification stance taken by his hero. As early as 1930, Churchill supported the concept of a European federation, after touring the United States and seeing how open borders might work. In 1944, in the midst of the war, he proposed a United States of Europe and reaffirmed the ideal in a famous speech in Zurich in 1946. He endorsed the formation of the Council of Europe in 1949 as a first step in this process (the Council still celebrates him as an inspirational figure).

Boris Johnson explains how to speak like Winston Churchill

Johnson concludes: "So much for the case that Churchill was a visionary founder of the movement for a united Europe. It contains a very large dollop of truth. It is also true that he believed Britain should play a leading role in this process of unification." But he also maintains that this conclusion only holds "If you close one eye, and you listen with only half an ear".

The mitigating factors in the portrait of Churchill as European integrationist are instructive as they speak to a double-mindedness in British conservative thinking on the question. As Johnson puts it, Churchill "had an idea of Britain that transcended Europe". This line of interpretation has validity, though we are better off turning to a less partisan source to appreciate it. The late journalist Hugo Young (no friend of the Tories) came to a similar conclusion about Churchill in his incisive book This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair (1998). He notes that the mythology of the "sceptered isle" (Shakespeare’s line in Henry IV), bit deep with figures like Churchill.

The key point is that Churchill did not see Britain as joining the unified Europe that he projected and would instead exist outside the structures of co-operation that he deemed so beneficial to the war-torn nations of the Continent. As Churchill wrote in 1938 in a News of the World article entitled "Why Not 'The United States of Europe'", "we are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed."

Winston Churchill's United States of Europe speech in Zurich in September 1946

As leader of the opposition following his removal from office in the general election that followed the war, Churchill took a pro-European stance. But when he became prime minister again in 1951 he wrote a minute stating that "our first object is the unity and consolidation of the British Commonwealth…Our second, the ‘fraternal association’ of the English-speaking world’ and third, United Europe, to which we are a separate, closely- and specially-related friend and ally".

What was Britain’s separate identity and destiny? Young maintains that Churchill nurtured the idea that Britain would remain a world power after the war, on a par with the United States and the Soviet Union, an illusion that must soon have withered. But it was more than that. Another pull was in the direction of the empire, and another still derived from his strong conception of the English-speaking peoples as politically conjoined. An axis would unite Britain, the commonwealth, and above all America through ties of language and value.

In the moment of Brexit, the same illusions are being harboured of a global Britain: resuming frictionless ties with the commonwealth, making trade deals with the US at will, charting a path for itself that gives it renewed stature uncompromised by its current subordinate position in the EU. The US may be out of reach in terms of equal pegging, as perhaps is Russia for different reasons, but the UK could at least, so the thinking goes, assert its position relative to the EU itself.

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, historian Conor Mulvagh on Éamon de Valera's reaction to Winston Churchill's victory speech after the Second World War in which he excoriated de Valera for his conduct during the war

Where Ireland fits into this picture is of course one of the unanswered questions. Bland reassurances from Johnson are hardly likely to do the job when he is in political survival mode. As for Churchill, he was a supporter of Home Rule. He wrote in 1911 that the goal of British statesmanship must be "to federate the Empire, but to draw nearer in bonds of friendship and association to the United States. The road to the unity of the English-speaking races is no doubt a long one…But it is an open road, and an Irish parliament, loyal to the Crown, and free to make the best of the Emerald Isle, is assuredly the first milestone upon it".

In his History of the English Speaking Peoples (1956–58), Churchill quotes Wellington’s stern warning of the threat of civil war in Ireland and the need to avoid it. Churchill had a greater sense of the Irish situation and a more urgent view of the need for European peace.

The Churchillian greatness that Johnson craves is likely to end up as so much posturing at home and abasement abroad before Trump, whose capacity to sense weakness is unlikely to fail him in any negotiations with the UK. Johnson may end up looking less like the bronze bust of Churchill sported in the Oval Office and more like Marina Hyde’s description of him as a flytipped sofa, cast aside by history.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ