Year XXVI, 1984, Number 3 - Page 199
Federal Union was a child of the 1930’s. It was born in a world so different from that of today that, if one is to explain how it came into being, achieved the success that it did, and then, as an organisation, died, I must describe how that world seemed to those of us who started it.
The two superpowers which dominate today’s world were off stage. Both had retired after the Great War – as it was then known – behind their own frontiers. Today’s Third World nations were voiceless colonies. Four European nations effectively had the power of peace or another world war. Those who had survived that squalid yet heroic slaughter, or like us, had grown up in its aftermath, had believed that it must indeed have been the war to end wars and had put our faith in the League of Nations. We saw it almost as a sacred memorial to fathers, brothers, friends. Yet by the mid 1930’s we had seen it wantonly sabotaged by all four nations. A few, like Churchill, saw war as inevitable. Most found it impossible to believe, whatever Hitler might say, that anyone would provoke another war. A strong sense of guilt that the Treaty of Versailles had been seriously unjust allowed the occupation of the Rhineland and of Austria to be excused. Others saw Hitler and Mussolini as a bulwark against Communism. Yet, as the months and years passed, the slide towards war gathered momentum. No one wanted it. Yet there seemed no answer. It was in this atmosphere that Federal Union was conceived.
Derek Rawnsley and I had been at Eton and Oxford together though we had not known each other well. After Oxford we both found ourselves doing public relations for oil companies – in my case as a preparation to a career in politics. We took to lunching together more or less weekly; and when Derek left his job in order to start two businesses of his own he brought along three or four of his colleagues. These lunches were in no sense formal meetings and the talk was by no means always about politics. But we were all in our twenties; we all felt alike and inevitably the international situation loomed large. Why, we asked ourselves, had the League of Nations failed? It was too easy an answer that its member nations had let it down – would they not always do so? We found that we no longer had any faith, where national self interest was involved, in gentleman’s agreements, treaties, alliances, solemn declarations or covenants. What was needed, we concluded, was not a League but an assembly elected by the people of the member nations which could not only take decisions on behalf of all but which also had both the authority and the power to give effect to them. I don’t recall that the word federation was ever mentioned.
This was the position we had reached by the time of the Munich crisis. In the midst of it Derek rang me up. “We’ve got to do something” he said. If I left my job, he would give me the use of a room in his offices and we could start an organisation. And so I found myself with a table, a chair, a telephone and a lot of blank sheets of paper in an otherwise empty 18th century drawing room at 44 Cordon Square.
The first task was to set down what we actually proposed and to see what other people thought of it. It was at this stage that we were introduced to Patrick Ransome. He was in his early thirties; had studied international law at Cambridge under Professor Lauterpacht and had gone on to the London School of Economics where he had studied under Harold Laski. Tragically he had been desperately crippled at birth and had to live in a wheelchair; but he had a fine brain and was a delightful conversationalist. He had the means to give us his time and he brought to the formulation of our ideas a knowledge of federal institutions which neither Derek nor I possessed.
While the three of us discussed various drafts which I produced, I investigated all the peace organisations I could find. Broadly speaking there were two of any importance. One was the League of Nations Union, full of influential people and highly organised with branches throughout the country but now, it seemed to me, demoralised; the other was the Peace Pledge Union whose members had signed a pledge never to take part in war and were opposed to the LNU on the issue of military sanctions; and to our proposals so long as the federation was armed. Apart from these two there was a host of little organisations ranging from the reasonably sensible but comfortably ineffective to a lunatic fringe, each with some single cure for all the ills of the world. The National Peace Council, as an umbrella organisation, tried to shelter all; but could only produce resolutions and letters to the press with long lists of signatories but so carefully drafted, in order to paper over the irreconcilable differences between the LNU and the PPU, that they carried no weight.
We were clear that a new organisation was needed. The statement of our proposals was now agreed; and copies of it were circulated to as many of our friends as we thought might be interested, inviting them to a discussion meeting. We got in a barrel of beer and about 80 turned up. They gave us enthusiastic encouragement to go ahead and enough money to print a pamphlet which we could circulate.
We then redrafted the memorandum into pamphlet form, changed the name from Pax Union, under which it had been issued, to Federal Union and got it printed. I then selected about 500 names from a reference book of prominent people concerned with international affairs and wrote a personal letter to each, enclosing a copy of the pamphlet; inviting those interested to write to us at Gordon Square. The response was extremely encouraging and by March 1939 a small group met to decide how to proceed. It consisted of Barbara Wootton, then Professor of Social Studies at London University and now Baroness Wootton, Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords; Kingsley Martin, Editor of the New Statesman, a widely read left wing weekly; Wickham Steed, former Editor of the London “Times”; Lionel Curtis and Lord Lothian both of whom had been longtime promoters of the idea of federation of the British Commonwealth.
It was agreed that I should draft a single page Declaration of Aims for which each of those present would canvass signatures – the signatures could be used to show support for our aims but not necessarily membership of the organisation. While this was being done Patrick Ransome and I continued interviewing those who had responded to my letter and the pamphlet. It was at this point when we were talking to Harold Butler, then (or just retired) Director of the International L.abour Organisation in Geneva, that we learnt of the forthcoming publication of Clarence Streits “Union Now”.
We now began to invite public support by letters to the press. Again the response was astonishing. It was clear that we had put into words what a great many people – and particularly young people – were thinking. Letters and money poured in. People asked to come and work for us and we took on staff; people asked what they could do and to them we suggested they did what we had done: invite a few friends, write to the local press, call a public meeting and form a branch. We published more pamphlets, provided notes for speakers, drafts of the letters they could write to the press. We launched Federal Union News which I edited as a weekly. W.B. Curry wrote “The Case for Federal Union” which was published as a paperback by Penguins and became a best seller.
The spring and summer of 1939 were hectic. In addition to the ever increasing volume of correspondence, I was called on to speak at meetings the length and breadth of the country, sometimes in private houses to newly formed branches, more often to large audiences in public halls. We formed a panel of speakers and every morning on my desk there was a pile of new press cuttings. When war finally broke out in September but no bombs fell, life in Britain quickly reverted to normal – apart from the blackout – and the organisation continued to grow. The active branches became 200, public meetings increased, culminating in a packed meeting in the Queens Hall – almost the last to be held before it was bombed out of existence.
War provided Federal Union with an important bonus. Derek Rawnsley had studied at University College Oxford of which Sir William Beveridge was Master. He had been Minister of Munitions during the Great War and was to be author of the report on which Britain’s welfare services were founded after the second War. Derek had early approached him for help; which Beveridge had promised should war break out. This promise he now fulfilled. A separate Research Institute was formed with Patrick Ransome as secretary with Beveridge supervising. Groups of specialists were convened and a series of Federal Tracts promoted. Lord Lothian had already contributed a pamphlet; others now followed. Beveridge himself wrote one proposing an initial federation of Western European democracies; Barbara Wootton wrote on Federation and Socialism; H.N. Brailsford, on the discussions which had taken place during the Great War; J.E. Meade, the economist, on the economics of federation: Prof. Ivor Jennings on the legal problems; and Lord Lugard on its implications for the colonial peoples; Prof. K.C. Wheare on the constitutional questions.
When France fell and the bombing of England started, meetings became increasingly difficult as more and more of our members were called up for military or other service. My own shortcomings as an administrator had been largely responsible for a financial crisis and although we had recovered I felt it was time to resign as general secretary – a decision which was reinforced by my feeling that, as a conscientious objector, the movement might be seen as a pacifist one. R.W.G. Mackay took over. He was a lawyer and was author of ‘The Federation of Europe’. He was also an excellent administrator. But too many people were preoccupied with war service to make a popular organisation possible. Federal Union News ceased publication and the local branches disbanded. The Research Institute became the Federal Trust which it remains to this day. Derek R.awnsley had been killed.
We can I think claim to have spoken for at least a sizeable proportion of our generation – the great majority of our rank and file members had either been through the Great War or, like us grown up in the years which followed – and to have but the federal idea on the agenda of thinking about the post war settlement. But that we failed to build on this and to establish ourselves as the successor to the League of Nations was due to a number of causes.
Our original pamphlet had contained no proposal for a federation of any named countries: only that it should consist of democracies which were willing to join as a nucleus for later development. As I have said, to us Europe held the key to war and peace and we were thinking only of European democracies. Our hope was that the idea would appeal to enough of the citizens of Germany and Italy to enable them eventually to join. Before we had had time to build on this concept, we were overtaken by the wide publicity which Clarence Streit’s “Union Now” obtained. As foreign editor of the New York Times he was well known; his book was a clear and forceful argument for a federation of 17 named countries of which the US was to be one. It was an immensely valuable contribution to the case for federation as opposed to League but as a political proposition it seemed to the three of us who started Federal Union quite unrealistic and, to Patrick and myself certainly, undesirable: we were Europeans. For centuries England has never been sure whether it was a part of Europe or not and the effect of Streit’s book was to bring into Federal Union a large number of members who actively preferred the idea of Anglo-American union rather than of European union of which Britain was a part.
There were other reasons. A notable feature of the letters we received and whose writers joined, was the number which said that our pamphlet put into words what they themselves had long been thinking. But it turned out that a high proportion of them belonged to a variety of schools of thought. Very many had been influenced by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells, who had clearly diagnosed the evils of national sovereignty but had made no attempt to relate their diagnosis to the current political scene. Their followers were often idealists dreaming of some utopian world government and looked on anything short of that as worse than useless. There were others like Brailsford, Kingsley Martin, Leonard Woolf who had been members of the Union of Democratic Control during the first World war (or who had been influenced by it) which had faced the problem of how to secure majority voting in international assemblies. Lionel Curtis still had a few followers at Chatham House who thought in terms of Imperial federation. Lothian had originally been one of those but his mind had been concentrated very much on the European problem of pacifying Germany by meeting claims which he thought the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles made reasonable. Though, after Munich, he realised that Hitler was not to be pacified, he was still regarded as an ‘appeaser’ and retained suspect on that account even after his appointment as British Ambassador to the US. He welcomed Streit’s book but what his flexible mind might have turned to, had he lived to be concerned with the post war settlement, it is not possible to say.
Though therefore we were all agreed that national sovereignty must give way to federation, there were wide disagreements among the members of Federal Union, over the question of which nations we should propose as members of the federation. The last pamphlet I wrote for Federal Union went some way towards concentrating the ideas of the movement. It was written as the British were being evacuated from Dunkirk and was published almost simultaneously with Churchill’s despairing offer of union with France. The pamphlet was called “How We Shall Win”. It drew on the revelation that the Nazi conquest of the Low Countries had been greatly assisted by their ‘fifth column’. It called for a declaration of war aims appealing to the people of Europe to join in a united resistance movement which would culminate in a democratic federation.
Churchill, however, doggedly insisted to the very end on unconditional surrender; and by the time the war ended, Europe no longer held key to world peace. Its settlement was only a part of a world wide settlement; and its dependence on the US for recovery made the need for its own independence seem less relevant.
As a peace keeping force the United Nations failed even more quickly and ignominiously than the League of Nations. Once again an assembly of independent nations has degenerated into a power struggle between the strongest into which the weaker nations are conscripted on one side or the other. The case for European federation is now the case for European independence; for a distinctive European voice and manner of arranging our business affairs and finances; and for demonstrating our own meaning of the world ‘democracy’.
If this account of Federal Union’s brief but exciting life seems unduly personal, I am sorry. Both Derek Rawnsley and Patrick Ransome are dead, so that I am the only survivor. That we got a great deal of publicity for a few years is undeniable; that it may have been this publicity which induced British Foreign Office, as we now know, to work on the idea, is possible; and that Churchill would not have suggested union with France, had there not been publicity and Foreign Office work, is arguable. But in Britain today, except by a few senior citizens who played a part in it, Federal Union is totally forgotten; and Churchil’s offer of union is seen not as the inevitably logical and practical course for nations prepared to commit themselves to working together but as a desperate attempt to prevent the French fleet from falling into Nazi hands.
For what it is worth, I have to say that in my opinion, if the case for European federation becomes a serious proposition, it will face the British people with the same dilemma that Streit’s “Union Now” faced Federal Union. Are we, British, Europeans? or are we part of a separate English speaking world?
Sir Charles Kimber