WHAT would Winston do? It’s a question most politicians worth their salt have asked themselves. Particularly when in a tricky spot with the walls seeming to close in.
Churchill holds a unique place in the British imagination for a number of reasons. His leadership during a time of national peril is one, of course. But so too – and equally important – is his loneliness in opposing Hitlerism long before war had broken out.
Churchill is admired for that courage – of going against the grain, of daring to reject received opinion – as much as for his bravery as a commander in conflict.
And what would Churchill do now?
Well, to echo a phrase I’ve heard once or twice when asking for directions in Yorkshire, he ‘wouldn’t start from here’.
In my new book Half-In, Half-Out: Prime Ministers On Europe, Winston Churchill’s grandson, the Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, imagines what the world would look like had his grandfather won the 1945 election instead of Clement Attlee.
Soames writes that his grandfather would have forged ahead with his plan for a ‘United States of Europe’, creating a shared military, mutual trade and democratic institutions – not unlike today’s EU but, under Churchill’s enthusiastic leadership, very much more British in its character.
It is hard to disagree with Sir Nicholas and not just because, as Churchill’s grandson, he does rather know of what he speaks.
Our greatest Prime Minister was defined by his ability to see history and geopolitics at a grand scale.
He saw the burgeoning Cold War and understood that Europe risked being squeezed.
He looked back on a century of conflict and knew that interdependence was critical to avoiding another European war.
And he believed that Britain was of Europe, not an island apart.
That is one of the reasons that he felt so passionately our responsibility to protect our neighbours from fascism and invasion.
Had Churchill won in 1945, had he created his USE moulded in Britain’s image, it is hard to imagine that Brexit would ever have reared its ugly head.
Instead, Britain’s historical relationship with the EU has been defined by insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt.
Because we failed to lead – and did not seize our destiny as a European nation – we lost our enthusiasm.
Our applications to join the then EEC were grudging and hesitant.
The disaster of De Gaulle vetoing our membership was felt as a slight and confirmed for some Brits a sort of Millwall identity – ‘no-one likes us but we don’t care’.
With the vision and leadership of a Churchill it is possible, likely even, that we would have forged an entirely more positive, more pro-active, more proud relationship with the EU.
And what would Churchill do now if, by some miracle, he swept back to deliver us from the mess that David Cameron and Theresa May have made?
Well Winston was stubborn, but he was also a master of reversing a hopeless position.
He changed parties readily. He withdrew troops and abandoned positions when needs be.
He went from describing Labour’s planned welfare state as essentially Nazism in 1945 (one reason he lost) to happily managing and expanding it in as PM in the 1950s.
Churchill would be looking for a way to stop Brexit – a disastrous and, as is increasingly clear, undeliverable policy.
He would be honest with the British public as only Winston ‘blood, sweat and tears’ Churchill could be and he would tell us that this Brexit thing was a mistake, that it does great harm and no good and that it must be stopped dead before it destroys us.
And then he would have drunk a magnum of Champagne, chomped down on his cigar and perhaps done a spot of watercolour painting in the evening.
Oh, and before bed, Sir Winston would call the Transport Secretary to his offices in Number 10. He would turn to him – reflecting on the senseless crises on the North’s railways – and he would say “Christopher. Never, in the field of public transport, has so much been buggered up by so few”.
And with that, he would fire Mr Grayling on the spot.
Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and former Transport Secretary. He’s author of Half In Half Out, published by Biteback, price £17.99.
ANDREW Adonis’s book, Half In Half Out, includes a series of essays by leading politicians, and academics, on the European policies pursued by past premiers.
Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves wrote the chapter on Clement Attlee, Britain’s post-war premier.
“For many on the left, a British-led Commonwealth was appealing as an alternative bloc to the United States and to the totalitarian Soviet Union,” she argues. “Attlee believed that the Commonwealth made Britain fundamentally different from other Western European countries.
“In the sole, short passage in his autobiography, As It Happened, that addressed the question of Europe, Attlee wrote that ‘Britain has never regarded herself as just a European power. Her interests are worldwide. She is the heart of a great Commonwealth, and tends to look outwards from Europe, though maintaining a close interest in all that goes on in that Continent’.
“Later in his life Attlee argued that the idea of an integrated Europe was ‘historically looking backward and not forward... to the Holy Roman Empire’.”