Friday, 8 November 2013

What Did Churchill Say On 11 May 1953?

It doesn't take much searching to come across this quotation:

If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.

This is credited to the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on 11 May 1953. Sometimes it is given as part of a fuller quotation:

We are with Europe but not of it; we are linked but not compromised. We are associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.

I decided to have a look in Hansard for that day, and there is indeed a debate about foreign affairs, that concentrates on Europe. A simple search of that page gives one example of "we are with":

Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition "with" but not "of" — we are with them, but not of them. We have our own Commonwealth and Empire. One of the anxieties of France is lest Germany, even partitioned as she is now, will be so strong that France will be outweighed in United Europe or in the European Defence Community. I am sure they could do a lot, if they chose to make themselves stronger. But, anyhow, I have always believed, as an active friend of France for nearly 50 years, that our fortunes lie together.

The immediate context is France and its war in French Indo-China, with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam about to become independent.

A search of that page gives no example of "open sea".

Maybe Churchill said it in another part of the debate. But a search of Churchill's contributions only give him speaking twice in the Commons that day. There was the lengthy speech, and then there was a short response to a speech by Labour's Philip Noel-Baker over the Egypt situation.

And what about Churchill's Zürich speech? It was here that he stated:

There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis will only survive if it is founded upon coherent natural groupings. There is already a natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere. We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations. These do not weaken, on the contrary they strengthen, the world organisation. They are in fact its main support. And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent and why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings in shaping the destinies of men?


The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. In this way only can France recover the moral leadership of Europe. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause. The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.

as well as, at the end:

In all this urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia - for then indeed all would be well - must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.

Note that Churchill spoke of Germany, not West Germany - when he spoke in Zürich, Germany was split into 4 zones, and the formal division into 2 countries was in the future. And it appears that he saw the United Kingdom as a friend and sponsor of the "new Europe" which was to begin with a Franco-German partnership.

It is interesting that in his Commons speech, there is just one reference to Zürich:

We, with the United States, and France, have entered into a new and remarkable relationship with Western Germany. The policy of Her Majesty's Government is to adhere most faithfully in the spirit as well as in the letter to our agreements with Western Germany. Dr. [Konrad] Adenauer [Chancellor of West Germany] may well be deemed the wisest German statesman since the days of Bismarck. I have greatly admired the perseverence, courage, composure and skill with which he has faced the complex, changing, uncertain and unpredictable situations with which he has been ceaselessly confronted. Strong as is our desire to see a friendly settlement with Soviet Russia, or even an improved modus vivendi, we are resolved not in any way to fail in the obligations to which we have committed ourselves about Western Germany. Dr. Adenauer is visiting us here in a few days, and we shall certainly assure him that Western Germany will in no way be sacrificed or — I pick these words with special care — cease to be master of its own fortunes within the agreements we and other N.A.T.O. countries have made with them.

Then there is France. As I have urged for several years, there is no hope for the safety and freedom of Western Europe except by the laying aside forever of the ancient feud between the Teuton and the Gaul. It is seven years since, at Zurich, I appealed to France to take Germany by the hand and lead her back into the European family. We have made great progress since then. Some of it has been due no doubt to the spur to resist the enormous military strength of Soviet Russia, but much is also due to the inspiring and unconquerable cause of United Europe. We have Strasbourg and all that it stands for, and it is our duty to fortify its vitality and authority tirelessly as the years roll on.

If Zürich was such a big deal for the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe, then it is surprising that Churchill would restrict himself to one remark in a speech where he looks at Europe in detail.

Both sides of the debate need to stop misquoting Churchill.


  1. When quoting Churchill the date and context are critical. Churchill did indeed say, 'Every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose.'. However, Churchill didn't say this in the 1950s, as is often erroneously claimed by eurosceptcs.

    Churchill shouted this remark to the French leader, General Charles de Gaulle, in a raging row on the eve of the Normandy landings in 1944. Churchill had a ‘roller coaster’ relationship with de Gaulle and wanted to show loyalty to the US President, Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill angrily added, ‘Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I will always choose Roosevelt.’ Later, they made up over dinner and fine wine.

    The other quote by Churchill is also often used by eurosceptics. 'We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.’ Again, eurosceptcs often claim Churchill said this in the 1950s, but actually, he wrote it for an American newspaper article in 1930.

    Contrary to current popular misconception, Churchill was not a eurosceptic. He was an ardent supporter of the European Economic Community and wanted Britain to join. See my article published this month, 'Winston Churchill: A founder of the European Union'

  2. I have now published an updated article about the fabricated quote circulating about what Churchill is supposed to have said in Parliament on 11 May 1953:

    ‘Winston Churchill wrongly recruited for Brexit’