The Schuman Plan and the British Abdication of Leadership in Europe
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995, ISBN: 9780198289678; 338pp.; Price: £92.00
University of Leiden
Date accessed: 24 March, 2023
Edmund Dell has moved from his highly praised account of the early years of the Callaghan administration, which he observed and in which he participated as a government minister, to the last years of the Attlee administration. In particular his attention is focused on the failure of the then Labour government to accept the challenge to participate in the plan for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) launched by the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, in May 1950. He is convinced that the United Kingdom could, and should, have embraced the initiative and won itself a central position in the future construction of Europe. The penalty of the failure to do so has reverberated through British influence in Europe ever since.
The core of the book (p 110 onwards) is a detailed reconstruction of the British reaction to the Schuman Plan. It combines the classics of British historiography on post-war Europe relating to the topic with a thorough examination of the archival mater ials relating to the period. The archival base, in its turn, rests heavily upon the official collection of Documents on British Policy Overseas on the topic (published by HMSO in 1986) which traces policy-making from cabinet level downwards from May 1950 onwards. Assembled under the leadership of the late Roger Bullen, this excellent collection really cover a lot of ground and leaves little to be uncovered in the files released in the Public Record Office (and aside from a dabble in the Foreign Office and some more extensive culling from ten or so Treasury files for 1950-51, Dell also leaves the PRO alone). The material that is new, certainly in the context of writing on the Schuman Plan, are the diaries and archives of:
- the prime minister, Clement Attlee,
- the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chairman of the Labour Party's International Committee, Hugh Dalton,
- the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign Office, Ernest Davies,
- the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Kenneth Younger.
The last of these, especially, provides a treasure trove of insights and judgements that grace the analysis. From the moment of Schuman's radio announcement on 9 May 1950, and the immediate frenzy of self-righteous indignation worked up in Whitehall at th e lack of prior consultation, Dell's account of subsequent British policy is unparalleled in the detail of its treatment and the texture of its analysis. Told with insight, confidence and verve, and permeated by a conviction that the decisions taken at th e time were both unnecessary and wrong, Dell takes the reader through a detailed reconstruction of British policy-making on the vital issue of European integration.
At the time of Schuman's announcement, both Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, and Stafford Cripps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were ill. Bevin was just out of hospital and was almost dysfunctional whilst Cripps' incisiveness and judgeme nt were seriously impaired. Without their leadership, the civil servants held undue sway... and they were so condescendingly arrogant as almost to defy belief. Thus was created a climate in which it became easy to be scornful of the French initiative, to take their commitment to their ideas as a sign of their inflexibility, and to come to a position that it would all collapse anyway. Repeated approaches by Monnet and Schuman were treated with a total lack of urgency and so it was hardly surprising that th e negotiations should have commenced without a British representative. The government's measured position was that whilst it could not join the negotiations, it could reconsider when it saw the results. All this time the Labour party (as distinct from the Labour government) had been preparing its position on Europe. Entitled "European Unity" and released before the government White Paper on the Schuman Plan, the report represented a rebuttal of British participation in any continental experiment and was q uite clearly at odds with the position adopted by the government. It was not surprising that many observers at the time took it as the sub-text of the governments true thinking on the matter.
All of this is narrated with great insight and recounted with zest. Less successful, however, is the first one hundred pages which, by way of providing the necessary context, sketches the developments between the end of the War and the announcement of the Schuman Plan. Its basic problem is that it packs too much into too little space. Moreover, it continuously switches in intensity and depth of analysis without making clear why the choice of topic and why the change of focus. A reader new to the subjec t will be bewildered by the rapid shifts between countries, statesmen, institutions and issues.
A more fundamental shortcoming in these introductory pages is the absence of any real analysis of the coal and steel industry. There is a respectable body of recent historical writing that approaches the Schuman Plan from the starting point of the coal and steel industries rather than from the institutional architecture designed to contain them. These point to the postwar plans for expansion of the industries while Germany's capacity was held down by the Allies, and the impact on the supply of final st eel (and the intra-trade in coal and iron ore) once the shackles holding Germany were broken. They argue that the purpose of the plan was to control the freedom of German industrialists, if necessary by lining up their own domestic industrialists alongsid e them. None of these considerations appear in the text and the reader has no way of judging the potential impact of the re-emergence of German competition on the industry elsewhere or the likely effects Schuman Plan on their industries. By the same token , the reader cannot judge why the British industries were seemingly insensitive to a problem conceived as urgent on the Continent or apparently immune to the effects of being locked outside the trade-bloc envisaged by the Coal and Steel Community. It is i mportant to be aware, therefore, that Dell's history of the Schuman Plan is institutional and that it ignores the more functionalist approaches to the subject.
Let us leave the quibbles about the context and return to the main arguments of the text. Dell contends that:
i) the Schuman plan could, and should, have been anticipated,
ii) domestic political circumstances did not rule out membership,
iii) membership was compatible with Britain's global and Commonwealth role,
iv) the refusal to participate in the scheme derived more from pique than from a consideration of the national interest,
v) the UK, through participation, could have shaped the outcome to contain its interests,
vi) to this end, it would have won support from other participating nations, and even from within the French government which equally failed to share "Monnet's federalism" (p 289),
vii) officials should have realised that the scheme had real chances for success rather than rely on its failure,
viii) policy-making was unduly dependent upon officials rather than being made by ministers,
ix) the refusal to join the ECSC "entrenched Franco-German leadership in Europe" in a way that the UK, even today, "has never been able to penetrate" (p 300).
He suggests that these conclusions are against "the conventional wisdom" (p vii), although, given the swathes of recent contributions by historians to this subject that fail to appear in either the text or in the subsequent bibliography, one could ques tion whether they are as novel as is claimed. Certainly this reviewer recognises the description of sub-optimal policy-making from his own research into this question and on British reaction to subsequent European initiatives. The glib, smug, self-assured tone of the officials that one finds throughout the records stored at the PRO resonates through Dell's account of the British rejection of Schuman's initiative. In fairness, it must be said that the very openness of British policy archives allows subsequ ent historians to pass this kind of judgement. The American archives, which are also fairly open, give equally startling insights into a gung-ho, macho approach to policy analysis. In both cases, we may be exaggerating the importance of 'house-style' in f raming memoranda and comments for policy substance.
Much of Dell's analysis relies on the fact that the British were shocked and unprepared for the Schuman Plan and that in the subsequent confusion alternative policy opportunities were missed. If he is wrong in this, then much of the significance attach ed to the way in which the Schuman announcement was (mis-) handled is lost and his alternative scenario becomes less plausible. I would argue that he is wrong. The British government took its essential decision on European integration in January 1949 and reconfirmed it in October. Dell comes close to these decisions, one time (p70) by citing an archive fragment from the collection by the Treasury official 'Otto' Clarke (an exchange between officials) and the second time (p73) through Milward's work on the Reconstruction of Western Europe. Neither source seemed to have prompted him to dig deeper. In January 1949 the cabinet Economic Policy Committee endorsed a note presented by Bevin and Stafford Cripps in which they argued (inter-alia) that Britain's abil ity to fight another war should not be impeded by damage to its economic structure through undue dependence on Europe. This decision was reconfirmed in October 1949 and was incorporated into the speech given by Stafford Cripps in reply the appeal of Paul Hoffman (head of the ECA) for closer "integration" in Europe (a term used sixteen times, not 31 as Dell, citing Milward, suggests). Stafford Cripps' reply anticipated the 'three circles' logic adopted by Churchill several years later. Britain , it argued, was part of a trans-Atlantic, a Commonwealth and a European world. It could undertake no commitment that would prejudice its other responsibilities. The speech, incidentally, was still being cited as government policy when the British, in 1955, withdrew from the talks that would lead the 'Six' to form the EEC.
Thus the British had a policy to cover the eventuality of a proposal for closer European integration. It is true that they were unprepared for Schuman's announcement and were furious with it (as they considered that such issues concerning Germany were the preserve of the tripartite occupying powers) but the decision had already been taken. In this light, much of what Dell describes is not a botched effort at policy-making but a botched effort at finding the right tactics. Against this backdrop, Staffor d Cripps' wobble in a conversation with Monnet (p. 126-128) was more probably a misplaced effort to let his guest down lightly than a glimpse at a change of heart. Moreover, the fact that what was at stake was tactics rather than policy, would also explai n why there was so little intervention by cabinet members and so little high-level dialogue with the French.
I would now like to raise one other point in Dell's argument. He suggests that Britain, had it participated in the negotiations, could have shaped the outcome in its own interests and that this would have attracted the support of the other participants , who were closer to the UK's position than to Monnet's "federalist ideas". It is true that the long negotiations changed Monnet's original proposals out of all recognition and it is also true that within each government there were opponents to Monnet's ' federalism'. My worries are two-fold. First, Dell does not fully consider the control functions offered by the treaty over Germany's freedom to adopt preferential practices towards its own industry (or discriminatory practices against its partners). It is doubtful whether any intergovernmental organisation could offer the same security. Second, Dell's sources are not the best reflection of the position in the partner states. To document these positions, Dell employs either memoir accounts of those (in-) d irectly involved or quotes from the British archives. In the first case, Dell relies mostly on Massigli, who was ambassador in London at the time (and, self-delusion notwithstanding, ambassadors are not always privy to their government's thinking) and Mon net, whose memoirs were written by his staff as much as a political testament as a piece of objective history. In the second case, he employs observations from foreign office and treasury files but since Dell concedes that their authors misjudged the situ ation at the time, they hardly make for a trustworthy source forty years later. With the exception of one footnote, Dell ignores the source publication series The Foreign Relations of the United States and he ignores the growing body of literature about t he positions of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy based on the same meticulous study of their respective archives as Dell employs of the British archives for his study of the UK. One need not, and should not, have to second g uess national positions on the basis of sources of dubious reliability and one should not be fobbed off with an archive reference to the PRO for information that is already in the public domain.
To sum up, this is a good and useful book once it gets onto its own terrain. In fairness, my point of disagreement on whether we are seeing policy or tactics in the making has not been raised in the literature before and I have raised it here because t he medium specifically offers the opportunity for debate. My point on other country positions is partly one of methodology.... I know that, in this case, the text is not seriously distorted as a result. Again, I have referred to the issue here in the hope of sparking off a wider discussion. Finally, therefore, if I were to return to Dell's conclusions I would agree with conclusions ii, iii, v, vii, ix, disagree with i, iv, viii, and remain uncertain over vi.
I am grateful for the generous and appreciative words that Professor Griffiths writes about my book or, at least, its final two-thirds. But, inevitably, this response must be concerned with his criticisms.
I can understand why Professor Griffiths prefers the excitement of the chase, in the final two-thirds of the book, to the marshalling of the forces in the first 110 pages. I confess, nevertheless, to being bewildered by the discovery that I have not m ade clear to him what I thought to be perfectly clear, why, that is, I have focused on particular topics in providing what Professor Griffiths describes as 'the necessary context'. In my defence, I list the principal contents of this first part of the bo ok:
- There is a description of the Schuman announcement of 9 May 1950 and an analysis of its contents.
- There is an outline of Franco-British relations in the period 1945-50 which argues that, given Britain's repeated rebuffs to a variety of French approaches, it was unremarkable that France did not consult Britain before the Schuman announcement.
- I argue that the British Government should not have been so taken aback by the announcement of the 9 May 1950. The only surprising element in the Schuman Plan was the 'sovereign' High Authority. In other respects the Plan was the culmination of a l ong public debate on how to give France permanent reassurance that the Ruhr resources would never again be used for aggression.
- There is a survey of Britain's main post-war concerns in the fields both of security and economic recovery. The survey shows how these led to a policy based on close relations with the USA and the Commonwealth and the rejection of economic integrat ion with Western Europe. This survey provides the basis for my contention that there was no major conflict between Britain's view of itself as the centre of the Commonwealth, the banker of the sterling area and the closest partner of the USA on the one h and and its participation in the Schuman Plan on the other. All the facts that Professor Griffiths adduces to contest some of my conclusions will be found in this section of the book.
- I explain that Britain's desire for partnership with the USA was mixed with apprehension at some American policies. The premature pressure for sterling convertibility and non-discrimination in trade, the attack on the sterling area and the naive cam paign for European federalism, led Bevin to see the Schuman Plan as just one more American device to secure control over British policy in areas where British interests conflicted with those of the USA. Bevin's unused draft paragraph (p. 108) for the Lab our Party statement European Unity, derived from the Ernest Davies Papers and, so far as I am aware, never published before, is of great significance.
All this is necessary to a proper appreciation of the British reaction to the Schuman Plan.
Professor Griffiths criticises me for not undertaking a thorough analysis of the British coal and steel industries. He feels that thereby I leave their reaction to the Schuman Plan unexplained. I fear that here Professor Griffiths falls into the same trap that entombed British policy in 1950, the trap of believing that the Schuman Plan had to be considered primarily in the light of its economic effects. The principal motivation for the Schuman Plan was political, reconciliation between France and Ge rmany. Britain had a major interest in ensuring that Schuman's gesture towards Germany succeeded in achieving that reconciliation. It was an interest far exceeding in importance any economic consequences for the British coal and steel industries, or for British economic planning such as it was. In fact as the Schuman Plan passed through the process of negotiation into the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, any risk of adverse consequences for British interests was removed. Profess or Griffiths accepts that these negotiations 'changed Monnet's proposals out of all recognition.' That change was accomplished, despite Britain's absence, by the opposition to many of Monnet's ideas both in the Benelux countries and within the French Cab inet. The Treaty of Paris should have been perfectly acceptable both to the British government and to the two British industries. I can add that, though Professor Griffiths is dissatisfied with the thoroughness of my analysis at this point, anyone who w ishes to understand the reaction of these two British industries to the Schuman Plan will find the explanation in my pages.
Professor Griffiths lists my conclusions and appears to agree with the majority of them. I therefore comment here only on those where we differ. He argues that I am wrong in asserting that the British government was unprepared for the Schuman Plan an d that as a result of that unpreparedness alternative policy opportunities were missed. He seems to think that I have overlooked the decisions of the British government, taken in January 1949, to the effect that, to quote Professor Griffiths' paraphrase, 'Britain's ability to fight another war should not be impeded by damage to its economic structure through undue dependence on Europe'. I have not overlooked the decisions of January 1949. Professor Griffiths has obviously missed what I say on p. 68 and misread what I say on p. 70. There the decisions that he describes are clearly set out in the actual words of the Bridges Committee.
Because there was a policy on European integration, Professor Griffiths claims that what I describe was 'not a botched effort at policy-making but a botched effort at finding the right tactics'. I can agree with Professor Griffiths on one aspect of hi s argument. The tactics were botched. They were not merely botched, they were dishonest. There was an attempt to persuade Britain, Europe, and the USA that participation in the Schuman Plan was being seriously considered in London when nothing o f the sort was happening. In this deception, the British government did not succeed except with most of the British press. It was perfectly clear to other observers, including the US Administration, that the UK's protestations that it had nothing in principle against supranationalism were totally insincere. But I think Professor Griffiths takes his distinction between botched policy-making and botched tactics a little far. The failure to subject a major new policy initiative from France to rather more perce ptive policy analysis cannot be excused on the grounds that there was already a British policy on European integration. Perceptive policy analysis, plus an appreciation of the policy opportunities that would be opened up in negotiations on the Schuman Pl an, might just have revealed even to the Attlee Cabinet that, as Professor Griffiths agrees, there was no incompatibility with Britain's global role.
Professor Griffiths believes that it was because what was at stake was tactics rather than policy that there was so little intervention by Cabinet members. He is also wrong in this. The Cabinet cannot be excused in this way. Bevin knew that he had b een outmanoeuvred and had lost the initiative on European policy and he did not know what to do about it. He was seriously ill. He lacked the intellectual energy to formulate a reaction to the French initiative which would recover for Britain some of th e ground it had lost, and his officials gave him no help. During a whole week while Schuman was in London there was no substantive discussion of the Plan between the two Foreign Ministers. This was a policy failure not just botched tactics. Bevin's fu ry at the Schuman announcement was not tactical but genuine. He knew that there had been a policy failure and that the failure was his. Incidentally, if Professor Griffiths thinks that resentment at France's lack of consultation was not an influence in shutting m inds in London to creative thinking about the Plan, he should look again at Bevin's behaviour, not just his bitter attack on the French Foreign Minister on Schuman's arrival in London but his reaction to the French ultimatum of 1 June.
Professor Griffiths does not agree with me that, in his words, the Schuman Plan could, and should, have been anticipated. His words are ambiguous. I am not sure whether he is quarrelling with my assertion that the Schuman Plan was not a bolt from the blue or with my claim that the British government could well, before 9 May 1950, have mounted a Bevin Plan for tackling the problem of the Ruhr. If he means the first, I have already dealt with the point. I take him to mean the second. My argument is simply this. Britain had a major interest in Franco-German reconciliation. It had a major interest but the government appeared to have no ideas. Bevin was for ever complaining that paper schemes would not bring about European unity and that what was ne eded was a practical basis of co-operation. The trouble was that he never suggested a practical basis for European co-operation outside the field of security. Once the Schuman Plan had been announced Whitehall developed a plan of its own. At that poi nt, of course, it no longer required imagination to see that the Ruhr represented a problem that had to be addressed in the interests of Franco-German reconciliation. With some additions such as alert politicians could have suggested, Whitehall's plan wo uld have appeared a perfectly respectable response to the problem of the Ruhr if only it had been announced before the Schuman Plan. It found a role for, and proposed the creation of, an International Authority consisting of independent people which woul d report to an intergovernmental body consisting of Government representatives. As with the Schuman Plan, its remit would have covered the coal and steel industries of all countries that adhered to it. It would therefore have met the essential condition for German participation, that it did not discriminate against Germany.
If Whitehall was capable of elaborating such a plan in the aftermath of the Schuman announcement, there was no reason why, given a modicum of imagination and encouragement, it could not have succeeded in propounding such a plan before the Schuman annou ncement. By the end of June 1950, even Bevin was growing tetchy that British attitudes were always negative whereas on the continent ideas for European economic integration were sprouting like the flowers of spring. Berthoud reported (p. 259) that 'the Secretary of State was beginning to think that it was time we took some initiative in the European economic field, or anyhow that we should not continue to be only destructive.' This belated recognition by Bevin that something more was needed than sophis ticated demolition of everyone else's ideas was, unfortunately, more than a year late. The blueprint that was elaborated in Whitehall after the Schuman announcement never saw the light of day because it was conceived in the expectation that the Schuman n egotiations would fail. They did not fail and the British alternative, to which far more consideration was given in London than ever the Schuman Plan received, lies in the PRO as a memorial to what might have been.
Professor Griffiths worries whether such a scheme would have given France the security against German misbehaviour that was achieved by the supranational ECSC. This is not a question that I have overlooked. I discuss it on pp. 227-29 of my book. It is questionable how far even supranational institutions can give security against the misbehaviour of national governments. But I accept that in this respect the ECSC was superior to a purely intergovernmental International Authority. This does not mean that a purely intergovernmental International Authority would not have had great attractions to France provided it had been advocated before the Schuman Plan. Its advantage would have been that it would have ensured the participation of the UK. At the time, while the UK still had the prestige that it was in the process of squandering, UK participation was considered highly desirable by our continental neighbours.
My book is the first detailed examination of the Attlee government's refusal to participate in the Schuman Plan. I do not think I need to enter into controversy with Professor Griffiths on how novel my conclusions are. I say on p. viii that 'I had ar rived at conclusions which conflicted with accepted wisdom'. (Professor Griffiths has misread this and attributes it to the wrong page.) I give many examples of this 'accepted wisdom'. They include Lord Home who claimed that it was impossible for the UK to participate in the Schuman Plan because it would make of Britain just another country in Europe; Lord Plowden who asserts that there was no possibility of persuading the British people or any British government at that time to enter the ECSC; Ernest B evin, Lord Callaghan and Kenneth Younger who sensed that the French did not really want 'us'; Sir Frank Roberts who removes all responsibility from Bevin's shoulders by asserting that the important error in Britain's European policy occurred not in 1950 b ut after the Messina Conference. To conclude these examples there is Lord Bullock who defends Bevin's failure to participate in the Schuman Plan on the grounds that there were few people who believed that Britain should hand over control of the two indus tries to a supranational authority.
I argue against all these judgements. Most of them are based on misunderstanding of the Schuman Plan. At any rate I am glad to have Professor Griffiths' agreement that domestic political circumstances in Britain did not rule out membership and that m embership was compatible with Britain's global and Commonwealth role. This is the main argument of my book. Certainly it would have required some leadership from the government to convince the British public. But if the French, after years of occupatio n, could be persuaded to seek reconciliation with the Germans, a comparable political effort should not have been beyond the capability of a British Government that understood, as some of its advisers at the time did understand, the importance of the issu es at stake in 1950.
Professor Griffiths has criticisms of my 'methodology'. He suggests that, for the position in the partner states, I rely unduly on the memoirs of Massigli and Monnet. This is not the case. I make perfectly clear that Massigli was not privy to his G overnment's thinking. He was very annoyed that he was not in the decision-making loop. I use Massigli mainly as a commentator on the reactions of the British government and as an example of how an Ambassador can actually damage the cause he wishes to pr omote, in this case British participation in the Schuman Plan negotiations, by being too understanding of the attitudes of the government to which he is accredited. Memoirs obviously have to be used with care where there is no independent confirmation, w hen their principal object is self-justification, and they rely simply on memory. But to the extent that Memoirs are founded on contemporary material they can be taken more seriously. Thus when I quote, from Monnet's Memoirs, a formal statement made by Monnet at the Schuman Plan negotiating conference, I believe that my confidence in its authenticity is justified.
Professor Griffiths also criticises me because I have not read certain books or entered certain archives. I anticipated this criticism but made the judgement that nothing of significance would be added to an authoritative appreciation of the Britis h reaction to the Schuman Plan. I am delighted to find that Professor Griffiths, having entered the pro forma complaint, concedes that my judgement was in fact right. The British government was acting on the basis of what it knew at the time and I am judging the British government, not with hindsight, but on the basis of what it knew at the time. If, as Professor Griffiths suggests, my book is 'good and useful', and has the other attractive characteristics he reports, it would have been a pit y to delay publication indefinitely while I studied books and archives that would not have added significantly to my understanding of the British reaction to the Schuman Plan. Historians too must have regard to opportunity costs.