EU referendum: Churchill would back Remain, Soames says

By Nicholas Watt
Newsnight political editor

  • Published
Media caption,

Sir Nicholas Soames, Conservative MP: "There's something awfully un-British about wanting to leave"

As Britain has embarked on soul-searching debates over its place in Europe over the past five decades, the name of Winston Churchill has invariably popped up.

David Cameron claimed Britain's wartime leader for the Remain camp on Monday by saying that Churchill's involuntary lone stand in 1940, as France fell and the US equivocated over whether to join the war against Hitler, showed the dangers of isolationism.

David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, questioned whether it was right to claim that Churchill would have supported Britain's membership of the EU.

The former Tory leadership contender told me that Churchill supported the creation of a United States of Europe, with the important caveat that Britain should remain apart from a new continental alliance.

'Awfully un-British'

Now Churchill's grandson has entered the fray to tell the BBC that he believes Churchill would be voting to stay in the EU were he alive today.

Churchill, it is important to say, died 51 years ago and would have had to have lived to the age 141 to be able to vote in next month's referendum.

Sir Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex who has been a fervent advocate of the Remain side on Twitter, was just short of his 17th birthday when his grandfather died in 1965 and believes he knows Churchill's thinking well.

President Charles de Gaulle, who had a fraught relationship with Churchill as leader of the Free French during World War Two, delivered his first "Non" to UK membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963, two years before Churchill's death.

Despite this setback Sir Nicholas believes Churchill would be saying "Oui" to UK membership of the EU.

Image source, AFP/Getty
Image caption,
Figures on both sides of the EU referendum debate have claimed Churchill would have backed their campaigns

Sir Nicholas said: "The last thing on earth Churchill would have been would have been an isolationist - to want to stand apart from Europe right now at a difficult time.

"There is something awfully un-British, in my view, about wanting to leave. I think we stay. I think 'Non' he would not think it is a good thing to leave. 'Oui', I think he would have wanted to stay."

Mr Davis says Churchill would have taken a different view. The former shadow home secretary took issue with the prime minister's decision to invoke the memory of Churchill in his speech.

He said: "It is in defiance of history. Winston Churchill saw a very good argument for some sort of a United States of Europe. But he never wanted us to be a part of it. That's the key point."

'Keeping the peace'

In February this year, in the wake of the prime minister's deal on EU reform, Sir Nicholas highlighted his grandfather's speech in Zurich in 1946 in which he called for the recreation of the European family in a United States of Europe.

Sir Nicholas told MPs in February that over the years both sides of the European debate have claimed the speech "as being some sort of holy grail", adding that it would be "an impertinence" for him to work out what Churchill would think today.

An insight from his late mother Mary, who died in 2014 at the age of 91, appears to have persuaded Sir Nicholas to take an extra step and suggest how his grandfather would vote in the referendum.

Sir Nicholas said that his mother, whose husband Christopher was one of the UK's first European commissioners, told him that the EU had been indispensable in keeping the peace in Europe after her father's role in securing victory in World War Two.