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The strangest motorcade in British diplomatic history: Paris, November 1970

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Written by Sir Peter Marshall

News of the death on November 15, at the age of one hundred and one, of the Countess of Avon (née Clarissa Churchill) brings back memories of one of the most bizarre moments in my diplomatic life – one that might be seen as a microcosm of our troubled relations with France and Europe

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The Requiem for Charles de Gaulle, three days after his sudden death at his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, was held in Notre Dame on November 12, 1970.  There came from the UK to the Requiem the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister Edward Heath, and three former Prime Ministers: Anthony Eden, accompanied by his wife, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson.

For collective transport purposes, la délégation anglaise, as the French called it, resolved itself into a four-car motorcade. The Embassy Rolls conveyed the Prince of Wales, with Ambassador Christopher Soames, Churchill’s son-in-law, in attendance. Motor no 2 contained Edward Heath, Prime Minister of four months’ standing, accompanied by Mary Soames, Churchill’s daughter. In Motor no 3 rode the Countess of Avon, Churchill’s niece, and her husband. Macmillan shared Motor no 4 with his successor but one at No 10 Downing Street, Harold Wilson, who would replace Heath four years later, just as he had preceded him (1964-70).

The motorcade encapsulated thirty turbulent years of Anglo-French relations – 1940- 1970 – from the day de Gaulle raised his Free French standard in London, after the fall of France, to the welcome day he left the Elysee in 1969.  With Georges Pompidou installed as de Gaulle’s successor, there was at least a real prospect of the UK actually achieving membership of the EEC..

The Cross of Lorraine

It has been wisely observed that there are few people who can bear with grace the crushing burden of gratitude. De Gaulle was most certainly not one of them. His sojourn in London cannot be realistically portrayed as a model of guestmanship. Of all the crosses he had to bear during the war, Churchill said, the Cross of Lorraine was the heaviest.

De Gaulle’s bread-and-butter letter was delayed by some eighteen years: it appeared on January 14, 1963, in the form of an announcement at an Olympian-style press conference at the Elysee, of the sort de Gaulle had introduced. To the consternation of everyone concerned, including, there are strong grounds for believing, the French ministers closest to him, he declared that the UK was not suited to membership of the EEC.

The world was stunned. Having declined originally to take a full part in discussions among the Six in 1955 which led to the creation of the EEC (the 1957 Treaty of Rome), the UK had belatedly applied for membership in 1961, well into Macmillan’s tenure of Number Ten (Motor no 4). We were universally assumed to be coming up the straight in our entry negotiations by January, 1963. There had been no hint of French opposition. The Elysee Thunderbolt thus threw European politics into confusion. The other five members of the EEC – Germany, Italy and Benelux – promptly caved in.

The aim of the European Project: Coal and Steel

Before, however, we give ourselves over to unremitting condemnation of the Elysee Thunderbolt as irrational French perfidy, malice, envy and resentment, or to any other combination of character defects, let us look calmly at the fundamentals of the situation.

The Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950, drafted almost wholly by Jean Monnet and his few close associates, was predicated on the assumption that there was indeed a danger of a Third World War; but that next time round Germany would not be so much its instigator, as in 1914 and 1939, as the prize in the persistent dread struggle between the United State4s and the Soviet Union, between East and West. And that was the last thing Europe needed. Europe – ie France – had, as Monnet perceived it, to get its act together, both literally and metaphorically. In this he found ready support all round, no least from Churchill’ s famous speech at the University of Zurich in September, 1946

“The contribution which an organised and living Europe can bring to civilisation”, the second sentence of the Schuman Declaration states, “is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations”. The key point is what Monnet meant by “organised and living”.

It is not generally known that he was the first Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations, appointed in 1920 at the incredibly early age of thirty-one. He was strongly of the view that the Secretariat of the League lacked the powers necessary to do its job. Hence the essence of the Sc human Declaration is vesting a central independent authority with extensive executive, administrative and – ultimately – judicial powers: the concept of integration, rather than of commitment to cooperate, the prevailing international method, as powerfully set forth universally in the United Nations Charter.

France of the Fourth Republic

We must likewise remind ourselves at this point that we are talking of the year 1950, of France of the Fourth Republic. Schuman and Monnet were acutely conscious of (i) the political and social sensitivities both within and among the member states which joined in the European Project, and (ii) the importance of maintaining the necessary m close relationship between the European Project and the US-led Western Alliance.

These preoccupations were appropriately reflected in the wording of the Schuman Declaration.  More importantly, perhaps, they were at the forefront of people’s minds. The phrase l’esprit communautaire does not occur in the text of the Schuman Declaration; but the concept of community spirit meant a very great deal to Schuman himself.

French appeals to Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin in 1950 to join in the Coal and Steel Community enjoyed the support of Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State. But they fell on deaf ears. The Labour Party, triumphant in the General Election of 1945, had not nationalised coal and steel in order to place them under overseas control.

When, at a meeting of young diplomats from both sides of the Iron Curtain, organised by the noble American Friends Service Committee in Montreux in 1957, Attlee was asked whether the UK was part of Europe or not, he replied “we’re semi-detached”, but did not elaborate.

The European Project and Western European Union

The next stage in the development of the European Project after Coal and Steel was the proposal in 1952 for a European Defence Community (EDC). Visceral fear of Germany induced Pierre Mendes-France, the French Prime Minister, to make it clear that he would not be part of it unless the UK were also members. Churchill and Eden (Motor No.3) were no less determined that the UK would not take on membership: President Eisenhower concurred.

The EDC duly foundered. But Eden at the height of his European statesmanship, hit upon an ingenious alternative arrangement, with the same practical consequence of maintaining a strong British military presence on the European mainland: namely Western European Union (WEU). This consisted of a bringing together of previously separate traditional-style non-aggression treaties, between the UK and France and Benelux, and extending them to Italy and Germany.

Eden’s ascendancy, 1954-5

WEU was not Eden’s only diplomatic triumph during 1954. With Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov he successfully co-chaired the Geneva Conference which brought internationally-monitored peace, at least for a time, to Indo-China after the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu.

Eden was, of course, for long years Churchill’s heir apparent, and became increasingly exasperated as the ageing hero repeatedly postponed his departure from Number Ten. Eventually the day came. – in the spring of 1955. Eden called a general election and increased the Conservative majority. A summit in Geneva with the post-Stalin leaders of the Soviet Union, for which Churchill had yearned, but never achieved, followed in the summer of 1955.

The outlook seemed set fair. How then did it come about that the Eden premiership ended a mere eighteen months later in humiliation and disgrace?

The subject has been one of endless analysis and speculation, and there is little reason to supposes that a universally satisfactory explanation will ever emerge. In the context of the occupants of the four-car motorcade, I will concentrate on three factors, and their intermittently perverse inter-relationships: (i) the European Project; (ii) the “Arab Awakening”; and (iii) UK failure to grasp the significance of America’s domestic politics for its superpower status.

Messina and the path to the EEC

Eden’s rescue of the European Defence Community by means of the contrivance of WEU might be thought to have stood the UK in good European stead. But in fact it had the opposite effect. (“No good deed goes long unpunished”, Clare Booth Luce used to say.) WEU’s problem was that t was based on and on the notion of international commitment to cooperate rather than on integration. It aroused in consequence little enthusiasm among the champions of the European Project. Monnet himself was particularly upset by the failure of the EDC. It strengthened his resolve to move to something more ambitious on integrationist lines: a European Economic Community (EEC).

The Foreign Ministers of the Six met at Messina in June, 1955, to consider how best to re-launch the European Project after the EDC setback. With the Benelux countries in the lead, they developed the familiar concept of a customs union into the construction of a common market. They also envisaged a common atomic energy policy. They established a committee under the chairmanship of the anglophile Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak. He was keen that the UK should participate.

Eden, as Prime Minister, gave the idea short shrift. Whereas there is a good deal min his voluminous memoirs about WEU – and rightly so – the only reference to Messina and “its two schemes” (ie common market and atomic energy authority) was in connexion with his visit to Washington in January 1956. He thought that the Canadians were more alive than were the Americans to the risk that “these two associations would lead to a high tariff group in Europe”.

Macmillan, by now Foreign Secretary, was far more conscious of the dangers and missed opportunities such an approach could incur. He maintain close contact with Spaak. But his view did not prevail. In the event we were represented at the work of the Spaak Committee by an observer. Freddie Bretherton, a talented Under-Secretary at the Board of Trade,

1955: the UK and what might, or might not, have been

Legend has it that Bretherton was dismissive of the whole idea, and left before the Committee had finished its work. The truth, as far as he was concerned, was otherwise. He reported in August 1955 that “we have the power to guide the conclusions of this conference in almost any direction we like, but beyond a certain point we cannot exercise that power without ourselves becoming, responsible for the results.”

Years later, he said “if we had been able to say we agreed in principle, we could have got whatever kind of Common Market we wanted”. I do not believe that to have been the case. The core of the European Project, to repeat, is integration, and reaction on the Continent to the EDC/WEU compromise does not suggest that the Six would have agreed on a hybrid arrangement.

The Arab Awakening and Suez, 1956.

      There is no better book about the rise of modern Arab nationalism than The . Arab Awakening by George Antonius, a distinguished Lebanese-Christian public servant, diplomat and author, published in London in 1938. It was natural the the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, during and after the Great War, should boost nascent Arab nationalism. It was equally natural that the victors should seek to rearrange matters to their advantage. There was trouble ahead for “the Near/Middle East”

The Sykes-Picot agreement was followed by the Balfour Declaration. Oil was a predominant factor. The Second World War demonstrated beyond all doubt how large the Suez Canal loomed in UK priorities. Eden took intensely personally the decline of Western influence. Ivone Kirkpatrick, the blinkered Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, who had witnessed, while at the British Embassy in Berlin, Chamberlain’s fruitless efforts pre-war to appease Hitler, decided that Nasser, Egypt’s charismatic leader after the ejection of King Farouk, was “headed for perdition”.

The Suez Canal company could scarcely be regarded as a model of enlightenment. The standard doctrine was that only British pilots were capable of taking ships safely through the Suez Canal.

The US Administration, naturally, did not share Eden’s temperamental assessment. But Eden, almost fortuitously, made common cause with the French Government , beset as they were with problems arising from Arab nationalist activities in the Maghreb. The French, for their part, had teamed up with the Israelis in a scheme to topple Nasser.  With the British joining in, after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal,  it developed into a plot whereby Israel would invade Egypt, and the British and French would intervene at once “to separate the combatants”.

To ensure failure in a complicated, hazardous and illegal endeavour, there is no better recipe than to keep your own side in the dark. The British diplomatic apparatus was shut out completely. In consequence, no-one within the charmed circle would appear to have warned Eden that French cypher telegraphic traffic at that moment was not entirely secure……

Eden’ failure to grasp the realities of US Politics

“I don’t understand American politics”, Eden was once heard to say, “I leave all that to Roger Makins” (British Ambassador in Washington, 1952 -1956).

It beggars belief that a British Prime Minister who was interested in political survival should say any such thing. It is all the more surprising that it should come from the lips of Eden, with his vast range of contacts with the US, in both war and peace, let alone his familiarity with Churchillian priorities. Yet it proved to be true. There appeared to be a naive belief in Conservative circles that, if they were told nothing in advance, the Americans would look on indulgently, and “take care of the Bear” ie warn the Soviet Union off interfering.

The rest is history. The “Anglo-French Expedition” was greeted with world-wide condemnation, which enabled the Soviet Union largely to escape the opprobrium they richly deserved for their contemporary invasion of Hungary.

Eisenhower’s anger was the greater because it coincided with his bid for a second term in the White House. This was complicated by his having to undergo a minor operation for ileitis. (hence the Republican campaign slogan “I like Ike, but I hate his guts”).

Withdrawal, ignominy and rehabilitation

It was all too much for Eden. The pressures on him were overwhelming. The Suez venture was unceremoniously abandoned. His fragile health gave way and he resigned.

The first priority of Macmillan, his successor. was to repair relations with the United States. Macmillan met Eisenhower in Bermuda early in 1957, and The Queen paid a state visit to the USA later that year, the 350th anniversary of the first settlements at Jamestown. Eisenhower returned the compliment in 1959, which helped Macmillan win the General Election comfortably later in the year.

Did this ghastly episode finish off the “Special Relationship”? If the phrase conjures up romantic visions of Churchill and Roosevelt, and if it arouses expectations that Uncle Sam stands ready to accord us avowedly preferential and indulgent treatment, then the answer is in the affirmative. But that is by no means all there is to it.

It is easy on this side of the Atlantic to misunderstand the different connotations on the other side of the word “special”. What Suez and its aftermath demonstrated is that, in discharging its responsibilities as a super power – and it has assuredly been the most benevolent hegemon the world has ever known – it recognises the UK as a generally reliable first external frame of reference. Suez temporarily damaged that much valued American propensity. The Cuban missile crisis showed that it had been restored..

Cross-Channel cross-purposes

Whatever he might have said about American politics, Eden would never have said that he did not understand French politics and left them to Gladwyn Jebb. He was steeped in them, and he spoke very good French. He could not thus have failed to realise what a catastrophic effect would be wrought on French opinion by his abandonment, under American pressure, of the Suez plot.. It is a measure of his desperation that he even contemplated joining in it in the first place.

If, of course, the British diplomatic apparatus had not been kept entirely in the dark, it would have been able to point to the innumerable risks and hazards involved in the venture itself, let alone the devastating damage it would inflict on our other interests, especially in the area, which would undoubtedly ensue. And that of course is precisely why we were kept in the dark. The leaders most likely to come to grief are those who don’t want to know (“my mind is made up: don’t bother me with the facts”).

For the French, the whole affair could be portrayed as yet another instance of l’Albion perfide. A famously Europe-conscious British Prime Minister had let them disastrously down. What did that portend as regards future UK participation in the European project? For all the recognition which France of the Fourth Republic was ready to accord to the Western Alliance, the European Project was about escaping US tutelage, rather than confirming it. Would the UK, when the chips were down, prove to be no more than an Atlantic/American Trojan horse?

The impact on British politics of the Suez affair was relatively short-lived. Eden’s resignation did much to quench the desire for the blood of the guilty. In Parliament it was far from being a case of division on traditional party lines. Hugh Gaitskell, the Leader of the Opposition, said he had half the Foreign Office with him, and the whole of the Labour Party against him. That is not surprising. A great deal of British and Commonwealth blood had been shed during the war keeping the Germans away from the Nile, and the Suez Canal.

My impression of Gaitskell’s figure of “half the Foreign Office” was that it was a considerable under-estimate. I never met anyone in the Diplomatic Service who was in favour of that fateful enterprise. among my contemporaries there were quite a few resignations and widespread outrage at the moral turpitude and the utter incompetence. The effect on recruitment was noteworthy and led indirectly to the marvellously comprehensive and beneficial Plowden Report on Representational Services Overseas (1964).

It was in our perception of ourselves and of our role in the world that the Suez debacle had its most far-reaching consequences. As a nation we are given to occasional bouts of excessive self-deprecation. In 1956 this tendency took the form of “throwing in our lot with Europe” as the only way ahead in our reduced circumstances. We withdrew “east of Suez”. Independence for our former colonies proceeded at a great rate from 1957 onwards.

Irony is a familiar characteristic of international affairs. After we had gravely disappointed the Six by not fully participating in the Messina initiatives, we infuriated them by abandoning France over Suez, thus showing our true Atlantic colours. We then discovered that Europe was our real destiny.  But equally by then it was too late. We had to resort to other expedients. We sought a European Free Trade Area, embracing the EEC Six and others: the Six would not countenance it. We had to settle instead for a European Free Trade Association (EFTA), composed of non-members of the Six.

1958: De Gaulle returns to power

De Gaulle had been Prime Minister briefly in the immediate post-war years. But it did not suit him. When he returned to power in 1958, France had to change. He replaced the Fourth Republic with the Fifth Republic, giving himself the role of plenipotentiary President. The restoration of French prestige, or French grandeur, was high on the agenda.

Perhaps above all he resented US power and authority. Roosevelt had not been one of is great admirers.  He saw the future in terms of l’Europe des patries, proudly independent from US influence. L’esprit communautaire, which had meant so much to Robert Schuman, was drained away in the first instance by the priorities of the Fifth Republic, and subsequently crushed under the weight of l’acquis communutaire —Community law and process.

De Gaulle asserted himself all round. His contempt for the United Nations as legendary. Within the EEC, to indicate his displeasure with the attitude of Walter Hallstein, the President of the European Commission, he had withheld French participation from EEC meetings for a year (la chaise vide). He extracted France from NATO, and ordered the removal of its Headquarters from French territory. On a state visit to Canada, he had the supreme discourtesy to shout “Vive le Quebec libre!” to the crowd from a balcony in Montreal.

His ministers knew their place. Hitherto, if key discussion among the Six in Brussels needed it, a late-night change of instructions could be sought from Paris. Not with de Gaulle. “On ne telephone pas au General”, Couve de Murville said.

 Reverting to the January, 1963 veto

As already explained, Macmillan had been less opposed to joining in at Messina than had Eden. That was not the only difference between the two. It was no surprise that Eden moved Macmillan from the Foreign Office to No11 Downing Street at the end of 1955, thus giving himself freer hand in conducting foreign affairs. Macmillan’s successor, as Foreign Secretary, was Selwyn Lloyd, a much less formidable figure.

Macmillan did not apply for EEC membership until the summer of 1961, by which time de Gaulle had been in the Elysee for three years. The UK was in a weak position in two key respects, First, we were vulnerable on the Suez score; and secondly, we were on the outside, because we had passed up the opportunity to be on the inside. The European Project had not stood still in the intervening years. Les absents ont toujours tort: those absent are always wrong.

The standard explanation of de Gaulle’s first veto, delivered out of the blue to universal surprise, at a Press Conference in the Elysee on January 14. 1963, is that at talks in Nassau in November 1962, the UK had pressed the Americans for Polaris missiles which the Americans were unwilling to supply, for fear that it might harm UK prospects of EEC membership; but that in the end Macmillan had got his way.

This clearly contributed to the failure to achieve a meeting of minds when Macmillan went to Rambouillet the following month for talks with de Gaulle.  Macmillan describes the visit in absorbing detail in the final volume of his massive autobiography.   His account is required reading for anyone interested in the future of Anglo-French relations.

The consequences of January 14, 1963

There were four prime consequences

(1)  Negotiations for UK accession to an avowedly economic community were unilaterally and arbitrarily dashed for short-sighted political reasons, thus cutting across the essence of the Schuman Declaration and the European Project.

(2)  January 14, 1963, effectively finished off Macmillan’s premiership. It temporarily devastated Heath (Motor no 2) who had at the time been the British Minister in charge of the negotiations; but it also bred in him a steely determination to secure EEC membership, whatever the price.

(3) The veto put paid to any real chance that UK voters would give their “full-hearted consent” to full participation in the European Project Instead it sowed within the UK the seeds of discord and mistrust which have been with us ever since.

(4) It greatly strengthened support for the policy of “throwing in our lot with Europe”. Within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office were merged in 1968) it came to take priority over everything else, with dire effects on everything else.

Anglo-French relations were soured for the rest of the de Gaulle Presidency (a further six years). Harold Wilson (Motor no. 4) became Prime Minister in 1974. The UK made a further application for membership in 1966-7, which foundered when we were forced devalue in 1967

In 1968 Harold Wilson appointed Christopher Soames as Ambassador to France in the hope that it would enhance our European credentials. In a conversation the Elysee, de Gaulle appeared to hold out hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. But it came spectacularly to nothing.

Enter Georges Pompidou

Georges Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle in June 1969. He had been de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, and had restored order after the Paris riots of May, 1968 (known euphemistically as les événements.  He had no hang-ups about les AngloSaxons. Ans he was fully alive to the advantages of gaullisme in dealing with European questions,

We gained a good idea of what to expect from a press conference, in the Olympian style inherited from his predecessor, which he held in February, 1971. Asked about the prospects for UK accession to the EEC, he replied that the British had three attributes: humour, tenacity and realism. As far as the negotiations were concerned, h said, the British had not got beyond the first of them. “You must be joking”, the London tabloids said the next morning

Our terms of entry were settled in outline during Prime Minister Edward Heath’s visit to Paris in June 1971, followed up by detailed discussions, far from the madding crowd, between Robert Armstrong, Heath’s Private Secretary, and Michel Jobert, the Secretary-General of the Elysee. The “Friendly Five” dutifully endorsed the outcome.

The outcome was brutal, as can be judged from the substantial rebate which Mrs Thatcher demanded and obtained a decade later.

Jean Monnet was still around when I arrived in Paris. At Christopher Soames’ hospitable lunch table, after de Gaulle’s unlamented departure, he would urge us to get into the EEC and then “reform” it. The advice was somewhat delphic.

By then it was clear, for example, that there was gross overemphasis on the Common Agricultural Policy, which could be, and was, at least partially remedied. But any idea that we could or should stay the progress towards an “ever close union”, and the onward march of integration was fanciful. And it was the subsequent rash of new initiatives launched by Jacques Delors, as President if the Commission which was the cause of the mounting difficulties. Reaction in this country was immortalised by the item of brisk advice offered to Delors in a well-known Sun headline.

The years of UK membership of the EEC/EC/EU can usefully be divided into three phases: Catch-up, Opt-out and Cop-out, corresponding approximately with the Thatcher, Major and Blair/Brown premierships.


The nadir was reached with the negotiation of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007-8. It is essentially a re-hash of the Constitutional Treaty, which emerged, not very democratically, from the review of the EU on the threshold of enlargement to the East after the end of the Cold War, launched by the Declarations of Nice and Laeken of 2000 and 2001. The Constitutional Treaty was unhesitatingly rejected by referendum by voters in France and the Netherlands. Undeterred, the zealots of Brussels served up the rejected text anew, under the guise of a “Reform Treaty”, and, as such, deemed not to require approval by referendum, but only by Parliaments.

The Blair Labour Government, apart from limiting itself to drawing “red lines” round supposed vital UK interests, in effect washed its hands of the matter. Tasked to comment on the Treaty’s Foreign Policy Aspects, an exasperated Foreign Affairs Committee had some harsh things to say. (HC 120-1, January 2008). They were kind enough to quote me liberally.

The Lisbon Treaty was driven through Parliament. The demand thereafter in the UK for a Referendum became unstoppable.

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About the author

Sir Peter Marshall

Sir Peter Marshall, formerly of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, served as Assistant Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and also worked with Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration.