Britain’s Radical Moment

atomic bomb explosion

It happened nearly 65 years ago, in November 1945. After the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in June and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August.

Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, future Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Liberal leader Clement Davies all talk in Parliament about the need to rethink nationalism and introduce a democratic world assembly.

Labour, Conservative and Liberal leaders criticising everything from the UN Security Council veto to “the barriers that divide us”.

This the language of today’s anti-G8 protesters. Whereas 60 years ago it was the voice of our elected politicians.

Do we have to wait for another world war before we find that language in the mainstream again?

Here are a few quotes.

(thanks to the amazing guys at mySociety for getting this material online):

“We need a new study for the purpose of creating a world assembly elected directly from the people of the world, as a whole, to whom the Governments who form the United Nations are responsible and who, in fact, make the world law which they, the people, will then accept and be morally bound and willing to carry out. For it will be from their votes that the power will have been derived, and it will be for their direct representatives to carry it out. You may invent all sorts of devices to decide who is the aggressor but, after all the thought you can give to it, the only repository of faith I have been able to find to determine that is the common people.” (Foreign Minister Bevin)

or,

“Unfortunately, during the last 150 years too much emphasis has been laid upon antagonistic nationalism, which has led to disruption, jealousy and, ultimately, to war. Men ought to be able to appeal to the commonman everywhere to surrender this national sovereignty and to do away also with all the barriers which divide us. Do away with all those man-made difficulties of communicating with other men. Let us share the benefits that Nature has provided in the world. If this were done and if we could look upon the world, which is now getting smaller and smaller, as one world with one people, subject to one rule, we should have accomplished more in our time than all the generations which have preceded us.” (Head of Liberals, Davies)

or,

“We have got somehow to take the sting out of nationalism. We cannot hope to do so at once, but we ought to start working for it now… We should make up our minds where we want to go. In this respect I know where I want to go. I want to get a world in which the relations between the nations can be transformed in a given period of time—we cannot do it in a short period—as the relations between this country and Scotland and Wales have been transformed. At an early date, in my judgment, the United Nations ought to review their Charter in the light of the discoveries about atomic energy which were not before us when the Charter was drawn up. Nothing showed more clearly the hold that nationalism has upon us all than the decision of that Conference to retain the power of veto. Surely in the light of what has passed since San Francisco the United Nations ought to look at that again, and, having looked at it, I hope they will unanimously decide that the retention of such a provision in the Charter is an anachronism in the modern world.” (Future PM Eden)

Full(ish) text.

Use the links to access the full record:

Anthony Eden – 22 Nov 1945
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=1945-11-22a.611.3

Let me come to what seem to me to be the fundamentals of this problem. The truth is that by the discovery of this atomic energy science has placed us several laps ahead of the present phase of international political development, and unless we can catch up politically to the point we have reached in science, and thus command the power which at present threatens us, we are all going to be blown to smithereens… I agree, too, that no safeguards by themselves will provide an effective guarantee. They have to be accompanied by the acceptance of the rule of law amongst the nations…

The truth is that all the inventions of recent years have tended the same way, to narrow the world, to bring us closer together and, therefore, to intensify the shock and sharpen the reactions before the shock absorbers are ready. Every succeeding scientific discovery makes greater nonsense of old-time conceptions of sovereignty, and yet it is not the least use our deluding ourselves … It is yet true that national sentiment is still as strong as ever, and here and there it is strengthened by this further complication, the different conceptions of forms of government and different conceptions of what words mean, words like “freedom” and “democracy.” So, despite some stirrings, the world has not, so far, been ready to abandon, or even really to modify, its old conceptions of sovereignty. But there have been some stirrings… I have thought much on this question of atomic energy both before and since that bomb burst on Nagasaki, and for the life of me I have been unable to see, and am still unable to see, any final solution which will make the world safe for atomic power, save that we all abate our present ideas of sovereignty.

I am not making a party point. We have got somehow to take the sting out of nationalism. We cannot hope to do so at once, but we ought to start working for it now… We should make up our minds where we want to go. In this respect I know where I want to go. I want to get a world in which the relations between the nations can be transformed in a given period of time—we cannot do it in a short period—as the relations between this country and Scotland and Wales have been transformed. What are we going to do about that? What are the first steps that can be taken? One of the first steps has been described by the right hon. Gentleman in the communiqué which was issued from Washington, and I hope the further steps which I have traced will be followed up to get this United Nations Mission to work soon.

There is another possible step in connection with the San Francisco organisation. At an early date, in my judgment, the United Nations ought to review their Charter in the light of the discoveries about atomic energy which were not before us when the Charter was drawn up. Nothing showed more clearly the hold that nationalism has upon us all than the decision of that Conference to retain the power of veto. Surely in the light of what has passed since San Francisco the United Nations ought to look at that again, and, having looked at it, I hope they will unanimously decide that the retention of such a provision in the Charter is an anachronism in the modern world.

Clement Davies – 22 Nov 1945
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=1945-11-22a.631.1

The cost of war is, as we all know, illimitable and immeasurable, in the agony, sorrow and misery that it causes not only for one generation but for many generations. Peace also has its price, but the price is not heavy. It would be a small premium to pay for the abolition of war. It would merely be the surrender of national sovereignty. Unfortunately, during the last 150 years too much emphasis has been laid upon antagonistic nationalism, which has led to disruption, jealousy and, ultimately, to war. Men ought to be able to appeal to the commonman everywhere to surrender this national sovereignty and to do away also with all the barriers which divide us. Do away with all those man-made difficulties of communicating with other men. Let us share the benefits that Nature has provided in the world. If this were done and if we could look upon the world, which is now getting smaller and smaller, as one world with one people, subject to one rule, we should have accomplished more in our time than all the generations which have preceded us.

Ernest Bevin – 23 Nov 1945
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=1945-11-23a.783.1

[Eden] said there must be established a rule of law, but law must derive its power and observance from a definite source, and in studying this problem I am driven to ask: Will law be observed, if it is arrived at only by treaty and promises and decisions by governments as at present arranged? In all the years this has broken down so often. I trust it will not break down again but, if it is not to break down again, I think it must lead us still further on. In other words, will the people feel that the law is their law if it is derived and enforced by the adoption of past methods, whether League of Nations, concert of Europe, or anything of that kind? The illustration was drawn of the constitution of the United Kingdom, which took many years to establish. Where does the power to make law actually rest? It is not even in this House, it is certainly not in the Executive, it is in the votes of the people. They are sovereign authority.

It may be interesting to call attention to the development of the United States of America. Originally, when the States came together, they met as States with separate Governments, but they soon discovered that they had little or no power to enforce their decisions, and it is the enforcement of the decision, the sanction, that is the real difficulty in world law or any law. They then decided, for the purpose of conducting foreign affairs, taxation, defence and the regulation of commerce, that they would create a federal body and in that body there would be direct representation of the people, not through the 13 States, but direct from the people to the federal Parliament of the country. So, from the outset, the United States drew its power to make laws directly from the people. That is the growth of the United States to the great State which it is today.

… I think it right to let the country see exactly where the surrender of sovereignty leads us. The fact is, no one ever surrenders sovereignty; they merge it into a greater sovereignty.

A portion, for specific limited purposes… It can only deal with the specific objective that the people feel is necessary for their security.

[Eden:

Might I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, because he keeps saying that I referred to the surrender of sovereignty, and I never said anything like that. The point I was trying to make, which I think he is trying to make, is that these modern developments make nonsense of certain old-fashioned conceptions of sovereignty.]

Bevin:

Well, I am trying to put a new one anyway.

I am asked to restudy San Franscisco [where it was agreed to form the UN]. I have not only restudied it but, when it was being developed, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I was gravely concerned, with him, as to whether we were really finding the right solution. There was no conflict between us. We were all trying to do our best, and what worried me, and the right hon. Gentleman and others on the Committee of the then Cabinet, going through all these meticulous documents, was whether again the people would be disappointed. That was his worry, I know, as it was ours. Now that is added to, and accentuated, by the coming of the atomic bomb and many other devastating weapons. In 1940, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford [Churchill] offered France joint citizen ship—

Mr Winston Churchill (Woodford)

We were all in it.

Mr Ernest Bevin (Wandsworth Central)

Yes, that is quite right. Often after that I tried to study how we could have given effect to it, and it seemed to me that joint citizenship involved joint Parliament and joint responsibility. It involved an acceptance of this for certain limited purposes in order to derive the powers of law. Therefore, when we turn from all the things you have built up the League of Nations or your constitution—I feel we are driven relentlessly along this road: we need a new study for the purpose of creating a world assembly elected directly from the people of the world, as a whole, to whom the Governments who form the United Nations are responsible and who, in fact, make the world law which they, the people, will then accept and be morally bound and willing to carry out. For it will be from their votes that the power will have been derived, and it will be for their direct representatives to carry it out. You may invent all sorts of devices to decide who is the aggressor but, after all the thought you can give to it, the only repository of faith I have been able to find to determine that is the common people.

There has never been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk, could not have been prevented. The fact is they are kept separated from one another. How did Hitler do that? He enslaved Germany with a law as bad as our Vagabond Act of centuries ago, and did not allow anybody to move hither or thither. I knew a South African professor who went into Germany for 12 months as an experiment and read nothing but Nazi papers. He was hard put to it to resist the mental influence as a result—a strong-minded man who made up his mind to try the effect of it upon himself. The common man, I think, is the great protection against war. The supreme act of Government is the horrible duty of deciding matters which affect the life or death of the people. That power rests in this House as far as this country is concerned. I would merge that power into the greater power of a directly elected world assembly in order that the great repositories of destruction and science, on the one hand, may be their property, against the misuse of which it is their duty to protect us and, on the other hand, that they may determine in the ordinary sense whether a country is acting as an aggressor or not.

I am willing to sit with anybody, of any party, of any nation, to try to devise a franchise or a constitution—just as other great countries have done—for a world assembly, as the right hon. Gentleman said, with a limited objective—the objective of peace. Once we can get to that stage I believe we shall have taken a great progressive step. In the meantime, there must be no weakening of the institution which my right hon. Friends built in San Francisco. It must be the prelude to further development. This must not be considered a substitute for it, but rather a completion or a development of it, so that the benefit of the experience and administration derived in that institution may be carried to its final end. From the moment you accept that, one phrase goes, and that is “international law.” That phrase presupposes conflict between nations. It would be replaced by “world law,” with a moral world force behind it, rather than a law built upon case made law and on agreements. It would be a world law with a world judiciary to interpret it, with a world police to enforce it, with the decision of the people with their own votes resting in their own hands, irrespective of race or creed, as the great world sovereign elected authority which would hold in its care the destinies of the people of the world.

1 Response to “Britain’s Radical Moment”


  • Thanks for this article. People of the World must unit in an Assembly to oversee any “representative parliament” or “representative government. We do not have to make all decisions but we must be able to veto or change poor decisions.

Comments are currently closed.