Pooling Anglo-French defence: a sign of progress, or of decline?

We have a long and, on the whole, distinguished history of acting in concert with the French in military matters ever since the end of the last of our many conflicts, the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, in 1815. Whether at Navarino in 1827, in the Crimean War in the 1850s, the two World Wars and, of course, the Suez Crisis, which was the last time that we acted together—and which, militarily, was a complete success—the record of Anglo-French cooperation has been superb.

It perhaps reached its apogee in June 1940 when, faced with the gravest crisis in both of their histories, Britain and France briefly considered merging into an even closer union:

France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France [i]

Proposed Anglo-French Union stamp
This remarkable stamp trial, or essay, dates from 1940. It was produced as part of efforts to create a political union between France and the United Kingdom. The head of the French Government Information Bureau, Jean Giraudoux, had given a radio broadcast at the end of 1939 which specifically proposed a 'design for future postage stamp use'. Excited correspondence in the Times lent weight to the matter. Things moved relatively fast, and in April a proposed design was apparently accepted by the French President Lebrun on 8 June. But on 16 June, Marshal Petain was appointed to head a new administration which sued for an armistice with Germany, ending any plans for union with Britain. The production of the stamp was cancelled.

Even most recently, in Afghanistan, our gallant French allies have arguably been second only to our own soldiers in their distinguished record of service and effectiveness against the common enemy.

That we should have freely chosen to act together on so many occasions is no complete accident: it reflects, above all, how close in outlook Britain and France have been, over the past two centuries and despite having previously regarded each other as natural and traditional enemies since at least the Hundred Years’ War. No two other countries in the world share the same fortunate combination of antiquity of nationhood, respect for legality and individual freedom and universality as models for other peoples worldwide.

Yet I cannot help feeling that the decision to pool our defence capability with that of France announced today by the Prime Minister and by the French President, M Sarkozy, is a reflection of the fall in our relative importance, in political, economic and military terms. After the loss of Empire, the end of the Cold War, the rising cost of military procurement and its inevitable fall as a percentage of GDP, we are faced with a worldwide situation in which countries in the Middle East which, until 1956, were our unquestioned preserve in military and political terms, can afford to spend more than either of us in proportion to their size, on defence—which, in their case, would be more appropriately called by its traditional label, war.

The United States succeeded us as the dominant partner in that region after 1956 and, despite not sharing our distinguished history, are at least reassuringly similar to us in their social and political makeup. Yet they are actually headed, despite their superpower status, on the same road: the Americans are selling $60bn in advanced weaponry, a truly stupendous sum, to Saudi Arabia, hardly one of the world’s most stable, free or democratic states.

Thus seeing French planes hosted on our new aircraft-carriers, while it reflects much of what is best in our national traditions, revives a long and welcome tradition of cross-channel cooperation and does not, as both governments were right to point out, imply any pooling of sovereignty, is nonetheless not altogether a cause for rejoicing.

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  1. The British Offer of Union to France, 1940. []