Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Anniversaries - The Brussels Treaty of 1948

It is just over 60 years since the historic Labour government of 1945 was elected, so it's inevitable that we are celebrating the anniversaries of the momentous institutions that government put into place.

However, with everyone concentrating on 60 years of the NHS, other equally important milestones have been overlooked, so I thought I'd belatedly pay tribute to the Brussels Treaty of 1948.

Readers are probably saying, The What Treaty? The Brussels Treaty of 1948 was the forerunner of NATO (which was signed in 1949), and the treaty was the tool with which Ernest Bevin and the Labour government used to persuade the Americans that NATO was a good idea.

It is often assumed wrongly that the USA imposed NATO onto Europe. Actually the idea was born in within the Labour government, which was intent on tying the Americans tightly to us.

When WW2 ended, Americans went home and were determined to get on with their own lives, and leave Europe to theirs. Since the early 19th century, Americans had a horror of any permanent alliance with European countries, believing that Europe was colonialist and everything bad. Hence they had refused to participate in the League of Nations, and Roosevelt was only able to enter WW2 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the Germans declared War on the Amercans. And after the war, there was enormous pressure to stop the loans and other help to Britain and other Europeans, as the incoming Labour government quickly found out. Americans felt that Europeans should take care of their own security and the Americans would merely help as necessary. The Senate at the time was led by isolationist Republicans, and any transatlantic treaty involving security needed ratification by them.

So Ernest Bevin set out to prove that Western Europe could take care of her own security. It was always his intention to involve the Americans, but it was a high stakes strategy as it was possible that it ended up being just a European effort only, with the USA not participating at all. But first he had to persuade other Europeans. Luckily events played into Bevin's hands. The communists took over Czechoslovakia, which concentrated thought. The UK, France and the Benelux countries signed the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, pledging collective defence, and President Truman sent warm wishes and support.

Once Western Europeans had acted to take care of their own security, it was easy to persuade the Americans that they should develop ties to the Brussels Treaty group with a new treaty, and again the USSR helped things along by blockading Berlin, which helped to persuade the Republican senate that NATO was a good idea after all. Even so, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty - the one that declares that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all" - had to be watered down with extra wording to appease the US senate, who were worried about what they were committing themselves to.

The Washington Treaty setting up NATO was eventually signed by Bevin on April 4th 1949. But it would never have happened without Ernest Bevin and the Brussels Treaty.

So you could say that 1948 was about the Tale of the Two Bevins - Nye Bevin who founded the NHS and Ernest Bevin who founded NATO and gave us the nuclear deterrent.

The underlying theme that connects the NHS to NATO (which on the surface seem like different organisations) is the Principle of the Collective, something dear to the heart of the Labour party. Collective Medicine in the NHS and Collective Defence in NATO.

The achievements of 1948 are still here. It's actually stunning how much of modern Britain was shaped by the Attlee government. The only major contribution of the Conservatives is taking us into the EU and signing the ground-breaking Single European Act and Maastricht Treaty, bringing EU harmonisation into all our lives.

But while the Labour party is bursting with pride at founding the NHS and NATO (and the other Labour achievements such as clearing the slums and rebuilding Britain, nationalising the BoE (1946) and setting up the independent committee to set interest rates (1997), and delivering peace to Northern Ireland), the Conservatives are increasing ashamed and hostile towards their great achievement of the EU. Weird.

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