One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Two

You can find Part One of this series on Arthur Woodburn here.

One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, 1960-1970

Part Two: Uniting Europe and the World

Following his retirement from Parliament in 1970, Arthur Woodburn began work on an autobiography framed around his life in British and Scottish politics.  Although unfinished due to his death in 1978, several rough drafts are extant in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.  In this collection, there is a draft chapter on heavily corrected and marked up House of Commons stationary entitled “Uniting Europe,” in which Woodburn attempts to explain his intimate involvement in the issue of European integration.  According to Woodburn, it was the “War of Steel and Gold,” as he called the First World War (here referencing a work by the left-wing journalist and writer H.N. Brailsford) that first sparked his interest in the idea of a united Europe.  The death and devastation resulting from what he described as a “sordid dispute” over imperialist spheres of influence and the coal and iron deposits of the Ruhr valley (the “iron Klondyke [sic] of the 70s” in his words) instilled in Woodburn a desire to see Europe make a concerted effort to guarantee future peace and unity.1  Although efforts in the interwar years to achieve peace and unity were frustrated, as he put it, by “the new threats of communism and Fascism and Nazi gangsterdom,” Woodburn went on to praise the steps since 1945 to create world government and the role the 1945 Labour Government helped in fostering this.2  Woodburn’s then was an internationalist vision, framed through a socialist lens and arguing that “the stupidity of frontiers between European peoples, barriers which prevent free exchange of trade and all the frustrations of historical hates and prejudices [were] ridiculous in a world struggling to establish world order and government.”3  And key to this struggle was the enthusiastic participation of Britain in the unity of Europe.  Yet, interestingly enough, he spends considerable time in the draft chapter justifying British hesitancy towards continental-driven integration, such as the Schuman Plan, which created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952, and the failed European Defense Community (EDC), explaining that Britain had never suffered the utter humiliation of defeat in the world wars and thus could not fully “appreciate the urgency felt by our continental friends.”4

It was the ‘War of Steel and Gold’ … that first sparked his interest in the idea of a united Europe.

What this demonstrated was that, at their core, Woodburn’s internationalist views regarding Britain’s closer ties with Europe exhibited a fundamental tension between pragmatism and ideology, a hallmark of his overall political and economic philosophy but also a tension that had historically afflicted the wider Scottish labour movement.5  On the one hand, Woodburn often spoke publicly about his desire to see the nations of the world combine into a socialist world government or, perhaps, a union through the United Nations.  For instance, in August 1961, speaking during a Commons debate on Britain’s first application to join the EEC, Woodburn began his speech by saying, “I must confess that I think in terms of trying to get greater and greater unity, not only in Europe but eventually in the world, and, if possible, world government.  We on this side of the House have committed ourselves to this as the ideal which will establish peace throughout the world.”6  Woodburn’s belief in socialist internationalism found inspiration in his convictions that only a socialist world government could stave off the dangers of “capitalist anarchy” and that such a process was inevitable.7  Supporting this was his conclusion that rapid technological and economic change in the twentieth century was pushing countries and nations closer together, leading to, as he said in the Commons in 1968, “the world … rapidly becoming [a single] economic unit.”8

On the other hand, Woodburn’s pragmatism, marked by his belief that the attainment of socialism was indisputably gradual, tempered the ardor with which he spoke of world unity.9  For example, in February 1970, while delivering his final Commons speech before retirement, Woodburn acknowledged the realities of forging a world government while complaining about other socialists rejecting the incremental step of joining the EEC.  He said:

I believe that history demands that the peoples of the world should become united.  We cannot get a world government yet – that is a bit too ambitious.  This [the EEC] is a unity on our own doorstep, yet people who formerly wanted to unite the whole world in a glorious brotherhood are now niggling about all the petty details and pouring cold water upon the great ideal of the people of Europe coming together.10

Thus, as far as Woodburn was concerned, joining Europe was the first gradual step towards the eventual creation of a socialist world government.  This fundamental notion helps explain Woodburn’s passionate advocacy for British participation in Europe.

For next week: Part Three, Movement Man: Woodburn’s Political Activism on European Integration

  1. Arthur Woodburn, “Uniting Europe,” undated manuscript, National Library of Scotland (NLS), Arthur Woodburn Papers, Acc. 7656/4/5/iii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. According to the Scottish historian Richard Finlay, at the “heart of [the Labour Party’s historical development in Scotland” in the early twentieth century was the tension between the “often competing roles of pragmatism and ideology.”  See Richard Finlay, “The Labour Party in Scotland 1888-1945: Pragmatism and Principle,” in Gerry Hassan, ed., The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions, and Ideas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 21.
  6. Parliamentary Debates, Commons, Fifth Series, no. 645 (1960-1961), col. 1515.
  7. Arthur Woodburn, The Mystery of Money (London: National Council of Labour Colleges, 1931), 19; quoted in William Knox, “Arthur Woodburn (1890-1978)” in William Knox, ed., Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-39: A Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1984), 285.
  8. Parliamentary Debates, no. 772, 535.
  9. Arthur Woodburn, An Outline of Finance (London: National Council of Labour Colleges, 1931), 142; quoted in Knox, “Woodburn,” 285.
  10. Parliamentary Debates, no. 796, 1290.


One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Two — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Three » Devenney Research Hub

  2. Pingback: One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Four » Devenney Research Hub

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