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

You can find Part One of this series on Arthur Woodburn here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

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

Part Four: Towards a European Language

Woodburn’s support for integration with Europe went beyond his arguments for British membership in the EEC; it also included a passionate call for a common European language.  A linguist fluent in Spanish, French, and German, Woodburn believed the development of a common form of communication would facilitate further integration.  In this, Woodburn was channeling a longstanding preoccupation with fostering a new language of internationalism (such as Esperanto) found among old-time, traditional socialists in the British Labour movement.1  However, the methods he advocated again reflected a principled emphasis on pragmatism and gradualism in service to an idealistic goal.  In February 1962, Woodburn introduced a private member’s bill into the House of Commons to “facilitate the formation of a common European language.”2  Explicitly supported by other notable pro-European Labour MPs like Roy Jenkins and George Thomson, the bill sought to create a British Academy of Language, modeled in part on the French Académie Française.  Woodburn structured the Academy to have three main activities.  The first was a broad stricture to coordinate with similar language bodies around Western Europe to help foster and compile a common European language.  Secondly, the Academy was to promote the greater use of English as part of this new common language by managing the common forms, spellings, and pronunciations of new words added to English in order to “increase steadily the proportion of common words in all the languages concerned.”3  Thirdly, the Academy was to help compile and recommend a “nucleus of essential words and speech for easy assimilation,” to be known as “Basic European.”4

And what were Woodburn’s reasons for introducing the bill?  They were entirely familiar – because universal brotherhood necessitated it.  Speaking in the Commons, Woodburn said, “Friendship and human relations require careful cultivation and for us all in Europe to be able to speak to one another in a common tongue would be one of the greatest steps forward we could take towards the brotherhood of man.”5  And the need was urgent because, as he stated:

Scientific progress has annihilated distance and made national barriers anachronisms.  People and industries are flowing across frontiers, and peoples of Europe need to speak to each other….  It is simply not practicable for great numbers of people to learn five or six languages – perhaps not even two.6

Ever the socialist planner, Woodburn also argued a common language was necessary to apply efficiently the mental resources of European societies.  He continued:

In any case, science and industry are rushing forward at such a pace that the claim on people’s brain energy is becoming ever greater, and there is a strain on education in all countries to meet the need.  A nation just cannot afford to use its scarce intellectual capacity on dilettante studies.  We must, therefore, economise on our talent by getting rid of the waste of time spent in acquiring useless and confusing knowledge.7

“Useless and confusing knowledge” was an interesting characterization of the merits of language studies, but it helps explain his rejection of already existing artificial languages like Esperanto and Interlingua as candidates for his common European language.  Although he argued it was not his “intention today to pass judgment on these languages,” Woodburn pointed out that “none of them has so far been accepted as public policy, and, in my view, the development of events is tending to pass them by.”8  This engendered some fairly mild criticism from supporters of competing language candidates from across both Britain and Europe.  For instance, one such Esperanto enthusiast from Kent remarked about Woodburn that it was a “pity” that he “with such praiseworthy motive…should be unaware of the history of the movement for a world auxiliary language [built by] the genius of a single-minded and devoted servant of humanity…L.L. Zamenhof.”9  Another correspondent from London sent Woodburn a nine page treatise, written in a small, cursive script, laying out a proposal for a new international language called “ERICA,” which was a simplified amalgam of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary rules from several international languages.10

In keeping with the fairly Eurosceptic contours of British politics and culture at the time, the bill never received further action in the Commons.  However, ever the gradualist, Woodburn was not dismayed, writing in a form letter to those who had written him on the issue from across Europe, “The Bill may not pass through Parliament this Session but the impetus given to the idea will not be lost and this is the time for all organizations in every country to push the idea.”11  Even after his retirement in 1970, Woodburn continued to write and pursue schemes for fostering a common European language. In what is presumably either an unpublished opinion article or a draft chapter for his autobiography entitled “The French are still at it again,” Woodburn explored the role language barriers had in fostering divisiveness and conflict between European peoples throughout history.  He coupled this with a detailed action plan for the new European Parliament (“new” in the sense of having elected members for the first time in 1979) to “tackle the question of what language future Europeans will speak to achieve effective intercommunication.”12  This was, as Woodburn described it later in the document, a “great constructive task for the Community of a United Europe.”13

For next week: Part Five, Woodburn, Scottish Nationalism, and European Integration

  1. For more information on the British Labour Movement’s preoccupation with Esperanto, see Christine Collette, The International Faith: Labour’s Attitudes to European Socialism, 1918-39 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 124-129.
  2. House of Commons, Common European Language, Bill 69 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1962), National Library of Scotland (NLS), Arthur Woodburn Papers, Acc. 6276/5.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Parliamentary Debates, Commons, Fifth Series, no. 654 (1961-1962), col. 1355.
  6. Ibid., col. 1350-1351.
  7. Ibid., col. 1351.
  8. Ibid., col. 1351.
  9. Smith to Woodburn, 9 February 1962, NLS, Woodburn Papers, Acc. 6276/1.
  10. Fisher to Woodburn, 2 December 1962, NLS, Woodburn Papers, Acc. 6276/1.
  11. Woodburn to General, no date (1962?), NLS, Woodburn Papers, Acc. 6276/1.
  12. Arthur Woodburn, “The French are still at it again,” undated manuscript (1977-1978?), NLS, Woodburn Papers, Acc. 6276/2.
  13. Ibid.


One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Four — 1 Comment

  1. I’m grateful to you for clarifying for me Woodburn’s case for a common language. You’ve revealed a lot of previously unknown material.

    The case for Esperanto is still being quietly promoted in Britain and elsewhere, frequently by left-wing idealists. Friday’s guardian reported from the Fête de l’Humanité that “The Esperanto activists are here, as always, waging an uphill battle for their purpose-built international language.”

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