The Long View 2007-01-17: Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock


A Franco-British Union is the kind of alternative history that John J. Reilly loved to post about, except this one was seriously proposed more than once in mundane history.

Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock

This is not one of the great "What-Ifs" of history, however much attention this archival revelation has received in the past week:

Britain and France talked about a 'union' in the 1950s and even discussed the possibility of Elizabeth II becoming the French head of state....

On September 10, 1956, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet came to London to discuss the possibility of a merger between the two countries with Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

But when Mr Mollet's request for a union failed, the French premier quickly responded with another radical plan: that France be allowed to join the British Commonwealth.

According to the BBC, this proposal appears to have met with more warmth from the British politician.

Actually, something like this had been a real possibility 16 years earlier, when the French government had fled from Paris to Bordeaux after the Germans took Paris. At that time, the British government made this astonishing proposal (I quote from William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic):

At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution to their common defense of justice and freedom ....

The two governments declare that 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 defense, foreign, financial and economic policies.

Every citizen of France shall enjoy immediately citizenship of great Britain; every British subjects will become a citizen of France.

The Franco-British Union certainly had Churchillian boldness, but in fact Churchill had doubts about it. His government was prevailed upon to make the proposal by Frenchmen in London, among them Jean Monnet, who wanted to keep France in the Second World War. All that really interested the British at that point was securing the French Fleet. However, the desperate French premier, Paul Reynaud, was enthusiastic about the Union and thought he could convince his cabinet to accept. They did not, of course. His government fell, and its successor sought an armistice.

To this day that decision can be defended. The politicians who made it had been elected to save France. No one was paying them to save civilization, especially if saving civilization meant that all of France would be subject to foreign occupation. I think that calculation is incomplete: every state has a duty to the civilization of which it is a part, and indeed to mankind as a whole. However, the decision was not irrational, or even dishonorable.

It was also a much greater possibility than the proposal of 1956, simply because it would have served an immediate need. It is possible to imagine the French and British empires prosecuting the Second World War together (though one suspects that full union would not have been implemented). One result would have been that the Japanese would have included Indochina in their list of conquests a few months later. Another, perhaps more important, is that there might never have been a German campaign in North Africa: the hostility of the French possessions there would have made it untenable.

No North African campaign would, of course, have freed up resources for the Eastern Front. Would the non-capitulation of France have lost the war for the Allies by enabling a knockout blow against the Soviet Union? Probably not, but we see that the acceptance of the British proposal of 1940 would not necessarily have shortened the war.

* * *

Mr. Demographic Collapse, Mark Steyn, has seen the film version of P. D. James's book The Children of Men and is not pleased:

There are zillions of bad movies, but Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children Of Men is bad in an almost awe-inspiring way. ...the way in which he misses the point portends a difficult future for Hollywood in the years ahead. ...P D James’ short book is a meditation on loss of purpose in society: the symptoms are already well advanced in real-life Europe - convenience euthanasia, collapsed birth rates, wild animals reclaiming empty villages on the east German plain. Cuaron can’t even grasp the question, ...The film looks like a film – which is to say that, apart from Michael Caine, everyone in it is young: young transgressive leaders of young gangs pursued by young cops and young soldiers. But that’s exactly what the novel has in short supply: roads crumble to tracks because the employees of the state are too middle-aged to maintain the rural districts. Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuaron’s movie makes James’ point: A society without youth is so alien to our assumptions about ourselves that we can’t even make a film about it. Which suggests that Hollywood itself – at least in its present incarnation – will be one of the casualties of the coming of age.

I have not seen the movie, but I, too, regret that Cuaron chose to describe a conventional dystopia rather than to cinematize the book's unusual premise. (That is not the only case of directorial timidity I regret: just once, I want someone to make a film version of H.G. Well's The Time Machine and just shoot the book.) However, in Cuaron's defense, we should note his claim that James herself approved of his treatment of the book.

* * *

This gimmick has outlived its usefulness, as we can see from this report:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock on January 17, 2007, from 7 to 5 minutes to midnight.

BAS announced the Clock change at an unprecedented joint news conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, and the Royal Society in London. In a statement supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, the BAS Board focused on two major sources of catastrophe: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

I'm sorry, but what does global warming have to do with atomic weapons? Is the clock now to measure all the Bad Things in the world? How about Bad Cholesterol?

Here's a more serious objection: what does the BAS do when nuclear weapons are actually used, probably in a terrorist attack or in an exchange between states with small arsenals? It is always awkward when the eschaton actually arrives.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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