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Early advocate of a federal Europe
I suppose many of us cannot cross Folly Bridge without a nod and a smile towards the sign proclaiming the Salters company, the venerable boat builder and hirer, and operator of river cruises, from whom Christ Church don Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) hired a craft one hot July day 150 years ago, to start a famous trip to Godstow with Alice Liddell.
Brothers John and Stephen, who came from Wandsworth, took over the boatyard from Isaac King in 1858, calling the firm J. and S. Salter, and the enterprise quickly prospered. But it was one of John’s grandsons, who might well have held the boat steady for Alice to embark and perhaps handed the oars to Dodgson, who was destined to become one of Oxford’s greatest 20th-century luminaries. He was James Arthur Salter (1881-1975), later Sir Arthur, and later still Baron Salter of Kidlington.
He was the son of James Edward Salter (Mayor of Oxford from 1909-1910). He went up to Brasenose College in 1900 and from there to the Admiralty where, at the outbreak of the First World War, he was put in charge of ship requisitioning (a foreshadow of the Second World War, during which Salters steamers would play their part in evacuating troops from Dunkirk).
But it was his inter-war work that strikes a chord today, since the problems he tackled seem so familiar to our own age: he wrote a book called United States of Europe; he was a leading light — with Oxford scholar Gilbert Murray — in the formation of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations; and his Salter Report of 1933 examined how Britain’s railways and roads should be funded.
During that brief spell of idealism in the 1920s, when men and women of goodwill were working out ways to try to ensure that the 1914-18 war had really been the war to end wars — and before Hitler put paid to such ideas — he went to work for the League in Geneva. He had already met Jean Monnet, widely credited as the architect of the European Union in the 1950s as early as 1917. After a spell in London he returned to Oxford, becoming a fellow of All Souls in 1934 and MP for Oxford University (1937-50).
His collection of papers published in 1931 and called United States of Europe proposed building a federal Europe within the framework of the League of Nations.
He even foresaw difficulties of members of any governing European council becoming mere mouthpieces for their own national governments.
He wrote: “The problem with giving too much power to a Council was that [members] would always remain motivated primarily by national interest.” To counter this he advocated the the establishment of a “permanent body of international civil servants, loyal to the new organisation, not to the member countries”.
After the Second World War, Salter, then in his seventies, was again working at promoting co-operation between quarrelsome nations, not least Iraq. He was invited by Prime Minister Nuri al-Said to advise on economic development there, an invitation he accepted, despite his presence being unpopular with Iraqis.
By working with the Iraqi Government of the 1950s he was perhaps taking the long view, looking back to the 1920s when the British Mandate of Mesopotamia was established there under the auspices of the League of Nations. Talk about Oxford being, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “the home of lost causes”. Perhaps it should be called the home of ongoing causes. And as for Mesopotamia, from the Greek meaning “between rivers” (Tigris and Euphrates), Oxford has its own version (Thames and Cherwell) where a bench is inscribed: Ore stabit fortis arare placet ore stat — which means: O rest a bit for tis a rare place to rest at. Alice would have liked that joke.