‘I believe the Union is over-democratised.’ Herman van Rumpuy EU President from 2009 to 2014 (quoted by Perry Anderson in ‘The European Coup’ London Review of Books, 17 December 2020)
I was fourteen at the time when on 3 February 1960, Prime Minister and old Etonian Harold Macmillan made his wind of change speech to South Africa’s parliament during his African tour. That day he said: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact’. To many the speech is remembered as firing the starting gun to speed up the decolonisation of the British Empire in Africa, a rush for the exit you might say, whilst seeking to minimise Soviet influences on these emerging nations. But it was also an attack on South Africa’s system of apartheid which was only swept away some thirty years later. I did not realise at the time that this was the precursor to a long courtship with the then European Economic Community (EEC) which as we all know ended in an acrimonious divorce.
Macmillan became prime minister in 1957 taking over from Anthony Eden who had led Britain along with France and Israel into a disastrous attack on Egypt the year before, when its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal. US President Dwight Eisenhower was furious; he had not been consulted and as a rival to Britain and to a lesser extent France in the Middle East over many years, put the boot in by threatening all three nations with economic sanctions if they persisted in their attack. (See Lords of the Desert by James Barr for an excellent account of Britain’s struggle with the US to dominate the Middle East). In the aftermath Britain and France found their influence as world powers weakened as the United States and Soviet Union increased their influence in world affairs.
Licking wounds Macmillan turned his attention to the dismal state of the UK capitalist economy which was in urgent need of modernisation. It was performing poorly against its six neighbouring countries in the EEC so he considered the possibility of joining them in an attempt to improve the situation. This was to be his “Grand Design”. Although the Kennedy administration supported an application by the UK from which they felt they could benefit in the restored post Suez relationship between the two nations, (and provide them with a bridgehead into the EEC) this was well spotted by France’s President de Gaulle who in many respects was still trying to settle ‘old scores’ from the 1939-1945 conflict.
But what to do about the old British Empire, now being reinvented as The Commonwealth, that the UK had been exploiting economically for centuries? In 1947 the post war Labour Government oversaw Indian Independence with the partitioning of India and Pakistan. In 1956 Sudan gained independence, closely followed the next year by Ghana (until then the Gold Coast). One by one British colonies throughout the African mainland declared independence over the next decade. Macmillan’s wind of change speech was meant to give notice of closing one door and opening another (to Europe), from which the UK economy would benefit.
Flushed in afterglow of victory over fascism in 1945, post war UK governments of both parties took little interest in the lead up to the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which created the EEC, but UK capitalism was performing so badly that Macmillan decided to act. In 1962 his Conservative government applied for membership, a move opposed by the opposition Labour Party under the leadership of centre-right Hugh Gaitskell (who died the following year). Gaitskell in his speech to the Labour Party Conference in the summer of 1962 summed his opposition up as follows: “We must be clear about this: it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth. How can one really seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe (which is what federation means) it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations? It is sheer nonsense.”
I was now two years older and undertaking a paper round in my home town of Sutton and Cheam in Surrey and had numerous opportunities to read the coverage of these matters in the ‘upmarket press’ I delivered to households in middle class Cheam where many of the houses had longish drives! Meanwhile early in 1963 Macmillan’s application was vetoed by President de Gaulle. Not only did the UK want the perceived economic benefits of EEC membership it wanted its existing trading relationships with the Commonwealth to continue as before!
The UK economy continued to decline and despite its earlier opposition as expressed by Gaitskell when in opposition, Wilson’s Labour Government tried to join in 1967. For a second time President de Gaulle said ‘Non’, and would veto Britain’s application. He further warned France’s five EEC partners that if they tried to impose British membership on France it would result in the break-up of the community.
It was to be another decade (when de Gaulle had gone) before Edward Heath’s Conservative government, elected against the odds in 1970, made another application for membership. It succeeded and was approved by the House of Commons and on 1 January 1973 the UK joined to a fanfare of press approval, the Daily Mail proclaiming; “For 10 years the Mail has campaigned for this day … Britain’s best and brightest future is with Europe.” Denmark and the Republic of Ireland joined at the same time.
However the seeds for future discontent were already being sown. Although when in opposition Heath had pledged that he would not take the UK into the EEC without the ‘full hearted consent’ of Parliament and the people of Britain. He got the first but dodged the second, although given the balance of public opinion at the time, including the support of the vast majority of the UK press, a referendum on membership would have been a walk over!
The other crucial issue they dodged was the fact that the terms of entry included accepting the supremacy of European law over British law. This important condition hardly saw the light of day, until much later. Heath’s television broadcast on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, January 1973 made passing reference: “There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.”
No doubt Heath was aware of what had been written in the 1971 White Paper on entry which declared: “There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest.”
The emphasis was firmly placed on the trading advantages membership would bring. Most of the public believed that the UK was just joining a free trade area. As Perry Anderson a leading Left-wing intellectual writing in the London Review of Books (The Breakaway 21 January 2021) puts it: “…the government systematically avoided the fact that its terms of entry instituted the supremacy of European law over British law – that meant, in short a derogation of national sovereignty. Not a single minister candidly admitted what the documents they were urging into law meant constitutionally. For Heath, Europe would be a substitute for empire, and that was sufficient; likewise his colleagues…” In other words it was a price worth paying! The people were not lied to, just not told the full story and even if they had been many would have accepted it for the perceived economic gains, especially in the absence of a full public debate on its implications.
When the Labour government was elected in 1974 Prime Minister Harold Wilson aware of the divisions in his party over Europe decided that Heath’s terms of entry into the EEC should be renegotiated and put to the people in a referendum, which Heath had refused when he was prime minister despite his pledge made in opposition. To the late Tony Benn (Industry Secretary at the time) who now opposed membership, this was a straightforward matter. Writing in his Diary Against the Tide (Chapter 3 Referendum) he said that: ‘…The central point argued by me and others opposed to the Common Market was that the British electors would lose their right to enact through parliament the laws they wished, and to uphold this legislation against Community law…’
When it came to the vote in June 1975, 17 million voted to remain with 8.5 million to leave on a 64 per cent turn out. The role of the national press was important. Writing in the Guardian on 4 February 2016 (Did national papers’ pro-European bias in 1975 affect the referendum?) columnist Roy Greenslade declared: ‘They were under no illusion which answer was favoured by their newspapers. Yes, yes, yes said the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, the Sun, the Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Daily Record. Their combined daily circulation at the time was just shy of 15m (giving them a readership of some 45m). By contrast, the no camp was represented by the Communist Party’s Morning Star, the short-lived workers’ co-operative title, the Scottish Daily News, and the Dundee Courier. Together, they sold fewer than 150,000. What a turnaround from the coverage in the lead up to the 2016 referendum of which more later.
I was one of the 8.5 million who voted to leave. I was concerned that in joining the EEC we had turned our backs on our sisters and brothers in the Commonwealth which the UK had exploited as part of the Empire for generations. Of course the favourable trading arrangements the UK had with them was in the nation’s (i.e. business) interests as well as providing markets for Commonwealth country’s products. I was also strongly influence by Tony Benn’s argument referred to earlier. By voting to remain, the UK was reaffirming handing over parliamentary powers to European institutions which were unelected and not accountable to the electorate. I was also a member of the International Socialists at the time and looked at just who was in favour and against. Favouring continued membership was virtually the whole of big business, the Tory party, the right and centre of the Labour Party, the trade union right wing and the ‘establishment’ network. Against were the left in the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and the trade union lefts. Of course there were a number of Tory and other right wing voices in favour of leaving including the racist Enoch Powell (now an Ulster Unionist) and the National Front and other extreme right wing groups who I wanted nothing to do with and actively opposed. Remaining in the EEC I believed would strengthen the right and weaken the left. Shortly after the referendum result Tony Benn was sacked by Wilson from his post as Industry Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle and moved to a lesser post heading up the Energy Department, much to the delight of the City and the right wing.
All seemed to be going well for the UK’s EEC membership and in the 1980’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even negotiated a two thirds reduction of the nation’s contribution to the Community budget. She and her government backed the 1987 Single European Act the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty of Rome which set a deadline for the creation of a full single market by 1992 and created deeper integration by making it easier to pass laws, strengthening the EU Parliament (it was now officially to be called a parliament rather than an assembly) and laying the basis for a European foreign policy.
Of course Thatcher’s plans to improve the performance of the economy (i.e. make it more profitable) included the most vicious attacks on trade union organisation in living memory. As she said in a speech to her backbenchers in July1984: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty,”
Downing Street papers from 1983 show she told the then head of her policy unit, Ferdinand Mount that she agreed that Norman Tebbit’s gradualist approach to trade union reform was too timid and that they should “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership”. As Nick Jones a former industrial correspondent wrote: “Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon was emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walkouts were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all, a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-85 pit dispute.” (See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22076774)
However on the European front problems were piling up. In 1985 Britain’s chancellor Nigel Lawson wanted to join the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism which prevented the pound and other member currencies from deviating by more than 6%. Thatcher rejected the idea, but it was ‘shadowed’ instead. After a third election Tory victory in 1987 the economy was quickly in trouble with rising inflation (nearly 10% in 1990) and interest rates (around 15% the same year) partly under the pressure of house price rises.
In October 1990, Margaret Thatcher changed her mind, as pressure to join came from members of the cabinet, including John Major her new Chancellor and foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. It was part of the aim, to use Major’s words, to; “place Britain at the heart of Europe….” (without adopting the Euro of course) and help give the UK economic stability.
Reeling from the government’s massive attacks on jobs, trade union organisation, pay and conditions and public services and the defeats of the miners and Fleet Street workers following the Wapping lock out by Murdoch in 1986/87, the TUC welcomed the speech by Jacques Delors President of the European commission to Congress the following year in which he placed a new social dimension at the heart of Europe. To the trade union leadership this was a way of protecting the unions’ workplace gains made over the years and even build on them via Social Europe especially in areas like health and safety. To Thatcher it was just about “socialism by the back door” and stood in the way of her government’s continued neoliberal offensive. And it would not have escaped her notice that the gap between rich and the poor was at its narrowest in the 1970s, a period when trade unionism was its strongest – so no going back there the Tories proclaimed!
Thatcher resigned in November 1990 after a challenge was launched to her leadership, because (amongst other reasons) of her now openly hostile attitude to Europe. But her departure did not mean that the Tory party was more pro Europe, quite the opposite. Hostility grew towards moves to adopt the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundations of the present European Union, and marked a new stage in the process of European integration. It established a political union, strengthened economic integration with the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). It also aimed to bring about the stabilisation of political tensions within Europe at the end of the Cold War, and integrate a unified Germany into the Union.
Although Thatcher’s successor John Major won the earlier 1992 general election, hostility to Europe from within his party was increasing and the following year the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was founded, but its growth was slow at first. By the time he left office in 1997 he had been worn down by constant ‘in fighting’ over Europe with his own back benchers as well as attacks on his government’s economic competence which he experienced for most of his period of office.
Having been elected an MP in 1983 on an anti EU manifesto Tony Blair Labour’s new leader was in the opposite camp by the time of ‘New’ Labour’s landslide 1997 victory. The party (and Blair) had performed a remarkable U-turn. Many believe that the most important achievement of the EU during the Blair years was its enlargement in which the UK played a leading part. It also brought about a subsequent rapid rise in immigration. Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and the UK population was boosted by more than 2.2 million immigrants, more than twice the population of Birmingham. In Labour’s last term in government, 2005-2010, net migration reached on average 247,000 a year.
Sir Stephen Wall, who was Blair’s most senior EU adviser between 2000-2004, frankly admits an error. “We simply didn’t take account properly of the pull factor of England for people with skills who could probably find a bigger market [in the UK] for their skills – you know the Polish plumber.”
This issue was to become toxic and fuelled opposition to Europe. David Blunkett, Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004 blamed the global meltdown from the end of 2007 for making the issue of immigration so toxic for Labour. “Back in 2004 and all the way through to 2008 the economy was able to absorb young, able skilled workers who wanted to work and wanted to stay in the country for a short period of time while they made enough money to invest back home,” he says. Once the recession set in he said that was no longer the case.
“The big mistake we made was not to put more money into integration and into preparation for people being dispersed either under the asylum programme…” (reported in How immigration came to haunt Labour: the inside story by Nicholas Watt and Patrick Wintour The Guardian 24 March 2015).
But it was not just European immigration that was fuelling the debate. Blair’s disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in more refugees fleeing the conflicts and seeking asylum in the UK by any means possible added to which civil war in a number of African countries increased the flow of people seeking a more secure future.
Meanwhile the Tories were growing more anti-Europe, expressed as opposition to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (subsequently updated by the controversial Lisbon Treaty in 2007) as shown in the election of three successive Eurosceptic leaders, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. The fourth, David Cameron, however, did not share their hostility, but recognised the increasing dangers to his party from the right wing Brexiters both within and without, more especially from Nigel Farage who took up the leadership of UKIP in 2010 the same year that Brown lost the general election. At the Euro elections the previous year the UKIP party had won the second-highest share of the UK popular votes ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The result of the 2010 election resulted in Cameron going into coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Any referendum on UK membership of the EU that many Tories wanted was put on the back burner. The official policy was that there would be no in/out referendum. But the Eurosceptic MPs, organised in the European Research Group, stepped up the pressure and coupled with UKIP breathing down his neck and an increasingly anti-European press increasing the volume, Cameron announced in 2013 that a referendum would be included in the Tory Party manifesto at the next general election. To him it was a party management issue and anyway he did not expect to win the 2015 election thinking that the coalition would continue and talk of the referendum would go away, at least for a while!
However, he did win and had to deliver on his referendum promise. Although no fan of the European institutions I thought it just wasn’t the real issue facing us. After 5 years of the Coalition’s disastrous austerity implemented by chancellor George (‘tougher than Thatcher’) Osborne, the real issue was the cuts, and the shrinking of the UK state, which had nothing to do with the EU!
The case for the vote is put by Craig Oliver, then Cameron’s head of communications in the introduction to his book Unleashing Demons, The Inside Story of Brexit. He writes: “those who say he could have avoided are, I believe, denying what was political reality. The issue of whether we should remain in or leave the EU had been a slow train coming for years. It just happened to arrive in the station on David Cameron’s watch. A range of factors made it impossible for a Conservative prime minister to avoid. Scores of Tory MPs were rebelling on any and every issue that could be linked to Europe; the right wing press were full-throated in their demands; UKIP had become a significant force in British politics (eventually winning the 2014 European Election); and over half the population indicated they wanted a say- with anyone under 60 never having been able to vote on the issue…”
Without it Cameron thought the country would become ungovernable. At the 2015 general election he won with an overall majority of 11 seats. UKIP won 12.4% of the vote, compared to 3.1% in 2010. It may have been party management for him but to me Cameron was in a hole and kept digging, eventually throwing the nation into a much deeper one!
Unlike in the 1975 vote, most of the press were hostile to Europe and backed leave. A report published in September 2016 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examined how the UK press covered the EU Referendum story, and looked at what the key arguments, spokespeople, tone of articles, and areas of focus were during the referendum. The report was based on analysis of two days of press coverage each week for London editions of nine national newspapers over 4 months of the campaign. Of the 2,378 articles analysed which were focused on the referendum, 41% were pro leave as against 27% pro-remain. Press coverage focused heavily on politicians and campaign spokespeople with relatively few analysts/experts, academics, and foreign politicians cited, and with more attention on personalities and the contest, than the issues.
On its publication, Dr David Levy, Director of the Reuters Institute and one of the report’s authors said: “The research reveals a picture of highly polarised press coverage, reliant on a narrow range of voices, and where coverage was relatively more focused on the contest itself and personalities than any of the complex issues at stake. In that sense, in spite of some notable exceptions, the press was generally better at reinforcing the views of decided voters than in giving undecided voters, seeking broad facts and high-quality information, the evidence to make up their own minds.”
Having accepted that the vote was going ahead I did consider abstaining, given that I believed Europe was not responsible for austerity, the running down of public services and the increasing poverty and inequality in our society. These were home grown policies.
On the other hand having been asked, in circumstances not of my choosing, my concerns about continued membership were based on a democratic deficit, the unelected and unaccountability (electorally) of the Europe’s governing institutions, the European Council (made up from the heads of national governments), the European Commission (the executive of the Union made up of one member from each member state and subject to the approval of the parliament), and the Council of the European Union (the Council of Ministers). There was the elected European Parliament, but it ultimately has no law-making powers of its own with the unelected Commission being the only institution empowered to initiate legislation and having a near monopoly on legislative initiatives although it can take the initiative by requesting that the Commission submit a legislative proposal.
Two other unelected and powerful bodies are the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice which also give concern.
The Central Bank operates for the 19 EU countries which use the Euro. Its main task is to maintain price stability, the outcome of which was a disaster for Greece in its stand-off with the bank in 2015. Much of this was played out in the press and other media which must have annoyed some of the European bureaucrats involved. The Central Bank is unique for being completely unaccountable to any outside authority, let alone any democratic institution, and so it is able to break the treaties which in theory empower it, a view supported by Perry Anderson (and see below). At least the Bank of England publishes minutes of the meetings of its powerful Monetary Policy Committee which decides what monetary policy action to take including rates of interest.
The Court has always been: ‘the driving force of integration at the expense of the legal rights of nations and civil-society bodies such as trade unions’ writes Perry Anderson in Ever Closer Union in the London Review of Books (7 January 2021). In the same article he goes on to accuse the Court of brazenly ignoring or distorting European treaties and laws, by acting beyond its powers. He continues: ‘Most significant of all, the Court is unique in the world in being entirely unaccountable to anyone. Its decisions are secretive, final and effectively irreversible. In short, powers ‘that no analogue in a democracy has ever possessed.’
OK you might say, but you can hardly called the UK a beacon of democracy with its monarch, an unelected House of Lords and a Commons elected by a ‘first past the post’ unrepresentative voting system. But at least the largest party elected in the Commons can form a government (sometimes with support from other parties) and that government is accountable to Parliament. The EU parliament has no such function, there is no governing party and no opposition just political ‘blocks’ or groupings. For all its shortcomings, the UK system is more democratic than Brussels/Strasbourg. The EU institutions just don’t stand up to democratic scrutiny and accountability.
Of course being in the EU brought us trading, ‘just in time deliveries of goods’ free movement and travel advantages, as well as close cooperation with a range of European institutions. However, the judgement one had to make in 2016 was one of balance against the democratic deficits I have already referred to. So, without illusions, I voted to leave.
Of course if Labour had won the 2017 election on a radical socialist and anti-austerity programme which would have been ruled illegal under EU law, post the referendum they would have been able act free from its challenges (although not those from business interests and the right wing press who would have done their best to obstruct the programme). The UK is also no longer subject to EU procurement and competition rules, which are there to protect the EU’s internal market. This freedom gives government the right to decide how public services are provided. However, that was not to be…for the time being!
I fully realised that being outside the EU would not be easy. The Leave camp had no real vision of what a post Brexit society would look like, just a series of slogans around the theme of ‘taking back control’ which now sounds very hollow to what’s left of the UK fishing industry to mention just one sector.
But neither did the remainers offer much of a vision as to why we should vote to stay in since they generally dodged the issues the lack of democratic accountability of the European institutions. The line from Hillaire Belloc’s poem ‘Jim’ (who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion) to “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse” comes to mind.
Maybe it’s on this premise that the European Union will stagger on. However, the last few years has seen the growth of far right political parties in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland. Early on European far-right and anti-immigration parties campaigned against the EU, now they are appealing to a pan-European identity to further their goal of a racially pure, white Christian continent. Just how the European establishment deals with this remains to be seen.
As for the UK, having left without a plan, the vision thing by the Brexiters is still ‘work in progress’ it seems! And if we want to protect and improve our public services, environmental, labour and other standards, we will (as always whether in or out of the EU) have to fight for them to prevent what could well now become a ‘race to the bottom’. If the winds of change were blowing through Africa in the 1960s, they are certainly blowing through the UK as a result of the 2016 referendum and the subsequent election of the Johnson government.