Euroscepticism: a brief history

This piece first appeared at The Staggers on 9 March 2016.

As homework for Mr Cameron’s Brexit referendum, I’ve been reading about the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU (and its predecessors the EC, EEC and ECSC – don’t you love it when acronyms just make everything so much clearer!).[1]

One thing I’ve been struck by is how foreign many of the early arguments against Britain joining “Europe” sound today. Here are four of my favourites.

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No, not those four.

  1. A papist conspiracy to re-create the Holy Roman Empire

Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the post-war Attlee government was no Eurosceptic. ‘Britain cannot stand outside Europe and regard her problems as quite separate from those of her European neighbours,’ was his view on the matter.

And here he is again sounding shockingly liberal, forty years before anyone apart from its residents had ever heard of a little town in Luxembourg called Schengen:

‘Someone once asked me when I became Foreign Secretary what my policy really was. I said I have only one: it is to go down to Victoria Station here, take a ticket and go where the hell I like without anybody pulling me up with a passport.’

But in one respect at least, Bevin was a product of the more prejudiced times he lived in. He was deeply suspicious of Catholics. Here’s how one of his civil servants, Gladwyn Jebb, described a train journey with the Foreign Secretary and his wife:

‘The train was rather full and people often went by in the corridor, including from time to time a Catholic priest in a soutane [cassock]. Whenever this happened Mr and Mrs Bevin became uneasy and Mr Bevin muttered “black crows”. I understood that he believed that Catholic priests brought bad luck, and nothing that I could say had any effect.’

This was not mere superstition. Even in the instinctively pro-European Bevin camp, this anti-Catholicism coloured the way the first attempt at European integration – the so-called Schuman Plan of 1950 (named after the French Foreign Minister who came up with the idea) for a coal and steel community – was seen.

Bevin’s deputy at the Foreign Office, Kenneth Younger, wrote in his diary that Schuman was ‘a bachelor and a very devout Catholic who is said to be very much under the influence of the priests… [The Schuman Plan] may be just a step in the consolidation of the Catholic “black international”, which I have always thought to be a big driving force behind the Council of Europe.’

  1. A threat to socialism in one country

Difficult as it may be to believe, Labour was once the party of Euroscepticism, while the Tories were all reliable Europhiles. As far back as 1930, Winston Churchill was waxing lyrical about a ‘United States of Europe.’ Harold Macmillan was the first Prime Minister to try to take Britain into the European Economic Community, only to be rebuffed by the French. Ted Heath was the one who finally got the job done and led Britain into the EEC in 1973. Even Margaret Thatcher, in her early days as PM, was relatively keen on the Common Market.

Right up to the 1980s, the main opposition to ‘Europe’ was from those seeking to defend the economic interests of the British working class. This partly reflects the fact that the EEC that Britain joined in the 1970s was principally a free trade zone. (Debate still rages about to what extent the political and social aspects of European integration were already nascent at this stage.) Nonetheless, the rhetoric and role reversal between the two main parties is striking.

When Britain’s terms of entry to the EEC were up for debate in the House of Commons in 1971, it was Denis Healey who made the case against. As Hugo Young put it, he defined EEC entry ‘as being all about teaching the unions a lesson in a competitive jungle of Euro-capitalism that no decent Labour politician could stomach.’

During the referendum campaign in 1975, the New Left historian and revered chronicler of the British working classes EP Thompson, penned a particularly vicious column in The Sunday Times satirising the cosy Euro-capitalist consensus:

‘The Eurostomach is the logical extension of the existing eating habits of Oxford and north London. Particular arrangements convenient to West European capitalism blur into a haze of remembered vacations, beaches, bougainvillaea, business jaunts and vintage wines.’

  1. Not immigrants but emigrants

The most prominent voice of the Eurosceptic Labour Left during the 1975 referendum campaign was the father of the man who today, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, is concerned about David Cameron jeopardising Britain’s future inside the EU.

Tony Benn was the first person in the Labour Party to push for a national referendum on EEC membership in the 1970s. When the referendum happened, he campaigned vociferously for an out vote. Benn considered himself the champion of the working classes and so, naturally, he worried about how ‘Europe’ would impact British workers. But it wasn’t an influx of cheap labour undercutting wages that worried him. Rather, the exact opposite:

‘Mass unemployment and increasing emigration of our workers and their families to the Continent in search of jobs will be the painful consequence for this country of our continued membership of the European Economic Community.’[2]

  1. All to do with the price of New Zealand butter

Back when Ernest Bevin was making pro-European noises as Foreign Secretary in the late 1940s, the strongest opposition to any suggestion that Britain should be part of the European project then just beginning to be discussed came not from the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, but from the unelected mandarins of the Foreign Office. Why were they so anti-Europe? The primary reason was because they saw any step towards European integration as a betrayal of the Commonwealth.

Sir Roger Makins, the FO’s assistant under-secretary, warned in a 1947 memo that British membership of a European customs union would lead to ‘the disintegration of the sterling area and spell the end of Britain as a world power.’ This institutional Commonwealth bias was perhaps to be expected two years after the end of war in Europe, but the preoccupation didn’t go away.

As Macmillan’s government made the first bid for Britain to join the EEC at the start of the 1960s, the Beaverbrook press whipped up a bout of oppositional “Empire loyalism”. Viscount Hinchingbrooke (later to become the Earl of Sandwich and, later still, a paedophile) spoke for many of the old guard when he complained:

‘We have since the war devised every sort and kind of scheme for economic co-operation in Europe, but we have practically nothing comparable in the Commonwealth.’

It wasn’t just aristocratic Tories who felt this way. Here’s the future Labour PM Harold Wilson talking about Britain’s responsibility to put the Commonwealth first in the 1961 Commons debate:

‘We are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Düsseldorf.’

A decade later, as Britain was making its third and final attempt to join the EEC, the Commonwealth question still hadn’t gone away. When Con O’Neill, the civil servant who led the British delegation that negotiated the terms of entry, reflected on how he and his team had done, he felt the one blemish was that ‘we ourselves had to pay so much on New Zealand’s behalf.’

The problem was that Britain had historically operated a system of Commonwealth free trade coupled with tariffs for the rest of the world. This had made the mother country an important export market for, among other things, New Zealand butter. But now, EEC entry meant removing many of the tariffs that had ensured French butter was more expensive in Britain than the stuff from New Zealand.

Pro-Commonwealth sentiment was still strong enough in Britain in the early 1970s that the demands of the New Zealanders couldn’t be ignored. As O’Neill put it, ‘the New Zealanders had us over a political barrel. They did indeed, to some extent, hold a veto over our entry into the Community.’

In order to acquire terms that would placate the Kiwis, Britain had to make concessions on the British contribution to the EEC budget. Concessions which, according to O’Neill, cost the Exchequer £100 million over the course of five years (close to £800 million in today’s money).

***

‘When the facts change,’ John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said, ‘I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

The arguments made against ‘Europe’ over the last 70 years have changed a lot. Is this a result of a laudable flexibility of mind in the face of new facts? Or is it an example of the zealous demagogue’s ability to use whatever argument comes to hand first to justify their unshakeable faith in their own conclusions?

Probably a bit of both.


 

[1] For those who are interested, Hugo Young’s 1998 book, This Blessed Plot, is an excellent survey. Unless indicated otherwise, the quotations in this blog can all be found in Young’s book.

[2] Quoted in my grandfather Philip Goodhart’s contemporary account of the 1975 referendum campaign, Full-Hearted Consent, p. 159.

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