Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Britain, the EU and referendums: 1975 & 2016 (Part 1)

With Britain in full swing of debate ahead of the  referendum, 2 memories from the earlier debate stick in my mind.

In 1975,  the anti-Europe argument was largely the preserve of Left-Labour: people now in favour of continuing EU membership, were then opposed, from Jeremy Corbyn to shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, then campaigning with his father Tony to leave. Of course, there were some figures n the Right, such as Enoch Powell and Nicholas Ridley, who opposed EEC  membership, but these were largely seen as mavericks. Nonetheless, small though it was, the anti-Europe element in the Tory party forced the Heath government in 1972 to rely on pro-European Labour MPs (some of whom later defected to form the Social Democrats Party) to get the legislation through that paved the way for the UK's accession to the EEC

Now the anti-EU sentiment seems more embedded in the Conservative mainstream: those supporting Leave include cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove, former leader Ian Duncan-Smith & former London mayor Boris Johnson; they have joined the campaign alongside UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.

So, this is the 1st memory, of 2 articles in the Sunday Times, 1 for, 1 against. It was the against argument that made the most impression on me: with free movement of capital, workers would be pissed upon. They certainly were in the years that followed, mainly as a result of the Thatcher reforms. But it would take more than leaving the EU for them to be unpissed upon (*) .

Back then, there were many people who had memories of the Second World War, had even fought in it. For some of them, what was then the European Economic Community (subsequently the  European Community, then the  European Union) represented peace: France and Germany had relatively recently been at war (their 3rd clash in 70 years); now war between these rivals was unthinkable.

Another idea, viewed through the Cold War prism, was that the EEC strengthened the Western bloc. In one discussion in the early 1970's, when the question of "rule from Brussels" was brought up, Peter Ustinov said (this is the 2nd memory), "better that than rule from Moscow".

The counter-argument to this, then as now, was that it was NATO, not the EEC, that guaranteed the security of Western Europe. And, of course, this was somewhat in contradiction to the idea of the EEC as agent of peace.

Now, when David Cameron talks about the 70 years of peace in Europe that have been achieved, he is accused by Boris Johnson of saying that if the UK left, World War 3 would break out, although he himself was prepared to leave (if negotiations had not been concluded satisfactorily). And it is this caricature of his remarks that seems to be remembered.

What has changed since 1975, is that the EU has been a huge engine for democracy. Portugal had just emerged in 1974 from 45 years of right-wing dictatorship; Franco was still in power in Spain; Greece was just emerging from the rule of the colonels. Allan Little, in his series for the BBC WS, rightly emphasises the events of 23 Feb 1981, when for a few hours it seemed that Spain might plunge back into military dictatorship. After that, for the Spanish Left, including (the / former) Communists, membership of the EEC was a foreign policy priority. 

These 3 countries formed the next wave of EEC expansion in 1981 & 1986, following the accession of Britain, Ireland and Denmark in 1973.

* (reference to follow) 

1 Jun 2016 (to be continued)

Published 22 Jun 2016: with campaigning about to close, I am publishing what I have written so far, incomplete as it is and lacking some links and  references.
 
Update 24 Jun 2016: corrected link to Allan Little's series (Europe's Challenges: Expanding the Union, Episode 2 of 3).

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