On 27 November 1967, President de Gaulle was, so the British Ambassador in Paris reported to London, on good, but from a British perspective, outrageous form. At a Press Conference that afternoon, de Gaulle, with irony and sarcasm directed at the United Kingdom, and disdain for his five partners, delivered his second veto in less than five years on Britain’s aspirations to join the European Community. British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had been expecting the blow. The following day, he told the House of Commons: “We have slammed down our application on the table. There it is and there it remains.”
And yet, within another five years, while de Gaulle had gone and Britain had joined the Community, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party were bent on renegotiating the terms of Britain’s accession and putting the result to a referendum of the British people.
It was mostly about party politics. When the European Community was formed in 1957, the British chose not to play. We had a uniquely close relationship with the United States, though not so close as to prevent the Americans from pulling the plug on Britain’s disastrous invasion of the Suez Canal zone in Egypt the previous year.
We did not think the countries of continental Europe could get on together. We did more of our trade with the United States and the old Commonwealth than with our neighbours. We were prepared to lay down our lives for our fellow Europeans under the rules of the fairly new NATO. We were not prepared to sacrifice Parliamentary sovereignty for the sake of a customs union in which certain powers would be held by supra-national institutions.
Yet the new European Community thrived, its members’ economies starting to outstrip that of the United Kingdom. But when the Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan applied to join, France’s President de Gaulle said ‘no’.
The Labour Party were against EEC membership when in Opposition, but in favour after they came to power in 1964. After de Gaulle fell from power in 1969, the Labour Government again pressed the case for joining and were on the eve of negotiating entry when they lost the 1970 General Election.
In opposition, Labour once again turned against the idea of EEC membership. The Party was deeply split on the issue and, to plaster over the huge crack, the Labour leadership promised, if re-elected, to renegotiate the terms of entry secured by Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath.
Those terms were precisely the same ones Labour would themselves have secured had they remained in Government but Labour said they would improve on them and put the result of their renegotiation to the British people, who would take the final decision on whether Britain should stay in the EEC, or leave.
When Labour were returned to power in 1974 they made good on their promise. The renegotiation changed very little but it was enough to enable Prime Minister Harold Wilson to secure the support of a majority of his Cabinet, though not of the Labour Party as a whole, which voted against the terms negotiated by their own Government.
Two-thirds of the British people voted in the referendum of June 1975 and, by a two thirds majority, voted to remain in the European Community. But the issue did not end there. Both major political parties remained divided. In the 1983 General Election, the Labour Party campaigned on a promise to take Britain out of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was meanwhile fighting her own battles with her European partners and was becoming increasingly hostile to the European project. It was partly splits over Europe that led to her downfall in 1990. Soon thereafter, hostility to Europe became a token of fidelity to the fallen leader. Among sceptics who sat at her disgruntled feet as she plotted in the House of Lords against her successor, John Major, was a young politician called David Cameron.
Those divisions in the Conservative Party have, if anything, grown deeper and wider. So for David Cameron, as for Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson 40 years ago, a referendum on whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union, has become the only way to hold the Party together and, with luck, to marginalise those Party members who will never accept membership by appealing over their heads to the electorate. Almost every time Mr Cameron speaks on the subject, he stresses that it is the people, not the politicians, who will decide the outcome.
Unlike Wilson, who was careful to say that he would only decide his own attitude to continued membership in the light of the renegotiation, David Cameron has come close to saying that membership is a vital national interest come what may. He cannot therefore afford to come back from the negotiations with his partners and confess to failure.
Wilson sold a minimal negotiating result to the electorate because then the EEC was an economic success story, whereas the British economy was fragile. We wanted to share in success. We all felt vulnerable faced with the Soviet nuclear threat, so there was safety in numbers. The British Press was almost universally on the side of staying in. The European project was young and exciting.
Today, not so much. Moreover, referendums have become more commonplace. The history of referendums on EU issues in other Member States shows that the electorate have often used them to kick their Government. The political elites whose advice the British electorate followed in 1975 are not now regarded as role models. The near collapse of the capitalist banking system in 2008 has shaken our foundations.
We may cling to nurse for fear of something worse. The British electorate did just that in the General Election in May. Yet only four months later, large numbers of newly, and highly, motivated people struck out for the further shore in the recent election for the Labour leadership. The past is a foreign country. The present does not look any too familiar either.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.