There is much about the UK’s fraught membership of the European Union (EU) and its antecedents that repeats itself. When UK governments were first looking to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s they confronted the predicament that accession would require a significant shift in the country’s existing trading patterns since the UK traded much more with Commonwealth economies than EEC members.
Now that the UK government is committed to Brexit it must wrestle with the problem of how much trade is oriented towards the EU and hopes it can reach new trade agreements with Commonwealth countries. In 1962 when the then leader of the Labour party, Hugh Gaitskell, set out a case against the Macmillan government’s EEC negotiations he proclaimed that he was ‘sick and tired of the nonsense and rubbish that is being written and spoken’ by those making technical economic arguments for entry. In 2016 Michael Gove in advocating Brexit declaimed that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
This repetition is observable in the issues of democracy and the constitution now at stake around Brexit. In 1972 the Heath government struggled to secure legitimate consent to the end of the final authority of the UK Parliament without either having held a referendum or fought an election on a manifesto promise to join the EEC.
In 2016 the May government confronts the problem of ending the authority of EU law in the UK on the basis of a referendum and, there having been no general election, without a majority in Parliament clearly willing to support the full implications of exit. In 1974 the Heath government lost an election to a Labour opposition that promised a referendum to fix the constitutional problem caused by an accession procured only by a vote in Parliament. In 2016 the May government has lost the case in the High Court opposing its intention to invoke Article 50 without an Act of Parliament.
In good part these temporal reoccurrences stem from the fact that the UK’s membership of an organisation that fused supra-national politics and a customs union sat awkwardly with both the UK’s political economy and its constitutional and democratic traditions. British governments have struggled to deal with the constitutional ramifications that EU membership has thrown up because the UK has a constitution based on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and a political history that, even centuries before the onset of democracy, yielded a quite strongly shared assumption that the ruled have the right to put limits on the exercise of power by those who rule.
This notion has meant that UK politics has at times of significant citizen discontent often absorbed profound change in very short periods of time. Paradoxically this has often been the result of high politics manoeuvring within governments, whose members, particularly in the Conservative party, understood how to seize power in crises. Against all constitutional tradition the UK did incorporate foreign-made law into its legal order without precipitating a political crisis. By the same measure, it has now absorbed the outcome of a referendum in which the majority of voters rejected the advice of the parties to whom the vast majority of members of Parliament belong into the existing parliamentary order with remarkable ease.
Nonetheless, for all the parallels, the present political situation is more fraught and potentially dangerous than the constitutional and democratic predicaments of the 1970s. The differences of opinion in the House of Commons of the 1970s represented more closely the divisions among the electorate than does the balance of parliamentary views this time around. In the 1970s pro- and anti-EEC opinions were quite well represented in both main parties.
Conversely since the 2016 referendum the Conservatives have effectively become the party of Leave voters and Labour is left stranded, unable to represent either Remain or Leave voters in any clear and resonant manner since it would be a kamikaze mission for Labour MPs to join any Conservative rebels and vote Article 50 down if a parliamentary vote is indeed now held, it Even though the two main political parties garnered a reduced share of the vote in the two 1974 elections, they still represented between them a fairly broad coalition of economic interests and were largely trusted by voters to articulate those interests reasonably effectively.
This state of affairs has disappeared. Laid bare as they were by the referendum, Labour’s travails with its former working class base is a touchstone of the present disconnect between the constitutional premise of parliamentary sovereignty and any notion of representative democracy that goes beyond the Burkean notion that all that representatives owe the represented is their judgement.
Meanwhile the territorial politics of the UK was simply less complex and contested in the early 1970s than it is now. Allowing a referendum into an otherwise parliamentary constitutional settlement presumes that there is a politically singular people who will accept defeat as well as victory. This is conspicuously no longer the case in the UK. The political fragmentation of the UK over the past few decades is an inescapable part of what is at stake on EU membership and would have surfaced just as clearly in relation to England’s position in the union if the result of the referendum had been 52-48 in favour of remain.
As EU membership was always hard to reconcile with the constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty without putting that membership to the test of exit, so Brexit will have to confront the difficulty of sustaining an already tested territorial union in which on membership of the EU the Westminster parliament remains sovereign.
Helen Thompson is Professor in Political Economy at the Department of Politics and International Studies of the University of Cambridge.