Europe: We are reliving the confusion and instability of the 1970s

IF you think the seemingly endless arguments about the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union are confusing now, little solace can be taken from when the issues last took centre stage in the 1970s.

 

For a look back at the circumstances both before and immediately after the UK became a member of the then European Economic Community, or Common Market, in 1973 provide some interesting, maybe disturbing, parallels with today.

 

Interestingly, the UK signed the Treaty of Rome at the THIRD time of asking.

 

Our first two applications were both rejected.

 

The EEC consisted then of just six countries and five – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany – said they would support negotiations towards British membership.

 

But, on each occasion, the French President Charles de Gaulle unilaterally vetoed the UK’s application, claiming ‘the present Common Market is incompatible with the economy, as it now stands, of Britain.”

 

He further claimed that Britain would seek a ‘radical transformation’ before joining the EEC.

 

Nevertheless the new Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath made it his life mission to ensure the UK took the plunge.

 

 

He won power in 1970 on a manifesto that his party would seek acceptable membership negotiations.

 

Yet, even then, pro-European Tories didn’t enjoy clear blue water.

 

At the all-important Commons vote, no fewer than 39 Conservative MPs voted against Heath and the EEC, meaning he had to rely on the support of Roy Jenkins and his ‘social democratic’ wing of the Labour Party to avoid a humiliating defeat.

 

And so in 1973 the UK and Ireland became members of the EEC.  Interestingly, the Irish were given the chance of a public vote – for the UK that was not the case.

 

The fact that the general public was consulted just a couple of years later in 1975 was, like the Brexit referendum of June 2016, not founded from a general desire to be democratic  – but a direct result of political instability and expediency.

 

You may recall David Cameron offered a referendum in the Tory manifesto for the 2015 election when the Conservatives emerged from a coalition with a small majority.

 

This was the only way he could carry the full Conservative Party with him during the campaign.

 

Back in 1974 for David Cameron and the Conservatives, read Harold Wilson and Labour.

 

The party had taken a distinct lurch towards the socialist left after its defeat in 1970 with characters such as Tony Benn  – in many ways a Jeremy Corbynite – advocating nationalisation and saying ‘no’ to a capitalist European project.

 

In all the Labour Party was split into four distinct groups, ranging from pro Europeans to those desperate to quit as promptly as possible.

 

The leadership virtually mirrored Labour’s stance at last June’s Election in backing Remain but in an unenthusiastic way.

 

Wilson also had to first form and then emerge from a coalition as two General Elections were held in 1974.

 

A Lib-Lab pact mirrored the uneasy current alliance between the Tories and Ulster before Wilson claimed a narrow majority at the second time of asking and therefore was duty bound to offer a referendum.

 

Once again back in 1975, the establishment strongly backed Remain.

 

The key messages conveyed to the public were that ‘yes’ meant an end to European wars for at least a generation and was the key to unlocking prosperity for the UK.

 

Unsurprisingly, considering the public had barely two years in which to form an opinion, UK membership was endorsed by an overwhelming majority with 67 per cent voting in favour.

 

So what lessons can we learn from history?

 

Well, firstly, I think we need to absolve the electorate from any blame from either result.

 

On both occasions, we were given a vote as a last resort – to save the political bacon of first Wilson, then Cameron.

 

Both votes were largely in the dark.

 

Having been members for just two years, it was almost impossible to cast judgement on the EEC in 1975 – just as no viable information whatsoever was provided about life in post Brexit Britain today.

 

Both in the 1970s and today, the electorate has borne the brunt of a muddled political system.

The deficiencies of Labour in the 1970s that led to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 are again a mirror of the weak leadership we have under a minority government in 2018.

 

With such instability at home, it is no surprise that we can’t find a coherent strategy on Europe.

 

To complete the comparison, it could well be that we will once again be presented with a second General Election within a matter of months and the prospect of what would probably again be a weak Labour administration despite the undoubted good intentions of Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Will that, in turn, lead to a second referendum?

 

And are we being prepared for the emergence of a powerful leader who will provide clarity from the current confusion but increase yet further the divide between rich and poor?

 

Time will tell. But a quick look at history suggests that, far from moving forward, we are actually moving in ever-decreasing circles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IF you think the seemingly endless arguments about the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union are confusing now, little solace can be taken from when the issues last took centre stage in the 1970s.

 

For a look back at the circumstances both before and immediately after the UK became a member of the then European Economic Community, or Common Market, in 1973 provide some interesting, maybe disturbing, parallels with today.

 

Interestingly, the UK signed the Treaty of Rome at the THIRD time of asking.

 

Our first two applications were both rejected.

 

The EEC consisted then of just six countries and five – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany – said they would support negotiations towards British membership.

 

But, on each occasion, the French President Charles de Gaulle unilaterally vetoed the UK’s application, claiming ‘the present Common Market is incompatible with the economy, as it now stands, of Britain.”

 

He further claimed that Britain would seek a ‘radical transformation’ before joining the EEC.

 

Nevertheless the new Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath made it his life mission to ensure the UK took the plunge.

 

 

He won power in 1970 on a manifesto that his party would seek acceptable membership negotiations.

 

Yet, even then, pro-European Tories didn’t enjoy clear blue water.

 

At the all-important Commons vote, no fewer than 39 Conservative MPs voted against Heath and the EEC, meaning he had to rely on the support of Roy Jenkins and his ‘social democratic’ wing of the Labour Party to avoid a humiliating defeat.

 

And so in 1973 the UK and Ireland became members of the EEC.  Interestingly, the Irish were given the chance of a public vote – for the UK that was not the case.

 

The fact that the general public was consulted just a couple of years later in 1975 was, like the Brexit referendum of June 2016, not founded from a general desire to be democratic  – but a direct result of political instability and expediency.

 

You may recall David Cameron offered a referendum in the Tory manifesto for the 2015 election when the Conservatives emerged from a coalition with a small majority.

 

This was the only way he could carry the full Conservative Party with him during the campaign.

 

Back in 1974 for David Cameron and the Conservatives, read Harold Wilson and Labour.

 

The party had taken a distinct lurch towards the socialist left after its defeat in 1970 with characters such as Tony Benn  – in many ways a Jeremy Corbynite – advocating nationalisation and saying ‘no’ to a capitalist European project.

 

In all the Labour Party was split into four distinct groups, ranging from pro Europeans to those desperate to quit as promptly as possible.

 

The leadership virtually mirrored Labour’s stance at last June’s Election in backing Remain but in an unenthusiastic way.

 

Wilson also had to first form and then emerge from a coalition as two General Elections were held in 1974.

 

A Lib-Lab pact mirrored the uneasy current alliance between the Tories and Ulster before Wilson claimed a narrow majority at the second time of asking and therefore was duty bound to offer a referendum.

 

Once again back in 1975, the establishment strongly backed Remain.

 

The key messages conveyed to the public were that ‘yes’ meant an end to European wars for at least a generation and was the key to unlocking prosperity for the UK.

 

Unsurprisingly, considering the public had barely two years in which to form an opinion, UK membership was endorsed by an overwhelming majority with 67 per cent voting in favour.

 

So what lessons can we learn from history?

 

Well, firstly, I think we need to absolve the electorate from any blame from either result.

 

On both occasions, we were given a vote as a last resort – to save the political bacon of first Wilson, then Cameron.

 

Both votes were largely in the dark.

 

Having been members for just two years, it was almost impossible to cast judgement on the EEC in 1975 – just as no viable information whatsoever was provided about life in post Brexit Britain today.

 

Both in the 1970s and today, the electorate has borne the brunt of a muddled political system.

The deficiencies of Labour in the 1970s that led to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 are again a mirror of the weak leadership we have under a minority government in 2018.

 

With such instability at home, it is no surprise that we can’t find a coherent strategy on Europe.

 

To complete the comparison, it could well be that we will once again be presented with a second General Election within a matter of months and the prospect of what would probably again be a weak Labour administration despite the undoubted good intentions of Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Will that, in turn, lead to a second referendum?

 

And are we being prepared for the emergence of a powerful leader who will provide clarity from the current confusion but increase yet further the divide between rich and poor?

 

Time will tell. But a quick look at history suggests that, far from moving forward, we are actually moving in ever-decreasing circles.

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