BBC iplayer, expires 11May2016.
Nick Robinson presents a very potted history of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, including interviews with the then key players (many of whom are now deceased).
Robinson’s story starts from Winston Churchill’s vision for an immediate political union and its swift disappearance from the British elite’s view of the world. The British wasn’t too keen on political union, but ruled out the whole idea when Churchill mused that it would involve a currency union with France. Moreover, other members of the then British elite couldn’t see the point obsessing with Europe: why bother with European borders when our border already go beyond India?
Churchill’s vision was driven in part by a desire to ensure that Europe couldn’t go to war again. Other European nations yearned for Britain’s leadership, but the British chose not to offer it. Undaunted, the Europeans did their own thing. Five nations founded the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950. Coal and steel were foundations of the war machine, so pooling their political control effectively neutered the risk of Germany wanting “round 3” in the same century.
Later, British prime minister Harold Macmillan started to change his mind about whether Britain should have resisted Europe. At 20m02s, Robinson read out one of Macmillian’s memos, in which Macmillian expressed his fears that the EEC was in substance a plan to restore German power within Europe economically. Eventually, he decided that if Britain couldn’t beat or by-pass the desires of the EEC, then - primarily for the purposes of trade, let’s ignore the federal bit - Britain might as well join it. The influence might be necessary to ensure Macmillan’s fear would never be realised. Macmillan sought to persuade French president De Gaulle to let Britain in.
De Gaulle said “non”.
It was typically arrogant and racist of De Gaulle, consistently self-obsessed and treacherous as he had been in the Second World War (where, amongst other decisions, he preferred to have given his Navy to the Nazis instead of scuttling it to inhibit the Nazis’ war effort, and later demanded that he take the public spotlight for the Americans having liberated France).
By 1970, it was left to Prime Minister Edward Heath to re-negotiate. It turns out that he was quite good at extracting good value concessions out of the then European Economic Community. But Heath knew that the federalist aspect of the EEC was still the unpalatable bit in the European story, and it wouldn’t sell well at home, especially in Parliament. Yet Heath had said that British membership of the EEC would only work with consent of Parliament and people (Robinson, 35m20s). However, Heath believed that British sharing sovereignty with the EEC would enhance Britain’s influence in the world overall. So Heath calculated that he had to play deft. The British propaganda machine played-up the trading aspect of the EEC, and played-down (if not omitted altogether) the federalist aspect of the EEC. Eventually, Heath played Parliamentary politics - using brevity when the opposition expected very long Bills of Parliament - to garner support of pro-European Labour MPs and to neutralise Conservative Eurosceptics.
Amongst the pro-Europeans of the time was Norman Tebbit. For a long time since the 1970s known as a Eurosceptic, he was a Europhile in the 1970s. In the programme, Tebbit acknowledged his volte face: better to be foolish when young and wise when old than the other way around (48m10s).
Not so prone to changing his mind was Enoch Powell. Powell had been divisive and derided in equal measure for his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. Powell spoke at the Conservative Party conference in 1971 to declare that he had not been elected to give British sovereignty away. At 55m24s, in an interview recorded many years ago, Powell commented bleakly, "Ted was right when he said you could only do a thing like this with the full-hearted consent of the people. But he knew he hadn't got it. And this is coming home to roost."
On the left, Michael Foot and Tony Benn shared Powell’s sense of sovereignty, even if they disagreed with Powell on everything else. At 55m05s, Benn said in an interview, "It was a coup d'état by a political class who didn't believe in popular sovereignty. That's what it was. It was a coup d'état. The power was seized by parliamentarians. It didn't belong to them. And they used it to take away the rights from the people they represented. That's how I saw it." At 49m50s, there is some vintage footage of the vintage Foot: "Of course we can stop them. The mountain of legislation required for that purpose can be held up in Parliament until we get what British democracy requires: the right to choose."
But while Heath’s Britain celebrated in membership of the EEC, the EEC itself had already considered implementing economic and monetary union by 1980. Heath knew of this plan.
Other than the inclusion of the French state in the story, and only occasional reference to the warmth to the British by the other five nations of the EEC, the programme did not present its narrative alongside contemporaries from the other five nations. This became obvious at 47m when the programme showed an unknown German woman throwing Indian ink at Ted Heath when he arrived in Brussels to sign the accession treaty.
Overall, the programme is a good - albeit Anglo-centric - briefing to Britain’s post-war history alongside Europe. For more detail, along with evidence originating from both Britain and the then European institutions/agents, refer to the book the Great Deception.
What’s particularly spooky about this programme is that the fears of the Eurosceptics seem to have borne out. Taking caution for tautology and sweeping generalisation, the root fear seems to be spot on: there has been no explicit public mandate for Parliament to pool sovereignty with foreign institutions, and Europhiles have done whatever they can to avoid seeking an explicit mandate on such pooling.
Interpolating the future?
From the programme alone, history seems to be repeating itself.
Cameron’s deal of 19Feb2016 clearly won’t change the European Union in the way that Cameron wants. It seems highly improbable that the European Parliament would overturn 60 years of political development just to accommodate the two-tier Europe that Cameron’s deal would entail.
This, combined with the trend of Europe’s history since 1950 (and arguably since the 1930s), suggests that Cameron’s deal will actually turn into a de facto vote by Britain knowingly to be in a federal Europe, or outside a federal Europe, as if Cameron’s deal never existed.
Only two opportunities exist to divert from history’s trend:
- Will the Eastern Europeans wake up and realise that the “market socialist” agenda of the Western Europeans is a return to the Soviet system of anti-competition and pro-monopoly (along with the corruption this entails)?
- With migration and the rise of populist movements on both far-left and far-right ascending throughout Europe (including a dull antagonism of TTIP), will the European Union accept the principle of weaker, or permanently deferred, federalism?