BBC iplayer, expires 19May2016.
Nick Robinson presents a very potted history of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, including interviews with the then key players (some of whom are now deceased).
“Everyone always says, y’know, you gotta listen to the people. When you listen to the people, you hear different things. Yes, it’s true there are some people who are virulently anti-Europe; there are others that aren’t.” Tony Blair, 00m30s.
The referendum of 2016 is a re-run of that of 1976, except that this time, the referendum is purely “in or out?”, not discombobulated by the misleading concept of “Common Market”.
The Labour Government of 1974, like all Labour Governments, had neither particular enthusiasm for nor particular hostility against the European Union (and its predecessors), but was generally reluctant to join what looked like a capitalist club. It was ideologically opposite to the Party. But the incoming Labour Government had a problem with the deal that Heath had signed in 1971. It’s election manifesto undertook re-negotiation of the accession treaty, resulting in re-negotiations with other governments, who didn’t want to negotiate, almost before the ink was dry on the treaty.
The net result turned out to be substantially nothing. Having quickly realised that re-negotiation was a non-starter, Prime Minister James Callaghan did something in 1974 spookily similar to David Cameron in 2015. Choreograph negotiations, then take a ‘choice’ to the people via a referendum.
At the time, vox pop and polls showed a 2:1 ratio against membership of the “Common Market” (as it was sold). UKGov recommended the people voted in favour of membership. The actual result of the referendum returned 2:1 ratio in favour of remaining members of the Common Market. The referendum took place amidst a period of huge economic malaise (inflation hit 27%, electricity was available for only three days a week, coal miners thought they should run the country, endless strikes, and so on).
But the Common Market turned into a falsehood. The European Union became something else. David Cameron, 12m25s, “We hear it on the doorsteps all the time, ‘I voted in favour of the Common Market, but I worry what it has become, or is becoming’.”
Callaghan became Margaret Thatcher. Having campaigned for the Common Market, Thatcher quickly became hostile to the realpolitik of Europe, and it confirmed her suspicions about the ulterior motive of the European Economic Community, i.e. Germany rules, OK? Thatcher’s desire to be constructive with Europe ended quickly and destructively.
At her first summit at Dublin, Thatcher demanded a refund of “my money”; the Europeans rejected this on the basis that it wasn’t her money, it’s money she needs to pay to us, it’s our money. Besides, she’s paid nothing yet!
At the same time, of course, Thatcher was the only woman at the table.
At Fontainebleau in 1984, Thatcher won her rebate, but at political cost. The Europeans felt her rebate was larger than it should have been, but put up with it. At 17m04s, an extract of an interview with Thatcher: “The whole axis there was France and Germany. France and Germany. And what those said, the others tended to agree with.”
And yet, it was one of UKGov’s own policy that provoked Thatcher most of all. The Common Market turned out to be a nonsense. Lorries waited at borders to bribe customs officials to let them into the country with their goods for sale or for onward transit. Trade was impeded by technical barriers to trade, as each country disobeyed the rules of the Common Market and exercised national protectionism [I’ve commented about solidarity already]. The Common Market wasn’t working. The solution was a Single Market. A British idea!! But for the Single Market to work borderlessly, it required liberty throughout the EEC… which in turn implies a severe restriction on governments to meddle in their economies, to water down the ability of governments to block proposals they didn’t like. (17m30s).
For Thatcher, it could only get worse. Having supported the appointment of Jacques Delors, Delors promptly resurrected the idea of a Single Currency. [Presumably as a nice matching pair for the Single Market?] The personal relationship between Thatcher and Delors deteriorated quickly. Later, Thatcher appointed a former taxman, Arthur Cockfield, to Europe in the hope that he’d keen on eye on Delors and stop the excesses. Instead, Cockfield went native, coming back to London, arguing in favour of the harmonisation of Value Added Taxes.
At 22m27s, the programme features a glorious interview with Cockfield:
“I got no reply from this, so realising I was never going to get one, I pressed a little further. I said it was in the Treaty of Rome and you should have read it before you signed it. She said, ‘I didn’t sign it’. I said, ‘I know you didn’t, but you were a member of the cabinet that did’. And that was also greeted in total silence.”
The EEC presented the harmonising of VAT was held as a measure of the Single Market.
“She was never aware, and never accepted, how wide the Single Market was.”
At the same time, the EEC had expanded geographically and limited the role of the national veto, using qualified majority voting instead. Thatcher was happy with majority voting, because she felt that some countries abused their national veto, and diluted the Franco-German axis. It became known as the Single European Act.
But how to get the Single European Act through the UK Parliament? Answer: understate the importance of the deal, trivialise it, then introduce the bill on a Thursday when most MPs want to return to their constituencies. A quick-and-dirty job was needed, hopefully, no-body would read the bill and figure out its consequences.
At 25m30s, Peter Tapsell, a Conservative Eurosceptic, admitted to paying less attention to the Single European Act than he should have done. He said that if Thatcher was happy with it, then so he would be. He never suspected Thatcher’s own doubts. At 25m40s, Iain Duncan-Smith, a Conservative Eurosceptic, said that he asked Thatcher why she signed it, and she told him that she was misled. At 26m06s, Peter Shore, a Labour Eurosceptic, said, “Mrs Thatcher was the Trojan horse.”
Thus, the UK Parliament sacrificed the UK’s national veto on directives from Europe.
Thatcher described it at having one’s fingers burned (27m20s). Thatcher revealed her anger in a speech in Bruges. The UK foreign office were terrified of what she was going to say. She ignored many of their suggestions. At 28m06s, Nigel Lawson described the content of the speech as “xenophobic”. At 29m05s, the programme showed an extract from Thatcher’s Bruges speech:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain to have them re-imposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
The programme presented Geoffrey Howe as the first response to that extract. Howe described Thatcher’s themes - superstate, bureaucratic-led decisions - as unprecedented publicity from any head-of-state.
German chancellor Helmut Köhl reacted to Bruges by inviting Thatcher to his home town - on the Franco-German border - to demonstrate that he was European, not German. Thatcher had expressed fear in a German-led Europe - remember, Thatcher grew up during the second world war - and Köhl understood that, because she wasn’t alone. German economic power was indeed growing, leaving France in the shadows. A Franco-German axis had become a “German-German Axis” (William Hague, 31m39s). But Köhl’s charm offensive didn’t work: as soon as she returned to the airplane back to England, she slumped into her seat and said, “My God, that man is so German!”
In 1989, the Berlin fall well. Germany re-unified and European expanded. Calls arose to integrate deeper and quicker. Jacques Delors outlined his vision for Europe to have legislative and executive functions, like any state would have. It prompted Thatcher’s famous “no, no, no” statement in Parliament (33m34s), which in turn prompted Geoffrey Howe to resign. His resignation speech in Parliament mortally wounded Thatcher’s political credibility, by pointing to her constant political conspiracy theories about European intentions. Within days, she had resigned as prime minister. At 36m02s, Nigel Lawson commented that, paradoxically, Thatcher had unified Europe… often against Britain’s legitimate interests.
With Thatcher gone, John Major inherited the next part of the European story: the Single European Currency, for which the Exchange Rate Mechanism was a precursor. I’ve commented on this story already. Suffice it to say here that a junior advisor to then Chancellor Norman Lamont happened to be David Cameron. At 37m54, “The bit I absolutely recall that day... was that never again shall Britain tie our currency into an arrangement like that.” At 38m13, William Hague reiterated the same point, expanding it to cover all matters of European political union.
At 40m09s, John Major noted that the Labour Party abandoned its principles and voted in the Single European Act (the Maastricht Treaty) to wound the Conservative Party, which then Labour MP George Robinson confirmed: the strategy was to wound the Conservative Party without wounding the Maastricht Treaty.
And now it became obvious where parliamentary sovereignty had gone.
41m03s Iain Duncan-Smith: “Notch by notch, grade by grade, change by change, we were going in the direction that Peter Shore, Michael Foot, Wedgewood [Tony] Benn… Enoch Powell… all said that ‘This is the destination, we don’t want to be there’.”
The Conservatives lost the 1997 election to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. The Single Currency quickly knocked on Blair’s door.
43m18s Tony Blair: “Politically, the case for joining is overwhelming, because politically it’s best for Britain to be at the centre of Europe. Economically, it isn’t. And that’s our problem.”
Co-incident with the introduction of the Single Currency, Europe expanded again - 12 new members, mainly Eastern Europeans free from the Iron Curtain - and widened its citizens’ rights. Polish workers were amongst many who took advantage of this freedom to find work. Britain chose to enable the right immediately, not to exercise its right to phase the right in over 7 years. UKGov got its immigration forecasts “heroically wrong” (Jack Straw, 45m50s). Blair saw no damage to Britain as a result of the larger-than-expected inward migration.
With 12 new members, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing drafted a ‘Constitution’ for Europe. The idea was to make decision-making workable. It didn’t need to be called a “constitution”, but the name conveyed the overriding objective of Europe as a single country. Blair didn’t think it was a sensible thing to do (46m56s). But Westminster gossip was that Blair wanted to be the first President of Europe, leading to a superbly humorous performance by William Hague in the Common mocking Blair’s alleged ambition (47m10s).
The Labour Government now had its own problems with justifying a referendum on this “constitution”. Labour’s splits on Europe cracked open. At 48m33s, Straw explained that he was minded to have a referendum and approached Blair with the idea, resulting in a “ding-dong”. At 48m49, Blair conceded a referendum, with great misgiving, and announced a referendum in Parliament, with the words, “Let the battle be joined.”
As it turns out, the French and Dutch rejected the ‘constitution’. So Britain didn’t need to have its referendum at that time.
For the Europe Union, the referenda failed the “so what” test. The “constitution” was simply re-named into the Treaty of Lisbon, with only a few tweaks, and implemented anyway, with no democratic mandate.
At 50m31s, Sir John Kerr, Secretary-General, European Convention 2002-03, said:
“I was asked from time-to-time how closely does this resemble your constitutional treaty which the Labour Party promised would be subject to referendum and I found it difficult to answer these questions. On the whole, I kept my trap shut.”
At 51m04s, Stephen Wall, then a diplomat, the UK Permanent Representative to the EU 1997:
“I was very struck by the extent to which people really did think that they had been lied to, that they’d been promised a referendum, and that on a pretext, the promise of a referendum had been withdrawn. I think that did then create a grievance that wasn’t readily going to go away.”
At 51m30s, Tony Blair:
“When people say there was this huge explosion of feeling about this amongst the people British, I say bulldust. I mean, no there wasn’t! There was a huge explosion of feeling amongst the very people who had driven the referendum on the agenda.”
The coalition government 2010 agreed to bury the European issue completely, save for a referendum for any major treaty change. But, in Europe, the Eurozone crisis had brought riots in the streets. The Eurosceptics said, “We told you so!”. Europe the issue wasn’t going to go away.
Faced with a deafening vacuum of leadership, a cartel of inactivity, by UKGov, Nigel Farage ascended into the media spotlight. The discourse moved to one of an elitist conspiracy, one which Blair rejects outright (53m43s “It’s a just a different elite; they’ve got a different perspective.”).
At 54m20s, the programme showed Farage’s infamous speech at the European Parliament directly largely against Herman van Rompuy, president of Europe (Blair, apparently, didn’t get the job). “I don’t want to be rude,” said Farage, before being rude. “Who are you? Who elected you?” At 55m07s, Farage revealed that the Parliament fined him. “I was told, by the President of the Parliament, when he imposed this fine, ‘Nigel, you cannot criticise Mr van Rompuy because he hasn’t been elected’. I said, ‘I know. That’s the point I was making!’”
Farage’s ascendancy prompted the David Cameron to promise an in-out referendum for his 2015 election campaign, just as Harold Wilson did in 1974. Shortly thereafter, Chancellor Angela Merkel told Cameron that if he asked for too much, he’d need to jump ship.
But will the referendum of 2016 really clear the air? If the British vote for Brexit, how many other European members will also seek to jump ship?
Roy Jenkins, 58m00s: “The trouble with Britain's relations with Europe has always laid with the politicians, not with the public. That’s the history, but decade after decade, no-body seems to learn.”
There’s a lot in the programme that is new to me, and I’ve been studying policy making for years! The Thatcher years are particularly interesting.
It’s hard to see how all of these shenanigans impact ordinary people directly, save for the volume and velocity of immigration which ordinary people would have noticed and reacted to/against.
It’s a bitter reminder that politics matters, even if ordinary people prefer to live in blissful ignorance. Do ordinary people have too much faith in the quality of their state? Are ordinary people too forgiving at paying over the odds for a third-class service delivery in all matters of public policy and implementation? Whether Brexit or EurIn, will the British ever destroy the party system that seems to be at the root of UKGov’s apparent in ability to think its way out of a paper bag?
In between the lines, the programme failed to ask the question from any of its interviewees about what purpose popular democracy was supposed to serve. To take one example, van Rompuy is not subject to a popular democratic mandate, but what power (or key responsibilities) does he have that warrants a popular democratic mandate?