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50 Years of dithering about Europe – Professor Robert Tombs - for Briefings for Britain – 14.01.23

The 50th anniversary of Britain’s accession to the then Common Market seems a good moment for another look at this half-century detour, marked by persistent collective uncertainty about whether we wanted to join ‘Europe’, stay in it, or leave it.

Every generation rewrites history: so runs the common truism. We are having to do it rather more quickly nowadays. Of course, history does not have to be rewritten from scratch: it is there in often exhaustive detail, digested in Official Histories, and beyond rational dispute. But what does need constant rewriting is our understanding of those plain facts: we joined, we voted to stay, we voted again to leave, we left. Our whole relationship with ‘Europe’ has been throughout marked by three things: ‘declinism’, deception (including self-deception), and fear.

On 1 January 1972, Britain (with Ireland and Denmark) formally entered the European Economic Community, celebrating with a ‘Fanfare to Europe’, including pop and classical concerts and poetry readings. It had followed a campaign in which the leaderships of all the major political parties had agreed on the need to force Britain into ‘Europe’, supported by most of the media, most of the intelligentsia, and most business lobbies. It had been a decision first made by Macmillan’s Conservative government, and there was no question of a popular vote, which might well go the wrong way.

Whitehall’s overwhelming obsession was ‘declinism’. The Prime Minister Edward Heath’s principal European advisor described Britain as ‘the sinking Titanic’ and the EEC as ‘the lifeboat’. The chief negotiator, the Foreign Office mandarin Sir Con O’Neill, put it succinctly, though of course not publicly: the EEC was about power and global influence, and the Americans wanted us in. ‘None of its policies was essential to us; many of them were objectionable.’ But outside the fold, ‘our decline towards isolation and comparative insignificance … cannot be arrested’. Britain would become merely ‘a greater Sweden’.

Declinism was based on two historical errors, which today are plain for all to see and yet which people still seem to believe. First, economic: assuming that the Continent’s faster post-war growth (Italy was the star performer) was permanent and due to the Common Market. Second, geopolitical: a huge overestimate of the importance of the Empire and hence of the consequences of its dismantling—in reality, decolonization was the lifting of a huge burden, ‘a millstone round our necks’, in Disraeli’s phrase.

Declinism has hamstrung our relations with ‘Europe’ from beginning to end—if indeed we have yet reached the end. The attitudes of Macmillan, Heath and O’Neill were reincarnated by Cameron, May and Oliver Robbins. We were supplicants, who had to be grateful for whatever crumbs we could beg. The terms for entry in January 1972 were harsh, as were the terms for exit in January 2020. In O’Neill’s pithy phrase, we had to ‘swallow the lot, and swallow it now’. ‘The lot’ did not much change over nearly half a century, and included making large financial payments, accepting agricultural rules to advantage European farmers and penalize other producers, and sharing Britain’s vast fishing grounds.

The ultra-Europhile Tory backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer declared that ‘it would be in the interests of this country to join the EEC whatever the terms.’ His Remainer successors in the Tory Party had not changed much by 2017. In an informal alliance with the Opposition, they trampled over the Constitution to force the Johnson government to accept a damaging Withdrawal Agreement rather than the supposed disaster of a ‘No Deal’.

Alongside declinism came deception. Politicians and diplomats concealed – sometimes from themselves – the commitment to ‘ever closer union’ clearly spelt out in the founding treaties. The Lord Chancellor informed the Macmillan cabinet that accession ‘would go far beyond the most extensive delegation of powers that we have ever experienced.’ The usual response, especially in public, was to dismiss integrationist commitments as empty rhetoric.

To whip up some enthusiasm for accession the Heath government mounted the biggest official publicity campaign since the war. But what accession really meant was disguised and carefully depoliticised: ‘The Community … hasn’t made the French eat German food or the Dutch drink Italian beer.’ The EEC’s faster economic growth was the bait, represented on the front of an official pamphlet, The British European, by a female model in a skimpy Union Jack bikini proclaiming ‘EUROPE IS FUN! More Work But More Play Too!’

A more serious attempt to convince the public had to be made under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, which to keep the party together had committed itself to renegotiating the accession terms and putting them to a popular vote. On 5 June 1975 a referendum asked ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?’ Peter Shore, an eloquent Labour Eurosceptic (as they were not yet called) made an impassioned speech at the Oxford Union arguing that EC membership meant ‘the transfer of our whole democratic system’ under an arrangement that had not been ‘negotiated’ but merely ‘accepted’ without a comma being changed.

The Yes campaign, supported by ‘all the acceptable faces of British public life’, including Anglican bishops and most of the press, echoed what even the Europhile journalist Hugo Young called ‘a golden thread of deceptive reassurance’: EC membership would change nothing that people cared about. Yet the promises of greater prosperity had not materialised—on the contrary, accession raised prices in Britain and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War put a sudden end to Europe’s post-war boom. So the argument against ending EC membership, said Shore, was now nothing but ‘fear, fear, fear’.

The continuity of arguments over half a century is striking, especially declinism and what in 2016 was aptly called ‘Project Fear’, the manufacture of dodgy economic dossiers (still a thriving cottage industry). Yet much had changed over the decades. During the 1970s, Britain had experienced political and economic turmoil, to which EEC membership had contributed, and then underwent the rigorous therapy of Thatcherism. This converted most of the Labour Party to ‘Europe’ as a barrier against neo-liberalism—a flimsy one, as it turned out.

Then, over the following two decades, came changes never envisaged in the 1960s and 70s: the fall of the Soviet Union, German reunification, eastward expansion of the EC, and the French-led rush to a single currency to try to restrain German financial power. Crucially, the Blair government did not adopt the Euro, which the Labour minster Ed Balls later called ‘the most successful economic decision of the last thirty years.’ It also made Brexit feasible.

For Britain, the tangible outcome of EU expansion was mass immigration from Eastern Europe, which reignited old debates. Expansion also led to the high-handed imposition of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 as the de-facto constitution of a new European Union. The introduction of the Euro affected Britain indirectly. As many had warned, it damaged European growth and accelerated the relative shrinkage in the EU’s global economic weight. This caused steady decline in the importance for Britain of intra-EU trade.

The EU’s economic problems reduced its popularity in every country. Support for the ‘project’ peaked in the triumphant 1990s, and subsequently declined, as was shown dramatically in the No votes on a European constitution in Holland and France in 2005. The financial crisis of 2007-08 exposed the fundamental faults in the Eurozone. It imposed crushing austerity on Southern Europe, further increasing migration to Britain. The idea that ‘Europe’ was the way to ever greater prosperity evaporated. Helen Thompson has argued that the Eurozone crisis ‘put a time-bomb under the sustainability of Britain’s membership of the EU.’ Revived Tory Euroscepticism forced David Cameron to promise a referendum before any further cession of powers. This began the countdown to Brexit.

What surprises me about the 2016 referendum is that the result caused such a shock. The EU’s own opinion polling suggests that similar negative votes would have been likely in Holland, Italy, Greece, Germany and (as President Macron admitted on British television) France. There had been No votes in referenda on European issues in Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Holland, France and Greece. For the least enthusiastic member state to vote to Leave should hardly have been a surprise.

At this point, we have to do some rewriting of history, as I suggested earlier. Certainly, I do. I have argued that Britain’s vote to Leave was a logical outcome of both its own history and of developments in the EU. I believed there would be difficulties (not least in finding politicians willing and able to direct the withdrawal) but that the logic of the situation meant that difficulties would be overcome, and a general acceptance of the 2016 vote would follow. I even wrote that ‘the new generation will wonder why people got so worked up.’ Why was I so wrong?

Rather naively, I did not expect the EU to be so intransigent, assuming that it would see the importance of maintaining good future relations. Instead, it has seized on Brexit as the bogeyman to convince Europe’s peoples that leaving the EU means disaster. Nor did I expect the British government, especially under Theresa May, to be so feeble in its response, or for her successors to be so paralysed, not least due to Remainer influence within the Conservative Party and the Civil Service. Declinism still rules Whitehall, to the relief of Brussels.

The result has been six years of uncertainty about whether we are truly serious about leaving the EU, whether deep down we have really left, and whether we shall in some way return to membership. Economic lobbying, political opportunism, and constant polemic in the media have inflamed the original division in our politics.

More fundamentally, the Leave/Remain division has become detached from the actual question the Referendum was supposed to resolve. I am constantly amazed by how little we know or care about the EU, or even about Europe; and how striking this indifference is among those who like defining themselves as ‘Europeans’. The flagrant political divisions within the EU, its financial instability, the socio-economic damage it does, its policy incoherences, its corruption, its patent failings during the Covid crisis, its disastrous irrelevance over the Ukraine war—nothing seems to dent the determination of the Remainer hard-core to pull us back towards this political black hole.

The inescapable conclusion, it seems to me, is that ‘Europe’ for its diehard supporters is not the really existing EU, but an immaterial symbol of something else, or rather of several other things. The cosmopolitan yearnings of David Goodhart’s ‘Anywhere people’. The rejection of collective solidarity in favour of a corrosive identity politics. Nationalist utopianism based on the fantasy of risk-free independence inside the EU.

Brexit, conversely, becomes an easy scapegoat for economic discontent, especially among the young, and especially in the public sector.

Every failure can be blamed on Brexit, even if the EU has the same problems or worse. Finally, there is a contempt and loathing for those seen as the bedrock of Brexit support—the ‘gammons’, the provincials, the white working class—who cannot be allowed to win. In the end, what the unending Leave/Remain contest comes down to is who rules.

The majority may not be bothered. Our democracy—perhaps all democracies—has a record of preferring the path of least resistance as long as possible. We may think having shorter queues at airports and such like is more important than aspirations to democratic self government—or anyway more ‘concrete’, as Daniel Finkelstein put it recently.

We may lapse sulkily into what the socialist historian E.P. Thompson once called ‘inverted Podsnappery’: ‘other countries are in Every Respect Better’, especially if you only frequent the holiday destinations. Unless we can somewhere find a government that is capable of some leadership, some determination, and some courage, we might, without giving it much thought, find ourselves drifting back towards the EU just as it collapses. That would indeed be an irony of history.

Robert Tombs is the author of This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (Penguin, revised edition, 2022). A version of this article appeared on the Spiked website at

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