Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s Brexit brigade should not rewrite history

One of the most famous ‘Eurosceptic’ speeches in the last century was delivered by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at Labour’s annual conference in October 1962, where he declared that joining the then ‘European Community’ would ‘mean the end of Britain as an independent nation-state … It means the end of a thousand years of history … and it does mean the end of the Commonwealth’.

It is a speech often cited by Labour advocates of Brexit as evidence of a long-standing tradition of Labour Euroscepticism. But the detail of the speech, of Gaitskell’s position on the EEC, and of Labour’s debate on EEC membership in the 1970s do not bear the stress often put on them by 2016 Brexit advocates.

Despite the clear impression given by the rhetoric of his speech, Gaitskell was not, in fact, declaring his opposition to the principle of UK membership of the EEC.

Gaitskell set out his position more dispassionately in a Labour party political broadcast on 8 May 1962:

You still hear some people speaking as though we could decide whether the common market existed or not. Now this, of course, is quite untrue … what we have to ask ourselves, looking ahead, is whether … we would be better outside it, or … inside it… To go in on good terms would, I believe, be the best solution … Not to go in would be a pity, but it would not be a catastrophe. To go in on bad terms which really meant the end of the Commonwealth would be a step which I think we would regret all our lives and for which history would not forgive us.

Most pro-marketeers concluded, fairly, that he was not opposed to entry in principle. Indeed, Gaitskell wrote to his friend and protégé Roy Jenkins that same day asking him to ‘get rid of any idea that I am deliberately building up a position in which, whatever the terms, we should be opposed to them.’

The tone and content of Gaitskell’s ‘Thousand Years of History’ speech owed a great deal to Peter Shore, later to be one of Britain’s most prominent advocates of withdrawal from the EEC, who as the then head of research at Labour party headquarters bore considerable responsibility for drafting the speech. But in detail it remained consistent with Gaitskell’s May 1962 position of conditional support for entry, depending on the terms. Gaitskell’s terms, his ‘five conditions’, were of their time. He wanted: protection for the interests of the European Free Trade Area; the freedom to plan the economy; protection for UK agriculture; to retain an independent British foreign policy; to protect the Commonwealth. Of these, all are protected and remain so as much as most 21st century politicians with to protect and retain them: it was not the EU that encouraged British politicians to abandon central planning where it failed.

Gaitskell’s first point, on the EFTA free trade area that Britain had founded in 1957 as an alternative to the EEC, highlights an important issue of Brexit-eer deceit. For in 2016 there are some who suggest that the 1971 parliamentary decision to join the EEC and the referendum vote in 1975 was all about membership of a common market/EEC which, they contend, was merely a free trade area, and therefore quite different, they say, from the EU into which it has evolved. They contend that the 1975 referendum was not about ‘sovereignty’.

This is simply untrue. The issue of British sovereignty was absolutely central to the votes and debates in both 1971 and 1975. At both, Britain’s choice was between involvement in the EFTA free trade area on the one hand, and pooling sovereignty in the EEC on the other. Labour’s Eurosceptics were passionate in their denunciations of the constitutional implications of joining what they said was more than a free-trade area. As Michael Foot said at Labour’s special conference on the EEC in July 1971: if the UK joins the EEC, ‘we shall have the value-added tax, with no power of the British people to resist it. This is the constitutional issue. Of course the sovereignty of our parliament is undermined if we accept provisions of that nature. This is only one example. John Hampden had a better chance to resist Ship Money than the British people will have had to resist the value-added tax …’

But as pro-EEC Labour member of parliament John Mackintosh characterised it during the marathon six-day Commons debate on EEC membership in October 1971,

the 19th-century concept of sovereignty being put forward by those two speakers and the many others who agree with them… [entails] a purely legalistic concept of sovereignty, like an old lady with a basket of apples, who feels that each time she gives a bit of sovereignty in the form of an apple to someone else there is one less in her basket. What a very restricted and old-fashioned concept of sovereignty! The real point is that no nation has untrammelled sovereignty, no nation has complete power to do as it likes, and what matters to the public is not the legal power to act but whether the consequences may mean anything …

Labour’s anti-EEC campaigners did not accept Mackintosh’s arguments because they asserted their own view of sovereignty, not because it was not debated. As Foot declared at Labour’s EEC special conference in 1975:

… people say, ‘All these burdens, all these political disabilities, all these derogations from our sovereignty, all this dismemberment of our parliamentary institutions … all that must be done because of the economic circumstances that face us. We have no other choice.’ I do not believe it … I say to our great country, ‘Don’t be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our own affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilise our resources and overcome our economic problems.’ Of course we have. We can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time.

But the referendum on 5 June 1975 saw Britain vote ‘Yes’ to Europe by some 17 million to eight million, a two-to-one majority. Foot and other Labour Eurosceptics had argued for a ‘No’ vote. They had argued that the EEC was more than a free-trade area and would entail what for them was an unacceptable loss of British sovereignty. And they lost the vote, because others argued that the advantages, economic and otherwise of pooling sovereignty were more substantive, and that as Gaitskell had argued in 1962, the best outcome was entry on good terms.

Labour’s Brexit brigade may want out. But they should argue their corner honestly without seeking to rewrite history.


Greg Rosen is chair of Labour History Group. He tweets @GR1900

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Greg Rosen

is author of Old Labour to New, chair of the Labour History Group and a political columnist for the Scotsman

1 comment

  • There is no need to rewrite history, the disaster that is the European Union is plain for all to see. It is dragging us down with it. Unfortunately, the people who want to stay in the EU are going to win because they are frightened of the unknown. Gaitskell was quite right about the end of the Commonwealth, but that is the fault of all those who negotiated with Europe, especially Edward Heath. France got concessions for its former colonies, we got none, not even for the Dominions.

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