Labour and Europe: a brief history

The recent narrowing of the polls in the EU referendum has prompted much soul searching by the Remain camp. This may all be unnecessary as exactly the same was seen in the Scottish referendum before Remain’s victory. However, for the meantime Remain is rattled. Much of their angst seems to be coming from the revelation that substantial numbers of traditional Labour supporters are going to back Brexit. This realisation has come with much complaining that Labour is being too metropolitan in its approach.

Whether Labour is making a tactical mistake by failing to be as enthusiastic in its pro Remain campaign as some would like is an interesting question and one I will look at another time. Initially, I though a look at the history might be interesting.

A few months ago at the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid and success I did a series of articles on recent political history and supposed truisms worth challenging such as nationalisation always being a bad thing, Michael Foot being unelectable, the 1970s being a disaster etc.

Hence, on a related theme I thought it might be worth looking at the history of Britain’s relationship with the Common Market focusing on Labour Party’s views on Europe. This is especially relevant as the concern is that older traditional Labour voters are going to back Brexit. Once again politicians and political analysts seem to be forgetting or ignoring the lessons of history (a little like some Vice Chancellors)

In the early postwar period neither side in British politics had much interest in joining the Common Market or its predecessors. There is a misconception that Churchill supported British membership of the fledgling Common Market. In actual fact although Churchill supported a European agreement he specifically excluded the UK from it.

The first party to begin to look at joining Europe was the Tories. Once again the pivotal event can in many ways be seen as Suez. Despite military success Suez was a political debacle for the British and French with a humiliating withdrawal. This confirmed to many that Britain was losing its position in the world and signalled the rapid end of empire. The Tories, usually more wedded to the empire, seem both to have seen this first and been most affected by it. If Britain could not be important in the world by itself it could be so vicariously by being America’s side kick in chief but also by joining in with the rest of Europe and increasing its power and influence that way. That said the early Common Market whatever its stated aims was then in no practical way a political union.

Harold Macmillian’s government (the Tory Prime Minister after Eden fell, largely due to Suez) was the first to attempt to enter the then Common Market in 1963 but was vetoed by France’s President De Gualle.

In 1967 Labour’s Harold Wilson tried again at a time when both parties were pro European (though the Tories generally more so). Again the UK’s accession was vetoed by De Gaulle, before finally the UK entered the Common Market by Ted Heath at the start of 1973.

By the time Labour returned to power (again under Harold Wilson) in 1974 it had a significant contingent of opponents to remaining in the Common Market led by senior figures such as Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (though Castle later ended up as an MEP). In an interesting analogy to the current Tory position on Europe, the Parliamentary Labour Party predominantly backed staying in the Common Market but much of the rank and file (along with their high profile leaders) supported leaving.

As a further analogy the idea of a referendum was first floated by Tony Benn in 1970. Jim Callaghan commented the idea was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb”. In 1975 Harold Wilson climbed into that life raft in order to try to maintain unity and as with the current Conservative Party Wilson the Prime Minister of the time gave his ministers a free hand to support either side. In a further analogy to now the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher (at that time pro European) ridiculed the divisions in the Labour cabinet

The Remain side won a convincing victory with overwhelming support from all the Liberals and Tories (though even then there were a few Tory Eurosceptics) but Labour was split by the vote possibly not as severely or as bitterly as the Tories seem now (though hindsight often dampens anger).

At the 1979 general election Labour supported remaining in the EEC (as it had become). However, after their defeat and with Michael Foot becoming leader, Labour turned decisively against the EEC. As a slight aside, the European policy was one of the issues over which the party split with those who left creating the SDP including David Owen who is now, ironically, strongly backing Leave.

The 1983 Labour manifesto stated: “We will also open immediate negotiations with our EEC partners, and introduce the necessary legislation, to prepare for Britain’s withdrawal from the EEC, to be completed well within the lifetime of the Labour government.”

Kinnock’s leadership after the defeat of 1983 resulted in the jettisoning of many of the policies of the early 1980s. The 1987 manifesto had returned to supporting membership of the EEC but it was far from uncritical and there are only three mentions of the EEC in the whole document.

By both 1992 again under Kinnock and especially 1997 with Blair, Labour had moved to a very pro Europe stance. The exact cause for those changes is complex. It must be remembered that the win for what we would now call Remain was very large in 1975 and the desire to leave Europe was seen as one of the unpopular policies which helped consign Labour to the wilderness for almost two decades.

Kinnock himself switched from supporting Leave in 1975 to being a major supporter of the EU (he explains his change in views here) and indeed a European Commissioner whilst his wife became an MEP.

Some of the shift in Labour’s position was pragmatic as mentioned above but some also probably stemmed from the fact that the increasing amounts of social legislation from Europe was seen as one of the only possible ways for the left to support workers rights during the long years of Tory rule. There is also the suspicion that some of increasing Europhilia of Labour was in response to the Tories increasing Euroscepticism and some straightforward schadenfreude at seeing the Tories increasingly from the end of the 1980s tear themselves apart over Europe.

The more recent Labour support for Europe has always been tempered by some prominent Eurosceptic Labour MPs. In the early 1980s Tony Benn and Peter Shore from quite different ends of the party on other issues both opposed Europe. More recently Frank Field has been a long term Eurosceptic along with Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart who has gone on the opposite journey to Kinnock and moved from pro to anti EU (just like David Owen mentioned above).

Much current Labour support for Europe is based on workers rights. Kilsally has a useful corrective to that below but in brief, many will remember that the early workers rights legislation of the 1970s was brought into the UK by Labour long before such legislation was introduced in the rest of Europe. The 1970s Labour Leave campaigners regarded Europe as a rich man’s club which favoured the bosses not the workers. Although Europe has since developed considerable amounts of social legislation things like the Social Chapter had to be brought in by Labour governments after they had been blocked from introduction by the Tories. To a large extent one suspects the support for European social legislation by Labour is mainly a hope it could be a brake on any attempt to row back on such legislation by the Conservatives. Against that the raft of European legislation has not protected German workers from significant erosion of their employment rights positions in the early 2000s. Furthemore the social chapter etc. has not helped the youth (or the rest) of southern Europe especially Greece with Europe demanding massive cuts in social welfare payments.

As such although many may feel that Labour is a naturally pro Europe party that is simply to take a short term analysis. In the longer term there are major historical precedents for Labour leave and for considerable Euroscepticism especially from older traditional Labour supporters. This may sometimes be rage about immigration, elites etc. but may also be that older Labour supporters (and some younger ones) have a better understanding and memory of the positions of their party over the years than some current journalists or indeed some Labour MPs.

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  • Paul Hagan

    Interesting you didn’t mention the TUC or trade unions much in this, many in Labour attribute a change in Labour’s attitude to Europe to the then EU president Jacques Delores’ speech to the TUC annual conference in Brighton in 1988, where in a subtle speech, (ostensibly in support of the 1992 programme for completing the EC’s internal market) he emphazised the Community’s concern for social issues, and made it clear that the TUC’s voice would carry weight in Brussels, even if it was effectively ignored by Mrs Thatcher’s government. The delegates responded with enthusiasm, giving him a standing ovation and serenading him with a chorus of ‘Frère Jacques’. When I was at Labour conference in Brighton last year the Europe part (admittedly never the most important part) featured Hilary Benn’s staunch defence of our position in the EU, which was supported by all delegates, it’s never correct to say anti-EU sentiment has gone from the Labour party, but it’s certainly a fringe pursuit and has been for some decades.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    This is a very thoughtful article and Turgon is correct that a substantial number of traditional Labour Supporters are going to back Brexit. The British Working Class have always had an uneasy relationship with the EU and it still remains in our genes

  • Croiteir

    I notice that Denis Skinner has declared for Leave

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Remain in the UK and Remain in the EU are totally different things. UK remain was about shared identity, history, being all the same people in the UK. Leaving the EU is about taking back control of our country from unelected elites. Despite all the info that’s out there, it’s still surprising when people don’t understand this.

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