The road to Brexit – part one…


The United Kingdom joined the Common Market (EEC) on 1 January 1973[1]; the prime minister responsible was a Conservative, Edward Heath. Two years later two-thirds of voters agreed with this in a referendum called by a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson. In 2016, a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, called a European Union (EU) referendum and narrowly lost. What had happened to the UK and the EU in-between for this to happen[2]?

Why did the EEC/EU become such an important concern for voters?

Source: BBC[3]

I’m going to set out the broad themes, as I see them, in these changes. Although I treat the themes separately, there is a lot of overlap between them.


1. Economic.

Up to the 1970s, the economic model was Keynesian; state intervention when needed. This model could not overcome the oil price shocks; the economy stagnated while inflation was very high. Friedrich Hayek wrote two “popular” works (The Road to Serfdom,1944 and The Constitution of Liberty, 1960) explaining his thinking which was based on a critique of the planned economies of “socialist” (i.e., communist) countries, and the incipient Welfare State. He thought that freedom from government intervention and regulation was necessary for wealth and prosperity, not the other way round. His views were expanded in the Chicago school of economics, producing “Reaganism” and “Thatcherism”; Mrs Thatcher once banged a copy of Liberty on a table, exclaiming “this is what we believe”[4].

Neoliberalism today includes policies of deregulation, privatisation, marketisation, free trade, reduction of government spending, low taxation, and reliance on private enterprise. Neoliberalism has become the dominant orthodoxy in the US and the UK, but to a much lesser extent in Europe. Neoliberalism is also associated with tax avoidance and evasion, the idea of a “small state”, austerity, and increasing financial inequality. Inequality is also related to worsening health outcomes, both for the poor and the rich.

From the 1980s personal taxation was reduced in the UK; the banks and financial markets were deregulated leading, many believe, to the financial crash in 2008. The UK changed from being a manufacturing to a service economy.

Colonies are for wealth extraction[5] [6], and the gradual loss of empire particularly after WW2 hit the pockets of the elite hard — as did high taxation at that time. Financial inequality in the UK was highest in the period just before WW1, gradually falling afterwards. In 1973 the UK was the most financially equal large country (apart from Sweden) in Europe; by 2016 it was the most unequal in the EU[7].

2. Politics and Law.

There has been a general shift rightwards in UK politics in the last half-century; the right has moved to neoliberalism with patriotism, elitism, and law and order[8]. Tony Blair’s New Labour was positioned in the political centre rather than to the left. Today’s Conservatives are close to the far-right of UKIP.

There has also been a marked rise in Populism[9] [10] as a reaction to the perceived failure of traditional parties’ failures to respond to globalisation, and immigration; and an increasing distrust in politicians. Populist politicians claim to speak for ordinary people and to present themselves as “men of the people”. For them, the consciousness of the people, referred to as “common sense”, is the basis of politics.

The UK uses the “first past the post” or “winner takes all” system of electoral choice. France uses a second vote system; all other members of the EU use a form of proportional representation (PR). PR rarely gives one party an absolute majority; to govern, a consensus must be reached through discussions for a coalition. As politicians know they will have to discuss with other parties after an election, they don’t disparage them to the same extent as in the UK.

England and Wales, and N Ireland have a common law system which, like UK politics, is adversarial. Europe uses civil law, based on Roman law, which is inquisitorial and based on rules.


The British — particularly the English — have long been proud of their exceptionalism[11] [12]. They hadn’t been invaded since 1066. They ruled over the largest and greatest Empire the world had ever seen. They were the first country to industrialise. They willingly paid taxes to free slaves. They were the wealthiest and most powerful country at the end of the 19th century and sustained this and the Empire through benign naval power, the army, and free trade. As a people, they were uniquely gifted through birth, breeding, education, and, standing at the apex of all the human races, were ideally positioned to bring civilisation, law, and education to the natives and prepare them for their independence[13]. They went to war once to save poor little Belgium. They alone won the Second World War, so Europe owes them for this. Truly: God is an Englishman, and probably educated at Eton and Oxford[14] [15] [16].

This is hokum of course; it’s the sort of sanitised history popularised in the Ladybird[17] series of children’s books which were popular when today’s Ultra-Brexiteers were growing up. And yet it seems to be what many, such as Daniel Hannan[18] [19] — “The man who brought you Brexit”[20] — believe and how they promote the advantages of Brexit[21] [22] [23].

In a similar vein, Henrietta Marshall[24] published Our Island Story in 1905; it is not a history book. It’s a story of England seen through pink-spectacled English nationalistic eyes. It was reissued in 2005 by the right-wing Think Tank Civitas[25] [26]. David Cameron said of it[27]:

When I was younger, I particularly enjoyed Our Island Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall … It is written in a way that really captured my imagination and which nurtured my interest in the history of our great nation.

Once upon a time the ‘Romance of Empire’ book series told children that “England was a gallant little nation whose power and conquests are obviously the rewards of merit since all her opponents are bigger and uglier than she is” … and the world map had large pink bits which we were told ‘belonged to us’ [28].

This seems to have entered both Cameron’s and Michael Gove’s subconscious thinking[29] [30] [31] [32]. Our Island Story was parodied in 1066 And All That[33].

In Britain, the elite has been educated for centuries at expensive private (“public”) boarding schools. Secondary education for all came with the Welfare State in the 1940s. Until the early 19th century the only English universities were Oxford and Cambridge. Even today around 30% of entrants at these two universities are from the 7% of privately educated elite children. There have been 55 prime ministers of the UK; twenty went to Eton and 28 to Oxford. Since 1945 all university educated prime ministers, bar Gordon Brown, have been to Oxford.

Sylvie Bermann, a former Ambassador of France to the UK, recently said[34] [35] [36]:

The partisans of Brexit [recite] a history in which the UK is never defeated, never invaded.

[England] considers it singlehandedly won the second world war, liberating the continent and deserving of gratitude.

The corollary of an England saving Europe is a detestation of Germany and contempt for cowardice — the term is often used for those who allowed themselves to be occupied, not to mention collaborated.

Brexit [is] a triumph of emotion over reason, won by a campaign full of lies in which negative attitudes to migration were exploited by figures such as Johnson and Michael Gove

EEC to EU[37]

Recognising the futility of war, the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community[38] was designed to regulate industrial production, particularly of war matériel. It was the model for the 1957 Treaty of Rome[39] of the European Economic Community[40] aimed at economic integration. The EEC was incorporated into the European Union in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty[41]. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon[42] made the EU a consolidated legal person. This was a gradual progression to “ever closer union”.

The EU[43] today comprises 27 member states (and 32 member-state territories[44]), and has seven principal bodies:

  • the European Parliament, (decision making)
  • the European Council (of Heads of State or Government), (political direction, decision making)
  • the Council of the European Union (of national Ministers, a Council for each area of responsibility), (guidance)
  • the European Commission, (the executive and “civil service”) (decision making)
  • the Court of Justice of the European Union,
  • the European Central Bank, and
  • the Court of Auditors.

They are arranged and function like this:

Source: Wikipedia[45]

EFTA and the EEA

The European Free Trade Association[46] is a free trade area, today consisting of Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland; the members are part of the European Single Market and the Schengen Area. They are not part of the EU Customs Union.

The European Economic Area[47] extends, by a commercial treaty, the EU’s single market to the members of EFTA except for Switzerland.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe[48] [49] is an international organisation founded in 1949 to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. It has 47 member states today[50]. The European Convention on Human Rights[51] was drafted under the guidance of a UK lawyer and MP; The European Court of Human Rights enforces the Convention. The Council of Europe has two statutory bodies:

  • The Committee of Ministers (the foreign ministers of each state)
  • A Parliamentary assembly (composed of members of the national parliaments of the member states)

No country has joined the EU without first belonging to the Council of Europe.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union[52] enshrines certain political, social, and economic rights for EU citizens into EU law.

Despite confusing names — The Council of Europe and The European Council — the two organisations are entirely separate; the Council of Europe is not part of the EU, neither is the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe was not on the Brexit referendum ballot:

My thanks to SeaánUiNeill for his critique and to Brian O’Neill for his technical assistance.

View sources:

  6. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson (2019); Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire
  7. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson (2019); op cit
  13. This is pseudoscientific racism or eugenics. See:
  19. Daniel Hannan (2013); How We Invented Freedom and Why it Matters
  21. Daniel Hannan (2016); Why Vote Leave
  36. Sylvie Hermann (2021): Goodbye Britannia: Le Royaume-Uni au défi du Brexit (in French)

Banksy does Brexit (detail) #banksy #brexit” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.