The approaching referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is not the first of its kind. In 1974, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson pledged to hold a referendum the following year on remaining in the European Economic Community (as it then was).
His decision was not particularly based on democratic imperative but because the Labour Party was fundamentally divided on the issue. The same could be said today. A majority of Labour MPs support continued membership, and the party’s official position is to back Remain but several Labour MPs have also committed to the Out campaign. Meanwhile, the position of party leader Jeremy Corbyn is somewhat uncredible, given his longstanding hostility towards European integration.
We’ve been here before
Back in 1975, many on the left of the Labour Party argued that membership of the EEC was incompatible with the pursuit of socialism in Britain. Some were concerned about the loss of sovereignty and some thought it was a “capitalist club”.
Others in the party campaigned to remain. They argued that the EEC was important for trade and that, without it, Britain would become a “small island” with no influence in the North Atlantic.
In the end, Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the common market. But that didn’t settle the issue in the Labour Party. In 1983 the party pledged to withdraw from the EEC and was rejected decisively in the election of that year.
Over the course of the 1980s the Labour Party became more supportive of EEC membership, especially after its third successive election defeat. The EEC had begun to develop social policies in areas such as gender equality and workers' rights, culminating in the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. Some Labour Party members felt it now offered protection against the pursuit of economic liberal policies in Britain.
The EEC was starting to look less like a capitalist club and more like the last defence of social democracy against an increasingly aggressive right wing, which wanted to restrict the powers of trade unions, weaken employment law and cut welfare expenditure.
At the time, becoming pro-European was all part of the wider modernisation of the Labour Party.
The false hope of European integration
But the pro-European rationale has continuously been based on a false analysis. However plausible such a shift may have seemed, one of the reasons to be sceptical then and now is the clear implication for national sovereignty.
It is possible to conclude that the British people were hoodwinked into signing away the right to determine their own affairs ever since 1973, when Britain first joined. Of course an explicit statement on the realities of membership was never made – that would have been unpalatable. So it was all too easy for pro-Europeans to ignore or disbelieve what it really meant.
Instead they argued that it was in Britain’s self-interest to join.
Often this appeal to self-interest was framed in terms of Britain’s absolute geopolitical and military decline and relative economic decline. It was argued that Britain could not go it alone and that to maintain its national power, it was sensible to join the EEC.
Politicians lost confidence in the nation and came to see the EEC as a zimmer frame which could prop up the old country. Denis Healey summarised this neatly when he said that “their Europeanism is nothing but imperialism with an inferiority complex”.
EEC partners twice rejected Britain’s request to join, which only reinforced this collective loss of confidence. The third application was so desperately sought that almost any terms would do – even if they were disadvantageous to Britain, including the large net budget contribution and policies damaging to British agriculture and fishing.
Any subsequent attempt to improve those terms – such as Margaret Thatcher’s rebate in 1984 and Brownite opposition to the single currency – were regarded as Britain being an awkward partner.
The pro-European leadership of the three major parties should have had more confidence in Britain. It was they who had post-imperial hang ups. Others would have been content to accept that Britain, although a declining imperial power, still had one of the largest economies, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and an independent nuclear deterrent. It still had the capacity to influence international affairs.
Rethinking the left-wing position
Pro-Europeans assume they know what is best, that those with legitimate grievances about the structure and implications of the EU are on the radical fringes of politics. They say they are ignorant or brainwashed by the populist press into thinking Britain can be a democratic and civilised country outside the EU. But leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily mean that neoliberalism will flourish in Britain.
Recently, pro-Europeans on the left have argued the EU is again the last barrier to the free-market right. Yet, the EU is founded upon neoliberal economics. The true nature of the EU was revealed in the way it has treated Greece, whose people have felt the full force of neoliberal austerity.
Voting to remain will lead Britain further into a federal Europe in which the hopes of social democracy become increasingly dim. Despite the current difficulties of the Labour Party, it is only through a Labour government at Westminster that social democracy will be enacted.
Indeed, there are stronger hopes that Britain can be more democratic and more socially conscious outside of the EU than within it. Democratic because voters would be able to elect a sovereign government instead of letting a distant bureaucracy make decisions on their behalf behind closed doors. Social because any hopes that the EU can deliver left-wing policies have been dashed by the response to the Greek financial crisis.