If you are bored witless with how long this issue has been dragging out, you are not the only one. It has only taken twenty-four years and six general elections to have a referendum on British membership of the European Union; and even then it was seventeen years since the one and only referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community, which at the time was known to most people as the ‘Common Market’. Hardly a resounding endorsement of British democracy, is it?
The ruling elites and professional middle-classes have always supported the removal of not just trade barriers, but immigration restrictions, because they know that increased competition for jobs and housing increases the disparities of wealth between themselves and the lumpen proletariat. It should be no surprise therefore that a Tory government, that of Edward Heath – in which Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education – took Britain into the EEC in 1973, without a referendum. Nor should it be surprising that the principle opposition came from within the Labour Party, whose electoral base was predominantly working-class and highly unionised. Only when a Labour government was elected in 1974 was a referendum promised and held the following year.
As you can see from the picture above, the spin in 1975 was as it is today with ‘Europe’ being used as a shorthand way of referring, not to a geographical entity, but to a political project, the endgame of which was always the creation of a continental superstate. At the time there was no way of knowing that in a decade and a half the Iron Curtain would have fallen and Germany been re-unified, but stealthily moving towards a Western European superstate was on the agenda, even though it was deliberately obscured from the voting public. In 1975, Britain was held to be ‘the sick man of Europe’, the legacy of Heath’s terrible government which created an inflationary credit boom – so much for fiscal conservatism – when the global economy was already suffering the inflationary effects in commodity prices caused by the Nixon Administration’s dropping the gold standard in 1971. The outcome was numerous strikes with trade unions demanding and getting inflation-busting pay rises, something which continued when Labour took over.
It was Margaret Thatcher’s successor as Prime Minister, John Major, whose government refused to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU and whose government later suffered the humiliation of the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the forerunner to monetary union. The deep rift within the Conservative Party caused by this refusal to hold a referendum still exists today. The real change has come within the Labour Party and the trade unions, who have bought into the ‘Social Europe’ propaganda with the price being paid by working-class Britons in the form of increased competition for jobs and housing. For middle-class Guardian readers and even more privileged Labour MP’s this is a price worth paying. For Labour’s natural electoral base it isn’t, which is why Labour’s support among working-class Britons continues to dwindle. The Green Party, formerly known as the Ecology Party, whose electoral base is among those who follow E. F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ world-view, has also gone arse-about-face by supporting the EU.
So what hope is there of opposition, of democracy returning to the people? Forget the EU-worshipping Lib Dumbs, they are worse than useless. There are ‘dissenters’ within Labour and the Greens who haven’t whored themselves to the EU and whom we should all support to promote the ‘Left Leave’ view, particularly those of us who were brought up in ‘Old’ Labour voting households, who do consequently feel some sense of patriotism. Hope however, appears to be coming in what ought to be the blindingly obvious, namely that a political union of more than two dozen countries, many with no common language, culture or history, simply cannot be held together, even by dictatorship. This has become evident in the resurgent nationalism taking hold throughout Europe. This in itself is not something to celebrate, but it is a natural reaction to the centralisation of political power in Brussels, including the EU’s demands upon countries that they take quotas of economic migrants from as far away as Afghanistan and Somalia, whose cultures are totally incompatible with those of the respective host nations.
Even a common language, culture and history are not enough to successfully hold a political union together, but having at least one of these is a minimum requirement. The UK itself is under strain from Scottish separatists, who are ironically pro-EU, as they genuinely believe that Scotland, with one per cent of the EU’s population, can influence how it is run. This weekend the Irish commemorate the ‘Easter Rising’ (led by a Scottish socialist) against British rule. That the Irish ended up being dominated by the Catholic Church, ultra-conservative governments and more recently the European Central Bank are all separate issues. They understand, from bitter experience, that if a referendum yields the ‘wrong’ result, they have to hold it again until the result is ‘correct’.
I shall be lazy in not putting comprehensive references, but if you haven’t read Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent popular history books of the 1970’s, State of Emergency and Seasons in the Sun, I have to recommend that you do. The former details British entry into the EEC and the latter the 1975 referendum.