By MARCUS STEAD
There is a lazy, conventional wisdom among sections of the mainstream media that parodies anyone opposed to Britain’s membership of the EU as ‘right wing’. This is totally inaccurate, both historically and in the context of the upcoming referendum.
As long ago as 1962, the then-Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell delivered the greatest speech ever made by a British party leader against EEC membership to his party’s conference. Among many astute comments, he said: “We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: “Let it end.” But, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.”
Gaitskell died just three months later, but had he lived, it seems very likely he would have continued to voice his opposition to Britain joining the EEC.
The terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ are only of any use if we stick purely to economics. A ‘left winger’ is one who believes in a collectivist approach with a greater level of involvement by the state, whereas a ‘right winger’ is one who is more individualist, with a smaller role for the state. Beyond economics, into the areas of social and moral issues, the expressions ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ are little more than terms of abuse.
For example, George Galloway is widely assumed to be ‘left wing’ because of his collectivist, possibly Marxist, approach to economics. But he is also strongly opposed to drug use and, though he accepts an alcohol-free society is not going to happen, he believes alcohol has a deleterious effect on people and that sales of alcohol should be severely restricted. He also has a religious approach to life and his belief in God is absolute. Therefore, in many ways, he could be described as socially conservative, but he would surely take exception to the label ‘right wing’ being attached to his name.
‘Right wing’ is as a term of abuse that quite a number of those who support Britain’s continued membership of the EU use to caricature their opponents. This assumption does not stand up to scrutiny.
Nobody under the age of 58 today will have been old enough to vote in the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of what was then the European Economic Community (or the ‘Common Market’ as it was more commonly known), but in those days, the Conservatives were the most pro-EEC party while almost all of the prominent anti-EEC campaigners were in Labour.
The question in 1975 was: “”Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”, which required voters to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, as opposed to the ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ question we will answer in 2016.
The ‘Yes’ campaign was supported by the leaders of both the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Margaret Thatcher, who had recently become leader of the Conservatives, along with those who would be described as ‘moderates’ and in the political ‘centre ground’.
Most of the prominent ‘No’ campaigners were on the ‘left’ of the Labour Party and on the ‘right’ of the Conservative Party.
The ‘Yes’ campaign had the support of every national newspaper, with the exception of the little-red socialist Morning Star, as well as the bulk of the business community.
The ‘No’ campaign was run on a shoestring by comparison. Indeed, the donations Sainsbury’s and BP made to the ‘Yes’ campaign were almost three times the entire budget of the ‘No’ campaign.
Two of the ‘No’ campaign’s leading figures were Tony Benn and Michael Foot, both of whom were identified with the ‘hard left’ of the Labour Party. On the ‘hard right’, or, if we want to use a really abusive and meaningless label, the ‘far right’, was Enoch Powell, who prior to the previous year’s elections had quit the Conservative Party after rightly pointing out that their previous leader, Edward Heath, had taken the United Kingdom into the EEC without a mandate to do so.
Benn and Powell, both articulate, charismatic public speakers, expressed fears about the loss of national Parliamentary sovereignty and lack of democratic accountability in the EEC, though both men faced parody and ridicule, with Benn being depicted as a ‘Marxist’ and Powell as a ‘racist’. Add the controversial Ulsterman Dr Ian Paisley into the mix, and it was easy to caricature the ‘No’ camp as lacking moderate voices.
The businessman and economist John Mills (best known for his JML range of gadgets and appliances) was a prominent ‘No’ campaigner in 1975 and is heavily involved with the ‘Leave’ campaign in 2016, but his presence and profile back then wasn’t enough of a counterbalance.
The ‘Yes’ camp had Wilson, Thatcher as well as other political big hitters of the day, including Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins on side, but it is not entirely true to say the ‘No’ camp were all on the fringes of their parties. Barbara Castle could be associated with the ‘hard left’ at a push, but Peter Shore, one of the most vociferous anti-EEC campaigners both before and after the referendum, was associated with the ‘soft left’, though was not always treated as such by the media during the campaign.
Despite being a diverse tent, the ‘No’ camp lacked a prominent, popular and trusted figure who could take on the ‘Yes’ campaign with its resources and big names.
As the late Alistair McAlpine, treasurer of the ‘Yes’ campaign in 1975 put it in a 2005 interview: “The whole thrust of our campaign was to depict the anti-Marketers as unreliable people – dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path. It wasn’t so much that it was sensible to stay in, but that anybody who proposed that we came out was off their rocker or virtually Marxist.”
Years later, McAlpine would change his mind, and became a major backer of Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. But in 1975, the ‘establishment’ view, the ‘Project Fear’ of its day, was that staying in was the safe option, supported by ‘safe’ people including most of the political establishment and every major national newspaper, in an era where newspapers were far more widely-read and carried much more clout than they do today.
So why did Margaret Thatcher, who became much more Eurosceptic in later life, support a ‘Yes’ vote in 1975? At the time, the EEC project was regarded as broadly capitalist, and would provide economic opportunities in an era when the British Empire had come to an end. The trade union movement was mostly suspicious of it at the time, portraying it as a ‘capitalist club’ that would prevent a future Labour government from carrying out a socialist programme of policies.
Yet from Gaitskell to Benn, those on the ‘left’ had a proud track record of combining any concerns about the ‘capitalist club’ with convictions about national sovereignty and democratic accountability.
Back in 1975, opposition to EEC membership from those described as ‘right wing’ broadly took the view that the loss of national and Parliamentary sovereignty was of far more importance than the alleged economic benefits of staying in.
Inevitably, the heavy propaganda and scaremongering worked and the ‘Yes’ side won the 1975 referendum with 67% of the vote. But in the years that followed, it was the Labour Party who were the most Eurosceptic. By 1983, the party had shifted firmly to the ‘left’ under the leadership of Foot, and in that year’s general election manifesto included a firm commitment to withdraw Britain from the EEC without a referendum.
Following Labour’s crushing defeat in 1983, calls for withdrawal became fainter and the party’s position on the issue of EEC membership became less clear during the early years of Neil Kinnock’s leadership, with the matter only meriting three vague sentences in the often-muddled manifesto of 1987. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, which paved the way for the EEC to evolve into the European Union in the years that followed.
Therefore, right up until the late 1980s, the bulk of euroscepticism came from the Labour Party and the Tory back benches, with the Thatcher government being firmly in favour of continued membership.
The turning point came in September 1988 when the then-President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, gave a speech to the Trade Unions Congress in Bournemouth where he promised that the Commission would be a force to require governments to introduce pro-labour legislation.
A little under two weeks later, Mrs Thatcher retaliated in her famous Bruges speech, in which she said that she had not rolled back the frontiers of the state only for them to be re-imposed by a Brussels superstate.
This speech changed the terms of the EEC debate in Britain completely. The Labour Party now saw the project as socialist and as a way of reversing Thatcherism. In 1989, Labour underwent a policy review which resulted in a strong commitment towards the EEC.
From then on, the Conservative Party was deeply divided. For the final two years of her time as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher became increasingly sceptical, believing that the EEC was trying to introduce socialism through the back door, while the splits on the issue within Cabinet were to prove poisonous and deeply damaging not only to her authority, but also to that of her successor, John Major into the 1990s, as well as to every Conservative leader in the years since, a fact David Cameron is regularly being reminded of.
The Labour front bench has remained largely pro-EU in the years since 1989, and although there have been splits on the specifics such as membership of the euro, support for the EU project has remained strong.
That is not to say that there haven’t been a significant number of voices on the Labour back benches who remained strongly opposed to EU membership. Tony Benn, who remained a Labour MP until 2001, maintained the view that the principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability were of more importance than working people being ‘given’ rights by a foreign, unelected power, while also maintaining that the EU would prevent a Labour government from implementing what he considered to be important socialist policies, such as nationalising large sections of industry. Others on the ‘hard left’ including militant trade unionist Arthur Scargill, leader of his own Socialist Labour Party share this view.
In 2005, Tony Benn reflected: “You have to make your case – and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But in the sense that Margaret Thatcher has now come round to my view, Rupert Murdoch has now come round to my view, it wasn’t unsuccessful, was it?”
Anti-EU voices on the Labour back benches have by no means been confined to the ‘hard left’ with Kate Hoey and Frank Field, associated with the ‘right’ of the party, campaigning loudly for a ‘Leave’ vote in 2015, in line with long-held principles of theirs.
At ‘grassroots’ level, the split in the Labour Party is far deeper. Many Labour supporters who would be defined as urban, inner-city working class support Brexit on grounds of being sympathetic to some or all of Tony Benn’s arguments, combined with concerns about the impact mass immigration is having upon them in terms of the suppression of wages, housing and community cohesion. Labour supporters who wish to remain are typically middle class intellectuals who work in the public sector.
So what of the modern Conservative Party? The ‘grassroots’ are overwhelmingly Eurosceptic. Many of those who supported membership in 1975 on economic grounds will be supporting Brexit in 2016 due to issues of loss of sovereignty, overregulation and lack of border controls.
The Parliamentary party is as divided now as it was the day Margaret Thatcher left Downing St for the last time. The cracks have been papered over for periods, but they’ve never really gone away. So far, 23 Cabinet Ministers say they’ll campaign for Remain, and seven for leave. The Tory back benches appear to be split roughly fifty-fifty.
The only historical consistency since the 1970s is that the front bench of the governing party of the day has been supportive of continuing membership. Beyond that, both main parties and their supporters across Britain have always been divided.
Brexit is a cause supported by people from all walks of life, and from many different parts of the political spectrum.