Richard Ritchie: Brexit. Four great Commons debates that show how we got here – and what’s at stake.
Richard Ritchie is the author of The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
The reading of past debates in Hansard is a salutary exercise. I learnt this in researching my recent history of The Progress Trust where I was constantly impressed by how often political arguments seem to repeat themselves. But no more so than on the question of Europe.
Before joining the European Community, the Commons held three debates on the question of principle – four, if one includes the debate concerning the Labour Government’s refusal to countenance the Schuman plan in June 1950. All of them were considered historic by their participants. The final debate lasted six days (21st – 28th October 1971), sitting often until 2am and on one occasion until 7am.
In passing, it’s impossible to ignore changes in Parliament’s character between then and now. In 1971, speeches were still of unlimited duration, there were far fewer female contributions, and the Speaker (unlike now) was polite and impartial. The only time a Speaker came near to issuing a rebuke in all these debates was when Selwyn Lloyd on October 27 1971 exploded “It is really not tolerable that the Rt. Hon. Member for Leeds East (Denis Healey) should continue to interrupt from a sedentary position.”
But what strikes one most is how, with hindsight, the inevitability of today’s crisis is apparent. The issue of sovereignty was always acknowledged as crucial, and politics took precedence over economics from the start. Moreover, the Commons was always divided on the issue, with a constant sense from opponents of entry that the Government of the day was exceeding its democratic mandate.
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The debate on the Schuman Plan is instructive, because it shows how the Conservatives were as willing as Labour to say one thing in Opposition, and another in Government. Churchill criticised the Labour Government for its refusal to consider a plan which he himself, as Prime Minister, was to judge unacceptable. The kernel of the argument was whether Schuman’s plan necessitated a “supra-national authority” as claimed by Attlee, but denied by Churchill who described it as “an odious phrase.”
And yet, Churchill took Attlee’s view once he regained office. Incidentally, it was during this debate that Edward Heath made his maiden speech, urging the Labour Government to “go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to coordinate it in the way suggested.” Heath, at least, was always consistent. The most striking comment was uttered by the left-wing intellectual, Richard Crossman – “The amount of enthusiasm for federal union in any country is a measure of its defeatism and of its feeling of inability to measure up to its own problems.”
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It was not until Harold Macmillan’s attempt in 1961 to join the ‘Common Market’ that the Commons again fully debated the principles involved – although only in respect of authorising negotiations. The debate contained many interesting statements, including Macmillan’s assurance that “it is quite unreal to suppose we could be compelled suddenly to accept a flood of cheap labour.”
Of special relevance to today was the distinction between applying for membership under Articles 237 and 238 of the Treaty of Rome. The Labour Party preferred the latter because it simply meant joining ‘a customs union’. But as Macmillan pointed out, this amounted to no more than becoming “country members” (it was typical of Macmillan to use a club analogy). He continued: “it would raise all the same problems without giving us any position in which we could share in the decisions of the Community in all its aspects.” In other words, precisely the same objection as is made today of Theresa May’s approach.
On the economic side, the debate was between those who feared economic exclusion from a large market, and those who felt this country was betraying its farmers, and the Commonwealth. On the political side, the argument was over sovereignty. Derek Walker-Smith was the main Conservative opponent of entry, urging the Commons to consider “the direction and destinations” to which membership would lead, and emphasising that “for the Community economic union is a prelude to political union.”
He was not alone in warning of what came to be known as the ratchet effect. The word ‘sovereignty” was discussed frequently during this short two debate in August. It’s a myth to suppose it was of lesser concern in 1961 than in 1971 or indeed today. And from the start, it was divisive. As the Conservative MP Sir Robin Turton warned, “there are hundreds of thousands of Conservatives who hold the views that I hold” on sovereignty, and continued “I fear that the Government will split not only the Commonwealth but the Conservative Party.”
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Because this attempt to join the Common Market was blocked by de Gaulle, the Commons was never required to debate the actual terms of entry. By the time Harold Wilson launched a second attempt to join the Community in 1967, there was a greater appetite to debate in detail the economic dimension.
A three day debate took place between 8th and 10th May, by which time Edward Heath was leader of the Opposition. While resentful of the lack of support offered by Labour to his negotiations in 1961, Heath offered the Government almost unequivocal backing on condition that, as he had stated a few months earlier, Wilson’s application was based on full acceptance of “the Treaty of Rome, the common external tariff, the abolition of the internal tariff, the common agricultural policy and the movement towards economic union.”
Wilson opened the debate with a speech lasting nearly one and a half hours, and most of it was devoted to economic matters relating to agriculture, the movement of capital and the Commonwealth. On the political dimension, Wilson was mostly interested in how membership would affect relations with Russia, and issues of peace and security in general. He was less concerned with ‘sovereignty’ although he did make the extraordinary claim that “by far the greater part of our domestic law would remain unchanged after entry.”
There was also greater concern than in 1961 over the dangers of exclusion. Sir Alec Douglas-Home argued “the country is in danger of being put out of business” although he conceded that “the difficulties of grafting Britain on to a Community which will achieve complete integration by 1970 are much greater than they would have been five years ago.” By 1967, immigration was also a much bigger issue than in 1961, but this did not prevent Wilson from echoing Macmillan in his emphasis that “the Government do not believe that there is likely to be any large net increase in the number of EEC nationals coming here to work.”
Backbenchers of both parties preferred to debate the issues of principle. Duncan Sandys, for example, was the precursor of Michael Heseltine in arguing that “in this age of super-states, Britain by herself is no longer in a position to exercise any really effective influence in international affairs.” Socialists such as Michael Foot feared a capitalist conspiracy (just as Corbyn does today). Internationalists argued that internationalism does not “reside behind tariff walls.” And it was the Ulster MP Captain Lawrence Orr who expressed most succinctly the sovereignty concern: “It is a loss of sovereignty which can never be regained. Once we sign the Treaty and are in, every kind of sanction could be used against us, and would be used against us, if we sought to abrogate it.” The Labour MP Manny Shinwell urged that more attention be paid “to what is being said on the other side, on the Continent”, a warning ignored by the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, who stated “we expect to get in.”
But what distinguished this debate from its equivalent six years earlier was that Conservative opponents of entry tabled their own critical amendment, albeit unsupported by the official Opposition. While only 26 Conservatives supported the ‘rebel’ amendment (although 62 MPs voted against the application itself), it was the first manifestation of divisions to come. Before leaving the 1967 debate, the temptation to quote Percy Grieve, Dominic Grieve’s father, is too great to resist in illuminating the family atmosphere in which his son grew up: “The changes in law resulting from accession to the Community would not affect the ordinary man or woman in this country, who simply would not realise the changes resulting in the laws dealing with commerce and restrictive practices.”
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Everyone was agreed that the final debate of principle, in 1971, was different from its predecessors because here Parliament was asked to approve a final decision to join “the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated.” Inevitably, therefore, the debate was not just about the principle but also the terms of entry.
The consequence of this was an inordinate amount of time was taken up by a boring quarrel between the two front benches as to whether Harold Wilson and the Labour Party had again changed their minds and could have negotiated something better. Wilson denied the former, and asserted the latter. Heath and the Conservatives in turn accused Wilson of subterfuge and lack of principle. It was a forerunner of what we are seeing today. Wilson had no more chance of winning better terms in 1971 than Corbyn has in 2019. But the farce of pretending otherwise has to be enacted, while the issues of principle are evaded.
However, a six day debate afforded plenty of opportunity to debate every angle, and the arguments expressed on this occasion retain a resonance for us today. Dennis Healey described the debate “as the end of the beginning of an argument which has lasted for more than 15 years.” Peter Shore put it better in saying “I sense that neither here nor in this country are we at the end of this great debate but rather at the beginning.”
When it came to the economic dimension, the quarrel was over familiar ground, although regional policy had assumed greater importance for Labour because of its radically different approach. Also, this debate contained for the first time detailed discussion over Britain’s net contribution to the EEC Budget, which the Government was keen to downplay but where Labour was ultimately vindicated – culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s struggle to reduce this country’s net contribution in 1984. Nevertheless, much of this argument was about statistics, growth rates and forecasts about which, like today, neither side had any justification for certainty. One could almost substitute the numbers cited then for the numbers extrapolated now, and be none the wiser. As in 1967, for Sir Alec Douglas-Home the question was simple: “Where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”
But the political implications were not to be crowded out by disputes over “the terms” or economic projections. These implications now included to a greater extent than before the issue of defence, as Heath was suspected by an increasingly unilateralist Labour Party of planning an Anglo-French nuclear force. Essentially, the sovereignty argument was still between those who, like Keith Joseph, believed “it will never be requisite upon us once we are in the Community to take any decisions, or to join in any decision, against our national interest”; and those like the Labour MP Michael English who pointed out that “if every member of the Cabinet had a right of veto, there would be no Cabinet decisions.”
A Conservative MP called Peter Trew predicted “The British people could find themselves on a bandwagon travelling in a direction not of their choosing and at a speed which they could not control.” Tony Benn argued that defence and foreign policy “are to be put in for harmonisation with tariffs and taxation.” Derek Walker-Smith referred to “the new fashionable expression” of ‘elitism’ and concluded “If this is the product of elitism – government by community decree, with Parliament a rubber stamp – new elitism is old autocracy writ French. If this is elitism, then give me democracy.”
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So, what are the main lessons of these debates for today’s MPs? It was Benn who said in the debate: “I think that history is unlikely to confirm any of our certainties expressed, and that what the historians will want to know is how deeply we thought about the possibilities.” Events have occurred which were not fully perceived. Perhaps the most important is the unification of Germany and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The second is the enlargement of the EU. It is harder now than then to argue that the EU does not embrace most of Europe. Another development not fully acknowledged was Scottish nationalism, although the Tory MP Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell (known to his contemporaries as “Mad Mitch”) got it right when he argued that “nation states are being eroded, but are being eroded not only from above but from below as well, and with the weakening of nation states there are supra-national groupings and sub-national independence movements.” The Northern Ireland border was hardly discussed, although Stanley McMaster, the Unionist MP for Belfast East, feared the movement of labour from Eire to Ulster.
But just as striking are the similarities. For example, then as now there was concern over Britain’s influence in any alternative grouping. The Labour MP Ronald Brown, who was George Brown’s younger brother, stated “I object to this country joining any grouping (such as EFTA) in which we have a subordinate role. This is the great value of our joining Europe, that we will be on equal terms with our partners.” This is precisely what is argued by today’s critics of ‘Norway-plus’ and its variations. It was also frequently argued that the Government failed to listen to the Community. One can’t help wondering whether it would not have been better for everyone if the advice of “people of some authority” in the Common Market, quoted by George Brown in 1961, had been followed: “If you are coming in believing that this is no more than an economic arrangement, we would much rather that you did not come in.”
Finally, there is the issue of public consent. There were just as many complaints then as now over the Government’s attempts to influence public opinion and the illegitimate use of taxpayers’ money. There were frequent calls for either a general election or a referendum. Benn again put it best when he said “There are such sharp differences of opinion within each party that it would not be possible to decide the issue at a general Election, even if the leadership of the two major parties were taking contrary views.”
That was the dilemma then, as it is today. Parliament and Parties have always been divided on this issue. ‘Sovereignty’ was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning. The question now is whether those divisions within the Conservative Party which have been apparent ever since Macmillan made his first application (and before) are finally bringing about its destruction. If so, nobody can say they weren’t warned.
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