Saturday, 4 October 2014

2015: A Year of Anniversaries and Landmarks...

Skip Kite's feature-length film about the life and times of the late Tony Benn, Will and Testament, covers most of aspects of his personal and public life - his parents, wartime service in the RAF, the death of his brother Michael, his marriage to Caroline, his renunciation of a peerage and subsequent career in Harold Wilson's Cabinet, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his condemnation of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

But one event is missing, quite important as it happens: Tony Benn's opposition to Britain's membership of the European Economic Community from the late 1960s and all that followed from that, principally his idea for a referendum on Britain's membership two years after the deed was done. What may seem to some an interesting but redundant bit of history is likely to crackle into life once again next year, the year of the General Election.

For those with a taste for historical synchronicity, next year two important anniversaries are due to take place. June 18, 2015, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which saw a coalition of European powers defeat the army of Napoleon Bonaparte and end French dominance of the continent. The other anniversary on June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1975 referendum the result of which saw Britain defeated by another coalition of European powers. The vote to stay in the ten-state ECC, as it was then, underwrote French dominance of Europe at least until the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The difference between Britain now and the Britain in that long hot summer of 1975 when I was 26 is that ordinary people have alternative means of communication to get to the truth of things. I spent this afternoon and half the evening, for example, watching Michael Elliott's 1996 four-part documentary for BBC 2, A Poisoned Chalice, about the formation of the EEC and Britain's various attempts to come to terms with its mutable manifestations - the EEC, the European Community and now the European Union.

Usually, this deeply troubled relationship is pitched as a battle between self-government and government by the EU, in a word sovereignty. The way we would do things over here is not the way they do things over there. Those with a tendency towards this Manichean view of things would not have enjoyed Elliott's second film which explained how Edward Heath's Conservative Government gerrymandered the vote on the European Communities Bill in 1972 with the collusion of the Labour Party - at least the pro-European part of it.

The vote, 309 in favour, 301 against, was accomplished because of a secret deal between the chief whips of the two main parties which meant that during votes on the 12 clauses in the 37-page Bill, sufficient Labour MPs were absent to give the Government a majority. Tony Benn described this as a "coup d'etat by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty." He's on film saying this, but oddly, not in Will and Testament.

The 1975 referendum - either in or out - was fought on economics by the pro-lobby which had more than £1.5m to spend on it. There was Shirley Williams, then part of the Labour Government, going round telling housewives that prices would not go up. But, as Heath later admitted, membership of the EEC wasn't about economics, stupid; it was about federalism. Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, from opposites sides of the Commons, both saw that and said so unequivocally. In February 1974, Powell advised Conservatives to vote Labour at the General Election if they valued British sovereignty.

In 1970 Edward Heath assured the public: "Entry could only take place with the full-hearted consent of the British people." Powell said later of that statement: "He knew he hadn't got it and this is coming home to roost on his successors." The ousting of the Iron Lady by the Tory Party hierarchy in 1990 tends to obscure the travails of her successor John Major. Defeated in the House of Commons on the Maastricht Bill first time around, then a vote of confidence and in 1995, 20 years after the referendum, a call-my-bluff resignation as leader of the Conservative Party. Euro-sceptic John Redwood challenged him and lost. Next year, 20 years after that 'back me or sack me' leadership stand-off, 40 years after the referendum on Britain's membership, the issue of the greater European empire (28 states and counting) will be back.  

In spite of all that's happened since June 5, 1975 - including the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco, the wars caused by European meddling (first in Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine), the bail-outs, the immigration free-for-all - the pro-marketeers, as they were known 40 years ago, still bang on about the benefits of being in 'the club'. The more far-seeing among their opponents are now working out practicable strategies for getting out of this bankrupt institution. To paraphrase the 1975 feel-good pop song in support of staying in, we've got to get out to get on.

The cost to the British taxpayer of EU membership over the next five years is £40 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility - more than the £17 billion that Chancellor George Osborne says he still needs to take out of public spending.


Edward Spalton said...

May we post this on the website of the cross - party Campaign for an Independent Britain?

I thought this memory of the 1975 referendum might amuse you.

My father was a triple dyed-in-the-wool Tory. He said " I don't like this a Europe business. There's something about it that doesn't smell right". Then he paused for a few seconds and added " But that man Wedgewood Benn's against it, so there must be some hood in it"

I was sorry that the microphone did not come my way when my wife and I attended Tony Benn's last road dhow in Derby. I think it would have amused him.

I did not share many of Benn's views but he was a democrat.
" How do I sack you?" was always his question to political leaders but, of course, with the EU Commission, there is no realistic chance of ever doing so.

jim greenhalf said...

You may Edward, if you think it's worthwhile.