One of the questions about the forthcoming EU referendum must revolve around why the UK finds itself in the position whereby we should need to have a referendum to determine our relationship with the EU. The answer for this takes us back to the circumstances surrounding the only previous time when we were given the opportunity to express our views; the 1975 referendum.
The situation at that time was that we had just joined the Common Market, which was wholly pitched as a trading arrangement designed to eliminate many tariff barriers, along the lines of the successful trade zone with the Scandinavian countries. The 1975 referendum, set up and sanctioned by Harold Wilson, was touted as a confirmation that the UK wanted to stay with the agreement negotiated by the Edward Heath government. The pamphlets produced by the government reassured us that this was a “new deal with our partners in Europe”, and that our Parliament would not lose its powers. One such leaflet expressly referred to the issue of sovereignty:
It was recognised even then that there was a danger of anonymous ‘faceless bureaucrats’ running our affairs. Indeed the inclusion of this section in the leaflet may have been because the Heath government was made fully aware of this concern through a Foreign and Commonwealth Office confidential memo in 1971, including a section on the remoteness of the bureaucracy:
“It is generally acknowledged that in modern industrialised society the impersonal and remote workings of the Government bureaucracy are a source of major anxiety and mistrust … In entry to the Community we may seem to be opting for a system in which bureaucracy will be more remote (as well as largely foreign) and will operate in ways many of which are already determined and which are deeply strange to us. This bureaucracy is by common consent more powerful than compared with the democratic systems of the Community than is ideal.”
It goes on:
“Yet the way to remedy this balance without reducing the Community to a more standing association for negotiation between national Ministers is by strengthening the Community’s democratic processes which in turn means more change and more loss of sovereignty…”
It is evident that the intention from the start was to create an association with the Community nations which was not about free and bilateral trade, but the surrender of national powers into an artificially constructed entity of ever-expanding autonomy. The FCO was careful to advise on the public concern if the implications on national sovereignty were to surface:
“Before entry it is important to deal squarely with the anxieties about British power and influence (masquerading under the term sovereignty) by presenting the choice between the effect of entry and on Britain’s power and influence in a rapidly changing world. After entry there would be a major responsibility on HMG and on all political parties not to exacerbate public concern by attributing unpopular measures or unfavourable economic developments to the remote and unmanageable workings of the Community.”
The ‘No’ campaign did highlight the issue in its literature, with a prescient warning that the UK parliament would be subservient to the Common Market:
However, arrayed against that, the message that the Common Market was a just a mutual agreement between independent nations was assiduously repeated throughout the media of the day; skirting around the issue of sovereignty and any suggestion that the Community intended to take over large areas of UK government responsibilities. The officially supplied pamphlets of the day were in favour of staying in, and there was a campaign from the opposition parties with the same message. The main supporters were:
They were a mixed bag of Labour, union representatives, Conservatives, and farmers who were eagerly looking forward to the generous agricultural subsidies already enjoyed by the French. Two of the prominent ‘Yes’ group, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, went on to be founder members of the breakaway SDP ‘gang-of-four’, after leaving the Labour party in the 1980’s partly over its reversion to opposition of the European Community.
It can be seen that although the ‘Out’ campaign was allowed some official token recognition, the real drive was for the ‘In’ campaign, and came from the considerable resources of the government, the Westminster machine, and the civil service. They were were only too keen to ensure that the ultimate aim of the Community was to take away diverse national identities, and replace them with its own single dominant authority.
Of all the many intractable problems encountered by the UK since joining the Common Market, or the many misleading premises made about the Community by the ‘Yes’ campaigners in the 1975 referendum, the biggest is the blatant falsehood that the Community had no intention of ultimately making the UK parliament subservient to Community rule. From the government referendum pamphlet:
“The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposal for a new law or new tax if he considers it to be against British interests.”
When we joined the Common Market all members had to agree on everything or no new laws could be passed. Since then, the European Community has expanded into the European Union with 28 members. In order to get legislation through, Qualified Majority Voting has been introduced, where if the UK wants to block a bad decision, we have to get enough countries on side to represent 38 percent of Europe’s population. Given that 80 percent of Europe relies on Brussels for handouts and bailouts, the chances of blocking anything which harms a perpetual net contributor like the UK, are very remote.
The statistics show that every time the UK has tried to block a law in the European Council of Ministers, that law has been introduced irrespective of our clear wishes. In the 19 years from 1996 to 2014 we voted ‘No’ 55 times without effect. They include a diverse range of topics:
- the number of hours we can work
- energy and climate change
- employment rights for temporary workers
- food labelling
- fishery resources
- sugar prices
- tobacco advertising
- maritime safety and refugees
- increases in the EU budget
- pay and pensions for EU staff
- funding for EU foreign policy and aid initiatives
It would be astounding to those who voted ‘Yes’ in the 1975 referendum in the belief that it was a vote for a free trade bloc, to see the above level of interference from the EU, and to read the greater list of 43 major ‘competences’ which Parliament has voluntarily given up.
Our Prime Minister Cameron’s position parallels that of Harold Wilson in 1975 with his Labour party split over the issue of UK membership of the Common Market. Wilson promised to renegotiate Britain’s position in the Community, and to correct the unfavourable terms on which the country had entered the bloc a year earlier.
Mr Wilson claimed that he had won a “new deal” for taxpayers after a “long and tough” renegotiation battle. The new deal turned out to be some cosmetic changes to agricultural trade, but the Government’s case and the wilful secrecy about the inevitable loss of sovereignty was enough to swing voters to a ‘Yes’ majority.
It is the latter issue, sovereignty, which should be the real focus of the ‘No’ campaign in the forthcoming referendum. A few minor stage-managed concessions pulled out of the hat by Cameron, are nothing compared to the copious benefits and bright prospects which we would obtain by being relieved of the entire EU burden. The referendum will be about a transition to a position of greater effectiveness and political power, not just for UKIP and the ‘Out’ campaigners in the other parties, but for all politicians who wish to create change in the UK.
There are many ardent politicians who tell us that they have a grand manifesto for future change in the UK, but who also tell us to vote to stay ‘In’. They should explain to us how they hope to fulfil their future manifesto claims, when being ‘In’ means that they will have increasingly less control over large swathes of UK legislation; less than even the limited amount which they are allowed to possess now.
We should be very aware that the ‘In’ campaign will do their best to skew the meaning of the question in the referendum. A ‘STAY’ vote will be interpreted by them as an expression of complete satisfaction with the EU, and permission to continue with ‘ever closer union’. A ‘LEAVE’ vote will show that we do have some concerns, but which can be settled instead by simple treaty adjustments or by negotiated extension of the treaties to allay our issues.
The choices in the referendum this time should be clear. ‘STAY’ means continuing down the EU path to national oblivion. ‘LEAVE’ means that we detach completely, unburden ourselves from the EU, and regain the power to determine our own free and prosperous destiny.