1973: when Labour boycotted the European Parliament

In Uncategorized on April 5, 2017 by kmflett

Joining and Leaving Europe

Theresa May’s decision to give notice that Britain will leave the EU by invoking Article 50 on March 29th has proved controversial. It is by no means clear what terms if any will apply to a British exit from the EU or indeed how long this might take.

No doubt the Tory Government will have in mind making workers pay for any financial impact while protecting, as they can, their allies in business.

Almost forgotten in the furore around Brexit is that during the 2016 Referendum there was agreement even amongst most of those who wanted to remain in the EU that as an institution it required significant reform. Many who wanted to leave queried whether it was in fact possible to reform the EU.

Much of the discussion was framed by how the EU had reacted to the election of a left of centre Government in Greece. That matter remains unresolved but again has dipped out of media focus.

It is too easy to forget that while leaving the EU has stirred political passions, when Britain joined what was then the EEC on 1st January 1973 there were equally sharp controversies.

The Tory Government of Edward Heath had held a Parliamentary vote on joining the EEC in 1972 but no referendum was held, because it was claimed this would be ‘unconstitutional’.

Much of the Labour Party was opposed to EEC membership. Then engineering (AEUW, not part of UNITE) union General Secretary Hugh Scanlon was questioned about his position on Europe at a Labour Party NEC meeting on 28th March 1973. Tony Benn recorded in his diary that Scanlon had said that he was not too fussed either way since whether in or out it was still capitalism that had to be to dealt with.

Scanlon’s union had however moved the successful motion at the 1972 Labour conference committing the Party, when in office, to hold a Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC. This underlined a key theme. Namely that if Britain was to be in Europe it should be as the result of a democratic decision by the people not just Parliament.

This meant that before a Labour Government held just such a Referendum in 1975- which decided to stay in Europe- Labour played no part in EEC institutions but rather boycotted them as undemocratic. Then Labour leader Harold Wilson was lucky indeed that social media did not then exist. He would have been subjected to much frothing about how Labour was not representing people properly.

As it was the Euro-fanatics had to make do with Roy Jenkins resigning as deputy leader of the Party in April 1972 because the Shadow Cabinet had had the temerity back the idea of holding Referendum on EEC membership. The Guardian reported, ‘Labour’s elaborate house of cards on the Common Market collapsed in bitterness and confusion….with the resignation of its Deputy Leader’ underlining that its recent vitriol against Labour is nothing new.

Opposition from the left went much further than Scanlon though.

Tony Benn notes in his diary for 1973 that Michael Foot, who ten years later would be Labour leader, was opposed full stop to the idea of the EEC, believing that the world did not need any more power blocs like America. He goes on to make a point which is surely as valid now as it was then:

‘the most important policy decisions such as those concerning the EEC.. which involved a major shift of power to international organisations were reached without any serious examination of their impact on the democratic process and in complete disregard of the growing  countervailing pressure to decentralise political power’.

This post appeared in the Morning Star 3rd April 2017


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