By Bradley Stead
Almost 4 years on from an ‘In-Out’ referendum, Britain has finally begun the process of leaving the European Union, to the joy/relief of one half of the population, and the despair and dismay of the other. The issue of ‘Brexit’ has divided the nation and will continue to divide the nation for the foreseeable future. It may even bring about the break-up of the Union of Great Britain altogether, but this is just one possibility. Experts have given us as much information as possible, but in this ‘Post-truth Age’ people aren’t interested in facts or what experts who know what they’re talking about have to say. Instead, anything that suggests Brexit may be a bad idea is labelled as “Project Fear” or just “Remoaners” complaining because they haven’t got their way. If you haven’t been able to tell already, I am a “Remoaner”. Why have I told you this? Simply because everyone has bias and that affects how they may write and express themselves. Impartiality is, in my opinion, a myth, and rather than pretend to be impartial I have happily admitted as to where I stand on the issue of Brexit.
The main source of information for this article comes from Martin Pugh’s book ‘State and Society: A Social and Political History of Britain since 1870” and any other sources used will be made obvious to you. This is so you can read the information for yourself, and make your own mind up. The aim of this article isn’t to convince people whether leaving the European Union is a good or bad thing.
The aim is to explore the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe since 1945, how Britain entered into the European Economic Community (EEC) which later became the EU, the relationship during that time, and explore some of the possibilities to what might happen now Britain is leaving. You may disagree with what I write, and that is perfectly fine. Disagreement and argument is what history, in general, is about, and ever since 2016, there have been arguments and disagreements about Brexit so it is nothing new.
1945-1973: Before membership
Since 1945 and the end of the Second World War, Britain’s relationship with the other European nations has been a fractured one. A once close relationship with France was allowed to dissipate following the war, for example, in 1949 Jean Monnet, a French political economist and diplomat, proposed an “Anglo-French economic union” which was rejected by the British government, leading him to make this proposal to Germany instead. A year later, there were proposals for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which were again rejected by Britain, but by 1952 this had 6 members. Britain, and at the time Winston Churchill was more focussed on maintaining the Commonwealth and close relations with the United States of America. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 1955 Britain was invited to talks about more European integration and a ‘Common Market’ which proposed the removal of internal trade barriers, a common external tariff and the free mobility of capital and labour. Eventually, this would lead to the Treaty of Rome (1957), creating the EEC, but Britain refused to be part of this. Instead of the British thought that the EEC would damage the advantageous trade they had with the Commonwealth, and so as a countermove, they established the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. As Pugh describes, the EFTA wasn’t an adequate alternative to the EEC either economically or politically, and it later complicated subsequent applications for membership to the EEC, and “had Britain agreed to play a constructive role in the formative phase of the EEC, she would have had no great difficulty in negotiating concessions to reflect her special interests in Commonwealth trade and her access to cheaper food.” (Pugh, 2012)
By the 1960s, Britain’s status as a ‘Great Power’ appeared precarious. The USA and Commonwealth had been props to this, but the EEC were reducing tariffs, creating central institutions and achieving faster economic growth than Britain. In 1950, the difference in per capita GDP between Britain and the 6 founding members of the EU (EU6) stood at 28%. By 1961 this difference was 10%, by 1967 the average difference was 6%, and by 1969 Britain’s “per capita GDP was 2% below the EU6 average” (Campos, 2015). This is why, in 1961, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan began Britain’s first application for membership into the EEC, agreeing to a common agricultural policy, commercial policy and the external tariff, only for French President Charles de Gaulle veto the application. De Gaulle’s reason for this was because he wanted more Anglo-French defence co-operation, and he saw that the British relationship with the USA was starting to decline.
The election of Huddersfield’s Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1964, however, saw a renewal in the Atlantic relationship as Britain maintained troops ‘east of Suez’ as well as a nuclear deterrent policy. Due to economic and political pressures during the 1960s, these defence policies were revised, leading to expensive aircraft programmes being scrapped in favour of cheaper American substitutes. In July 1967, a deteriorating economy meant that Britain had to cut forces in Malaya and Singapore by half by 1970, and eventually full withdrawal in 1975. In 1968 there was the decision to completely withdraw from the east of Suez (apart from in Hong Kong) by 1971, as well as the devaluing of the pound. A second application for entry into the EEC had been underway since 1966 but again was vetoed by de Gaulle in November 1967.
The resignation of de Gaulle (1969) and election of pro-European Edward Heath (1970) meant that Britain’s third application for membership proved to be successful. There are a couple of reasons for this: aside from the resignation of de Gaulle, the French now feared the growing economic dominance of Germany and so began to see Britain as a useful counterweight against that. Britain had declined as a manufacturing power compared to Germany, to the point where the USA started to see Germany as a more important power than Britain, meaning the Atlantic relationship was less appealing. Furthermore, the EEC was no longer seen as an experiment but a proven success, which meant that once Britain entered there was little they could do to change/modify rules or influence other members away from a more politically coherent community. In 1970 negotiations for membership began and were concluded by 1971, at which stage the House of Commons approved entry into the EEC (356 votes to 244) which allowed Heath to sign the treaty of accession in January 1972. A year later, Britain officially became members of the EEC.
The most notable trend throughout this period is Britain’s spurned chances to be one of the formative members of the EEC. Instead, Britain held onto the close relationship with the USA and this idea of still being an empire. Had Britain joined the EEC sooner, then perhaps some of the modern criticism of “We don’t want to be dictated to by a foreign organisation/court” wouldn’t apply. Indeed, we may not have even had that extra layer of scrutiny over our government’s actions.
1973-2016: Britain as members of the EEC/EU
Upon entering the EEC, Britain didn’t receive the economic stimulus it hoped it would get. Britain joined under unfavourable terms, for example with a smaller and more efficient farming sector, Britain received little benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy and was contributing disproportionately to it. By 1978, Britain had paid 20% of EEC income and had only received 8.7% of its spending. The timing of Britain’s entry was also poor. The Arab-Israeli conflict caused an oil crisis in 1973, which saw a 400% increase to oil prices, causing economic growth in Western Europe to be checked for the first time in 25 years. All this meant that, rather than receiving an economic stimulus, Britain entered into a recession and a period of inflation. This destroyed Heath’s government in 1974 and saw Harold Wilson returned to office, where he began to renegotiate the terms of entry with the EEC. He achieved only marginal modifications regarding the rebate on contributions and having easier access for Commonwealth products.
These terms were then put to an ‘In-Out’ referendum in June 1975. Of the almost 25.8 million votes cast, 67.2% voted to remain, and 32.8% voted out (64.5% voter turn out). Despite the recession and inflation of the 1970s, there was a fear that things would be worse if Britain was outside of the EEC. Inflation continued even after the referendum, as did rising unemployment. Britain was an uncooperative member of the EEC: opposed changes, resisted the application of common policies and traditionalists like Wilson (and his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan) attempted to renew the relationship with the USA, as seen by the Polaris submarine system being updated.
After the pro-European government of the earlier 1970s, by the 1980s, the British governments’ attitude to Europe had shifted. Margaret Thatcher saw the power of Brussels as excessive, despite campaigning for the UK to remain in the EEC in 1975. She also argued for a common European approach to defence, and would eventually sign up to the Single European Market and the European Exchange-rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1990 (BBC, 2013). Despite that though, Thatcher was vehemently anti-European, instead preferring to hold onto the remnants of Britain’s status as a Great Power and rebuilding the relationship with America. In 1988, she gave her controversial “Bruges Speech” which many say shifted the Conservatives from ‘The Party of Europe’ to a party of ‘Euroscepticism’.
The 1990s began with high inflation, rising house prices and unsustainable mortgages. The value of the pound had been rising as Britain was about to join the ERM, and in an attempt to protect that value the government decided to raise interest rates. The effect of this was a reduction in investment and profits, triggering a recession, which meant that by 1992, sterling was removed from the ERM and devalued by around 15%. These conditions and her anti-Europe views forced Thatcher out of the Conservative party and meant John Major became leader. Major signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, committing Britain to further European integration and the creation of the European Union in 1993.
In 1994, Britain saw the creation of the Referendum Party which contested the 1997 General Election. It won 2.6% of the total votes cast. Perhaps the most famous Eurosceptic party are UKIP. Formed in 1993, UKIP steadily increased support during elections for European Parliament. For example, in the 2004 European elections, they received the third-largest number of votes, but by the 2014 European elections, they received the most votes with 27.5% of the vote. In the House of Commons though UKIP only managed to win 2 seats in 2014, and then only held onto one seat at the 2015 General Election. What can be concluded from this is that, Euroscepticism hasn’t had a particularly large impact on the British public until the 2016 referendum.
At the turn of the millennium, Britain began to debate and doubt about its national identity. Membership of the EU appeared as one alternative for Britain’s role in the world, but for some, it was part of this problem of identity. Economically, Europe had brought many benefits. In 1988, European investment in Britain had doubled to £46 billion. Europe also accounted for 58% of all British exports by value, and 64% of manufactured exports. Despite this, the popular perception of Europe became distorted by reactionary press who neglected the benefits of European law and integration. Instead, Europe was made to be a scapegoat for the failures of Britain. Tony Blair was in favour of more European integration and suggested that there would be a referendum on whether Britain should join the Euro or not. The more common complaint around the EU was, and still is, immigration. By 2007, only 8% of Britain’s population had been born abroad, whereas in places such as France, Germany and the USA this figure was 10, 11, and 12%. Furthermore, immigrants helped to boost the economy because, as young workers they became taxpayers. Also, they accepted low paid jobs and helped keep the NHS running. Of course, now though the NHS will be receiving £350 million a week!
UKIP’s dominance in the 2014 European elections can be seen as one of the reasons why David Cameron began to make membership of the EU more of an issue. Another reason would be that part of his own party consistently demanded a referendum on membership, and so, some would argue, as an attempt to control his own party, Cameron attempted negotiations with EU and put the results of those talks to another ‘In-Out’ referendum.
It’s at this point where everyone knows what happens next. 17.4 million people (52% of voters) voted for Britain and its population of 66 million to leave the EU. Then ensued almost 4 years of negotiations, elections, delays, extensions and division, until Boris Johnson promised to “Get Brexit done” when in reality, it’s only just started.
So, what does this mean for Britain? It means Britain can open itself to the world, despite previously being part of a trade bloc with 27 other nations that already have agreements with nations around the world. It means that we have so far experienced, and will continue to experience, the rise of right-wing and far-right politics, not just in this country, but globally. Racism and hate crimes are on the rise. Jewish shops have been vandalised with anti-Semitic graffiti in London. The abuse of black footballers and racist or homophobic chanting in stadiums as plagued not just the premier league, but the lower leagues of English football too. There was a massive outcry when the England National team suffered racist abuse in Bulgaria, but when it happens in a stadium in England it’s just a £10,000 fine. What Brexit has done, and will continue to do, is to make racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism more prevalent in society.
There is also a trade deal with Trump’s USA to come, as once again Britain attempts to have a special relationship with America. Will the NHS get sold? Johnson says “no” but Trump says “everything is on the table”. Nobody can be quite sure what economic benefits Brexit will bring. Either way, it will be more difficult for those who want to travel and live abroad.
Maybe it will all be fine, and people like me will be proved wrong. Or maybe it will turn out to be bad economically and people will realise that Britain isn’t as great as we would all like it to be. Nationalism is on the rise and we’ll wait to see how long it lasts.
If Brexit turns out well, then that would be good, obviously, but if Brexit does turn out horribly, then it will fall to future generations to pick up the pieces.
BBC. (2013, April 8). Thatcher and her tussels with Europe. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11598879
Campos, N. &. (2015, February 3). Why did Britain join the EU? A new insight from economic history. Retrieved from Vox: https://voxeu.org/article/britain-s-eu-membership-new-insight-economic-history
Pugh, M. (2012). State and Society: A Social and Political History of Britain since 1870 (4th Edition ed.). London: Bloomsbury.