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The Long Goodbye: Britain and Europe –1975-2020

In Part Two of his look back at Britain’s journey with the EU, Otto English charts how Eurosceptic forces were unleashed after the 1975 Referendum and channelled in the 2010s by those looking to capitalise on the increasingly hard lives of many in the UK.

THE LONG GOODBYEBritain and Europe1975-2020

In Part Two of his look back at Britain’s journey with the EU, Otto English charts how Eurosceptic forces were unleashed after the 1975 Referendum and channelled in the 2010s by those looking to capitalise on the increasingly hard lives of many in the UK

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The 1975 UK Referendum on membership of the then EEC (European Economic Community) had been decisive. 67.2% of the electorate had voted to stay in the common market and, contrary to what modern Brexiters would have you believe, the referendum debate had been far more than about mere trade. It had encompassed sovereignty, currency, foreign relations and the future direction of the EEC towards “ever closer union”.

It seemed that the case for Britain’s place in Europe had been made and the country moved on into disco and Wings and the first Star Wars film.

And yet, even as the ‘Yes’ campaigners celebrated their victory, seemingly unconnected events in Peru were already shaping events to come – some 40 years down the line. For, while it would be a stretch to lay the blame for Brexit directly at the feet of South American dictator General Juan Velasco, he unconsciously played his part.

In 1968, Velasco had seized power in Lima at the head of a left-wing military junta, with a promise to deliver justice to the poor. Soon, industries were being forcibly nationalised and agriculture and mining were next on the list. This worried the wealthy landowners, many of them descendants of 19th Century German and British migrants who owned swathes of the Peruvian countryside, including a poultry farmer by the name of Hugh Hannan.

Hannan was a descendant of Ulster Catholic immigrants and fiercely proud of his British roots. One day in the mid-1970s, a mob turned up at his farm outside Lima and tried to expropriate it. As tensions mounted, shots were fired into the air and the crowd dispersed, but it was only a matter of time before they returned. Fearing what was to come, it was decided that the Hannans’ only child should be packed off to the mother country.

And so, in 1979, aged eight, Daniel Hannan – later destined to become the force behind Conservative Brexit thinking – arrived in Britain on his way to boarding school. 

This was a gloomy time for the UK. The 1978-79 winter of discontent had rumbled on and the child was shocked at what he saw. Far from arriving in the land of milk and honey, he had apparently pitched up in hell. Industrial action by waste collectors had left garbage piled up in the streets. The train drivers, nurses, ambulance drivers and even the gravediggers were on strike.

The Great Britain of little Hannan’s Ladybird books was nowhere to be seen. This country was dirty, angry and failing. The effect was immediate and profound. It was as if Paddington Bear, radicalised by the sight of punks in Trafalgar Square, had vowed to one day build a time machine to take the country back. 

Roger Scruton, who first met Hannan when he was a sixth-former at Marlborough College, summed it up perfectly in a profile of the Conservative MEP in the Guardian: “The expat mentality is belonging to the old country and the inability to accept that it is changed beyond repair.”

In many ways, that phrase sums up the thinking behind Brexit.

Hannan is often credited as the brains of Leave; the intellect who gave it a cerebral course; the bright young Tory who took the debate around EU membership away from the fruit-loops, xenophobes and eccentrics; the man who made Eurosceptic thought respectable. 

But, even his admirers admit that his crusade against the EU is rooted in the events of his childhood. Hannan is far from alone in that. Many of the leading exponents of the Brexit cause from Douglas Carswell to Andy Wigmore and Arron Banks are the children of late Empire. And all of them seem to have spent lifetimes looking over their shoulders. Ersatz Edwardian Jacob Rees-Mogg and Enoch Powell tribute act Nigel Farage are the apotheosis of this mentality; child-men, forever hankering after an imagined glorious past.

Brexit, when it was eventually to come, was not entirely the work of fogeyish nostalgists. Despite taking a pasting in the 1975 Referendum, continuity ‘leave’ never went away. Like forgotten Japanese soldiers on a remote Philippine island, fighting the war decades after it was over, a handful of Eurosceptics carried on, largely unnoticed – waiting for their chance to come again.

The Good Life

As the 1970s drew to an end, Britain began to work out the steps to the curious ‘one foot in, one foot out’ dance it would perform for the rest of its membership of the EEC.

In 1977, senior Labour politician Roy Jenkins became the President of the European Commission. Two years later, the European Monetary System was created, but the UK opted not to join. In the 1983 General Election, the Labour Party, led by Lexiter Michael Foot, campaigned to leave the EEC but was roundly defeated. In that same election, arch Eurosceptic Tony Benn lost his seat.

As Labour licked its wounds, a freshly invigorated post-Falklands Margaret Thatcher was now on the warpath regarding the UK’s contributions to Europe. Britain’s VAT base was proportionally higher than other EEC states. Thatcher also, rightly, objected to the fact that a staggering 70% of the EEC budget went on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and that the UK, with a relatively small agricultural sector, got little in return. At the Fontainbleau European Council meeting in June 1984, the British Prime Minister insisted on a rebate, famously demanding “I want my money back”. After a fractious round of exchanges with her counterparts, she eventually got it. 

At the same meeting and behind closed doors, the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his French counterpart Francois Mitterand plotted to install Jacques Delors as Commission President. Thatcher eventually accepted the appointment, but sent her own man to Brussels in the shape of Lord Cockfield, the commissioner responsible for the single market.

It was Cockfield who went on to produce the white paper that set out the terms of the single market and, two years later in 1986, the Single European Act was signed by nine of the 12 member states. Those other three – Denmark, Italy and Ireland – eventually followed, but only after a series of referendums and domestic squabbles over what it all meant.

In Britain, there were no such qualms. 

The Single European Act was to have massive consequences for the future shape of the EEC/EU but Thatcher’s dedication to the idea of the single market was such that she was prepared to make huge concessions to get it delivered. Following her Bruges speech in 1988, Thatcher became a figurehead of the anti-EU movement, but arguably no UK politician before or since did more to secure the shape of Europe or Britain’s place in it. 

From the Single European Act onwards, the benefits of EEC membership, almost imperceptibly, began to be felt. For examples look no further than those much maligned health and safety directives. From 1986, the EEC and later the EU, significantly increased the volume of legislation that protected ordinary people. In 1992, the year the Framework Directive came into effect, there were 368 work-place fatalities a year. By 2015, that number had dropped to 142. Likewise, EU car regulations, which ensure the highest standards of safety in the world, saw the number of road deaths in the UK fall to their current figure of 1,792 per year. That’s more than 4,000 fewer deaths annually than in the 1980s and the lowest rate since records began in 1926. 

Most people didn’t notice.

Of course, the picture wasn’t entirely rosy nor the path of EU membership anything like smooth. The decision to enter the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in October 1990, and the subsequent crash-out on Black Wednesday in September 1992, was an unmitigated disaster that caused recession and a collapse in the housing market – both blighting thousands of lives. 

But, from the mid-1990s onwards as the economy recovered, the UK began to enjoy record levels of investment as it took advantage of its unique position within the EU. By 1997, the economy was booming. In the space of two decades, the poor man of Europe had leapfrogged almost all of its EU partners.  

The benefits of EU membership were not uniquely economic. The Maastricht Treaty in 1992 had given British people the right to live, work, holiday and trade across the largest and most liberal free trade bloc in the world and to enjoy the same benefits as those in their fellow EU countries. The standard of living rose as the supply of goods rose. As they did, and given that imports were tariff-free, the cost of basic commodities plummeted and Britain went on to enjoy some of the cheapest food in Europe.  

Ordinary British people learned to love wine and enjoy cheap holidays on the Continent. Many even bought homes there and retired.

With the expansion of the EU to an eventual 28 nations, the UK also began to benefit from an influx of young, mostly highly-educated European migrants. In 2018, the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee concluded that, contrary to deleterious stereotypes perpetuated by populists and a hostile media, this migration had added billions of pounds of value to the UK, while having no adverse effect on housing, the health service or schools at all. 

However, all the while in the background, the sceptics, the Little Englanders and the angry mob were chipping away. 

Not So Great Britain

In 1989, an ambitious young journalist by the name of Boris Johnson, recently sacked from The Times for lying, secured a job as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau correspondent.

Bored by the details of his brief and seeking to spice up his copy, he began to invent stories about the EEC banning Routemaster buses and prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps. Chris Patten, the Conservative politician and EU Commissioner, was later to call Johnson “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism” in modern British history. But it didn’t seem to dent his career. Johnson’s lies were sucked up by millions of readers and repeated as truth.

As the 1990s progressed, powered by the columns of Johnson and an increasingly right-wing media, the Eurosceptics evinced a return.

The Parisian-born billionaire corporate raider and gambler, James Goldsmith, who had made a fortune out of asset stripping and hostile takeover bids, was the first big name to reignite the movement. While moonlighting as a French MEP in the first of many such paradoxical stances taken by nascent Brexiters, Goldsmith funded the Referendum Party, which sought to call for a plebiscite that would (he hoped) lead to the UK leaving the EU. 

Goldsmith was very rich indeed and was able to stage an impressive ‘conference’ in Brighton and send a fake anti-EU newspaper to 24 million homes, all funded from his own pocket. The fiercely pro-democratic Referendum Party had no actual membership – but boasted 160,000 registered supporters. Sound familiar?

In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, Goldsmith’s group sent VHS tapes to five million British homes. The video, fronted by former That’s Life presenter Gavin Campbell, suggested that the EU was a German plot and that the UK needed to get out. But it failed to have its desired effect and the Referendum Party polled just 2.6% of the national vote.

By now, however, Euroscepticism was firmly back on the political agenda. 

The national press had largely supported the UK’s place in Europe in 1975 but, by the late 1990s, its barons had turned against it. The reason was simple: the EU threatened their interests. The business journalist Anthony Hilton claims to have once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. “That’s easy,” he replied. “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say, when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

Bolstered by the growing antipathy, as the 2000s dawned, the EU became a focus of attention for minority right-wing parties, including the fascist British National Party (BNP). The EU Parliament was an attractive prospect for it, not least because its proportional representation electoral system offered a chance of election that afforded it influence and money. To that end, BNP Leader Nick Griffin tried to make his party more palatable to a broader cross section of voters and hitched up to the Eurosceptic cause. At the 2009 European Elections, Griffin and his colleague Andrew Brons targeted disaffected, northern working-class voters and won seats in north-west England and Yorkshire and Humber.

At the same time, the fringe UK Independence Party was gaining traction. Having attracted television host Robert Kilroy-Silk to its ranks and acquired funding from big donors, the leadership managed to steer the party to third place in the 2009 European Elections. UKIP and the BNP were chasing the same voters and, in the head-to-head battle that followed, the Faragists eventually edged it. The populist right and the far-right had managed to unite under one banner. Brexit, although the term had yet to be coined, was the eventual destination.

The 2008 financial crisis hit the poorest in Britain hardest and, as always happens in such a downturn, some voters looked for migrants and foreigners to blame. 

Farage’s UKIP narrative was broadly a simplified version of Daniel Hannan’s with more than a dash of xenophobia. Once Great, Britain – winner of two world wars –had been brought low by its membership of the EU. Foreigners were taking our homes and causing traffic jams. Only by leaving the European Union could we stop the tide of Islamic hordes, who would otherwise come to live here and be our neighbours.

In a short space of time, Farage and his ideas, unchallenged by fawning journalists, became part of the ‘national conversation’. As they did, the Conservative leadership under David Cameron panicked and sleeping backbench Eurosceptics like Bill Cash and John Redwood rose again as their long dormant cause reawakened.

In this, they were ably helped by Brexit’s Paddington, Daniel Hannan, who lent the whole thing intellectual respectability. This was a perfect storm. I need hardly tell you what happened next. 

Caught in a Trap

As I write this on 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom is poised to leave the EU in just a few hours’ time.

It has been a relationship that has benefitted us beyond all measure but some Brexiters would have you believe that we are being liberated. That Hannan, Johnson and Farage have saved us from an organisation that we spent a decade hammering at the door trying to get into. That leaving is somehow freedom. That tearing ourselves from a Union, inspired by the words of Winston Churchill and forged by British politicians including Margaret Thatcher, not to mention thousands of UK civil servants, is the patriotic thing to do. 

One correspondent told me yesterday, that it had all been a ‘trap’. If so, what a trap.

It’s a trap that has made us wealthier and safer than at any time in history. A trap that’s given us citizenship to 28 of the freest and most liberal nations on Earth; a trap that has brought us improved and cheaper food, safer workplaces, better cars and holidays our ancestors could only have dreamed of. It’s a trap that has brought us peace and prosperity and prevented the nations of our corner of the planet from tumbling back into the wars, hot or cold, that blighted our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Of course, Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage might be right. The price of this nebulous sovereignty might all be worthwhile in the end. But, frankly, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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