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18 May 2022

From the NS archive: The sovereignty fetish

17 January 1975: Tony Benn, James Callaghan, and the UK’s membership of the European Community.

By Maurice Edelman

Writing a few months ahead of the United Kingdom’s 1975 referendum on its membership of the European Community (EC), the Coventry MP Maurice Edelman argued that the subject at the heart of the debate was sovereignty. It was an issue that divided the Labour Party. Edelman scrutinised the “paradoxes and contradictions” of the secretary of state for industry Tony Benn, one of the prime figures in the “No” campaign. The author saw that instead of making an economic argument, Benn simplified his challenge to voters into: “Do you want to lose your independence?” Edelman argued for the UK to remain. He believed that the EC provided a Europe that wasn’t hostile to nationalism, and an environment in which nations could co-exist without “tribal warfare”. “Is it a coincidence that the Europe of the Communities has been free from even verbal, let alone physical, international violence?” he asked.

Can anything stop the referendum debate from getting rough? I doubt it. Sovereignty is to states what personality is to individuals. With his prophetic ear to the ground, Mr Benn has recognised at long distance that the primitive phobia of many British people is of depersonalisation, of possession by dark and alien forces. Whatever the merits of the constitutional argument, their visceral anxiety about loss of sovereignty is likely to prove invincible. 

Not that Mr Benn himself belongs to those who merely think with the blood. On the contrary, he is one of the most brilliant dialecticians in the Labour Party. Thus he defended his sponsorship of the disastrous, open-ended RB-211 contract that hastened the end of the old Rolls-Royce company with the same compelling logic as he denounced the management that collapsed under its burden. He authorised the Chrysler takeover of Rootes with the same eloquence as he now challenges the power of the multinational car companies. He favoured British membership of the Common Market in 1971 with as much conviction as he recently warned the electors of Bristol about the market’s threat to British sovereignty. But why go on? The paradoxes and contradictions of Mr Benn don’t invalidate the skill of his pre-emptive shift from the economic to the constitutional ground.

Indeed, Mr Callaghan’s successes in renegotiating according to the manifesto, plus the unfavourable movement of world prices compared with Community prices, and the goodies that the reluctant Mr Peart brings back from Brussels from time to time, have already made the economic case against the Market far less persuasive in the constituencies and the trade unions than, say, in the past two party conferences. Then it was possible for a trade union leader to swing conference against the Market by reeling off a list of European food prices in an unfavourable comparison with Britain’s domestic prices. Now it would be hard to repeat the performance. By June, it may well be impossible.

In the same way, to talk of the Commonwealth as an alternative to Europe is to conjure up a broad spectrum of attitudes ranging from Idi Amin’s to Mr Gough Whitlam’s. The other day in Paris, I saw Mr Whitlam being treated with the panoply of security and official hospitality that De Gaulle used to reserve for African heads of state. Mr Whitlam, who had already declared his support for Britain’s continuing membership of the Market, obviously enjoyed Australia’s new status. His visit coincided with the introduction of the requirement for British visitors to Australia to have visas. The Commonwealth relationship with Britain has changed and is still changing. As for Mr Jay’s nostalgia for a European Free Trade Area, the reaction to it on the Continent is derision. If Britain leaves the Market, there won’t be any form of privileged access through the industrial back door.

For all those reasons, Mr Benn and the new alliance of anti-Marketeers are showing tactical skill in challenging Mr Callaghan on an issue that has nothing to do with economics. Their referendum question to the electors is essentially: “Do you want to lose your independence by forfeiting Britain’s sovereignty?” It is now up to the defenders of the British presence in the Market to interpret for the country the reality and myths surrounding that question.

It would be idle to pretend that the Treaty of Rome does not involve a diminution of sovereignty. In its origin, the Treaty sought to end the fratricidal wars in Europe by involving nation-states in joint organisations, such as the Coal and Steel Community, straddling frontiers and linking former enemies. Like any other international treaty, the Treaty of Rome implies the cession of a certain measure of sovereignty for specific ends. To achieve those purposes, the member states delegate a limited authority to the institutions of the Communities. No one doubts that these institutions like the Commission on the “European Parliament” are imperfect. But they are a continually evolving system which the member states have it in their power to improve.

In the meantime, the great instrument for expressing the reserved sovereign power of the nation-states within the EEC lies with the Council of Ministers, where Britain’s representatives, still as responsible to the British parliament as they ever were, can exercise veto on major matters. Compared with this overriding authority, the power of the “watchdog” committees that have the task of examining regulations and directives from Brussels may seem of secondary importance. But they have this importance, that they can impress their concerns about the Commission both on the House and on ministers.

The EEC today isn’t what Jean Monnet, or even the drafters of the Treaty of Rome, hoped it would be. To federalists, the right of veto remains a contradiction of the idea of a wholly pooled sovereignty. But under the assault of De Gaulle, with his conception of a Europe des patries and his hostility to supranationality, the EEC’s constitution has evolved pragmatically. The amount of pooled sovereignty has been limited by national interests and inhibitions. No one has tried to denationalise Renault, just as no one at Brussels could interfere if the British government wanted to nationalise British Leyland. It is quite certain that in terms of sovereign authority, the multinational Chrysler, Detroit, will have more to say and more power to act in connection with Chrysler, UK, than has the Brussels Commission or any other organ of the EEC.

The argument of the left in Britain against the EEC is that it is an organisation of international capitalism, infringing Britain’s sovereignty, seeking to concentrate power under a bureaucracy and simultaneously denying to the working class the right to create a socialist society in their national states. It is a case which the Soviet Union has encouraged, partly from a constitutional ideology which it preaches but doesn’t practise in its own federation, and partly at any rate in order to thwart what it regards as the emergence of a strong anti-Soviet, western European bloc. Democratic Socialists in Europe deny that a mixed economy or even a wholly socialist economy is any less possible within the EEC than within nation-states. They accept that there are those in the EEC who would like to use it as an anti-Soviet system, but they say simply that it is not their purpose – which is to create a fraternal society in Europe based on the internationalism of their socialist heritage. That is why they look askance at the xenophobic political company which some British socialists are keeping as the referendum draws nearer.

What they want to see is a British Labour Party playing an active role within the European institutions, reinforcing the European Parliament and taming the Brussels bureaucracy. They want Britain inside Europe, to join them in the fight for democratic socialist policies and democratic institutions of government. Never mind that the Conservatives of Europe want to assert their policies in the same arena! The struggle, say the socialists of Europe, has to be fought in a European dimension as it is today in Britain within national parameters.

When June comes and the Labour Party conference is held, there will be sincere and honourable arguments advanced in respect of parliamentary sovereignty which will have nothing in common with the anti-Frog, anti-Hun campaign of the ultras of the right. We will hear legitimate references to the rights of national self-determination. Nationalism, as Bevin pointed out, is a proper response to colonialism, and in mankind’s forward advance, it may be a necessary stage.

But there comes a moment when a combination of economic colonialism by predators in the form of multinational companies without constitutional restraints, and the weakness of a country like Britain which acknowledges, for example, its incapacity to engage on its own in projects of advanced aircraft technology, makes the idea of absolute national sovereignty an illusion. It is the moment when, as Harold Wilson said at Strasbourg a few years ago, the workers of Europe risk the danger of becoming helots. The choice for Britain at that point is “sovereignty” without power, or an area of real power subsumed within the wider amalgamation of sovereignties provided by a unified Europe.

That Europe isn’t hostile to nationalism. On the contrary, it provides the technique by which nations can co-exist without tribal warfare. Is it a coincidence that the Europe of the Communities has been free from even verbal, let alone physical, international violence?

I am convinced that it is not. The tribal aggressions of the past have been restrained in western Europe as nowhere else by a new constitutional structure and a new concept of a limited sovereignty ceded by consent to a collective European authority. That, and not the fetish of “sovereignty”, will, I hope, decide the way the referendum will go.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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