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16 April 2015

From the archive: J B Priestley on why Britain would be better off out of the Common Market

Britain is not a super-ICI but the home of the British people.

By JB Priestley

First published in the New Statesman in 26 May 1967.

Nobody has asked me yet if I want to go into the Common Market, just as nobody asked me if I wanted to be defended by the Bomb. And I will remark here in passing that there seem to me to be certain decisions so important that they burst the seams of our parliamentary democratic system. In these rare instances we ought to be asked. As it is, I may wake up one morning to find I am already in the Market, and perhaps discover sooner or later that if arrested and charged I shall be presumed to be guilty unless I can prove my innocence – and God knows what else. Of course I can see the noble possibilities of a federated Europe but creating this and bashing into the Market seem to me to be very different activities.

One reason why I feel dubious about the Market is that most of our practical, hard-headed, no-nonsense men are strongly in favour of it. For 35 years now I have been at odds with these men and have been called a literary sentimentalist or a crackpot, and it seems to me that I have always been right and they have always been wrong. (I could prove this, and may do so, one day.) The point about these men is that, while they are practical and hard-headed about bank loans, costs, profits, ledgers and petty cash, as soon as they consider very large questions and issues their minds go hazy and dreamy. But though ignorant and an innocent in many practical matters, I am in the dream business, know all about self-deception (our national vice), and in this region I am a realist.

So I feel that many of these no-nonsense Market enthusiasts write and talk about going into Europe quite unrealistically, out of a golden haze. They tell us in effect that once we are in then all will be different but – not to worry – somehow just the same. Or, if you like, what we want to be different will be different and what we want to remain unchanged will stay the same. But this is not coming to an agreement with tough types across the water, representatives of French peasants, German steel men, Belgian financiers – it is strolling through fairyland, picking unfading flowers. The practical men, the hard-headed fellows, are at it again.

Smacking their lips over the magic cake you can eat and still have, they tell us that once in the Market, up against some ruthless competition, management and labour here will rise “to face the challenge”. Now I know that we can face challenges if necessary, as we did so magnificently in the war. But that was another sort of challenge, very different from business. The truth is – and we might as well face it – we English find it hard to develop an overwhelming passion for business. (We are a nation of hobby-horse riders, and out of our pursuits and pastimes, from birds and flowers to football and tennis, has come an astounding contribution to world civilisation.) I don’t believe myself that any cut-throat competition in the Market will turn us into people who can hardly think about anything but production curves, sales graphs, rising profits, people who talk on and on and on about business. Certainly we have to earn a living. But not an existence – a living. Being alive.

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Now, if we go into the Common Market and can’t face this challenge, I feel we shall be worse off than we are at present. London, Birmingham, Manchester will be swarming with cleverer business men than we are. But what if we go in, boldly face the challenge and triumph? As I see it, we shall still be worse off than we are now. There may be more money about, but a lot of it will benefit the wrong people while many of the people I like will be staring in horror at the household bills. At the same time we shall be turning ourselves into a business-first community. Already too much Admass rubbish about Executives (business men seen through a haze) is creeping into our advertising, and we are being shown the planes, cars, trains, hotel suites fit for Executives.

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All right then, we encourage Executives (with wives who have passed the necessary tests) to beat their brains out, risk ulcers and coronaries, and pile up the money, but under a Labour government we take most of the money away from them (we hope) and distribute it, with the help of 500,000 civil service clerks, among the needy. That might be worse – and it would be under the Tories – but to my mind it doesn’t offer an attractive picture of a society. I see us all existing in the shadow of weary Titan Executives, now our great men, and of public filing cabinets 200 feet high and a quarter of a mile long. Will this release and ennoble the spirit of man? It will not.

But what – and you can hear the voices of the Marketeers rising higher and higher – is to happen to us if we don’t go in? Do I want to find myself living merely on an off-shore island? And the trouble is – I do. I am an off-shore island man. If there were a great West European combine to secure better terms for writers (and we could do with some), I wouldn’t join it. If I did I might soon find myself wearing a skullcap, reading my new works aloud and plotting to obtain a prize for Jimmy Wood, Jean Dubois or Heinrich Wald. And this isn’t my style, isn’t our style, is the Continental not the island style.

Am I being frivolous when I ought to be considering money and business, size of markets, imports and exports and tariffs? I don’t think so. It is the enthusiastic Marketeers who are being unrealistic. For example, it is absurd to believe you can happily join the Common Market by turning it into something else. Some of these Marketeers are like a woman doctor trying to become a member of a club of male barristers. Either you want to go along with these Europeans, who understand one another much better than they do us, who are in closer touch, who share certain traditions strange to us – or you don’t. If deep down you don’t, then stop the fuss. If you do, if you realise that the Common Market isn’t going to transform its character just to please us, that sooner or later the whole style of our national life will have to be changed, then be ready to face the consequences. I’m not.

Much of this desire to get into Europe seems to me to have its origin in a bad idea. A nation must have trade but it is not primarily a trading concern. Britain is not a super-ICI but the home of the British people. Because of the balance of payments, the trade gap, the tremendous influence of the economists, the effect on the people of Admass (how can you live without colour television?), we are beginning to believe that the gross national income is more important than anything else. But a country might have a gigantic and rapidly increasing gross national income and yet be crammed with dissatisfied and miserable people, hating the sour flavour of their lives. I believe Mr Wilson and his colleagues would agree with this, but circumstances are compelling them either to rush us into the Market or to drag an enormous son-et-lumière herring across the trail. They have to do something to lighten the atmosphere.

A few years ago, in a piece here called “Ambience or Agenda”, I argued that a change of atmosphere, a different climate of values, ideas, opinions, was even more important than the most elaborate party programme. The ambience would produce the agenda, not the agenda the ambience. But it seems to me that Labour, though meaning well, has so far been all agenda and no ambience. Instead of being made to feel we must make sacrifices out of love of our country, we have been encouraged to suspect that we are being punished for something. Again, while we can live more frugally, we would do it with a better heart under an obviously frugal government. Finally, we don’t feel we are living in an audaciously creative country but in a rather stiff and disagreeable one.

And while all manner of outworn or bogus traditions are allowed to waste time, money and temper, real and valuable traditions – the cheap food policy, for example – may soon be in danger of being scrapped. We might find ourselves in a still more disagreeable country, irritated by all sorts of alien demands, perhaps tied to ruthless big-business types whose methods and values we despise, and forbidden to make any generous social experiments of our own. Somehow the Common Market doesn’t smell like the possibility of any noble federation. And the Tory rush to get into the Community arouses my suspicion. These have never been the men I have wanted to follow.

But how can we go our own way, so many eccentric islanders, who don’t want to work too hard or think and talk about business day and night? The answer is – and I write in all earnestness – not to have our corners rubbed off by chaps from Clermont-Ferrand, Essen or Liège but to turn ourselves into even more eccentric islanders. There are two sides to our national character: one represented, we might say, by Francis Chichester, the other by the town clerk of Bumbledom. The latter and his sort and their whole attitude of mind weigh us down like a lead poultice. The adventurous, the original, the inventive, the imaginative, can hardly breathe. We have a well-meaning, careful government that may take us cautiously into the Market, behind high tariff walls. But we might be happier out in the wind, risking the loss of colour television, holidays in Spain, more and more cars, prepared to make audacious experiments, so many odd but exciting islanders. We might then have youth on our side.