In June 1975 Britain held a referendum to decide on whether or not the country should remain in the European Community/Common Market. A matter of days before the vote, the magazine asked a selection of leading intellectuals, from Margaret Drabble and Kenneth Tynan to AJP Taylor and AJ Ayer, which way they would vote. The reasoning behind the decisions was remarkably consistent with that given by Leavers and Remainers in the referendum of 2016. This is not, however, a case of plus ça change – in 1975 the out-of-Europe voices were on the left and the most fervent stay-inners were on the right.
I have always been in favour of our joining the European Community because I see it as a step in the opposite direction to the ominous contemporary growth of nationalism. The argument that our membership of the Community prevents our government from effecting the internal changes that it thinks desirable does not seem to me to be sustained by any present evidence. Nor do I think that our going back on our agreement at this stage would be favourable either to our political or to our economic standing.
All the arithmetic is specious. One votes politically, even culturally, not economically. I really do look at it in broad terms of national history, that at the end of the long Imperial day we are back close to where we started, a small European power linked closely to other small European powers. But imperialism has got into our souls when some of us can exaggerate our power, can believe that we can go it alone or that the good old Commonwealth will provide for old sick and senile Mother England if she howls and sobs enough. I am not anywhere near a 101-per-cent European unity man. Nor I suspect are many. After a generation of it the Germans are still Germans, French French, Dutch Dutch and Italians – mirabile dictu – Italians, and still in by 1984 and even 2000 we will still be remarkably English, Scottish and Welsh. If I ever had any doubts about actually voting, they are cured by the way that Shore, Foot and Powell go on about the loss of sovereignty. Thank God. My socialist teacher, as I once reminded Peter Shore, was Harold Laski and his views on nationalism and sovereignty were, I thought, if strong, fairly ordinary at least among socialists. Some left-wingers have got themselves in a terrible muddle. If the last fight is to be fought or if there is hope of a peaceful transformation of society, it can only be on the wide scale of Europe not in nationalist terms.
I shall vote “yes”, in reaction against (a) demoralising vacillation (b) the curious passion that the Left has developed for sovereignty, nationalism and the rights of the Commonwealth (c) the meaningless xenophobia which is one of the most dangerous and uncontrollable weapons of politics. More positively, I do have some faint hope of an enlightened, united and democratic Europe playing an enlightened role in world affairs. I think it would be worth working for. I don’t see why a united Europe should be nothing but a large commercial capitalist trading block: its individual members all have made contributions to welfare and civilised democracy, and I hope we can take the best from each other, not the worst. It’s only a hope, but the one certainty is that in this situation no one is certain, and we have to act and choose by emotion, rather than reason. Also, I simply don’t believe that getting out wouldn’t create an appalling mess. Of course it would.
[See also: From the NS archive: Conflict thoughts]
No. No to the multinational companies which are strengthening their already monetary power through the statist commissions in Brussels. No to their system of contract labour which enslaves and bullies 10 million immigrant workers in Europe. No to their food taxes and their high food prices, enforced in order to fatten the already fat farmers and businessmen throughout the Continent. No to the narrow nationalism of a white man’s, rich man’s cartel, whose single purpose is to mobilise its power against the impoverished millions of the Third World and against the working people of Europe. No to their dreary paraphernalia of regulations which restrict the rights of European labour while liberating the plunder of property speculators and bankers. No to their wage controls, their cuts in the social services, their ruthless drive to a more competitive, more degenerate and more violent capitalism. No – because with a big resounding NO we are set with a better chance of building an entirely different, genuinely democratic society all over Europe.
Stop me in the street and ask me about battered babies or whether I would entrust the rewriting of the British constitution to Lord Hailsham and you will not find me among the “don’t knows”. But about the Common Market I don’t know, and I am being asked not to express an opinion but to decide. How am I supposed to be able to guess whether food prices will be higher inside or outside in five years’ time? Or what will be the effect on unemployment? Or anything? The stay-inners say all will be well and the Commission won’t be able to stop us doing what we want – which must be wrong if the thing is any use at all. The get-outers talk about the people’s loss of sovereignty as if we at present lived in a democratic not an authoritarian society. Everyone says the Treaty of Rome will last forever, when the only certain thing is that it will fall apart the day it becomes inconvenient to some (not including you and me). This time I am not going to play elections to keep the politicians happy. I hope we shall have a 25-per-cent poll with 12 per cent one way and 13 per cent the other.
In the circumstances of parliamentary democracy, I consider that the whole notion of a referendum is a perversion of the constitution. However, when the day comes, I shall vote unhesitatingly to stay in the EEC. As an anthropologist, I am professionally concerned that cultural variety should be maximised, but political tribalism which encourages people to believe that cultural difference should be correlated with sovereign independence is wholly deplorable in whatever continent it appears. It is high time that all Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen, let alone Irishmen, whether northern or southern, who hanker after any one of the many versions of the socialist Utopia, came to terms with geographical reality. In a globally intercommunicating world, the British Isles is a name for a cluster of small islands off the west coast of Euro-Asia. The pretence that the British, however defined, have a political-economic future which is wholly distinct from that of the rest of Western Europe has the same degree of contact with rational probability as a New Guinea cargo cult. Only the Enoch Powells of this world are logically entitled to reject Mr Wilson’s advice.
[See also: From the NS archive: Back to the mud]
Retreat from traumatic reality into self-indulgent fantasy is an increasingly familiar characteristic of British politics. The debate on the Common Market is clearly just one more psychodrama. For Britain the issue of membership is not crucial. There are no decisive economic arguments on either side; hence the substitution of speculative guessing-games by too many economists. Politically the paralysed inertia of British government makes it apparently invulnerable to all change, whether harmful or beneficial. Certainly the minuscule institutions of the Market are unable to be an agency of radical change. But when economic reality is about to thrust painful and costing choices on the gates of the parliamentary asylum, a certain brouhaha about the Market serves to direct attention from that reality for a little longer. How to vote? It would be splendid if future historians were able to record that they held a referendum and nobody came.
Although the case for European unity has many weaknesses, the case against it has few strengths. We are faced on the one hand with participation in relatively advanced multinational capitalism and on the other with the splendid isolationism of retrogressive nationalism. Neither option is an option for socialism. “European international” socialism is still a somewhat visionary prospect, but the argument suggested by the Labour left and the Communist Party that by removing ourselves from Europe we will be faced with a need for a more socialistic home and foreign policy assumes the absurd. It does not seem likely that isolation, declining economic prosperity, mordant capitalism and rejuvenated socialism will lead to stronger community, better trade relations and socialism. Socialism will come about through the force of a political movement in a context of a particular historical development. Of the two alternatives, the EEC seems to me to provide the closer approximation to that necessary historical development.
I shall vote “out”. I live near the Dover road and certainly don’t want any more Italian container trucks bringing another load of fold-up bicycles that no one will be able to ride because of all the container trucks. If that is the kind of benefit we get from membership, we are better off becoming a fifth-rate power.
To vote “yes” is to support not “Europe” but a businessman’s solution to the crisis. The bloc of the “yes” votes, while containing many well-meaning antagonists of leftish chauvinism, is actually led by the nucleus of a possible Tory-Liberal-right Labour “national government”. A defeat for this bloc could isolate and undermine the most Red-baiting, pro-business elements of the Labour Party, encouraging the split of the weakened social-democratic right. The “no” bloc also has unsavoury constituents, not least in the patriotic messianism of those Benn-and-bathwater orators who still imagine that the British Parliament is sovereign. But the “no” camp also contains the hardest heads in the working-class electorate: those who refuse to be bludgeoned by the media barrage into accepting capital’s remedies. On this rare occasion when the Bolshies can be counted, and in millions, it is our duty and pleasure to vote “no” with them.
I do not like the division of Europe and am against anything that cuts us off from the peoples of Eastern Europe who share our European heritage. I do not like the advocates of EEC and can imagine no circumstances where I should be happy in the company of Heath, Thatcher and Roy Jenkins. I have seen no clear figures showing that we shall gain by staying in EEC. I have also seen no clear figures showing that we shall gain if we come out. In practice it does not matter either way what a bankrupt nation does. But if I vote at all in the referendum I shall vote “no”. Like Clemenceau I am always contre.
Three points alone would send me racing to the booth singing “no” through four clear octaves. The first is the matter of political education. Ever since industries and labour forces began to grow huge and fissile certain areas of Britain became vulnerable to change and distress. Between the wars shabby platoons walked to London to tease governments out of their institutional coma. If our stricken regions have to depend on Brussels for succour, the situation will be even more damnable. Westminster and Westminster alone must be responsible for the health of every limb of the British economy. With food prices rushing to their peak in the form of a 50p potato, we shall need to take a less indolent view of our cultivable soil. Once I worked with a party of schoolboys harvesting a crop of potatoes on a high hilltop that had been under fern since it was last fertilised by the dinosaur. Two cases of hernia befell boys hoisting potatoes of grandiose bulk. This kind of freewheeling enterprise would, I suppose, be forbidden by cantankerous delvers in Normandy or Bavaria. Third, the brutal deflation of American hopes in the Far East might well cause the Seventh Cavalry impulse to take another tack. A Europe made submissive to the American ethos by the croupiers of London, Paris and Bonn could well move the State Department to find some ultimate Custer to make his stand to preserve the last tatters of free enterprise and imperial impudence.
[See also: From the NS archive: Marshall Plan report]
No, because: (a) I’m not so lunatic as to suppose that the Tory Party, the CBI and the capitalist press (not to mention that wild man of the Tory left, Roy Jenkins) would campaign with such passionate intensity on behalf of an institution that could conceivably hasten the advent of socialism. (b) I prefer horizons that extend beyond those of Western Europe. (c) I believe that, while it’s still possible to effect radical social change in countries (or confederations) that number up to 50 or 60 million people, it’s virtually impossible much above that figure, since the concentration of power supporting the status quo becomes impregnable. (d) What’s good for the multinational corporations is not good for the human race, since the world view of such companies is “based on a denial of any other aspirations, of indeed history, outside the one that advertising makes” (Robert Scheer, Esquire, April 1975).
I shall vote for Europe because, now more than ever, belonging to the Community stands for reality as against fantasy. The fantasies form a lush bouquet of post-Imperial dreams, at their centre the idea that Britain can hold a quite special place in the world. The coloured version has us improbably prospering in free-trade conditions of long ago. The plain version has us in socialist autarchy and austerity: this, apart from anything else, lacks any plausible scenario of how we might arrive there, rather than at some seedier and nastier deposit of late capitalist disappointment. The Community actually exists and gives us hope of facing the world as it actually is. Committed to it, we can perhaps finally leave those dreams of a unique destiny which Britain alone, and the left most of all, find it so hard to forgo.
It seems that I shall be one of the very few socialists (as distinct from social democrats) voting “yes” in the referendum. Since the early Sixties I have been for European integration, though against the Common Market in its limited form. International capitalism and its monetary system, including its “British” components, have now so thoroughly penetrated our economy and society that any “national” solution is politically inconceivable. Culturally I find more sense in a West European identity than in the dominant English versions of sovereignty and tradition. To go in passively would certainly be wrong. At this very late stage we must go in actively, to work for a political presence in an area where major decisions are still possible: for an elected parliament, for cooperative devolution and above all for a connecting socialist and trade union movement. It will be long and hard, but I believe it is now our only way.
I am and always have been a social democrat. This means to me a concern for personal liberty (of movement, speech, writing and work) and for economic decency for all. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that our commitment to the EEC is vital to our personal liberty, which is threatened very seriously indeed by the rapid increase of governments committed to some form of communism. I do not believe that Europe is immune from this threat. And I think that as the threat grows, many Western countries may in panic move into some form of repulsive right-wing totalitarianism. The EEC, with all its faults, provides some hope (albeit shaky) for a defence of Western European liberties, bringing together France and England, unlike Nato, and guarding against the surely all-too-possible growth of American isolationism in face of the disunity of other countries. Economically I am sure we have the greatest chance of assisting the Third World and Commonwealth countries by using our maximum influence in Europe (certainly this is the view of those in the Third World where I have recently been travelling). If we leave the EEC I cannot but believe that, despite of our coming oil, we shall be in the very serious plight of an untrusted large debtor. I see no hard evidence that our advance to socialism will be retarded by our membership, but even if it is so temporarily, it seems to me that any advance towards some strategic unity against totalitarianism must be paramount. I shall therefore vote for Britain to stay in the EEC.