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23 May 2005

There is no point in escaping any more

Europe once offered a route to the good life for dowdy Brits. As we contemplate a referendum, perhap

By Nick Cohen

In 1970 opinion polls showed that only 19 per cent of the population favoured joining what was then the Common Market. Fifty-seven per cent were against, their Euroscepticism sustained by the patriotic memory of the war years, which had taught that Britain needed to stand apart from the treacherous Continent. A frail Clement Attlee rallied for a moment in 1967 when he told Labour MPs: “The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of ’em from attacks by the other two.” Some of the brightest intellectuals were with him. “Jerusalem may yet be built in this pleasant land,” said John Osborne. “But never in the typists’ pools and conference rooms of Brussels.” Kenneth Tynan dismissed the Common Market as a bankers’ club – “the most blatant historical vulgarity since the Thousand-Year Reich”.

Yet on 5 June 1975, when Harold Wilson asked the population to ratify the decision of Edward Heath’s Conservative government to join, such deep sentiments counted for little to the 67 per cent who voted in favour of staying in Europe. The campaign was won when respectable politicians in the major parties, nearly all of the press, the BBC, the Queen, business and the bulk of middle-class opinion declared for the European cause, and the majority of the British decided to go along with their betters.

The switch in the 1970s provides the model of how a referendum on the European constitutional treaty may be won. When you ask pro-European ministers or the staff of Britain in Europe, now to be rebranded Yes, how on earth they expect to turn round popular hostility in this country, they explain that the polls are no worse now than they were then and nowhere near as bad for their cause as the stark numbers suggest. There is a hard core of anti-European voters, you are told, just as there is a hard core of pro-European voters. In the middle is the majority of the public, which has barely given Europe a second’s thought.

They tell the pollsters they are sceptical, but when a referendum is called they will be persuaded by the campaign. Celebs, trade unions, business and perhaps Arsenal footballers would play their part in a huge PR campaign, along with Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Clarke-Heseltine Tories. Ranged against them would be isolated figures from the far left and far right – John Redwood’s name always crops up – who will look weird. The lesson is that, in the end, the European case always prevails against the odds. When Labour was an anti-European party in the 1980s it couldn’t win elections; ditto with the Conservatives today. In their hearts, the British know they are Europeans.

But there is another way of looking at history which is nowhere near as reassuring for the Prime Minister, if the French say “yes” on 29 May and force him to go to the people. The heart has rarely guided feelings. The wallet has been far more influential. What support the EU has mustered has usually been self-interested.

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Harold Macmillan applied to join in 1961 not so much because he was convinced of the glories of federalism, but because the empire was shrinking, the Suez crisis had revealed the decline of British influence and the economy was faltering. He confided to his diary that he was sure Europe was bound to come under “German control” sooner or later, and that joining it was “a grim choice” to make. But what else could he do?

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Unlike Macmillan, Edward Heath was a true believer, but few who were to say “yes” in the 1975 referendum shared his passion. The Conservative Party and the conservative middle classes swung behind Europe because they thought a common market would weaken the power of the unions, whose strikes were bringing power blackouts, and prevent a future left-wing Labour government from implementing a socialist programme. They could persuade the majority to go along with them because by the 1970s Europe was no longer seen as the homeland of mad fascist and communist tyrants, but as a centre of stylish prosperity.

Britain’s postwar consumer society may have been dominated by American popular culture but it had a novel European element. Take food: in 1962, a survey for the Daily Telegraph found that Britons’ dream meal was the same as it had been during rationing: tomato soup, roast chicken, potatoes, peas and sprouts, followed by trifle with cream. In 1973 the Mirror surveyed its readers and found, somewhat to its surprise, that they liked foreign food and no longer believed that “God created the English Channel to preserve them from foreigners and their funny ways”. Sainsbury’s had begun selling wine in 1962. Elizabeth David had published French Provincial Cooking in 1960. Exchange visits and au pair visas brought young Europeans to Britain while mass tourism took young Britons away from Butlins to Mediterranean beaches.

In Patriots, his study of the changing iden- tities of the peoples of the UK, Richard Weight says the charge that the electorate was conned into supporting Europe in 1975 slightly misses the point. The pros did conceal the dramatic loss of sovereignty that joining Europe would bring, but the British electorate was not overly interested in that. What it looked on with wistful envy was a European standard of living three times higher than its own.

The pattern was repeated in Scotland, Wales and on the left in the 1980s. The Scottish and Welsh nationalists had once been as anti-European as the English National Front. They U-turned with great speed when they saw that Europe might enable them to argue that independence was economically viable. The left was won over when Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, told the 1988 TUC conference that federalism offered them a chance to break away from Thatcherism. In all cases Europe was an escape: from strikes and a dowdy life for 1970s Conservatives; from English domination in the case of the Scots and Welsh; and from Tory hegemony at Westminster for the left and unions.

What ought to worry supporters of the constitution and the single currency is that it is becoming harder to see what escape Europe offers. Europe in the late 20th century was associated with good food, fine wines, clean hospitals, fast trains. Europeans knew how to live well and enjoy themselves sensibly. How different from British yobs, with their execrable diet and shabby clothes.

Elements of this stereotype survive. But the disastrous tight money policies of the European Central Bank and the mass unemployment they have brought make it tougher to sustain. The overwhelming majority of Tory voters abandoned Europe long ago. What hasn’t been noticed is the growing disenchantment on the left. As a good Protestant, Gordon Brown has turned his back on Catholic Europe’s charitable provision of benefits to one and all and has directed money to those who work. The unions are no more enamoured of European levels of unemployment. Even the liberal middle classes, the most passionate Europhiles, cannot help noticing that European racist groups can put our neo-fascists to shame, and that the Continent isn’t always the rationalist paradise of the left-leaning imagination.

In the 1970s, British envy of the French and Germans made sense, but it is far from clear who should envy whom today. Meanwhile globalisation makes things that once seemed exotic mundane. The working class, which once went to Butlins, then Majorca, now holidays in Florida. The middle class has gone from Devon to Tuscany to Thailand. Europe may continue to be an alternative to the British state in Scotland and Wales, but in England I can feel the attraction weakening and eyes turning again away from the Channel to the wide world beyond the oceans.

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