The second great European debate drags on, generating much heat and absorbing vast amounts of media attention and parliamentary time. Depending on your point of view, a new golden age is at hand, or we are going full-steam-ahead towards disaster, with the band on deck playing ‘Abide with Me.’
I say the second great European debate advisedly. We have been here before – October 1971 to be exact. Then, as now, the country was transfixed by the first great European debate. The difference was that then we were dealing with the problems of going into Europe, not leaving. An important distinction, but the issues were pretty much the same, and the stakes just as high as they are now.
Parliament gave over an extraordinary six days to deciding if we should join the Common Market, as it was known then. The issue was examined from every conceivable angle and political position with 180 MPs contributing to the debate. As now, the country was divided. It was an issue that split parties, ruptured the status quo, destroyed or made reputations, and, when it was complete, it left the political landscape utterly changed. This was especially true of the Labour party.
Before getting to the debate and what followed, we should perhaps remind ourselves of some milestones along the way. A little late in the day, Britain decided that it wanted to join the European project after all. General De Gaulle, with monumental ingratitude to a wartime ally, said ‘non’ not once, but twice. He vetoed Harold McMillan’s application in 1961, and did so again to Harold Wilson in 1967. Wilson prefaced his bid by saying that he would not take no for answer. Well, he had to when De Gaulle gave him short shrift.
Wilson changed tack when Labour lost the general election in 1970. The new Conservative government, under Edward Heath, quickly applied for membership and negotiated what they considered acceptable terms. It was up to parliament to accept or reject what was on offer. Everyone knew it was a crucial and defining vote. The future of the country was being decided and it might be a close-run thing. On both sides of the debate, and regardless of party, there were those who said that this was a matter of principle, conscience and the national interest. It was clear that some would go to the wall rather than vote for something they fundamentally disagreed with. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Wilson, in an effort to keep his fractious party together, objected to the terms, not the principle. It was a strategy that satisfied nobody and failed miserably. It all came to a head in parliament. On all sides of the House, MPs were clearly aware of the historical significance of what was taking place. Reading the speeches now (Hansard reports are online), they are as fresh, relevant and contemporary as when they were made. All the fault lines Europe evokes are here, and are clearly and sometimes brilliantly articulated.
It was the House of Commons at its best. We can read how Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, poles apart politically, arrive at the same conclusion. When the vote comes, they will go into the lobbies together to vote down European membership on any terms. The same applies to pro-Europeans like future Labour leader, John Smith, and Margaret Thatcher, also a future party leader and prime minister, who go through the same lobby to secure Britain’s place in Europe.
For the Labour party, this debate precipitated what became known as the ‘Great Schism.’ Heath gave his MPs a free vote. Wilson didn’t and imposed a three-line whip. This had enormous repercussions which still reverberate today. Heath won easily with a comfortable majority of 112 (356 for, 244 against, 20 abstentions). The tally of Labour members who defied the whip was 69 – a sufficient number to take us into Europe. It was a landmark vote, but the rebellion by some MPs infuriated the Labour left which was hostile to UK involvement in the European project at any price.
One of the 69 Labour MPs to defy the whip was Dick Taverne, the MP for Lincoln. He was quickly made aware that the left in his constituency were determined to de-select him. John P Mackintosh, the pro-European MP for Berwick and East Lothian, another so-called rebel, faced a similar threat. Mackintosh saw off his critics, but Taverne struggled against well-organised opposition.
After bitter infighting lasting over a year, his career as a Labour MP was summarily ended. He resigned triggering a by-election which took place on 1 March 1973. With a sizeable chunk of his local Labour party in support, Taverne stood as the ‘Democratic Labour’ candidate. His pitch was that he was entitled, as an MP, to vote according to his conscience and judgement. The local party, he said, knew he was pro-European when they selected him, and his views on Europe were well known in his constituency. Demanding he now vote for something he fundamentally disagreed with was demeaning and unreasonable. He was an MP, not a ‘cabbage’ to be mandated on how to vote. The electors of Lincoln agreed and he won easily with an increased majority of 13,000 over the Labour candidate. The left, however, were incensed that Taverne had prevailed.
There was another matter at this time which aggrieved left activists. Wilson refused to include a commitment to nationalise the top 25 British companies in the party manifesto. These two issues were major drivers towards the setting up of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) in 1973. After Lincoln and Taverne, mandatory re-selection of MPs was the first CLPD priority. But perhaps more radically, they were determined to bring the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to heel.
The CLPD founding statement said this: ‘We believe that the policy decisions taken by conference should be binding on the Parliamentary Labour Party and undertake to secure implementation of this principle.’ As we know, CLPD and its associates now control the party from top to bottom with the exception of PLP.
To bring this story up-to-date, there is something else to consider. After a botched and incompetent campaign, Mrs May now leads a minority government. A deal with the Ulster Unionists gives her a slim majority of 13. Not enough some say, to get whatever European deal negotiated through parliament. Will Jeremy Corbyn come to the rescue and throw his weight behind the deal negotiated by the government? This is not as fanciful as it might appear. Shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, has said as much. And, like most of the left, Jeremy Corbyn is viscerally anti-EU. Even the most cursory examination of his voting record in parliament confirms this. His CLPD backers think the same and will be itching for a showdown with the reviled ‘Blairites’ in the PLP.
When the Great European Repeal Bill is debated, it will be a defining vote for the country and for parliament. Much will be riding on the outcome and it will test the courage, character and conviction of every MP – particularly those who are pro-EU.
It is clear that there are those on the Tory and Labour benches who will settle for nothing less than staying in the Single Market and Customs Union. Prime minister May has ruled this out, so a clash is inevitable. Committed Europeans are also unlikely to buy into some fudged transitional arrangement if this, in reality, is just Brexit postponed for a couple of years. These are red lines that some will not cross, regardless of whips or party pressures.
This presents particular difficulties for Labour. The fault lines and issues which provoked the crisis in the early 70s are as sharp, if not sharper, than they were back then. All it would take to kick things off into something major is a threat of de-selections, sackings, or harassment. A way out might be for Corbyn not to commit Wilson’s egregious error in whipping MPs to vote for something they fundamentally disagree with. This looks unlikely. Somewhat surprisingly, since becoming leader he has shown little tolerance of those who disagree with him or break the whip.
When the vote in parliament takes place later this year, the stakes will be high all round, but especially for Labour. After the dust settles, will the people’s party emerge as a coherent opposition, united, strong and ready for government? Possible I suppose, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.
Noel Foy is a Labour party and Fabian member and a retired Scottish Labour officer.
This article fist appeared in the Scottish Review, Scotland’s weekly current affairs magazine.