Strange Bedfellows: the left, the right, and the European Union

The British people were asked a simple question – leave or remain. This was to be a once in a generation vote that the Prime Minister promised to respect. We all remember the outcome of course; the people voted to remain. It wasn’t even close, a healthy majority of 67% voted to remain within Europe. While this may sound like a strange alternative history, it’s true. The 1975 EEC Referendum promised by Harold Wilson as part of the October 1974 General Election campaign gave a resounding endorsement of British involvement with Europe. 

The parallels with the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 are striking. Like in 2016, the leaders of all three major parties, Wilson, Thatcher, and Thorpe all supported remain. The two most famous figures of the right, Nigel Farage in 2016 and Enoch Powell in 1975, both supported leave. The latter went so far as to imply voting Labour as a Tory MP in 1974 to get a referendum.

One of the key differences between 1974 and 2016, however, is the attitude of the British left to the EU. Tony Benn was the most famous, and most villainized, left-wing member of the cabinet to support leave. Benn in his diary when discussing the EEC said, ‘You hear all this about our parliamentary democracy being undermined by Marxists… but the plain truth is that it has been undermined by Brussels’. In other words, we need to take back control. Even more interesting is the position of a young Labour councillor, who voted to leave in 1975, but then voted to remain in 2016. His name was Jeremy Corbyn.

The issue of Europe has always been divisive, ever since the idea of Britain joining was first proposed by the fresh-faced Edward Heath in 1961. But despite this, many on the right of the Conservative party supported the EEC. Geoffrey Rippon MP, a member of the right-wing Conservative Monday Club, was a very prominent supporter of British entry into Europe. The Monday Club, for context, was so right wing it supported white minority apartheid rule in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. The response of the left was more divided with some prominent members of the Labour left against the EEC in 1975. This included Benn of course, but also other cabinet members such as Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. 

The issue of Europe has always been divisive.

After the election loss to Thatcher in 1979, Michael Foot was elected leader of the Labour party, and this signalled a left-wing shift within the party. The 1983 manifesto called for the introduction of industrial democracy, increased public ownership and public spending; but also called for the immediate withdrawal from Europe. This shows the power of anti-European sentiment within the Labour party well into the 1980s. At the same time the Thatcher government was passing the Single European Act, which helped to promote greater political and economic cooperation between European nations, as well as entering the Exchange Rate Mechanism which tied the value of the pound to other European currencies. Thatcher’s focus on the so-called ‘enemy within’, miners and trade unions, led her to ignore the enemy without. 

The main shift within the Conservative and Labour parties on the issue of Europe, however, came in the 1990s. The final defeat of true, red-blooded socialism in Britain, reflected in another loss for Labour in the 1992 General Election, was a nail in the coffin of socialism within the party. The new leader John Smith, who died in 1994, tried to modernise, reducing union power within the party. After the death of Smith in 1994 and the premiership of Tony Blair, with his middle-class upbringing and neoliberal beliefs, was the culmination of this trend. After winning the 1997 election he said, “We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour.” 

Blair was notably more in favour of Europe than previous Labour leaders, such as Neil Kinnock. I think this cannot be separated from the decline of class as a framework for Blairites going into the 21st century. The Labour Party under Blair it is fairer to say was more focused on social justice than class, deliberately rejecting both the term class and socialism in his campaigning and government. This influenced the position of the party on Europe, because the main critique of the EU from the left was that it was a ‘capitalist club’ of states and big business against working class interests.

Thatcher’s focus on the so-called ‘enemy within’… led her to ignore the enemy without.

As a result of the same process, the final defeat of socialism in the UK, the Tory party were able to unlock their own Euroscepticism. This was seen in Thatcher herself after she had left office. Perhaps realising what she had done, Thatcher supported the Eurosceptic wing of the party in the debates over Europe in the 1990s and 2000s. This included the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which among other things changed the name of the European Economic Community (EEC) to the European Union (EU). This signalled the move of Europe toward political integration away from a free trade organisation of independent nations. Right wing Tories called the Maastricht rebels (or just ‘bastards’ if you ask John Major) resisted this, voting against their government throughout the debate about the treaty. These MPs, along with the Eurosceptic Tory press, especially the Sun, did significant damage to Major throughout the period up to 1997. 

The mainstreaming of Euroscepticism within the Tory party has played a huge role in the character of the party in the 21st century. While the leadership of the party has remained cautiously in favour of Europe; Tory voters most certainly did not. In the local elections of 2014, UKIP went from 3 seats in the European Parliament to 166, winning 17% of the vote. It was in part due to the fear of a resurgent Euroscepticism on the right of the Conservative party that Cameron made the ill-fated decision to call the referendum. I have to say, the hubris of Cameron in the belief that the voters would come round to his view does still make me laugh. 

This historical take on the fall of Euroscepticism on the left and its rise on the right is very useful for understanding the 2016 referendum and its aftermath. Corbyn was criticised at the time for his less than fulsome support for the EU during the campaign. Subsequently his decision to accept the result, only then to support a second referendum was one of the reasons for Labour’s loss in 2019. This inability to give a coherent policy on Brexit is as much a reflection of Corbyn’s own personal dislike of the EU from his experience in the 1970s. His outdated view was caught in the crossfire between a younger generation of Labour voters who support remain, and an older generation of Labour supporters who voted leave. Perhaps this fatal indecision was the reason for 5 more years of Tory rule, only time will tell.

Image Credit: EU Flagga by bobsled, licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: The flag of the European Union, flying on a flagpole.