Since the conclusion of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, the fundamental constitutional precept of the British Isles is “the Queen in Parliament,” wherein sovereign authority derives from the will of the monarch amid his or her Lords and Commons. The supranational European Communities based in Brussels, however, have challenged traditional British notions of self-government more than any other series of institutions; and as the British people prepare to vote on the twenty-third of June regarding whether or not to remain in the European Union (EU), it might be useful to reflect that this is the second occasion when they have been called upon to express their preferences at the ballot box. A comparison between the key actors in the respective European referenda of June, 1975 and of June, 2016 reveals that the British Left and the British Right generally oppose European integration, while a muddled middle enables the ancient Protestant monarchy to slide by degrees further and further into Europe.
The terms of European participation had always bitterly divided both the Tory and Labour parties, but Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s solution in 1975, two years after British entry into the Common Market, was to declare that his government would take no overall position, but rather allow individual cabinet ministers to campaign as they wished in the upcoming national referendum, the first on any subject.
Opposition came from the political Left in the form of Industry Secretary Anthony Wedgwood “Tony” Benn, a democratic-republican and Christian socialist for whom supranational Community government represented a tremendous affront to popular, much less to proletarian self-determination. In Arguments for Socialism (1979: 981) he asked caustically, “What body of men in the Western world enjoys so much political power as the European Commission enjoys over the lives of so many people and without a shred of direct accountability?” His question resonates equally today, and at the time Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, the powerful British trade unions, and other authorities on the Left shared his concerns and supported a withdrawal from the European Community.
On the Right, meanwhile, the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley—Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and MP for Antrim North—aroused Ulstermen against continued participation in the “Roman Catholic super-state,” while Enoch Powell, high priest of high Toryism, concluded in The Common Market: The Case Against (1971: 40), “A single currency means a single government, and that single government would…not be a British government; it would be a continental government.”
The “leave” campaign of 1975, however, was exceedingly fragmented and disorganized, and with most businessmen and all major newspapers against them, a muddled, often complacent middle instead managed to put to flight such ideologues by voting to stay in by about two-thirds across Britain’s four countries, and the United Kingdom thus remained within what is now the EU.
There are some minor differences between the referendum campaign of 1975 and today. Amongst others, the Cameron Government published a pamphlet both endorsing continued participation and also stating explicitly that the result shall be considered binding either way, which improves upon Harold Wilson’s complete ambiguity. And the “leave” campaign, for its part, appears to be managing its coalition and message more effectively, which probably accounts at least in part for a recent tightening of the national polls. But the politics of Leftist and Rightist British opposition to the EU flanking an amorphous and muddled center largely endures.
On the Left, we find Gisela Stuart, a German immigrant and Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston who writes in Prospect, “I am puzzled that the Labour Party seems to have mislaid its radical roots.” By radical, she means in essence Bennite, a Christian socialist and non-Stalinist Marxian ideology of proletarian liberation that seeks no society with unelected Euro-crats and the cartel capitalists at the back of them. “I reject the stifling establishment consensus across the political parties,” she continues.
On the Right, meanwhile, MP for Surrey Heath Michael Gove, a devout Christian and almost neo-conservative Tory theorist co-signed with Stuart and Boris Johnson a letter to the Prime Minister on 5 June recounting with great eloquence the economic, social, and legal difficulties of the EU and why they feel Britain would be more fortunate outside it, with the climax being the need to “take back control and be a normal self-governing democracy.”
This kind of strong rhetoric from Europe’s British opponents on the Left or Right tends to contrast with the comparatively bland discourses of party leaders and other “established” elites in the City or Fleet Street who generally benefit the most from the status quo; but however the British people vote next week, the reality is that no public policy, foreign or domestic, has ever so divided and confused British politics as supranational European integration.
Dr. Mark R. Royce is Assistant Professor of Political Science at NVCC Annandale. He authored a dissertation chapter largely concerned with the Common Market referendum of 1975, and his teaching and research interests include the British Constitution, Christian Democracy, and religion in international politics.
Photo Credit: By Chris Chabot via Flickr.