Labour was once the Eurosceptic party, of course; most of their MPs voted against joining in 1971.
Returned to power on a 'renegotiation and referendum' platform in 1974, they began by being
"blunt to the point of rudeness" - but, within weeks, their tough talk had become "more conciliatory".
Throughout, they concentrated on secondary agreements, such as on New Zealand butter imports, without touching on the central issue of national self-determination.
The European Commission itself seemed to have been willing to go along with this before the referendum - Britain agreed with the 'overall concept of European Union' and our partners postponed key budget discussions. And in a referendum where a majority of the labour movement favoured a 'No' vote, Harold Wilson got his 'Yes.'
Fuller details can be found in "The 1975 Referendum" by David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger.
The Labour Party as a whole stayed hostile to the EEC, though, even pledging withdrawal in their 1983 manifesto. Young Mr Blair was no exception, in his own words: "We will negotiate a withdrawal from the (E)EC, which has drained our natural resources and destroyed our jobs".
Like socialism, it was phased out over the following years. In Labour's 1987 manifesto, the policy was to "work constructively with our EEC partners ...reject EEC interference with our policy for national recovery and revival." By 1990, they were endorsing the ERM!
Why the change? Such things as the Social Chapter naturally appealed to the British Left, especially with their bÍte noir Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister; to put it crudely, they believed that Europe would give them what she wouldn't.
But as the government can now pass its own social legislation, perhaps they should reflect that Europe can just as easily impose laws they oppose. In his 1996 book Fit to Govern?, Labour activist Leo McKinstry devotes a chapter to Labour and the EU. Robin Cook is described as "once a Euro-sceptic but now an apparent convert to the European cause.". In February 1998, the European Journal traced the shedding of opposition of other colleagues, such as ministers John Prescott, Jack Cunningham, David Clark, and Gavin Strang, who voted against joining the EEC in 1972. Leader of the Commons Ann Taylor campaigned for a 'No' vote in 1975 over the issue of food prices.
There are, of course, still Eurosceptics in the Labour party - but they seem to be mainly of the older generation. Labour's sceptics seem to be either dying out (politically speaking!) or keeping their heads down, as shown by the minimal Commons opposition to the Amsterdam Treaty. It seems that Mr. Blair and Peter Mandelson have most of them well house-trained, and the only spectre of real opposition might be over the single currency.
WHAT VISION OF EUROPE?
Enthusiasm for Europe grew as long as the Tories were in power and Europe was seen as more sympathetic; and Fit to Govern? observed that "Socialists are very keen on rights. So is the EU that Labour welcomes the Euro laws" - I may instance the claim by MEP Christine Crawley that "almost all the gains working women ....have made over the last decade..[due to] legislation at European level". (However a recent (1997) European Court ruling evidently shows that in the EU discrimination against men is quite acceptable. How very egalitarian!).
Not only did many Labourites see Europe as their path to socialism - there was the complementary view that "Britain wasn't big enough." In their recent book 'The Age of Insecurity', Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson write of Neil Kinnock's "conversion to the European ideal...the left would fight to prevent the takeover of [Europe] by 'purely economic forces'.....remove inequalities...push through social directives so far blocked by Britain [my emphasis]".
Roy Hattersley put it succinctly in the Sunday Times (9.8.92) - "Labour has converted to Europe because Europe has converted to socialism". And in the words of ex-MEPs' leader David Martin - "A socialist superstate is exactly what we want to create".
It is interesting to note that in promotional leaflets left in libraries, Central London MEP Stan Newens did not once describe himself as 'Labour', rather as 'Party of European Socialists', the European Parliament grouping with which he sits. (Central London Euro News, Autumn 1996)
It seems that the acceptable face of 'Socialism' is one of social engineering and regulatory control; economic collectivism rather than Old Labour national ownership. Some have commented that Labour's abandonment of (national) social ownership in 1994 is more a break with the concept of the nation-state than with rejection of economic control. It would fit in with European moves to break up national enterprises such as British Rail into more regional units (cf. 1991 Directive).
Mr. Blair's public stance on Europe is quite capable of shifting - in November 1995, he said that he had "no intention of agreeing to...everything...from EU." The following June, he told German businessmen that "we do not seek to merge our national identities into a superstate". (quoted: McKinstry). Perhaps he was just posing as a 'sceptic' - as seen in his pre-election photo-call with the British bulldog - and is now revealing himself in his true colours?
He certainly whipped through the Amsterdam Treaty without a proper debate in the Commons. The Sun speculates that maybe he sees himself as 'leader of Europe', but his performance as during Britain's Presidency of the EU in 1998 was generally seen as lukewarm and uninspiring.
Many Labour pro-EU campaigners are active with the European Movement, a cross-party body set up "to keep up pressure on governments towards [achieving] European Union" (European Movement leaflet).
Leading lights include Blair's media minder and Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson MP (Vice Chairman). Giles Radice MP is Chairman of both the EM and a key Commons Treasury Committee.
An 'associated group' of the European Movement is the London Europe Society, which boasts of the role it played in securing the 1975 'Yes' vote. It has amongst its Presidents Roy Hattersley "(accept....centralised European authority...nation state is outdated" ) and Mr Blair!.
One of the key concepts of federalism is setting up smaller units (such as regions or states) with limited powers and many see the urgency to set up regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales (the latter hardly enthusiastically supported by voters). New Labour is committed in principle to detaching Northern Ireland from the UK; far from being truly autonomous, the Northern Ireland assembly is heavily linked to the Irish Republic as part of an 'Ireland' Euro-region.
Plans for English regional parliaments were given a low-key airing; they attracted little popularity and for now have largely been overshadowed by the setting up of Regional Development Agencies. One notable exception is the Greater London Authority, which hardly commanded the support of a majority of Londoners. Its role is still to be fully defined, but like other forms of devolution will be bound heavily by EU laws and policies (over which it has no control).
A key New Labour image is that of 'a people's Europe'. Hammersmith and Fulham MP Iain Coleman talked of "the future of the EU must be about having power that local people can relate to and reach... ....building Europe with the consent of the people". (W London Gazette, 12.6.98).
This is hardly reflected by Labour's submission to economic political control by the Council of Ministers and Commission (unelected). Or its willingness to transfer control of our national currency to the European Central Bank (unelected). Or the lack of public consultation over the Amsterdam Treaty, which has far-reaching consequences for Britain.
In fact, Mr Blair has talked of giving even more power to EU institutions, and with it, removing Britain's veto.
This makes discussion about reforming the 'undemocratic' and 'outmoded' House of Lords with its mostly Tory hereditary peers look rather hypocritical, not least if it is retained as a forum of life peers, mostly appointed under political patronage.
Mr Blair's 'Panel 2000' think tank (more commonly known as the 'Cool Britannia' task force) is looking at scrapping 'outdated' images of Britain. According to the Sunday Times (25.4.98), one of its participants are David Quarmby of the British Tourist Authority, who tried to drop the Union Jack before massive public uproar stopped this.
Another Panellist is 'Demos' researcher Mark Leonard, who is noted to want a European army, European political parties and even a European football team! (A 'common European defence' is already a direction pointed at by the Amsterdam Treaty, and there is a European Parliament proposal for cross-European lists for the 2009 European Parliament elections. (Sunday Times, 7.6.98). The move towards proportional representation effectively dilutes the link between voters and their elected representatives, decreases their sackability and increases the power of the party machine).
Other associates of New Labour include Bob Ayling from British Airways who have already dropped the Union Jack from their planes, and Mandelson ally Philip Gould, who was given a large Foreign Office grant to survey public attitudes to the EU.
Hugh Gaitskell, Blair's predecessor in the 1960s saw joining the EEC as the end of a thousand years of British history. To some, the Pound (Sterling) is seen to be another unwanted link with the past for a Labour government that is duly realising the blueprint of the Treaties. Amsterdam keeps Britain on track for the Maastricht goals of a single currency, and greater conformity of laws and political structures.
"New Labour, No Britain?".
Printed with acknowledgements to Resistance magazine (ed.: Mark Taha)
Original article: June 1998
Date this page updated: 4 December 1998