When the UK entered the Common Market in 1973, I was MP for Bedwellty. I was fearful of the “centripetal pull” that the thriving economies of Northwest Europe would exert on investment and jobs, and the harm that would do to the UK, particularly the so-called “periphery” which included a South Wales that was beginning to experience the massive, unprepared crumble away from industrialisation.
In the 1975 Referendum, I consequently campaigned for a “No” vote—though not without feeling perplexed by the focus on “regaining sovereignty,” even when it was expressed with principled passion by my beloved comrade, Michael Foot. I kept on reminding myself—and all who would listen—of Aneurin Bevan’s wise post-war maxim that “National sovereignty is a phrase which history is emptying of meaning.” I embraced that as a salient truth of my times. The decades since have reinforced the reality: resisting major supranational menaces and exploiting great borderless opportunities requires action by democracies under agreed law. Effective power—real sovereignty—is collective.
The referendum came and went. “Europe” hardly figured in the 1979 General Election. The issue appeared to have been settled by the 2-1 “In” majority for all but those in the Tory Party and the Labour movement who continued to resist the result, sometimes with almost religious zeal. In the former, Europhobes shrunk to a noisy persistent group of “Eurobores.” In the latter, Europhobia was boosted by the Bennism which, in the 1983 Election, translated into a Labour pledge to withdraw from the European Community. Electorally, it was the most damaging of all policies. Only unilateral nuclear disarmament drew a comparable level of rejection from voters, including many in Labour’s “heartland.”
For me, that was a confirmation, not a revelation. For years before that, it had objectively become clear that the operation of European Regional Development policy existed to counter the “centripetal pull” and UK engagement in the Common Market was promoting, not inhibiting, investment and jobs—though never enough. I heard my courageous friend, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, describe the Community as “the most successful peace process in history.” Willy Brandt struck a resonant chord when he responded to a Labour MEP’s assertion that the Community was “capitalism’s adventure playground” by saying “It will only be that if socialists turn their back and allow it to be so.” Reports were coming from European trade union organisations of progress towards a “social dimension” and some of Labour’s new MEP’s were telling me of the agenda of rights and protections which they shared with sister party colleagues in the European Parliament.
In the wake of the crushing 1983 defeat, I knew that the outcome of that election and my own perceptions of the altered realities had to be recognised with a response that would begin to propel change in policy. Running for the party leadership I therefore advocated “A New Deal for Europe and a Square Deal for Britain.” At a painfully slow pace, the Labour movement majority shifted to that view. By 1987, Labour was pledging to “work constructively with our European partners.” Thirty years on, that still makes most sense for our country.