Europe and the Labour Party: forty years on

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Political parties could not survive without undergoing periodic metamorphoses and the European Referendum seems to have triggered a new phase for Conservatives, Labour and Liberal-Democrats. Much of the newspaper coverage has been on the splits within the Conservative Party. However for me the most remarkable change is the one that has taken place within Labour. Now, it seems, we are the most pro-European in outlook and it is Labour supporters that will hopefully produce the votes needed to remain. I wonder if we are beginning to recover a long-forgotten internationalist tradition – albeit in a very different form.

Being of advanced years I well remember the 1975 European referendum. At that time the majority of Labour activists were hostile to continued entry and, worse still, managed to convince themselves that the majority in the country were behind them. As a pro-European the meetings of the local North Islington Labour Party were even more unpleasant than was usually the case. We were the subject of a deal of personal animosity.

To understand this hostility it is necessary to appreciate the prevailing assumptions that were held on economic and industrial policy by those in the active left. Two were of particular importance. The first was that the solution to all economic problems lay in extensive state ownership and directive economic planning. The second was a belief that the Soviet Union was relatively benign in it intentions and any defects could be attributed to the aggressive hostility of the United States. My father and his Marxist friends advanced the slogan ‘Common market No – United States of Socialist Europe Yes’. The Common Market was regarded as part of an international capitalist conspiracy.

Underlying this sort of fundamentalist simplicity was a confused view about the rest of this world and how it would develop. I well remember the time that Roy Jenkins came to Cardiff to deliver a lecture of European Union. One of the local Labour Party Councillors, who was well known for his eccentricity and unpredictability, asked the following question ‘What would happen if China applied to join the Common Market?’ This flummoxed the speaker who tried to deflect it and move on the next topic; however the questioner persisted and was told that what he asked was too hypothetical at this stage. Who knows, given the subsequent rise of China as an economic power, the Cardiff Councillor may have been showing remarkable prescience.

The 1975 referendum produced an overwhelming vote for continued entry. Sadly it marked the beginning of a time when the Labour Party turned in on itself and also lost touch with the electorate. Today the Labour Party is again losing touch. It would be nice if a successful referendum campaign marked a new beginning with a wider perspective on global politics emerging. We can but hope.

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