An example from history of how the coming EU referendum may not settle the matter
Many years ago, one of my mentors at the Sunday Times warned me against “PSJ”. It stands for public service journalism – the things we ought to know, rather than the things we want to read.
This week I have defied his strictures. This blog is pure PSJ. I have transcribed an exchange broadcast a few days ago on the BBC’s Parliament Channel. It replayed the BBC’s results programme from the 1975 referendum on Britain and Europe. As the figures came in, showing a two-to-one majority for staying in the Common Market (as it then was), Robin Day interviewed Enoch Powell.
(For younger readers, Day was the doyen of interviewers – think Jeremy Paxman without the sneers – while Powell was the leading anti-European of his day. A year earlier he had stood down as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West and urged people to vote Labour for, although Powell was well to the Right, he felt that Labour’s commitment to a referendum on Europe trumped all other concerns.)
Anyway, Powell faced Day, knowing that his hopes of a vote to leave the Common Market had been comprehensively dispelled by the results. This is their full exchange:
Day: Mr Powell, there wasn’t much point in advising people to vote Labour from the point of view of staying in or coming out of the Common Market, was there?
Powell: I’m always in favour of a question being reopened as important as this. It has been reopened and now we have a provisional result which takes us on to the next stage.
Day: Why do you say “a provisional result”, and what is the next stage?
Powell: Oh, I’m just replying on the Government’s official statement.
Day: Can I read it for you? “Our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament”
Powell: Yes, that’s the one. And since Parliament will be continuously re-elected by the electorate, then this is an ongoing debate.
Day: Yes, but with respect Mr Powell, you have picked out one sentence from a passage which deals with the constitutional position…
Powell: Yes, that’s right.
Day: …and not with the practical position, because are you suggesting that from now on, you and others who feel like you should continue a parliamentary struggle to get Britain out?
Powell: But of course. This is like September 1938. In September, October 1938 I’m sure that, if Neville Chamberlain had gone to the country, he would have swept the country for an act of abnegation. But the very same people, within 12 months, when they saw behind the facade, when they penetrated to the realities, stood up to fight for the continued existence of our nation; and that’s what will happen.
Day: You’re saying that this is a kind of Munich?
Powell: Yes I am
Day: I see
Powell: You seem surprised!
Day: And when do you see our 1940 coming, when we stand alone?
Powell: Well, let’s have our 1939 first, when we decide we have to fight. You see, I simply do not believe, although I make no complain of the pro-marketers, particularly people like Edward Heath and Peter Kirk – they have been beyond criticism in that they have made it clear that to remain part of the Common Market is to renounce national status for Britain – they say the nation state is obsolete and we are to recognise it.
Day: Who are you going to get to support you in your continuing parliamentary struggle to get Britain out of the Common Market, Mr Powell?
Powell: Well, as the House of Commons, week by week, has to debate the consequences of being in the Common Market, it will, as it tends to do, filter through to wider and wider areas, that they were rightly told by people like Edward Heath, that this did indeed mean that they would become a province in a new state. Now I do not believe that when that is realised, that it will be assented to.
Day: I remember you two or three years ago, when you were still in the Conservative Party, at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, predicting, with total conviction and certainty, that this country would not go into the Common Market. May I suggest to you that your prediction now is no more right than that one was?
Powell: You have two events, if I may say so, slightly confused. One was the Conservative Party conference where I said I would never assent to the act of abnegation involved in Britain joining the Common Market; and a meeting in East Ham in September 1971 when I said it will not happen. I am still convinced it will not happen. I am convinced that the people of this country cannot be absorbed into a European state.
Day: But you said we would not go into the Common Market, and we did go into the Common Market, and are not just as wrong now as you were then?
Powell: No sir, the British people do not mean it because they have still not been able to credit the implications of being in the Common Market. They still think they will be a nation. They still think they will govern and tax and legislate for themselves. They are mistaken. It’s not the fault of many of the pro-marketeers that they are mistaken, but it is the thing, so incredible to them, that I am not inclined to blame them overmuch. But they will learn.
Two preliminary observations, before we come to the main point. First, that’s interviewing at its best: short, clear, direct and well-informed questions, courteously expressed. Second, Powell’s words explode the myth that the “yes” campaign in 1975 misled voters by pretending that the Common Market was little more than a trading arrangement. Powell explicitly conceded that Heath and others promoted the Common Market as a profoundly political project.
Now to the heart of the matter: Powell’s warning that the referendum result would have a short shelf-life. He was half right, for although we have remained “in Europe” ever since, the Labour Party reopened the matter within six years, and ended up fighting the 1983 election on a manifesto commitment to withdraw from the Common Market.
Powell, of course, was a one-off character, long since dead. Should his words be regarded as that of a twentieth century eccentric, of no relevance to our coming in-out referendum on EU membership? I would counsel caution. A few months ago, at a Prospect round table, I sat opposite William Cash, one of the most prominent of today’s Tory “no” campaigners. I asked him if he would give up campaigning for Brexit if the referendum produced a “yes” majority. His reply was clear: “of course not”.
So, to those who feel certain that a “yes” vote in the coming referendum will settle the matter for a generation: don’t be so sure. By nationalist hook or imperial crook, the “no” camp will do all it can to keep the issue alive. You have been warned.
This article was previously published in Prospect