Hereditas Historiae

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The Sunday Times (Focus) - 28 February 2016

Battle lines drawn in Tory civil war

Britain was on its knees and lacking good leaders when it joined the EEC in 1973. Now much stronger, it must break free of its continental shackles and embrace freedom, writes Britain’s leading Tory historian

By Andrew Roberts


'Before we decide whether to leave the EU, Britons must recognise why we joined it in the first place, back in 1973. I was a teenager in the 1970s and remember how much of a crushed, demoralised and frightened country we were, in contrast to the strong, confident, outward-looking and successful one we could be if we shake off the EU’s regulatory and jurisprudential shackles.  

The years immediately before our entry into the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), were a terrible time for Britain. With no great prime minister between Winston Churchill, who left office in 1955, and Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, Britain experienced a terrible dearth of leadership for nearly a quarter of a century. Politics was all about the orderly management of decline: it was thus at a baleful moment in British history when the politicians, not the people, chose to join the EEC.  

Between 1970 and 1972 Britain experienced two separate states of emergency, the PLO hijacking of a British aeroplane, massive government bailouts to failing firms such as Rolls-Royce, tear gas thrown in the chamber of the House of Commons and a dismal national weariness with political tension, violence and corruption. The Beatles even split up.  

The bleakness of the period was presaged by Ken Loach’s film Kes and Peter Nichols’s play The National Health. Britain was a thoroughly demoralised country when it decided — by only 309 to 301 votes in the Commons — to join the EEC. The prime minister, Edward Heath, promised that in joining an economic community there was no prospect of a political union. “There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty” his white paper said in July 1971. Many Britons fell for it.  

Contrast all that misery with today’s Britain, where we enjoy superior growth to and lower unemployment than the rest of the EU, and have a per capita GDP that is significantly higher than those of France and Italy. Modern, post-Thatcher Britain is a completely different place from the country of the early 1970s, which looked back to the Suez crisis and devaluation of sterling as its defining postwar moments.  

There’s nothing ignoble in being the first rat to leave a sinking ship, and with European GDP projected to drop from less than a third of global GDP to about a quarter over the next 15-20 years, the ship is certainly sinking, even without the migration, demographic and southern European economic horrors that it faces. Meanwhile, as the entrepreneur Jim Mellon pointed out last week, “The net transfers [Britain makes] to the EU on an annual basis are the equivalent of 350,000 British people working full-time at the average salary sending all of their wages to the EU for transfer to other people in other countries. That is a larger body of people than the British Army at the start of the Second World War, larger than many cities, and approximately the same as the population of the smallest EU states, Luxembourg and Malta.”  

Professor Ian Morris, the eminent British historian at Stanford University, argued in The Sunday Times last week that there were three compelling historical arguments for Britain staying in a reformed EU. He said it was Britain’s traditional (indeed ancient) foreign policy objective to prevent a hegemonic superstate, and that what he called the “unsung bureaucratic heroes” of the EU had kept the peace in Europe since the Second World War. He further suggested that Britain’s best historical moments have come when she was deeply involved in Europe. On all three counts, he could not be more wrong.  

The argument that Britain has for centuries been intimately involved in European politics in order to stymie the chances of any power dominating the Continent and controlling the Channel ports of France, Holland and Belgium seems, on the face of it, to have some historical resonance. Philip II’s Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon’s France, and the Kaiser and Hitler’s Germany were all defeated by coalitions in which Britain took an active part, including putting troops ashore on the Continent.  

Yet the analogy collapses once one considers that the reason why the Channel ports had to be kept out of the hands of continental tyrants was solely out of fear of Britain being invaded and subjugated by a foreign military force. However much one might decry Jean-Claude Juncker and his bureaucratic army, we at least know for certain that they are not intending to invade Britain and set up guillotines in Trafalgar Square. Once the physical threat of invasion breaks down, so does the historical argument that in leaving the EU we are somehow breaking with a half-millennium of ancient, almost sacred, British foreign policy.  

Nor is it true that the EU has kept the peace since the demise of Hitler. David Cameron told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month that this unprecedentedly long peace could be ascribed to the way that once-warring countries “have actually now come together in a common endeavour”. Yet that common endeavour was not the EU: it was the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) that has kept the peace all these years.  

Nato was founded in April 1949, eight years before the EU’s predecessor, the Common Market, came into existence in 1957. By throwing a nuclear umbrella over Europe, Nato has protected the continent by uniting former enemies to keep Russia out. Merely becoming a close trading partner is no guarantor of peace: Britain’s largest export market in 1914 was imperial Germany, and vice versa.  

Indeed, the EU’s attempt at conducting foreign policy has led to the only two occasions since 1945 when there have been widespread bloodshed and border revisions on the continent: in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Ukraine this decade.  

“The only time the EU actually took charge of security was during the Bosnian war,” points out Sir John Nott, former secretary of state for defence. “Its mishandling of that crisis led to more than 1m people being displaced and up to half a million being killed or wounded.”  

As for Ukraine, the EU’s foreign policy did nothing to prevent Moscow from annexing Crimea. So much for the would-be EU superstate’s foray into international relations, an area that it should never have arrogated to itself in the first place if it did not have pretensions to superstatedom.  

Far from being Prof Morris’s “unsung bureaucratic heroes”, it is the EU Commission which has saddled the member states with a body of rules and regulations, the acquis communautaire, which is now 310m words long. The metastatic growth of the EU’s rulebook is one of the great mysteries of modern European history. How did it happen? If its 714,709 pages were placed side by side on A4 paper, it would stretch from London to beyond Nottingham. With a rulebook almost the same height as Nelson’s Column and weighing about a ton, the same as a small rhinoceros, these “heroes” have certainly been busy, but they have only been able to push nations together by adopting legal processes that forced them to accept rules and regulations they do not want or need. Every time the UK has voted against an EU measure — which it has done no fewer than 72 times since 1996 — it has been outvoted. One is left staggered at the hypocrisy of Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, in urging Britons to remain in an organisation that they as Americans would not for a moment want to join.  

It will be an interesting insight into the moral fibre of the British people in the modern age to see if they can overcome the scaremongering that they are being subjected to by the “remain” campaign. German politicians, EU officials and even our own foreign secretary have warned darkly of Brussels’s likely retaliation if we vote to leave.  

“The mood of goodwill towards Britain will evaporate in an instant,” Philip Hammond said, adding that European politicians would have “no desire at all” to show that Britain can prosper outside the EU. No earlier generation of Britons would have given tuppence for such threats, let alone bowed to them: if ours does, perhaps we do not deserve to have self-government once again.  

In the Commons last week David Cameron likened the relationship between Britain and the EU to a marriage. Yet the correct description of a relationship in which one partner only stays through profound fear of the other partner’s likely act of retaliation if they left is “abusive”. Are we the kind of people who will put up with being in an abusive relationship? That is in part what we will decide on June 23.  

One third of the FTSE 100 chief executives have attacked Brexit in a letter to The Times organised by Roland Rudd, the great tub-thumper for Britain joining the euro not long ago. Of course big business has long supported the EU, because it can afford the lawyers and lobbyists that ensure high barriers to entry into industries and markets, stymying competition from medium-sized and smaller firms that cannot afford the ludicrously high fees necessary.  

Several of the chief executives signing the letter were from companies that paid more than £600,000 each to lobbyists and lawyers in Brussels to get regulations written in a way that helps their businesses but not would-be competitors. If people cannot see past the transparently self- interested advocacy of such utterly deracinated people — who are putting their companies’ interests before the British people’s — then maybe they are not intelligent enough to demand the freedom being offered them.  

David Cameron has described Brexit as “a leap in the dark”, a phrase that has long historical precedents in this country, beginning with the Second Reform Bill of 1867. The prime minister, who is highly knowledgable about British political history and especially of the Victorian period, undoubtedly knows that it was first used by the Tory leader, the Earl of Derby, to describe his deputy Benjamin Disraeli’s proposal to enfranchise the urban working classes.  

The upper and middle classes were unnerved by the prospect of extending the vote to people whose class interests seemed opposite to theirs, yet they did it, and it proved to be the mainstay of social peace in Britain for the rest of the century. In other words, the prime minister knows that bold, radical, brave leaps in the dark have worked wonderfully well for Britain in the past.  

Brexit will show that they will again.'  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Andrew Roberts is the author of several books on 19th and 20th Century history, including a major biography on Napoleon, a comparison of the leaderships of Adolph Hitler and Sir Winston Churchill, and a book on the Battle of the Somme.

Further information is  to be found on his official website (