News, Culture & Society

DOMINIC SANDBROOK looks back at how the 1973 dream soured

Very few people, I imagine, get a great thrill from following proceedings in the European Parliament. But yesterday was different.

In an extraordinary session complete with emotional speeches and even music, the 751 representatives voted to approve Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

So after all the squabbling, the paralysis and the hysteria, after all the experts’ claims that it was too difficult and that we would change our minds, we really have done it.

We’ve packed our bags and bought our tickets, and on Friday evening we are off.

Whatever you think of the decision, there is no doubt this is a landmark in our modern history.

Dominic Sandbrook tells the story of European Union… 

1967 

Britain’s application to join the Common Market vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle with a firm: ‘Non’

1972

A protester throws ink at PM Edward Heath as he arrives in Brussels to sign the UK’s entry watched by our chief negotiator Geoffrey Rippon

A protester throws ink at PM Edward Heath as he arrives in Brussels to sign the UK’s entry watched by our chief negotiator Geoffrey Rippon

1973

January 1 and the Mail warmly welcomes our entry into the 'free association of nations'. Pictured: Prime Minister Edward Heath signing Britain's 1973 entry to the European Common Market

January 1 and the Mail warmly welcomes our entry into the ‘free association of nations’. Pictured: Prime Minister Edward Heath signing Britain’s 1973 entry to the European Common Market

Pictured: The front page of the Daily Mail on January 1 1973 with the headline 'Europe Here We Come!'

Pictured: The front page of the Daily Mail on January 1 1973 with the headline ‘Europe Here We Come!’

A commemorative 50p coin (pictured)  celebrating the European Union is minted too

A commemorative 50p coin (pictured)  celebrating the European Union is minted too

1973

Miss TV Europe entrants. Holland’s Sylvia Kristel (front centre) later found fame as Emmanuelle

Miss TV Europe entrants. Holland’s Sylvia Kristel (front centre) later found fame as Emmanuelle

 1973

Gertrude Shilling (pictured) goes over the top with a hat to celebrate at Royal Ascot

Gertrude Shilling (pictured) goes over the top with a hat to celebrate at Royal Ascot

1975

Margaret Thatcher wears a pro-Europe jumper on the eve of the referendum

Margaret Thatcher wears a pro-Europe jumper on the eve of the referendum

1975

The Mail predicts a huge 'Yes to Europe' vote in the in-out poll called by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in June

The Mail predicts a huge ‘Yes to Europe’ vote in the in-out poll called by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in June

1979 

The huge ‘butter mountain’ in Germany reveals the wasteful folly of the Common Agricultural Policy

The huge ‘butter mountain’ in Germany reveals the wasteful folly of the Common Agricultural Policy

1990

A demonstrator rejects European Commissioner Jacques Delors’s campaign to force Britain into his planned superstate

A demonstrator rejects European Commissioner Jacques Delors’s campaign to force Britain into his planned superstate

2002

Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn (right) is prosecuted for not selling fruit in metric measures

Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn (right) is prosecuted for not selling fruit in metric measures

2002

Twelve nations start to use the euro (pictured) — but Britons strongly resist

Twelve nations start to use the euro (pictured) — but Britons strongly resist

Pictured: A British protester who is against the Euro stands outside the bank of England in London in 2002

Pictured: A British protester who is against the Euro stands outside the bank of England in London in 2002

2015

Thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East cross into Slovenia after Hungary decides to seal its borders against them

Thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East cross into Slovenia after Hungary decides to seal its borders against them

2016

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson lead the Vote Leave campaign promising more money for the NHS on that controversial bus as Remainers and Brexiteers are bitterly divided

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson lead the Vote Leave campaign promising more money for the NHS on that controversial bus as Remainers and Brexiteers are bitterly divided

A Remainiac anti-Brexit badge

A person wears a Pro-Brexit badges in the run up to the referendum

In the run up to the referendum the nation was left divided with some aligning themselves with the Remain campaign and others wanting to leave the European Union

Boris Johnson rides in his Vote Leave bus while visiting Reidsteel, a Christchurch company backing the Leave Vote in 2016

Boris Johnson rides in his Vote Leave bus while visiting Reidsteel, a Christchurch company backing the Leave Vote in 2016

June 15

A noisy clash on the Thames as Remainers, led by Bob Geldof, jeer at a flotilla of fishermen — and Nigel Farage — calling for the UK to take back its rights to British waters by voting to Leave

A noisy clash on the Thames as Remainers, led by Bob Geldof, jeer at a flotilla of fishermen — and Nigel Farage — calling for the UK to take back its rights to British waters by voting to Leave

June 24

An overjoyed Nigel Farage is pictured celebrating on the front page of the Mail as the result is announced and there is delight in the offices of the Leave EU campaign. The paper points out that the voters' decision is a crisis for David Cameron

An overjoyed Nigel Farage is pictured celebrating on the front page of the Mail as the result is announced and there is delight in the offices of the Leave EU campaign. The paper points out that the voters’ decision is a crisis for David Cameron

Pictured: Supporters of the Leave campaign celebrate as the country chooses to leave the European Union

Pictured: Supporters of the Leave campaign celebrate as the country chooses to leave the European Union

June 24

Defeated and dejected, David Cameron is joined by wife Samantha outside No 10 as he resigns

Defeated and dejected, David Cameron is joined by wife Samantha outside No 10 as he resigns

2017

Nigel Farage and his main backer Arron Banks are pictured meeting President Elect Donald Trump in front of a gold and diamond door at Trump Tower in New York

Nigel Farage and his main backer Arron Banks are pictured meeting President Elect Donald Trump in front of a gold and diamond door at Trump Tower in New York

2018

Gina Miller’s (pictured outside the High Court in London) legal actions caused Brexit delays

Gina Miller’s (pictured outside the High Court in London) legal actions caused Brexit delays

September

PM Theresa May is humiliated at a meeting in Salzburg, Austria, as leaders of the other 27 EU nations tell her that her Chequers Brexit plan will not work, undermining her authority at home

PM Theresa May is humiliated at a meeting in Salzburg, Austria, as leaders of the other 27 EU nations tell her that her Chequers Brexit plan will not work, undermining her authority at home

2019

In March, Iain Duncan Smith arrives at Chequers in his open-top Morgan sports car for a meeting with the PM amid growing rumours there is to be a Cabinet revolt against her

In March, Iain Duncan Smith arrives at Chequers in his open-top Morgan sports car for a meeting with the PM amid growing rumours there is to be a Cabinet revolt against her

May 24

An emotional Mrs May announces she will resign as Prime Minister on June 7

An emotional Mrs May announces she will resign as Prime Minister on June 7

September

Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings hatch a new Brexit plan — an election

Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings hatch a new Brexit plan — an election

And tears and flags as we bid Brussels farewell yesterday 

British MEP staff watch as the United Kingdom gears up to leave the European Union

British MEP staff watch as the United Kingdom gears up to leave the European Union

Nigel Farage waves a Union Jack in the air at the EU parliament building on January 29

Nigel Farage waves a Union Jack in the air at the EU parliament building on January 29 

Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union Sir Tim Barrow (left) delivers the instruments of ratification for Brexit to European Council Secretary General Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen (right)

Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union Sir Tim Barrow (left) delivers the instruments of ratification for Brexit to European Council Secretary General Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen (right)

I was born in 1974 and have spent my life as a citizen of what became the EU, though at the time people called it the Common Market.

Like most people of my generation, I grew up with the vague assumption that EU membership was the default and that, much as we grumbled about it, we were in it for good.

Even when, almost 20 years ago, I started writing about the history of postwar Britain, it never really occurred to me that our experiment with European confederation might prove a short-lived aberration.

Well, I was wrong. But in fairness, I wasn’t alone.

What strikes me now, in fact, is how consistently wrong our political and intellectual elites have been.

Shocked and outraged by the 2016 referendum result, many self-consciously liberal, high-minded types insisted it must have been a fluke, even a freak.

The vote was rigged, they said. It was a short-term reaction to austerity. It was a protest of those dubbed ‘the left-behinds’. 

It was a racist spasm, a terrifying lurch into xenophobia, a self-deluding effort to recapture a vanished empire.

You probably don’t need me to tell you what rubbish this was. And now, looking back at the past 50 years, I wonder whether Brexit was inevitable all along.

When France and West Germany came together in the 1950s to set up the ancestor of today’s EU, Britain wanted no part of it. 

There was no significant pro-European lobby in this country, and the idea of plunging into a Continental federal union struck most people, Labour and Tories alike, as fundamentally un-British.

It was only after the shock of the Suez Crisis in 1956, and the rapid collapse of our empire in Africa and Asia, that political and business elites decided Britain needed to ‘find a role’.

Put simply, they panicked, convincing themselves that unless we joined our neighbours’ club, we would become a fading backwater, known only for making abysmal cars and going on strike.

But while they may have convinced themselves, they never convinced the public. Polls in the 1960s consistently found that most people either disliked the thought of European membership or were completely indifferent to it.

And when we did join under Ted Heath in 1973, the planned national celebrations were a very damp squib. Polls found that four out of ten people were still against it.

Indeed, nothing captured the mood better than the shambolic ‘celebrations’ in Ivybridge, Devon, where the pro-European mayor organised a parade led by a teenager dressed as Britannia, and invited bewildered townsfolk to line the streets and wave European flags.

As the odd-job man who put out flags along the route remarked, most people ‘didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know what was going on. It was a big con-job’.

It’s true, of course, that when Heath’s successor Harold Wilson held a referendum two years later, people voted by two to one to stay in. But I think that result was an aberration, which has misled and blinded our political elite ever since.

It took place at the nadir of our post-Suez crisis of confidence, with IRA bombs in London, politics in turmoil and inflation at almost 30 per cent. And even at the time, there was no real evidence of pro-European enthusiasm.

Soon public opinion reverted to its natural scepticism. Indeed, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, polling data showed that at least half the electorate already wanted to leave.

Mrs Thatcher didn’t create popular Euroscepticism, in other words. She simply reflected it.

Today you sometimes hear ultra-Remainers lamenting that things could have been different, and that if it hadn’t been for the wicked witch of Grantham, the British people might have learned to become good little Europeans.

I don’t find that convincing at all.

To turn ordinary Britons into good Europeans would have required a cultural revolution. Ordinary people would have had to forget Elizabeth defying the Armada, Nelson on the deck of the Victory, the little ships at Dunkirk, the heroes of the Battle of Britain, even things like Dad’s Army and The Dam Busters.

Patriotic myths? Perhaps. But what is any national story, if not a collection of deeply rooted and hugely emotive patriotic myths?

Yet from Ted Heath to Tony Blair, too many national politicians consistently misunderstood their own country. 

They insisted that Britain was now part of a homogenised European story, but completely underestimated how attached ordinary people were to their old, patriotic one.

They ignored polls showing that people were stubbornly resistant to the European project. Instead, they continued down the path towards ever-closer union. The only thing that changed was the speed of the journey, never the direction.

But it speaks volumes about the weakness of the European project that when, in 2016, the long decades of argument came to the crunch, the Remainers had almost nothing positive to say.

Set against the old story of a free, independent Britain, their cliches about world peace and continental brotherhood looked pious and flimsy, like the kind of thing an earnest headmaster trots out for his weekly school assembly.

So instead they fell back on Project Fear, insisting on the dire economic consequences if we left the EU.

In truth, that was probably their best card. It resonated with cautious, risk-averse people who were worried about the lack of a strategy for when we left.

That’s why I voted Remain — not because I have any fondness for Brussels or any great affection for the European project, but because I instinctively dislike the thought of change.

But the fact that, after almost half a century, this was the Establishment’s only card speaks volumes.

For the fundamental truth, obscured by all the years of hysterical argument, is that a very large proportion of the British people have never seen themselves as European and have never been reconciled to the European project.

So where does all this leave us? Is Britain back in the 1960s, reeling from the loss of empire, confused and alone in an increasingly competitive world, a sadly deluded has-been riding for a fall?

I don’t think so. The 50-year experiment with European unity may have proved a red herring, but there is little doubt we are much better placed to thrive in the world than we were before 1973.

We are more confident, more creative and more dynamic.

In London we have the greatest city on earth. In science and technology, as well as music and entertainment, we are genuine world leaders. There is no reason, in other words, why we shouldn’t flourish after Brexit.

And although I didn’t vote for it, I’m not sorry we are out.

There is something invigorating about standing on your own two feet, rather than huddling in a group for protection. I like the thought that our children and grandchildren will grow up in a proudly independent country, making its own way in the world.

I won’t miss the European Parliament, the ultimate pointless talking-shop. I won’t miss Brussels and Strasbourg with their unaudited accounts, their sclerosis and stagnation. And I definitely won’t miss that wretched European flag.

For the first time in half a century, we’re on our own. Yes, there will be challenges ahead, as there always are when you set out on a great adventure.

But if we make it work, as I believe we will, then history will reward us.

And one day, when our successors look back, the real mystery will be that we ever doubted ourselves.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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