Year XXVI, 1984, Number 3 - Page 230
THE FEDERALIST STRUGGLE IN BRITAIN
The birth of Federal Union in London in 1938 and the remarkable story of its mass public appeal in the months preceding the Second World War has been told elsewhere. It will be the subject of a book to be published in 1985. This will demonstrate how some of the best minds active in British public life bent them to the idea of subordinating unfettered national sovereignty to supranational control. The federal idea fired the imagination of opinion formers in Britain and gave birth to a considerable body of literature that circulated clandestinely amongst resistance movements throughout occupied Europe. There is little doubt that ideas published in tracts by Lord Lothian, Lionel Robbins, Ivor Jennings, James Meade, WilIiam Beveridge, Ronald Mackay, William Curry, Kenneth Wheare, Friedrich von Hayek, Barbara Wootton, Harold Wilson and others in Britain played a formative role in the development of federalism on the Continent during and after the war.
Federalism certainly had some influence on the thinking of Winston Churchill. It lay behind the initiative worked out by Arnold Toynbee, Jean Monnet, Arthur Salter and Robert Vansittart for Franco-British Union which the British cabinet offered to the French government of Paul Reynaud in June 1940. These federal ideas were the subject of discussions held in London between exiled governments during the war in which Spaak and Van Zeeland played such important roles. In the midst of the war in 1942 Churchill penned a minute to his cabinet colleagues urging that some thought be given to the creation postwar of some sort of Council of Europe in which both victor and vanquished nations played an equal part.
There is little doubt that Churchill’s speech in Zurich in 1946 calling for the creation of some sort of United States of Europe put European unity firmly on the political map. Within a short time a number of organisations in its favour came into being including the Union of European Federalists whose conference in Montreux in 1947 was attended by a number of British federalists as well as by Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law. Sandys became the prime mover in bringing the various movements for European unity together at the first Congress of Europe in the Hague in 1948. Eight hundred delegates came from every part of the Continent and resolved to work for the creation of a political, economic and cultural union of Europe. It founded the European Movement which elected Duncan Sandys as its first international president.
Emerging from the Second World War as one of the Big Three world powers and still in possession of an Empire, Britain remained uncertain about her future role. Politicians failed to realise that Britain’s economic potential was no longer commensurate with their political ambitions to keep up with the two super-powers. Belief in Britain’s world role prevented her from grasping the leadership of Europe which was there for the asking. The extent of self-delusion was best demonstrated by the widespread protests at a statement made by the American Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1952. Critical of Britain’s refusal to join the European Coal and Steel Community, he chided the British for having lost an empire but not yet having found a role. Indeed it took nearly fifteen years after the end of the war before Britain started to recognise that her place was in a uniting Europe.
To examine the reasons for Britain’s ambivalence to Europe one needs to go back to the immediate postwar situation. Churchill was defeated and a Labour Government came to power, committed at home to a programme of extensive nationalisation and abroad, under Ernest Bevin’s leadership as Foreign Secretary, to the maintenance of the Anglo-American special relationship as his first priority. Some on the left of the Labour Party such as Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman argued in 1947 in favour of a European union largely as a means of creating a third neutral force between the USA and USSR. But they were then in a minority. Paradoxically they subsequently became the leaders of Labour’s opposition to British membership of the European Community.
The Schuman proposal to bring coal and steel under supra national control went completely counter to Labour’s policies to take these industries from private ownership and nationalise them. No Labour government would have been willing to cede control having just gained it. Leading members of the Conservative opposition were critical of Labour’s refusal to respond to Schuman’s declaration. Yet government policy towards Europe did not change once the Conservatives came to power at the end of 1951.
Churchill was ageing. Duncan Sandys and Harold Macmillan, Europe’s strongest supporters in the cabinet, had major departmental responsibilities which kept them away from foreign affairs. Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary had a free hand and saw himself on the world stage with little sympathy for those seeking to bring Britain closer to Europe. Failure to respond to the invitation to join the European Defence Community and dismissal of the attempts to create a Political Community ultimately doomed these projects on the Continent. Their failure persuaded British leaders that Messina and the proposals to create an Economic Community would probably also fail.
It was the Suez debacle in 1956 and the realisation that Britain could no longer consider herself a world power that marked a gradual change in her attitudes towards Europe. Harold Macmillan, a committed European, became Prime Minister in 1957. Under his leadership Britain was coming to terms with her actual strength and position in the world. He saw that Britain’s future lay with Europe and British policy started changing to take account of it.
The European federalists in Britain sensed the opportunity and decided to persuade opinion formers in favour of British membership of the European Economic Community. They commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit, then under John Pinder’s direction, to carry out a research project into the effects on British manufacturing industry of a free trade area and the common market. Published in 1957 under the title ‘Britain and Europe’ it stimulated considerable public interest and persuaded large sections of British commerce and industry of the economic advantages of drawing closer to Europe. Doubts were however still strongly expressed about the effect of such involvement on Britain’s economic relationship with the Commonwealth. The Economist Intelligence Unit was therefore commissioned to study this aspect too. It published a book on the topic in 1960 which removed many of the fears that involvement with Europe would damage the Commonwealth relationship and that choosing Europe would mean turning one’s back on the Commonwealth.
The British response to the successful negotiation of the Rome Treaty was to create a European Free Trade Area of the seven European countries that did not join the EEC. The object was to persuade the Six to agree to form a wider free trade area involving all the thirteen countries. When British efforts were rebuffed Harold Macmillan decided to seek full British membership of the EEC in 1961. The negotiations conducted by Edward Heath were ended by de Gaulle’s first veto against British membership in 1963.
Public opinion, which had become quite favourable to the idea of membership, received a severe rebuff and for some years the European option ceased to play much of a role in British politics. Yet when Labour came to power at the end of 1964 many of the younger intake into the House of Commons took up the cause of Europe with enthusiasm. A very active Labour Common Market Committee chaired by Roy Jenkins with Shirley Williams as secretary played a leading role in securing support for Europe within the Labour party. Roy Hattersley, the present deputy leader of the party, became the director of the Campaign for a European Political Community with a strong federalist commitment.
When George Brown became Foreign Secretary in 1966 he gave top priority to making a second attempt to join the EEC. After an exploratory trip to the capitals of the Six, Britain’s second application was submitted to Parliament. After a lengthy debate in May 1967, it secured approval by the largest majority ever recorded on a major issue, gaining the support of 85% of Members voting, drawn from all political parties. This second attempt failed when President de Gaulle vetoed it yet again even before any negotiations were started.
By-passing the veto.
The next two years were devoted by the federalists to finding ways of by-passing the French veto. At Altiero Spinel1i’s suggestion made during a Federal Trust seminar in Britain in 1968, an initiative was planned to convene a second Messina conference to create a European Political Community with Britain as a full member which would operate alongside the Economic Community. Visits were organised for George Brown, who had by then left the government, to the governments of the Six and the European Commission. The call for a new Messina was planned to be issued from London during the Italian Government’s official visit in March 1969. While the details were being worked out between the British and Italian ministers news came through of the French Government’s defeat in the referendum on regionalisation and the resignation of President de Gaulle. The London declaration was hastily redrafted calling for the enlargement of the Community, the direct election of the European Parliament and the development of a political role for the Community.
President de Gaulle’s resignation signalled the opening of doors to full British membership and the Labour Government prepared itself for the negotiations which were due to start in June 1970. These were to be led by George Thomson who later became one of Britain’s first two European Commissioners. That month saw the defeat of the Labour Government in a general election and the return of Edward Heath at the head of a Conservative administration. His deep commitment to a united Europe assured the government’s determination for the negotiations for entry to succeed.
The British public however had, after the second veto, lost what enthusiasm remained for British involvement in the Community. Opinion polls at the end of 1970 showed 70% of the public opposed to membership with only 18% in favour. Against this background of hostility it was unlikely that a successful negotiation would have received parliamentary approval. The government was thus in a dilemma. It could not show that it was negotiating toughly with the Community and at the same time conduct a public campaign to persuade the public of the benefits of membership.
This task then fell to the European Movement which undertook a massive publicity campaign in the early months of 1971 spending over one million pounds to this end. Press publicity coupled with hundreds of public meetings and the distribution of millions of informative leaflets up and down the country had their effect. By the time the negotiations were drawing to a close in May 1971, public opinion showed a small majority in favour of membership. The final decision was however up to Parliament. With an evenly divided public the parliamentarians felt able to exercise their own judgment.
The battle for membership then moved into the House of Commons to whom the results of the successful negotiations for entry had to be submitted for approval. Deeply divided on this issue the Labour party, at a special conference, decided to oppose membership on the terms negotiated, regarding them as damaging to British interests. This was meant to unite the pro and anti-marketeers in the party. In the Conservative party there was also a vocal minority against membership. Early calculations showed clearly that the Labour party with the Conservative rebels could defeat the Government’s negotiated terms and reject British entry.
It was the Labour Europeans led by Roy Jenkins, the party’s deputy leader that saved the day. In a crucial vote on the principle of entry in October 1971 sixty nine Labour members defied their party’s Whip and voted with the Government. A further twenty Labour members abstained. As a result the Government gained a comfortable majority of 112 for the principle of entry on the terms actually negotiated. In the months that followed the Labour rebels returned to the fold but a sufficient number of them continued to abstain or vote with the Government to ensure that the detailed legislation for entry was enacted.
Membership of the Community.
Britain joined the European Community on 1st January 1973 with great hopes, but the country remained divided. Within the Labour party there were growing fears that it could split on the issue especially in the run-up to the next general election. Harold Wilson divised a solution which avoided the split. This was that a Labour government would seek to renegotiate the terms of membership and submit the result directly, over the heads of Parliament, to the British electorate in a referendum. This was to be the first national referendum in British constitutional history. Ray Jenkins opposed the scheme and resigned as deputy leader when it was adopted.
Labour came to power in March 1974. Although it did not have an overall majority it seemed likely that it would improve its position in another general election, which it did in October 1974. Negotiations were then started by the Government to change the terms of membership to accommodate Labour’s demands. In the end the actual changes were insignificant and when submitted to the cabinet it split on the issue. As a result, whilst the Government recommended acceptance of the terms, the opponents in the cabinet and parliament were given full freedom to campaign against them.
The oil crisis in 1973 and the successful miners’ strike for much higher pay which brought down the Heath government in 1974 signalled a massive inflation in prices. The anti-market campaign during the negotiation for entry concentrated on prices especially of foodstuffs which they claimed would sky-rocket once we joined. This is what actually happened to prices but for reasons unconnected with Community membership. The public however blamed the Community. Thus a year before the referendum opinion polls showed a 2 to 1 majority for withdrawal from the Community.
Because of the Labour Government’s ambivalence on the issue, it fell once again to the European Movement to organise the public campaign and planning for it started in May 1974 a full year before the actual referendum. Nearly seven million leaflets were distributed to most households in the country during the summer of 1974 to recruit help for the campaign. Some 12,000 people volunteered and over the months set up 475 local campaigning groups. The strategy adopted was to ensure that continued membership was argued by a large number of diverse interest groups. Each political party had its own campaigning group. The European Movement under its adopted ‘Britain in Europe’ umbrella created pro-European campaigning bodies amongst most professions, the world of sport, actors, artists each arguing for a YES vote amongst its own membership. Christians for Europe mobilised the churches and through them their congregations. Communists for Europe embarassed the official Communist Party which was opposed. Youth organisations held rallies, public demonstrations and stunts. Commerce and industry conducted information campaigns amongst their employees with the help of pro-European trade unionists.
The strategy was in direct contrast with that of the anti-marketeers. Whilst the Europeans spoke with many diverse voices all in favour of membership, the opposition drawn largely from the extreme right and left in the political spectrum attempted to speak with a common voice, and thus became incredible in the public eye.
The enthusiasm generated amongst the pro-European factions was quite astonishing. Long standing party political opponents worked harmoniously for their common cause. This applied equally at the national level where the campaign was led by Roy Jenkins down to the 475 local groups which were deliberately formed to ensure an all-party political balance in their direction.
The campaign ended in reversing public hostility. In a 60% poll, high for Britain except in general elections, the majority for remaining in the Community was a solid two to one.
The next major step in the evolution of the Community towards a federation seemed to be the direct elections to the European Parliament. In Britain the initiative was taken by the European Movement which produced a report of a high-level all-party working group which cooperated closely with Schelto Patijn, the European Parliament’s Dutch rapporteur on direct elections. The government and Parliament were lobbied intensively. In July 1977 the House of Commons approved the holding of European elections by 394 votes to 147 against.
However the Labour government had to pay a price for getting its supporters to vote in favour. There was a commitment against any increase in the powers of the Parliament and the government explicitly stated its opposition to European federalism.
Much more difficult however was the task of arriving at a uniform system of elections. Both Labour and Conservative parties feared the introduction of proportional representation in European elections as this could well lead to their introduction in national elections and thus ending their duopoly of power. At that time the Liberals agreed to support the Government which had lost its overall majority. The price for this support was a government commitm1ent to present to the House of Commons proposals embodying proportional representation. By allowing a free vote however the proposals were predictably rejected by an alliance of Labour and Conservative members.
This meant a much lengthier process of drawing up single member European constituencies and forced a delay of one year for the European elections. When they were finally held in June 1979 the result grossly distorted the votes cast with less than 50% of the vote Conservatives gained 75% of the seats, most of the rest going to Labour. The Liberals with some 13 % of the vote gained no seats.
Mrs. Thatcher’s government.
One month before the European elections the Conservatives won a general election and Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. Her long drawn out struggle “to get our money back” is part of the Community’s own history. Whilst Britain’s case against excessive budget contributions was a just one, the methods used made a deep impact on public opinion and created a strong if mistaken impression that membership of the Community was damaging to British interests. Once again it fuelled anti-market sentiments. It enabled the Labour opponents of membership to win a massive majority in their 1980 party conference in favour of Britain’s unconditional withdrawal from the European Community.
The Labour Europeans found themselves completely isolated. Most of them were on the right of a party which had sharply moved to the left. Dissatisfaction with the leftward trend and the election of anti-market Michael Foot to the leadership persuaded many that it was time to break away. Thus when Roy Jenkins, returning from Brussels, after his term as President of the Commission, appealed for the formation of a third force in British politics, he found a ready response from most Labour Europeans.
Although there were many reasons why the Labour party split, Europe was undoubtedly one of the main ones. The newly formed Social Democratic party placed commitment to the European Community in the forefront of its programme and, together with the Liberals has ever since represented the most federalist approach to the future of the Community among the British political parties.
Battle for continued membership.
Without its European faction the Labour party’s commitment to withdrawal remained solid. It became one of its main electoral planks as the next general election approached. Judging by opinion polls which showed varying but clear majorities against membership, the party saw in its anti-European platform a vote winner.
Federalists realised that continued British membership was once again at serious risk. It needed another campaign to divert the danger. This time an analysis was made of the extent to which the British economy depended on the Community. Authoritative estimates showed that some 2½ million jobs were directly dependent upon trade with the Community. Britain’s exports to the Community and its European associates had risen dramatically and accounted for some 60% of all foreign trade. Inward investment was also shown to have increased dramatically since membership, especially from the USA and Japan who used Britain as a convenient base for manufacturing goods for the common market.
An intensive information campaign was launched by the European Movement in cooperation with commerce and industry and with the three other main political parties. As growing unemployment played an increasing role in the political battlefield, withdrawal was demonstrated as putting millions of existing jobs at risk. Thus the Labour party which concentrated its fire on unemployment and promised a massive creation of new jobs, found its policy of withdrawal as a liability with its prospects of more job losses.
The information campaign was successful. Public opinion polls some eight months before the June 1983 general election showed a clear majority for withdrawal. As the election approached the majority disappeared and by the time the elections were held polls showed a 2 to 1 majority in favour of staying in.
The 1983 general election resulted in a massive defeat of the Labour party which obtained only 28% of the votes against 43% for the Conservatives and 26% for the alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals. This massive defeat has now forced a fundamental rethinking of Labour’s attitudes on Europe. It is gradually coming to terms with British membership and it generally accepts that withdrawal will no longer be a credible option.
Towards European Union.
With the interminable arguments about British membership finally laid to rest, federalists in Britain have been able to turn their attention to the evolution of the Community into a European Union. Considerable lobbying of Conservative Members of the European Parliament led to the surprising vote of the Group in favour of the draft treaty for European Union in February 1984. Of the 60 British Conservatives 22 voted in favour, 5 against and 6 abstained, whilst the rest, conscious of the Conservative government’s disapproval, absented themselves from the voting. Mrs. Thatcher had committed herself to the solemn declaration in favour of European Union at the 1983 Stuttgart summit, but the government remains unconvinced of the need for a new treaty or the ending of the right to veto.
The next battle for the British federalists is thus soon likely to be joined. The Stuttgart declaration and the Draft Treaty are being treated as complementary and they are being linked with a special campaign to complete the Common Market, to which the Conservative government is committed unequivocally. At the same time increasing pressure is being brought to bear on the government to join fully the European Monetary System.
What is clear however is that Britain is unlikely to take a lead on European Union. As Jean Monnet used to put it, the British don’t like ideas but they respond to facts. Should the majority of the other Community governments declare themselves ready to form the European Union, without Britain if necessary, it is unlikely that Britain would repeat her past mistakes when she refused to join the Coal and Steel Community or the EEC.
The tasks for the federalists in Britain will then be to demonstrate clearly to the government and to public opinion the dangers of British exclusion from the emerging union and her isolation from the mainstream of events. Britain’s whole history shows that this is not an option the country has ever chosen. Thus given a lead from the Continent, Britain is likely to be there when the Union is finally created.