We were never hoodwinked

One of the most frequently repeated lies about Europe is to say that, when we joined the EU, ‘we were told we were only joining a free-trade area’ and ‘no-one told us that it was more than that’.

The eurosceptic strategy here is to try to undermine the national debate that took place in the 1960s and 1970s — a debate which ended with a ‘Yes’ vote for UK membership — by pretending that the whole country was being hoodwinked at the time and people somehow didn’t understand what they were voting for.

This has always seemed suspicious to me. After all, Britain actually left a free-trade area, EFTA, to join the EEC. So free trade can hardly have been the only motivation.

So I decided to check it out. First, I went back and looked at the government white papers and parliamentary debates of the time. Here is an extract from a speech by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, speaking in 1967, presenting the reasons for British membership of the EEC:

Whatever the economic arguments, the House will realise that, as I have repeatedly made clear, the Government’s purpose derives above all from our recognition that Europe is now faced with the opportunity of a great move forward in political unity and that we can — and indeed must — play our full part in it.

And, in the run-up to the British referendum, the government’s own published documents spell this out even more clearly. The White Paper of 1971 spoke of “an ever closer union among European peoples”, an objective “to which this country can wholeheartedly subscribe”. It said that “what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest”; “Europe united would have the means […] which Europe divided has lost”.

Most tellingly, the government of the day spelled out clearly that “if the political implications of joining Europe are at present clearest in the economic field, it is because the Community is primarily concerned with economic policy. But it is inevitable that the scope should broaden as member countries’ interests become harmonised […] What is proposed is a sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest”.

Of course, eurosceptics might try claiming, as one did in a debate with me recently, that no one reads government publications or follows Commons debates, and there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in the media. Really? Let’s look at what the press said at the time of the 1975 referendum.

The Daily Mail (leader, 4 June 1975) referred explicitly to the goal of “political union”, saying that this was no “dark secret”. It asked whether the anti-Europeans hadn’t been listening “to the visionary words of European leaders for the past twenty-five years?”:

Didn’t they hear Churchill say, “If Europe is to be a living force, Britain will have to play her full part as a member of the European family”? He wasn’t just talking about the price of kangaroo meat.

The Mail emphasised that political union would come only gradually, for our children, but “we shall have left them the joiner’s tools and a political roof over their heads”. A ‘yes’ vote was essential, it said, for “the prospect of the power to direct and influence our own future — and the world’s future”.

For good measure, the Mail even added that it “never wavered in its opposition to holding a referendum”:

We do not waver now. The referendum has no place in a Parliamentary democracy like ours.

The Sun (leader, 4 June 1975) warned against pulling out of “the circle of unity”, calling on people to vote not just for increasing trade, but “YES — FOR A FUTURE TOGETHER”. It added “We cannot afford to be half-hearted about Europe”. In another piece, it declared: “We are all Europeans now”!

The Daily Telegraph opined that defence, foreign affairs and economics must all be harnessed to the task of strengthening Europe”. It, too, said that a referendum “was wrong”, but that it at least enabled “the British people to consciously re-dedicate to European integration […] to add their impetus and inspiration to the great work”.

The eurosceptic allegation is not only a complete fabrication, but an insult to the intelligence of our parents and grandparents who were very far from being hoodwinked. Yet, by dint of repeating it again and again, they have managed to turn it almost into received wisdom.

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9 Comments

  1. “The Daily Mail (leader, 4 June 1975) referred explicitly to the goal of “political union”, saying that this was no “dark secret”. It asked whether the anti-Europeans hadn’t been listening “to the visionary words of European leaders for the past twenty-five years?””

    Did Churchill or the Daily Mail use the words “political union” directly – yes/no?

  2. What is missing here is why this happened. I voted in the 1975 referendum. I have the three official leaflets from the referendum on my Facebook page.

    But what happened after that and markedly over the last 25 years is no party has found it convenient to contradict the big lie. They also in general found they liked blaming “Europe” for all sorts of things.

    With no politician prepared to stand up publicly and gainsay what I refer to as The Daily Telegraph lie [other papers are also culpable] the propaganda has come to be accepted by default. A lie repeated often enough…

    I don’t just blame these Eurosceptics, the kippers and press, I also charge the shy ‘philes who have largely refused to tell the truth about our 1975 vote and the decisions we made at the time.

  3. You are being disingenuous, Mr Corbett. “Europe is now faced with the opportunity of a great move forward in political unity and that we can — and indeed must — play our full part in it.” refers merely to ‘togetherness’, and not a situation that we have today where the laws of members states are dictated by a central body. The comment was directed to the Commons, and not to the electorate. ” The White Paper of 1971 spoke of “an ever closer union among European peoples”,. Correct. The reference was to Europeans, not to the member states. “what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest” Correct. This is the exact opposite of what the EU has done. There are no sovereign states within the EU. “The Daily Mail (leader, 4 June 1975) referred explicitly to the goal of “political union”, saying that this was no “dark secret”. Correct. Having the goal wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t on the cards as a reality in 1975. The EU wasn’t created for another two decades. You admitted that this was so “The Mail emphasised that political union would come only gradually, for our children” . “The Sun (leader, 4 June 1975) warned against pulling out of “the circle of unity”, calling on people to vote not just for increasing trade, but “YES — FOR A FUTURE TOGETHER”. It added “We cannot afford to be half-hearted about Europe”. In another piece, it declared: “We are all Europeans now”!” Correct. Note the complete absence of the creation of three EU Presidents and how none of them would be elected by the people of Europe. “The Daily Telegraph opined that defence, foreign affairs and economics must all be harnessed to the task of strengthening Europe”. ” Correct. it did not say that all those should be under a central, unelected control such as the EU is.

    • “” The White Paper of 1971 spoke of “an ever closer union among European peoples”,. Correct. The reference was to Europeans, not to the member states.”

      Your complaint that this statement applies to people and not to states (or governments) also holds true for the leavers claim that the EU is an ‘ever closer union’. The actual text of the EU treaty says “an ever closer union between the people of Europe” and not, as keeps being said by leavers just “ever closer union”. It also goes on to say “with decisions made as close to the people as practical” … it refers to people, not states, and explicitly sets out the principle of subsidiarity which the EU is restricted by in its competencies.

  4. @Nigel Smith
    Richard Corbett is not saying all the current arrangements for running the EU are perfect He is saying that it was clear prior to the 1975 referendum that membership of the “European Economic Community” had political implications. In this Mr Corbett is absolutely right. Just look at this fascinating exchange in Hansard October 21 1971. The Conservative PM even contemplated security co-operation to a degree that has still not actually transpired –
    “Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
    I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s argument that we shall have a veto on political developments. The implication of that is that we do not want political development. Many people think that possible political developments are the most important thing about the Community. Are the Government saying that they would resist and oppose political developments in Europe?
    Sir Alec Douglas-Home
    Not at all. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can possibly have interpreted that from anything that I have said. I said that the political processes in Europe would evolve, and that they would evolve by consent, because if one tried to go too fast and impose too much the Community could break up. The change will occur by evolution and by consent.
    Finally, there is security, with all the problems which that poses for Western Europe, whether in the context of defence or détente. All the way through our history events in the centre and west of Europe have conditioned our foreign policy. The balance of power is achieved through a European contribution, and the omens that the Western Europeans will have to carry a greater share of the responsibility for Western defence and the defence of their continent are very strong, stronger than they have been since the war.
    I am not one of those who believe that the United States will ever desert Europe. I have no doubt that they will retain a military contribution by land, sea and air, and the nuclear deterrent, but, nevertheless, the chances are that they will reduce their deployment of conventional forces, and that the future will have to be organised with a more distinctively European contribution, embracing within it the strength of France.
    It will take time, and it will take great patience, to work out the design, but when Germany, France, Italy and the rest sit down to talk about their problems of security, and their attitude to world problems, I use the word in the most accurate sense when I say that it is vital that we should be in their councils. During the last year I have twice been in the councils of the Ten, because they have anticipated the larger Community. Matters are talked about there which concern the defence of Europe and the defence of Britain. Matters are talked about—for example, the Middle East—which have the greatest implications for our country. It is essential that we should be in the councils when these questions are discussed, and that a decision should not be taken without us.”.
    Q.E.D.

  5. I was fooled and so were those I mixed with at the time (graduate students at Oxford, as it happens). We were told we would starve if we did not stay in the Common Market, and such was the state of depression which the Unions and the Labour government (and the Heath Interlude) had induced in our generation that we were conditioned to believe it. I am not going to be fooled again.

    • @Oliver Nicholson

      So a group of graduate Oxford students voted “in” in 1975 because they thought otherwise they were going to starve? Doesn’t say much for the standard of research and enquiry at one of our top universities.

      However the theme of this thread, Mr Nicholson, is whether or not we were hoodwinked about the political dimension of the developing European Economic Community. Richard Corbett has set out devastating evidence showing the extent to which this political dimension was being discussed in 1975 and I have added above the thoughts of Sir Alec Douglas Home as far back as 1971 (by the way he was Foreign Secretary at that time rather than PM – I got that detail wrong). Like you I voted in 1975 and despite lacking the intellectual rigour of an Oxford education I had no doubt whatsoever as to what we were being asked to approve.

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