Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell. Wikicommons/ Judy Cassab. Some rights reserved.It is not often given to one to see one’s political youth replayed decades later. Reading Owen Jones appeal to quit Europe in the Guardian was to bring back so many memories.
The first Labour conference I ever attended as a constituency delegate barely out of university was the 1971 Labour special party conference to adopt a position on entering the EEC. I sat enthralled as the great orators of Labour – Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, and Tony Benn – roared out their contempt for Europe, deploying arguments that Owen uses four decades later.
After all had not Labour’s lost leader, Hugh Gaitskell, the John Smith of his day, felled just before he could enter No 10, declared that to sign the Treaty of Rome ‘meant the end of Britain as an independent nation-state. It would mean the end of a thousand years of history. It would mean the end of the Commonwealth.’
Had not Denis Healey in 1950 explained in his Labour pamphlet, European Unity, that ‘No Socialist Party with the prospect of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority.’ For Healey, British coal-miners’ and steelworkers’ jobs would be safe just as long as we kept a distance from Europe.
There was one voice of dissent. Tony Benn noted in his diary in April 1970: ‘If we have to have some sort of organisation to control international companies, the Common Market is probably the right one.’
On going into opposition, Benn’s line changed and after 1979 he led the charge to make withdrawal from Europe official Labour Party policy. In the 1980s he became the champion of Lexit, Owen Jones’ neat formulation for left anti-Europeanism. The result was 18 years of Tory government.
As the wheel of history turns, there can be no surer way of keeping the Tories in power than lining up with UKIP and championing the cause of English isolationism. Because one thing did not exist in the 1970s and 1980s, namely that if we vote to quit the EU, the Scots will vote to quit the UK and progressive politics will never win a majority alone in England.
All of Owen Jones’ criticisms are valid but little to do with the EU. No EU rule prevents Germany from having an industrial policy. No EU rule stops progressive trade union organisation in Sweden, where the prime minister is a metalworker unlike the scions of Oxbridge vying to be Labour leader.
No British government would ever dare take on Microsoft, Google, or impose a cap on bankers’ bonuses as the EU has.
Owen Jones cites George Monbiot, but surely even our great green guru accepts that environmental policy in one nation is nonsense. Acid rain and global warming do not stop at frontiers to show their passports.
Of course Owen Jones is right to condemn the handling of the Greek crisis. But having spent three weeks late in June and into July travelling in Greece, especially outside the Athens political-media bubble, I found no evidence that any Greek on the left thinks quitting the EU is an answer.
On the contrary, the Syriza poster that covered every wall said “Yes to Europe. No to austerity.” The 60 per cent vote Alexis Tsipras won was a vote to say Yes to Europe as much as it was a vote to reject the proposals from the ruling centre-right politicians who have made such a disaster of handling EU economic policy since the banksters’ crash.
In fact, 80 per cent of Greeks polled regularly say they want to keep the Euro. They say ‘Oxi’ to the wiseacres of the Anglo-Saxon commentariat who regularly preach that the Euro must go and we would all be better off back with drachmas, francs, lire, pesetas or punts all merrily devaluing against each other as the forex speculators made their killings.
The insane stupidity of how Brussels, Berlin and the IMF have handled Greece is about the poor quality of the small-minded conservatives who dominate the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament as well as their helpmates like the conservative tax lawyer Christine Lagarde of the IMF.
It is the politics of Europe’s current rulers that must be challenged, not the UK’s membership of the EU. I fear however, Owen Jones is on to a winner as the forces for Brexit grow daily and no-one challenges them. Time will tell whether an England isolated from Europe is as progressive as Owen hopes.