Well, I wonder, have the ravens flown the Tower? Not as far as I know, but the sky isn’t raining a shower of bank notes down on the populace either. Theresa May today signed a document that could well define her time in Downing Street and could equally decide which direction the UK heads in for the next decade or so; nobody knows what will really happen – apart from Fleet Street, of course, which is telling us all exactly what we can look forward to; mind you, the Brexit battle bus did that too. The first step towards a not-so fond farewell to the EU is underway, but what precisely are we waving goodbye to?
John Major’s recent reappearance on the British political stage, following hot on the heels of his immediate successor Tony Blair, should have served as a potent reminder that what we now recognise as the European Union was established (and endorsed) during his premiership, rather than that of Edward Heath. Major’s early 70s PM predecessor tends to carry a great deal of retrospective blame for Britain’s eventful European adventure, though the Europe that Sailor Ted steered us towards had experienced a game-changing facelift in the thirty years since Heath himself had witnessed the devastation global conflict had wrought upon the continent.
The European Economic Community was an idealistic post-war project intended to do for European trade and industry what the United Nations intended to do for world peace; the triumph of the former, when measured against the limited success of the latter, naturally made it an attractive proposition to countries undergoing economic decline, with the UK foremost amongst them. Long before he led his party, Heath (unlike many Tories at the time) realised Britain urgently required a post-colonial role and he regarded membership of the EEC as the way to achieve one. It took the best part of a decade, but he eventually realised his ambition.
When Heath signed the Treaty of Accession on 22 January 1972 (with Britain’s membership of the EEC coming into effect on 1 January 1973), the bleak situation in Blighty appeared to vindicate his decision. Just two days before Heath signed on the dotted line, unemployment had topped the one million mark; a little over a week later, Bloody Sunday happened. The country was also in the middle of the first official miners’ strike since 1926, one spanning seven weeks and including the infamous forced closure of Birmingham’s Saltley Coke Works; with the nation’s power supply perilously close to running out, the Government capitulated and the NUM recognised the dangerous strength of the cards it held.
Britain’s entry into Europe was marketed as an exciting new dawn for the country; there was even a special concert staged at the London Palladium to mark the occasion, headlined by the biggest band in Britain at the time, Slade. But beneath the PR, there was concern that the nation was surrendering sovereignty to Brussels without the people being consulted; yes, the Treaty of Accession was debated in Parliament and at the party conferences in the months leading up to its ratification, but the electorate had no say in the matter. A shared economic policy with Europe seemed sensible on paper, but when the NUM flexed its muscles again barely a year after Britain joining the Common Market, the country’s fortunes plummeted once more and Heath was out of office.
Following the EEC Referendum instigated by Harold Wilson’s Government in 1975, Britain’s position at the European table in the immediate years after was largely marked by debates over the size of sausages, the imperial Vs metric weights-and-measurements argument, and other silly season stories that were recycled whenever the UK required a lazy scapegoat to attribute its ills to. Margaret Thatcher rarely disguised her antipathy towards the EEC, securing the UK Rebate in 1985 that allowed Britain to reduce its contribution to the organisation’s budget; but it was her successor at No.10 whose actions one could say directly led us to where we are today.
When Britain became a member of the Common Market (on the same day as Ireland and Denmark), the membership of the EEC totalled nine nations; by 1986, only three more had been added. Twelve seemed a nice manageable number, but the dramatic alteration of the continent following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 90s not only ruined the Eurovision Song Contest; it had a considerable impact on the EEC. Moves to enlarge the remit of the EEC beyond mere economic issues had been afoot for a long time, but the newly independent nations queuing up to join after the fall of the Berlin Wall presented the Brussels powers-that-be with the opportunity for expansion they’d been looking for, the chance to build the United States of Europe that Churchill foresaw decades before.
John Major was the third successive Tory PM whose term in office was marked by arguments over Europe. When the Maastricht Treaty was drafted at the end of 1991, the prospect of greater European integration and the introduction of a shared currency filled many with horror, albeit not Mr Major. The main opposition to the implementation of Maastricht came from within his own party, the so-called Maastricht Rebels, as well as some members of his Cabinet, whom Major referred to as ‘the bastards’. His Government’s small majority (18) was compounded by 22 rebels, who spent the best part of a year deliberately sabotaging every attempt by Major to get the job done.
Mercifully, Major resisted signing the UK up to the Euro, though Blair was keen for a while; Maastricht was eventually ratified, however, and the bureaucratic monolith that is the EU came into being proper. Maastricht created what we are now divorcing ourselves from, rather than the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and further national powers being devolved to Brussels came with the amendments inherent in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, followed by the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon.
John Major may well have misread the aims and intentions of the EU when Maastricht was drafted, but I don’t believe he was/is that stupid; he must have known what it would amount to and how difficult it would be for the UK to extract itself from the monster Maastricht manufactured. If any single individual could be said to have sold Britain’s sovereignty down the river – if indeed one views membership of the EU as representing just that – it was John Major, not Ted Heath.
© The Editor