40 years ago, the vast majority of the British people were in favour of joining the European Economic Community. 67% voted in favour, in the 1975 referendum to confirm the UK’s entry. Virtually all mainstream politicians were in support, with only the left-wing of the Labour Party strongly anti on the grounds that it was a “capitalist club”.
As the photo shows, the Conservative Party was overwhelmingly in favour of entry, with Margaret Thatcher campaigning strongly for a Yes vote. Later, as prime minister, she welcomed the 10th anniversary of membership:
“The unity of Europe is a goal for which I pledge my government to work”
Today, of course, that bedrock of support has disappeared, if the opinion polls are right. Why has this happened?
- One argument is that Europe changed direction, and began to focus on social reform rather than wealth creation
- A second is that many Conservatives never got over the trauma of being forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism by George Soros in 1992
- A third is that the UK doesn’t admire the economic performance of the eurozone, in the way that it used to admire Germany’s economic achievements
All these arguments have some truth in them, but they miss the critical point. As the Nobel jury noted when awarding their Peace Prize to the EU in 2012:
“The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.”
In 1975, everyone in the UK knew about the dreadful suffering in World War II. The older generation had endured years of nightly bombing raids, even if they weren’t actually fighting for the lives. And the younger generation could still see evidence of destruction all around them, as bombsites were a prominent feature in the major UK cities.
Families also retained powerful memories of the horrors of World War I and its aftermath:
- Millions of people had died in the trenches between 1914-1918, and countless others had been maimed for life
- Tens of millions died in the inter-War years, as political instability led to the rise of the dictators, Hitler and Stalin
- This political failure also led to economic failure and the immense hardship suffered in the 1930s Depression
Today, of course, all of this history has largely been forgotten.
The facts also show that the UK today has a vastly improved standard of living compared to 40 years ago:
- Young people’s earnings today are twice what they were in 1975, when adjusted for inflation
- The basic rate of tax has fallen from 35% to 20% today and the top rate has fallen from 83% to 45%
- Millions of people every year now routinely travel across Europe for business or holiday
- Nobody now has to go to their local post office with their passport, in order to claim their allocation of £50 travel money – which only ended in 1979, when capital controls were finally abolished
Was this all due to the European project? Could the UK have done better outside Europe? Who knows? Life is not a spreadsheet, where we can go back and decide to do a different “what if?” calculation. But clearly, the UK has done well since it joined the EU.
The UK referendum is not about immigration, or whether Brussels should decide the shape of the UK’s sausages, or any of the other populist issues being raised by the Leave campaign. It is about one over-riding issue – namely the best way to preserve peace and prosperity in the UK and across Europe.
The great statesman Winston Churchill wisely remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” We can all argue about aspects of the EU today, but in terms of safeguarding peace and prosperity, all the other alternatives would be worse, and probably far worse.