Like many sequels, Labour’s application to join the EEC in 1967 was nowhere as good or interesting as the original. Like the original, it was also doomed to fail. Just as in 1962, the rock upon which it foundered was de Gaulle.
So why is it of interest at all?
Labour, in the main, had been deeply antipathetic to the EEC. The uber-patriotic hostility of Bevin had been, if anything, amplified by Gaitskell: the EEC was, famously, the ‘end of a thousand years of history.’ Furthermore, the new Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, had come from the left (or so it seemed). Labour’s left was, and is, traditionally seen as anti-European. One point of interest is how it was the supposedly anti-European Labour Party changed course.
In part, it reflected the facts of Britain’s geo-political position. After de Gaulle’s veto, Macmillan noted in his diary:
The great question remains, “What is the alternative?” to the European Community. If we are honest, there is none.
For Robert Lieber, Labour’s volte-face was a story of ‘collapsing alternatives’. If the British inspired rival to the EEC, the European Free Trade Association was not a dead duck, it was doing a pretty good impersonation of one. The Commonwealth was, in the words of one of Labour’s most thoughtful figures of the time, Richard Crossman, ‘fading out’. A proposed North Atlantic Free Trade Area never even achieved dead duck status, having never been given life in the first place. The reason was simple: US pressure on Britain to join the EEC was relentless. To make things worse, the Kennedy administration had started the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Johnson administration pushed it forward: the terms Britain had on the table were considerably worse than those offered to the larger trading bloc of the EEC.
To add to this, the supra-nationalism of the EEC was being watered down by Macmillan’s old nemesis, de Gaulle. Between July 1965 and January 1966, the old man’s ‘empty chair’ (a refusal to participate in the community’s institutions) had paralysed the EEC. The result was the Luxembourg Compromise: any state could veto any proposal on the grounds of national interest. The EEC’s supra-nationalism seemed no longer to matter so much.
If Britain’s relative economic decline seemed to press hard upon Macmillan, it pressed harder upon Wilson. Famously, Reginald Maudling’s ‘Dash for Growth’ bequeathed Labour a catastrophic financial legacy. Maudling apologised to James Callaghan, his successor as chancellor; he was sorry, ‘old cock’, the money had run out. In retrospect, the devaluation of sterling was inevitable. Even then, Britain’s underlying economic problems remained. Growth rates in the EEC remained twice that of Britain’s. As Macmillan implied, there was no alternative.
The other story here is deeply political, and is all about Labour, and Wilson. It’s probably fair to say the Wilson was agnostic about Europe. The problem he had is that his party was not. Instead, it was deeply divided. In part, it was a left-right division. But it was not that simple. Most of Labour’s left was against EEC membership: in part it was seen as a ‘capitalist’s club’. Labour’s right was also divided: Douglas Jay was against, George Brown and Anthony Wedgwood Benn were for (yes, that is Tony Benn).
In 1966 and 1967, events seemed to push Wilson towards application. Anglo-American relations grew tense, partly over Wilson’s refusal to enter the Vietnam War. In part, America seemed less of an ally and Europe seemed more necessary; in part, entering Europe would make Britain more valuable to its American ally. Wilson had also won big in 1966, having a majority of 100. The new intake of Labours MPs were more pro-European, as were most of Labour’s rising stars (such as Roy Jenkins); so was Foreign Secretary, George Brown (seen with Wilson below). Public opinion seemed to favour Europe, so did business. And, for Wilson, as ever, political calculation mattered too: why not steal the Conservative’s new European clothes?
Precisely when Wilson opted to apply for EEC membership remains unclear; not that it matters much. It was never going to happen.
If Wilson was half-hearted, de Gaulle remained resolute. Another ‘non’ was probably inevitable: it certainly ensued.
Years later, in another context, James Callaghan sung the old music hall song:
There was I, waiting at the church
Waiting at the church, Waiting at the church.
Can’t get away, to marry you today….
Mon general wouldn’t let me.