Britain and Europe (3): Heath, and Oui!

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As it was for many commentators for much of his career, history has been pretty unkind to Ted Heath. For those of us old enough to remember him, three day weeks come directly to mind; then comes what had a good case to be designated the longest political sulk in history (Heath despised Margaret Thatcher, and what he saw as her treason which saw him deposed in 1975). For Conservatives, he lives in the mighty shadow of The Iron Lady who did what he so conspicuously failed to do: Heath failed to tame the unions, he abandoned market based reform and then he committed the ultimate Tory sin of losing three general elections (unless we think of their Blairite dog days, when losing general elections on a point of Thatcherite principle became something of a Tory fetish).

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Yet, Heath had two considerable achievements to his name. First, against the odds, he won the 1970 general election, overturning a Labour majority of 98 and entering Number Ten on a wave of goodwill and expectation. And if, in large measure, he failed to deliver, in one aspect Heath left an indelible mark upon British history: he took Britain into the EEC.

That moment was the highpoint of his political career, and one to which he had devoted much of his considerable reserves of political energy, determination and even imagination. If Wilson’s application had always been both somewhat half-hearted and probably doomed from the off, Heath’s was wholly different. In part, this was thanks to Heath’s deep conviction the Britain belonged in the EEC, that Britain was European. Heath had led Macmillan’s application back in 1962. He was famously dismissive of the Commonwealth and was cool in the ‘special relationship’ with United States (a term he disliked).

1101690509_400When he won in 1970, the time for British entry had finally come. In large part, this was because the greatest obstacle to British entry had gone: de Gaulle, rocked by a tide of popular protest and a sense that he was past his sell-by date, had resigned in 1968. His successor, Georges Pompidou, was in essence for British entry, and it was Pompidou who did much to pave the way for Heath.

That is not to say that the negotiations were anything but fraught. In part, this was due to the nature of the EEC (just ask David Cameron). The real authority in the EEC (as the in the EU) was the council of ministers, which was inter-governmental in nature: in short, every detail had to be unanimously agreed by the Six. Famously, Heath’s first lead negotiator, Sir Anthony Barber, was keep waiting by the council of ministers for over five hours, much to the outrage of the British press. It was not some kind of snub: instead, it was simply the fact that it took that long for the Six to come to a common position.

That process was further complicated by the fact that Britain was not applying alone. There were three other applicants: Ireland, Norway and Denmark. There were also difficult issues. The Commonwealth may have become less important both politically and economically to Britain, and Heath may have had little regard for it, but it still mattered. Arrangements for New Zealand lamb and butter, Caribbean sugar and Commonwealth trade in general were sticking points. The Common Agricultural Policy, Britain’s contribution to the community budget, fisheries and the status of sterling all caused problems. All the time Heath had to watch his political back too. He only had a majority of 31, and anti-EEC Tories (and Ulster Unionists) might conceivably scupper the bill in the Commons. He could not afford to be seen to not be standing up for British interests, or giving way too easily.

Heath also had other, often more pressing problems: Northern Ireland, industrial relations, inflation and unemployment for a start. By 1971, negotiations were proving so difficult that even Heath warned publicly that no deal might be possible. It was that fraught context which saw Heath travel to Paris on the 20th May 1971. Heath and Pompidou met one to one, alone but for interpreters, for twelve hours over two days. In many ways it was Heath’s finest hour. What Pompidou really wanted was to be convinced that Britain saw itself as European. Heath was a very convincing pro-European. The negotiations were then swiftly concluded.

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Heath’s other triumph was to get the bill through the House. The Conservative Party in the country was either supportive or, in larger part, loyal to the leader who had just won them power. The press were overwhelmingly for entry (how things change). The Cabinet stayed loyal: the two potential heavyweight opponents, Reginald Maudling and Sir Alec Douglas Home, stayed on board.

The threat to the bill came from two sources. His chief whip, Francis Pym, warned that something around 20 or 30 backbenchers might be prepared to defy a three-line whip and vote against the government. It could have been worse, but the leading anti-marketeer was Enoch Powell (below), who had a large following in the country, but was by now in the isolated on the fringes of the parliamentary party.

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The other threat was Labour. If Harold Wilson opposed entry, and could successfully impose a three-line whip upon his party, the bill might well have fallen. Labour were, however, deeply and bitterly divided over Europe. The leading pro-marketeer, Roy Jenkins (below), had already made it known that if there was to be a three-line whip for a no vote, he would defy it and vote for entry. The big question was, how many of his Labour colleagues would follow?

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This situation persuaded Francis Pym to get Heath to take a gamble: Conservative MPs were give a free vote, there would be no whip. This was a risk calculated to either persuade Wilson to do likewise, or embolden Labour pro-marketeers. It worked: in the crucial Commons debate, despite a three-line whip, 68 Labour MPs followed Jenkins into the lobby and voted for EEC membership. Meanwhile, 39 Conservatives voted no. In the end, the European Communities Bill passed with a majority of 17. Heath signed the treaty, below, with Geoffrey Ripon and Alec Douglas Home looking on.

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Thus, on New Year’s Day 1973, Britain entered the EEC. Heath had triumphed. The question now was just how European would the new Europeans prove to be?

Meanwhile, this BBC documentary from 1998 on Heath is worth watching

 

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