With Scotland’s independence referendum in the rear-view mirror, the UK is on course for another mass public consultation, perhaps even as early as this coming June. The question will be direct: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
This is known in media parlance as Brexit, the term being shorthand for a British exit. And it’s a topic that’s been brewing for quite a while.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that the UK’s relationship to what is now called the European Union (EU) has always been ambivalent. From the beginning, there was substantial reluctance. And that feeling was only overcome by a mid-20th century sense of decline and a corresponding look towards Europe as a catalyst for economic modernisation.
It all began with the 1951 establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), whereby the coal and steel industries of West Germany, France, Italy and the three Benelux countries were made subject to the supranational control of a body headquartered in Luxembourg. Having just recently nationalised its own coal and steel industries, the UK’s Labour government wasn’t interested in participating. In the words of Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison, “the Durham miners won’t wear it.”
Similarly, when the ECSC became the Common Market in 1957, the UK opted to stand aside. Then after applying to join in 1961, it was rebuffed by France, and rejected again in 1967. It was only after the retirement of French president Charles de Gaulle that entry was finally achieved in 1973.
But that didn’t end the matter. Membership, which had occurred via a parliamentary vote under a Conservative government, was still contentious, and Labour’s victorious 1974 election manifesto promised a referendum. So, in what was the UK’s only nationwide plebiscite of the 20th century, it went to the polls on June 5, 1975.
The campaign itself was a one-sided affair. The leadership of both major parties argued in favour of continued membership, as did virtually all of the press and representatives of big business. On voting day, the “stay in” side won by a better than two-to-one margin, and the debate was thus deemed to be over. To quote Labour’s Roy Jenkins, “It commits Britain to Europe.”
Except that it didn’t quite do that, which begs the question of what changed. Two things in particular stand out.
One is that the UK’s relative economic position has improved. In the 1960s/70s, it was common to see it described as “the sick man of Europe,” but that turned around in the Thatcherite mid-80s. And as the saviour aura that was previously associated with the EU faded, irritants became more noticeable.
The other thing has to do with the gradual realization that the EU is much more than a free trade arrangement. Granted, that reality was there from the very beginning, but most people paid no attention to it. Talk of evolving towards an “ever closer union” was either ignored or dismissed as mere verbiage, and the idea that membership involved a progressive loss of self-government was never seriously addressed in general public discourse.
Still, for many people the referendum debate will ultimately revolve around economics. Would the UK be better off in or out? And if there’s a penalty to be paid for departing, how big would it be?
To answer that definitively, you’d have to know the post-departure trading arrangements. Would the EU be amenable to a comprehensive free trade agreement with the UK? Or, driven by some combination of hurt pride and anxiety to send a message to other potentially frisky members, would it wish to exact visible economic retribution?
Proponents of staying in point out that 45 percent of exports go to the EU, and that the loss of such a market would be devastating. In response, Brexit supporters note that 50 percent of imports come from the EU, and countries like Germany – for which the UK is a large automotive products market – would be loath to sacrifice that in a trade war.
For what it’s worth, an early February YouGov poll indicated that the Brexit option has nosed ahead, but whether that sticks through referendum day is an iffy proposition. When push comes to shove, inertia and fear of the unknown are always powerful motivators.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.