My Lords, the decisive event for Britain in Europe in the 1970s was not the 1975 referendum but the six-day House of Commons debate that ended on
“decision of principle to join the European Communities”.
Of former Members of Parliament who voted on that occasion, nearly 30 sit in the House of Lords and several will have spoken in this debate. I was one of those who voted and one of the 69 Labour Members who voted for Europe across a three-line whip. I was as opposed to the idea of a referendum in the 1970s as I am now. A referendum fractures and distorts the parliamentary system and feeds populism. It is very different from a general election, which is a regular event when voters can change their minds and reverse the political direction.
But once the 1975 referendum was over, with a two-to-one vote, I assumed that was that; we were there in Europe to stay. I was naive. I believed that, despite the ups and downs of politics, we would win any new referendum with figures similar to the previous occasion. That was my view until early this year, so I was dismayed and profoundly shocked by the result of
I am of a generation that grew up just after World War 2. On a cross-party basis, we dreamed of a better and more prosperous world and no more wars. We as students—Tory, Labour and Liberal—particularly cared about the relations between Britain and the rest of Europe, especially France and Germany, and similarly cared about relations with the United States. Like me, in 1950 my noble friend Lord Taverne was a member of the Strasbourg Club, linked to the new Council of Europe. Shirley Catlin, our mutual friend who became Lady Williams of Crosby, was already a persuasive European voice. If I had not been fully committed, the events of the Suez war totally convinced me that Britain’s future lay across the Channel.
Harold Macmillan had a deep and acute sense of history and place and he took the initiative in seeking membership of the European Community, the Common Market. He was the author in 1938 of The Middle Way, subtitled “A Study of the Problems of Economic and Social Progress in a Free and Democratic Society”. There are lessons here for today’s leaders of the Conservative Party.
Apart from Ted Heath, who took the country into Europe in 1973, all Prime Ministers have been half-hearted about what became the European Union. Harold Wilson was for Europe, then against, then for again. Sir John Major, who made passionate and moving speeches during the referendum in favour of remain, lacked as Prime Minister the strength to stop the drip, drip of hostility to the European Union. Tony Blair, who also endorsed remain, lacked the will to identify himself as a good European when he was at No. 10.
In the 1975 referendum, among other issues, there were arguments about food prices, farming, fisheries and the Commonwealth. Immigration was never an issue. I am not adding to the discussion of numbers, but I am disappointed by the absence of a serious, consistent and significant campaign by Governments over the years to help and understand those communities faced by and fearing incoming migrants, and in turn, to help migrants learn about the rules, customs and conventions of their hosts. But immigration is not enough to explain the reversal of the yes vote figures of 1975 to the leave vote figures of 2016.
Hostility to Europe was shorthand for all the economic and social grievances about jobs, homes, schools and health, especially in deprived areas. The awkward reality in Britain is that the rich are getting richer but many of the poor are slipping back or marking time. Since
Whatever is done is done. The referendum took place and the votes were counted. We cannot reverse the outcome by stealth. But within the moving political scene, I hope that Parliament will assert itself through the interpretation of Article 50 and the process and complicated procedures of withdrawal. I hope, too, that continuing members of the European Union will recognise and understand that Britain will take some time to sort itself out. Many of us want to stay as close as possible to our European partners in friendship and to mutual advantage.