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Clement Attlee – Prophet of Brexit

Attlee’s reasons for opposing Britain joining the European Community resonate today

Historians have long cherry-picked quotes from Winston Churchill’s speeches to declare him either a father of European integration or a determined stickler for Britain not being part of it (even although these positions were not mutually exclusive). But what did Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden, the other two ex-prime ministers of the 1940s and 1950s, think about their country joining the European Economic Community (as the European Union then was)?

In August 1962, Harold Macmillan’s government had just entered the second year of talks exploring the possibility of Britain’s membership. By then both Attlee and Eden (who took the tile Earl of Avon) were in the House of Lords and the speeches they made about British entry showed remarkable prescience about the nature of the community the government was determined to join.

The House of Lords debate on the negotiations in 2 August 1962 can be found in its entirety in Hansard here. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne, began by laying out the government’s position. He confirmed that although joining the European Community would involve some loss of sovereignty, the areas in which power would be ceded were so minimal that, “I venture to suggest that the vast majority of men and women in this country will never directly feel the impact of the Community-made law at all. In the conduct of their daily affairs they will have no need to have regard to any of the provisions of that law; nor are they at all likely ever to be affected by an administrative action of one of the Community institutions.”

Rising to reply, Attlee, argued that such sang froid showed neither historical knowledge nor appreciation of how a supra-national body would evolve. Whilst the Macmillan government treated joining the Community as if was a one-off commercial contract, albeit a complicated one, Attlee believed it was fundamentally political project that ran counter to Britain’s past experience and future prospects. “I think the political dangers are very great” he suggested. “Once you are in there, it is quite different from being in an organisation like NATO, which is a defence organisation directed against specific perils.”

Attlee foresaw that the relationship would not be limited and static. “We are to become part of a larger whole, an appendage to Europe” he said. “It may be right now, but, historically, that has not been our position. We may have been at the centre of markets, but we have not been in one market and out of the others. … We have never put ourselves into a position in which we were inside a ring-fence with a number of Continental Powers. Make no mistake: it is an entire change.”

He was unimpressed by the prospect of maximising influence through membership. “I do not quite know what is the meaning of, ‘being at the centre of power.’ We are apparently joining one power bloc. Here, too, the historic position of this country is that we do not, except in the case of a grave emergency like war, join ourselves with any one power bloc. … I may be merely insular, but I have no prejudice in a Britain planned for the British by the British. Therefore, as at present advised, I am quite unconvinced either that it is necessary or that it is even desirable that we should go into the Common Market.”

When the House of Lords returned to debate Britain’s membership prospect on 8 November 1962 (Hansard record of full debate here), Attlee found himself speaking directly after Eden and supporting the contentions the former foreign secretary, prime minister and Conservative Party leader made.

Eden had been the architect of the 1956 Suez misadventure, a national humiliation which had convinced many that the UK was a shadow of its wartime eminence and would be better being a major cog in a bigger machine. It was not a conclusion that appealed to him.  Like Attlee, Eden perceived the political nature of the EEC and its incompatibility with Britain’s objectives.  “Last week the Common Market Commission published a memorandum, which I have seen,” Eden observed. “They say that progress towards economic union is progress towards political union. In other words, the E.E.C. is not, in their opinion, just an economic venture but a means of bringing about political integration through economic policy. … what I am saying is that it is a confession of intent which we should be ostriches to ignore.”

progress towards economic union is progress towards political union.

Eden continued, “I cannot accept that this country at any time betrays Europe if it declines to enter a European Federation. In considering this matter, I think we should be completely candid about the motives which cause us to have these reservations. What is it, above all else, that Britain has made her legacy to succeeding generations? Not, I think, her Armies, her Navies or her Air Force; not her victories on land or sea or in the air; not her commercial competence; not her industrial skill; but the art of self-government by a free people. That has been our donation to what we may like to call Western civilisation so long as it survives.”

Attlee then followed, saying how much he shared Eden’s assessment. “It is impossible,” said Attlee, “for us to enter into these economic arrangements without being pulled, sooner or later, into a political association, which I do not think is desirable. I am afraid that I shall be accused of being old-fashioned and out of date, but I still think that for this country a degree of flexibility is desirable.”

Attlee made clear that he was all for shared international responsibilities, but pulling sovereignty with the EEC “is not giving up something for world security; it is giving something up to sectional interests.”

Like Eden, Attlee perceived clearly that “ever closer union” was integral to membership and not just a meaningless platitude to which lip-service could be paid with fingers’ crossed behind your back. “I have read the Treaty of Rome pretty carefully, and it expresses an outlook entirely different from our own. It may be that I am insular, but I value our Parliamentary outlook, an outlook which has extended throughout the Commonwealth. That is not the same position that holds on the Continent of Europe.”

It may be that I am insular, but I value our Parliamentary outlook

Attlee believed not just the European Community’s institutions but also its outlook to be incompatible with those of a global Britain. “We never belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and we never belonged to the reactionary organisation after 1815. We have always looked outward, out to the New World; and to-day we look out to the New World, and to Asia and Africa. I think that integration with Europe is a step backward. … if we join the Common Market we shall be joining not an outward-looking organisation, but an inward-looking organisation.”

Attlee was particularly scornful of the British government’s handling of the negotiation to join, warning that “the propaganda for entering the Common Market has been largely based on defeatism. We are told that unless we do it we are going to have a terrible time. That is no way to go into a negotiation. You ought to go into a negotiation on the basis that they have need of you, not just you of them.” Over fifty-six years later Theresa May and her chief negotiator, Olly Robbins, might have profited from pondering such advice from one of Britain’s most effectual prime ministers.

What was more, he added, “I am not sure that France wants us there at all. I think de Gaulle is a very good European, provided that Europe is run by France.”

Two months later, Charles de Gaulle called a press conference – unilaterally, without first discussing his intent with other European member states – and announced that  France would veto admitting the UK into the European Community. De Gaulle’s reasons were almost identical to those made by Eden and Attlee: Britain’s past, its interests, structures and institutions, its political culture, betrayed a global rather than a purely continental outlook. Inside Europe, that would never work.

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