Artillery Row

In with a bang. Out with a whimper

The state bankrolled nationwide celebrations for Britain joining the European Community. Not so the leaving party.

A commemorative 50 pence piece; a countdown clock projected onto Downing Street; and a party in Parliament Square. As celebrations of momentous national events go, those marking the UK’s reclaiming its sovereign rights are a model of restraint. It is less than what Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff were treated to for winning back the Ashes in 2005 (open top bus; party in Trafalgar Square; beer and champagne in Downing Street; special issue of stamps by the Royal Mail).

Indeed, Brexit’s main event – the party in Parliament Square (no Big Ben bongs if you please) – is not even an official event, being a party thrown by Nigel Farage and his friends.

It was all very different in January 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community. An eve of entry poll by Opinion Research Centre for the BBC suggested that the country was almost as evenly split then as it was in 2016 with (excluding the 23 percent of don’t knows) 49.4 percent “happy” at joining and 50.6 percent “unhappy.”

Fear that celebrating membership might therefore be socially divisive did not trouble the Prime Minister, Edward Heath. There were knighthoods for Conservative MPs who had helped lead the Commons battle to join the EEC and a Companion of Honour given to Duncan Sandys, the founder of the European Movement. For the opponents, nothing.  Britain’s membership was serenaded by ten days of state-sponsored nationwide festivity.

Not that it started with a bang. The principal event on the night of joining was a torchlit procession in Whitehall of about 300 supporters. They marched behind the band of the Romford Fifes and Drums to the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The saints marching with them included eighty representatives of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, processing (as The Times reporter spotted) “in good order.”

Addressing the torch-lit marchers from the steps of the National Liberal Club, Britain’s new European Commissioner, George Thompson, proclaimed, “What dictators have failed to do by force, democracies are undertaking by peaceful consent.” It is not recorded which part of that statement Mosley’s men cheered.

The formal commemorations began the following day. A celebratory dinner at Hampton Court Palace brought together an array of ambassadors, the European enthusiast and Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, Rupert Murdoch and the Archbishop of Canterbury. They toasted Heath who spoke about his hope that Britain would soon stop referring to it as the Common Market because “what we are building is a Community whose scope will gradually extend until it covers virtually the whole field of collective human endeavour.” Fair warning, it might be said.

The ten-day “Fanfare for Europe” started the next evening at the Royal Opera House. Accompanied by Prince Philip, the Queen arrived in her finery only to be greeted with booing from a disrespectful mob outside. Reassuring her inside were Heath and the Archbishop of Canterbury (again).

BBC1 cleared the schedule to broadcast live the Covent Garden gala night to a nation doubtless enraptured by this teaser of European sophistication, a pro-Brussels-equivalent of Fred Kite, the trade unionist played by Peter Sellers in I’m Alright Jack dreamily romanticising, “ahhh Russia, all them corn fields and ballet in the evening.”

Appropriately, given Heath’s love of conducting, classical music was to the fore during the ten days of events, with British and European orchestras playing throughout the country. Trees were planted. Towns were twinned. Special church services were held, including a Day of Prayer for Europe in Westminster Abbey. The V&A needed little encouragement to put on an exhibition of “the treasures of the European Community” whilst the Hayward Gallery celebrated the French Impressionists.

The idea that the Government could now persuade the arts community to stage events to mark leaving the EU is, of course, absurd, but back in 1973 it was not all arias and Monet. There was also a friendly football match played at Wembley between a team featuring Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller representing the original six members of the EEC and a team of the three new joiners (UK, Ireland and Denmark) managed by Alf Ramsay (who pointedly declined the opportunity to say anything positive about Europe).

Thanks to goals by Denmark’s Henning Jensen and Scotland’s Colin Stein, what passed for the home side won 2-0. In an age when footballers were still allowed out without first rehearsing their interview lines, Pat Jennings duly responded to a question about what the match meant for the spirit of European brotherhood with the bemused, “I’m really not interested in the whole thing.”

Other events had mixed success. A visit by the Prime Minister to open a Europe-themed auction by the British Antique Dealers’ Association briefly took an unfortunate turn when a middle-aged woman grasped Heath by his lapels and declaimed, “I arrest you in the name of …” She got no further before security intervened.

Elsewhere there was the promise of “continental cooking in gas and electricity showrooms” and an EEC-themed edition of the Opportunity Knocks talent show. Where the BBC led with opera and football, ITV followed by broadcasting the Miss TV Europe beauty pageant.

Britain’s hopes of Euro-glamour lay with Yorkshire’s Zoe Spink. Sadly, the judges preferred Sylvia Kristel – the Dutch entry and Emmanuelle actress.

Finally, Heath was unable to secure the binding threads he hoped would tie the whole celebration together. The Prime Minister had wanted the Bayeux Tapestry to be loaned to the UK. He was dissuaded by those with a keener sense of symbolism. Possibly the depiction of a heroic English king being pitilessly cut down by continental conquerors intent on imposing feudalism could send the wrong message about the country’s European destiny.

Be that as it may, the Fanfare for Europe ended in the customary British fashion, with complaints about the cost and what benefits, if any, it had brought. Plus ça change.

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