Before 1971 almost the entire revolutionary left held an abstentionist position on the Common Market: In or out, it was about capitalist integration and not a matter for workers to choose a side to support. Although this left several key questions begging, it at least had the virtue of maintaining a consistent internationalist position, having no truck with chauvinism and championing cross-Europe worker solidarity in the face of bourgeois integration. Why in the space of a year did almost the entire revolutionary left flip over into a hardened opposition to the EEC, one that saw this left add its voice to the chorus of Labour lefts, Tory rightists and far-right fascists calling for Britain to remain outside of the Common Market.
The simple explanation is that the revolutionary collapsed into the “common sense” that began to dominate the labour movement and the wider public. Within the labour movement there was a growing nationalist-chauvinist response, fuelled by Stalinist socialism-in-one-country which began to grip many of the best industrial militants. In the political context of the time, where an unpopular Labour government promoted EEC membership just as it promoted efforts to curb the power of trade unions; followed by a Tory government elected in 1970 committed to the same agenda of Common Market membership and the Industrial Relations Act, the labour movement lurched towards opposition and the revolutionary left simply capitulated to the dominant mood around them.
The wider context of British politics helps to explain why the revolutionary left accommodated itself to this option. At the time the Treaty of Rome was signed, around two-thirds (64%) of the British population was in favour of efforts towards Western European unity, with 12% opposed and almost a quarter (24%) undecided. At the time of the British government’s first application to join, nearly half (47%) was in favour of Western European unity, with the rest evenly split between those opposed and those undecided. Gallup polls asking specifically about EEC membership throughout 1965, 1966 and the early part of 1967 found a clear majority (ranging from 43% to 71%) in favour of entry. However, in the late 1960s, public support began to decline and by November 1970 it stood at 16%, with 66% against (Andy Mullen, The British Left's 'Great Debate' on Europe, 2005: 84).
When the Tories unexpectedly got back into government after the general election on 18 June 1970, they immediately set about continuing the Wilson government’s efforts. The Tory manifesto for that election was more cautious about Europe than Labour’s, committing solely “to negotiate, no more, no less”. In May 1971 Heath met with the French President Pompidou, who signalled that the veto would be lifted and that a third application would be successful. But Heath had a bigger problem, to win a parliamentary majority. Although the Tories had a majority of 30 MPs, some fifteen led by Enoch Powell would vote against Europe whatever the circumstances. With only six Liberals, Heath would need the support of the Labour Party.
But Labour was also divided over Europe. After fleeting opposition to entry in 1961, Labour had switched to conditional support in 1962, allowing Wilson to seek entry in government. However within the labour movement, alongside the disappointment with the Labour government and with its unexpected defeat in 1970, the tide was turning against entry.
In January 1971, Labour MP John Silkin put down an early day motion on behalf of the soft-left Tribune newspaper, stating that the Tories’ entry terms were not in the national interest. This motion obtained the support of 103 Labour MPs (Mullen 2005: 127). In May 1971, James Callaghan, pitching for the leadership of the Labour Party, made a speech in Manchester attacking the Tories’ approach to Europe. He said it would mean a complete rupture of British identity and that monetary union would lead to unemployment. He also responded to Pompidou’s comment that French was the language of Europe (not English), by stating: “Non, merci beaucoup”. Callaghan caught the mood: in July 1971 Labour’s special conference debated entry, with opinion mostly against. In August the Labour NEC pushed for opposition to the Tory terms of entry and the October 1971 Labour conference voted for opposition to Tory plans.
If the mood among Labour MPs was plainly changing, then it was in the unions that the most significant shift was occurring. In the late 1940s and early 50s, the TUC Congress supported demands for a united Europe, backing both the Schuman plan and the EDC. After the first application to join the EEC in 1962, its position was “wait and see”. However in 1971 Congress voted for opposition to Britain’s entry to the Common Market on Conservative terms, in 1972 for opposition to entry in principle and in 1973 opposition to membership plus support for a boycott of EU institutions (Mullen 2005: 156).
The TGWU was Britain’s biggest union in 1971 with around two million members. In 1961 its biennial delegate conference voted to oppose the Treaty of Rome. During the 1960s it was opposed to Britain’s entry without safeguards, a position it moved from 1967 within the Labour Party and the TUC. The election of Jack Jones as general secretary in 1969 hardened this position of opposition. The TGWU unsuccessfully promoted its policy at the 1970 Labour Conference, one of the closest votes in Labour Party history. Its 1971 biennial delegate conference carried a motion declaring that the Tories’ entry terms were economically and politically damaging.
The AUEW engineers’ union was Britain’s second biggest union, around one million members in 1970. Until 1968, the union supported Labour’s applications for entry. The election of Hugh Scanlon as President saw the union become more sceptical towards the EEC. At the 1970 Labour Conference, the AUEW voted to support the TGWU-sponsored resolution that was opposed to entry. Similarly, the NUM, another of the largest unions with around half a million members, voted at its 1971 conference for the withdrawal of Britain’s application on the basis that it posed a threat to living standards and national sovereignty (Mullen 2005: 432, 410, 416).
A key catalyst for transmitting opposition to the EU through the major unions were the militants and union bureaucrats associated with the Communist Party. Around the time of Britain’s first application for membership, the CPGB had 34,000 members and 265 workplace branches. It organised a cross-union rank and file organisation, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions, which in 1969 could organise a conference of 1,700 delegates from many of the most militant workplaces across the UK. It could get over 100 members as delegates to the annual TUC Congress. It was represented by half a dozen members and as many sympathisers on the executive of the TGWU, with substantial representation at the highest levels of the AEUW and NUM, with members among prominent general secretaries such as Ken Gill (John McIlroy, Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics, 1999).
The shift of the unions towards opposition to British entry – propelled by the trade union bureaucracy and backed by the CPGB – was the backdrop against which the revolutionary left’s lurch in the summer of 1971 took place.
The Left's Debates On Europe in the 1970s