What did Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot have in common? The answer, obviously, is many things. But my main purpose in bracketing them together today is that they were all leaders of the Labour party who overcame their doubts about UK membership of the European Union and became supporters – in Foot’s case, towards the end of his life, passionately so.
I was reminded of this first by the much-reported chant at the pro-EU demonstration in London last weekend (“Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”) and secondly when I attended the launch by the Strand group of King’s College London, of the fascinating new book Half In, Half Out (Biteback), about British prime ministers and their attitude to Europe.
Based on a series of lectures in Oxford last year – organised by the admirably indefatigable Remainer Lord Adonis – the book is full of fascinating insights. I have chosen to highlight one particular contribution, that of Charles, now Lord, Powell, who was Margaret Thatcher’s closest civil service aide at No 10 for many years.
To the Eurosceptic, soi distant Thatcherite diehards to whom Theresa May has allowed herself to be in thrall, Powell points out that – while always fighting her corner – Thatcher “fought for a better Europe that would be more in tune with the requirements of economic prosperity and international security. Her battle was not to emasculate it, let alone abandon it.”
The Eurosceptic fringe often cite Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988, but Powell tells us: “There were limits to how far she was prepared to be influenced by Eurosceptics. The Bruges speech was not a surrender to them but a manifesto for a new direction for Europe that would make the European community more successful, not undermine and weaken British membership.”
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Now, against a background of an almost certifiable US president who has started a 1930s-style trade war, and has been trying to undermine the German chancellor, with his henchman Steve Bannon fomenting far-right unrest in eastern Europe, the very idea of our leaving the EU is, quite simply, baffling.
It is hard to believe that any one of May’s predecessors since the second world war would have acted as she has, ie: allowing the tail to wag the dog. Her pathetic commitment to leaving Thatcher’s finest creation – the single market – was an attempt to appease her Brexit wing, and has failed miserably. Likewise with the preposterous proposal to leave the most successful customs union in history.
During two years of what pass in this country for “negotiations”, May and her ‘“Brexit means Brexit” team have got nowhere. As Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister has pointed out, May’s predecessor David Cameron “gambled the country” to get out of a fix and failed miserably. Alas, Theresa May is doubling the stakes.
Which brings us back to Jeremy Corbyn and co. Despite the fact that two-thirds of Labour MPs are Remainers, the party has been hopeless in following up the parliamentary chance to scotch the Brexit snake made possible by that heroine of our times, Gina Miller in the court case about the sovereignty of parliament.
We are told that “the arithmetic doesn’t work” and that, even if the entire parliamentary Labour party had voted for the cause recently, they would have lost. But my suspicion is that if more Labour MPs had voted with their conscience, so would more Tory Remainers have done. The future of the country ought to be above narrow party political interests.
It is good that, not before time, British and foreign-owned businesses are making the point about how their future investment, and indeed presence at all in this country is threatened by the patent nonsense of Brexit. When one reads that Nigel Farage dismisses such concerns with the statement that manufacturing accounts for only 10% of the UK’s GDP, one wonders about his grasp of reality. Has it not occurred to him that that 10% is responsible for half of our exports, as well as providing orders and employment to many other nooks and crannies of the economy?
Now, I keep being told by Labour people that although two-thirds of the parliamentary Labour party are themselves Remainers, two-thirds of Labour MPs represent Leave seats.
To which I reply: so what? The EU has very little to do with austerity against which people have rightly been protesting. I greatly sympathise with Labour voters in the north-east who are evidently disenchanted. But they are likely to even be more disenchanted if the celebrated Nissan corporation decides to go elsewhere.
I conclude with the prospect recently raised in the New York Times: if these “negotiations” end in tears, – which they may well – it may be easier to see Calais from Dover than the end of the queue of lorries stretching back towards London on account of border problems.