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By William Outhwaite
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HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
THE INCREASING INEVITABILITY OF THAT REFERENDUM
If the United Kingdom had responded positively to the 9 May 1950 Schuman declaration and if it had subsequently signed the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (admittedly, two very big 'ifs'), there would surely have been no referendum. When, in May 1945, Winston Churchill, then prime minister, suggested that a referendum be held on whether to extend the life of the wartime coalition until Japan had been defeated, the deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee, refused, declaring, 'I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism' (quoted in Bogdanor, 1981, p. 35).
The same could surely have been claimed about the 25 March 1957 Treaty of Rome. Harold Macmillan had only taken over from Anthony Eden at the beginning of that year, but his Conservative government was still sitting on a 60-seat majority. The same, lastly, could surely also have been observed had the UK's 1961 application not been vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle. Following the October 1959 General Election, Macmillan had been returned with a 100-seat majority. Announcing the application to the Commons, Macmillan declared that 'no agreement will be entered into until it has been approved by the House' (1961). The subsequent vote was unambiguous: 313 votes to 4, with the Labour Opposition and some fifty Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) abstaining. There was no mention of a referendum and no call for one. But that first 1961 move contained significant seeds of future complications.
First, the UK did not apply alone. The Danish and Norwegian economies were so closely tied to the UK's that they sent in their applications shortly after the UK's. Although never a European Free Trade Association (EFTA) member, Ireland's economy was so closely tied to the UK's that it anticipated the British application. When de Gaulle rejected the UK's application at the eleventh hour, the three other applicant countries withdrew their candidatures. A symbiotic relationship had been established – the four would always be seen as a bloc (de Gaulle later dismissively referred to the group as 'the British and their associates' (cited in George, 1994, p. 38)) – and all of them, with the sole exception of the UK, had constitutional provisions for the holding of referendums.
Second, any first application for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) would have been significant. As a major economy and powerful country with a transatlantic tradition, the UK's application would have been additionally significant. But for it to bring three other candidate countries in its train would represent a major change. Third, as the July/August 1961 debate and vote in the House of Commons had demonstrated, the issue of the UK's relationship with the unfolding European integration process cut through both the main parties, as it has done ever since. This meant inevitably that any future referendum, were it to occur, would almost certainly have to be fought on a cross-party basis.
Lastly, the first application gave rise to a number of phenomena that would become increasingly familiar. A first was the organization of new groups seeking to mobilize public and parliamentary opinion against entry (Richardson , 2016). If the people had been irrelevant to the politicians' calculations to date, that would no longer be the case: 'It can [...] be safely said that it was with the application that the people came for the first time to be an influential factor in the United Kingdom's relationship to the Communities' (Milward, 2012, p. 341). A second phenomenon occurred on 22 November 1962 in the South Dorset by-election. A dissident anti–Common Market Conservative candidate, Sir Piers Debenham, denied the official Conservative candidate, Angus Maude, victory and gifted what had been a safe Conservative seat to the Labour candidate, Guy Barnett – a first example of what was to become a potent political force in the 1990s and again in the 2010s.
When the UK tabled a second application for membership (10 May 1967), the other three countries rapidly followed. These new applications were at first similarly vetoed by de Gaulle (27 November 1967). His successor, Georges Pompidou, had a change of heart, and a 1–2 December 1969 Summit of the Six agreed that negotiations should start. But when, in early 1972, those negotiations had been successfully concluded and the EEC stood on the cusp of its first enlargement, the French president announced he would hold a referendum on the enlargement package. Ostensibly, Pompidou felt the change to be of such momentous significance that the approval of the French people should be sought. However, 'it seemed like a political exercise for domestic consumption' (Berstein and Rioux, 2000, p. 66).
The referendum (23 April 1972), with 68 per cent of those voting in favour of enlargement, was duly followed by a referendum in Ireland(10 May), which approved the constitutional amendment necessary for the Republic to accede, with almost 84 per cent of those voting in favour. Next, on 25 September, Norway held a popular referendum in which, despite a large parliamentary majority in favour of joining, a 53.5 per cent majority voted to reject membership. Lastly, on 2 October 1972, the Danish people voted in favour of membership by a 63.3 per cent majority.
Meanwhile, in the UK, on 28 October 1971, after some six days and 300 hours of debate, the sovereign House of Commons voted in favour of accession, with 356 in favour and 244 against. Thirty-seven Conservative MPs voted against. Sixty-nine Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, voted in favour. The official Labour Party line was to oppose entry 'on Tory terms'. Pro-accession Labour frontbenchers were instructed to remain silent during the debate – or toe the party line. In July, Edward Heath had rejected the need for a referendum, declaring that the House of Commons had the constitutional sovereignty to decide (Crowson, 2007, p. 38). But this position of insistence on parliamentary sovereignty as being sufficient was taken against a backdrop of apathetic, if not negative, public opinion.
In formal terms, no referendum was held in the UK in 1972 because of the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. But unlike in 1961, there were calls for one. Already, on 10 December 1969, a Conservative MP, Bruce Campbell, moved a bill arguing that the electors should have the right 'to decide by way of referendum whether Great Britain should enter the European Economic Community': 'The three major parties have all declared themselves to be in favour of this country joining the Common Market. It therefore follows that this question will never be an election issue and the people will have absolutely no chance of ever being able to express their views on it through the ballot box at a General Election' (Butler and Kitzinger, 1976, p. 10).
Fifty-five MPs voted in favour of the bill. Most notably, however, in April 1972, the anti-Market Conservative MPs Neil Marten and Enoch Powell tabled an amendment to the European Communities Bill calling for a consultative referendum on entry. Labour's Shadow Cabinet decided to support Marten's amendment. (Jenkins opposed the policy on principle and resigned as deputy party leader, and many Labour MPs abstained on the division.) Moreover, as has been seen, there were referendums elsewhere on precisely the same issue: in Ireland, Denmark and Norway, and 'even' in France.
This raises an interesting counterfactual question: what if the UK had joined alone, in isolation, and there had been no other referendum? There would, then, have been no possibility for the perception to arise that somehow the British people had been 'cheated' of their say. There would, in particular, have been no counterexamples of the Danish, Irish and Norwegian people having their say while the British allegedly could not. And there would have been no Norwegian counterexample of popular rejection of membership.
The absence of a written constitution did not help and, indeed, enabled those of that kind of a disposition to indulge in such arguments as that the subsequent 1975 referendum result could not be legitimate because the UK could not vote to stay in something that it had not, in constitutional terms, properly joined. In seeking to avoid such ambiguity, the 1997–2001 Blair administration would effectively entrench the principle of the referendum in British constitutional life.
The accession negotiations were tough, but from Heath's point of view there was no doubt that the prize was to be grasped. This determination was epitomized by his all-or-nothing, obstacle-clearing role in the 20 May 1971 Paris bilateral summit meeting with Pompidou(Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 2016). With this determined steer from above, the UK had acceded with a tacit acceptance among its negotiators that the entry terms it had been obliged to accept would have to be adjusted/renegotiated whenever that proved possible (Denman, 1997, p. 233 and pp. 243–244). Meanwhile, the Labour Party had remained badly split on the issue of membership, and now Harold Wilson, its wily managerial leader, was able to exploit both the manner of the UK's accession and the terms on which it had entered, to fashion election-winning party unity. The Labour Party's February 1974 General Election manifesto argued that 'a profound political mistake made by the Heath Government was to accept the terms of entry to the Common Market, and to take us in without the consent of the British people' (cited in Denman, 1997, p. 247).
The politicking and calculations that led to the holding of the UK's 5 June 1975 referendum are well known (see Butler and Kitzinger, 1976, pp. 12–20). But in the light of what has subsequently occurred, the importance of the 1975 referendum cannot be overestimated.
First, the referendum was the first-ever national plebiscite in British politics. The longstanding eschewal of direct democracy was no more. The principle that a referendum might be held had been acknowledged by Parliament, sovereign though it had always been and would always remain, through the Referendum Act 1975.
Second, no matter what the language used about the consultative nature of any referendum result, the potential for discordance between what a majority of MPs, on the one hand, and a majority of the people, on the other, believed had been irrevocably created. In 1975, those two majorities happened to concur. In 2016, they did not.
Third, more subliminally, because the first-ever referendum in the UK was a referendum about the UK's relationship with the European integration process, it created a sort of indelible link. Continued membership of the European Union (EU), it was implied, was an issue of such constitutional and political importance that it necessarily and quite logically could be addressed again by dint of a referendum.
Fourth, as one commentator has recently put it, 'the vast majority of modern national referendums are about undertaking a new project, whether joining the EU, approving a new constitution or constitutional amendments, becoming a republic or an independent state. In these cases, the referendums invited countries to take a step forward into a new future – one in which life would be better than it had been before' (Green, 2016). If such a presumption about referendums being perceived as opportunities to step forward were accepted, it would mean that any take-it-or-leave-it referendum about EU membership would imply that leaving might represent an improvement.
Fifth, the referendum device was not associated with accession per se but with the satisfactory nature of reform/renegotiation and subsequent continued membership. The UK had, for better or worse, already acceded to the EEC. Membership could thus be perceived as having been a fait accompli. The possible linkage of reform and a referendum, meanwhile, was a monster that would not raise its head with successful prime ministers enjoying substantive parliamentary majorities, but would inevitably haunt 'weak' prime ministers with small majorities.
Sixth, although there was a clear majority (67 per cent) in favour of remaining, the result was neither a strong one nor a particularly positive one: 'the verdict was not even necessarily a vote of confidence that things would be better in than out; it may have been no more than an expression of fear that things would be worse out than in' (Butler and Kitzinger, 1976, p. 280).
Lastly, the referendum and all that had preceded it had not only proven that 'Europe was now an issue for parliamentary rebellion' (Crowson, 2007, p. 43) but had legitimized it.
From 1979 until the mid-1980s, the UK's relations with the EEC were epitomized by Margaret Thatcher's combative attitude towards the EU and her determination to win the UK a proportionate budgetary rebate, culminating in the settlement reached at the June 1984 Fontainebleau European Council meeting. The subliminal impression given, once again, was of an unsatisfactory relationship arising out of unsatisfactory terms (unsatisfactorily renegotiated). Meanwhile, in its 1983 election manifesto, the Labour Party, under Michael Foot, pledged to begin negotiations to withdraw from the EU 'within the lifetime' of the following Parliament. (It was notably such policy stances that had led Jenkins (now a former European Commission President) and a number of other pro- EEC Labour MPs to break away, in 1981, and establish the Social Democratic Party.)
Thereafter, though Thatcher's combative attitude continued with the new French president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, acting as sparring partner, it seemed that Thatcher's second administration might develop a more constructive role. After all, the 1986 Single European Act might not have been entirely to Thatcher's liking, but its core objective of creating a single market by 1992 was a project to which she and her government could not only enthusiastically sign up but also unashamedly champion. The Labour Party, too, under the reformist leadership of Neil Kinnock, was gradually converted to a pro-EU stance, not least through the creation of a flanking 'social Europe' that would lead to the 1989 signing of a social charter. But the latter was anathema to Thatcher. On 20 September 1988, she took advantage of a speech to the College of Europe to state, 'We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels' (Thatcher, 1988). Frictions steadily grew with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson , and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, over policy towards Europe and particularly towards the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher was increasingly sceptical about resurgent moves to create a European single currency. In protest at her interference, Lawson resigned on 27 October 1989, Howe on 1 November 1990, and by 22 November 1990, Thatcher was gone and, in retrospect, another subliminal message had been sent: 'Europe' had brought about the downfall of Margaret Thatcher – still a popular figure on the right and considered by many to have been the UK's greatest post-war prime minister after Churchill. More to the point, Euroscepticism now had a figurehead.
Although Europe had continued to be a source of division and friction within the two main political parties and between them, by the late 1980s membership was a given on both sides of the political divide. But by 1989, history was on the march. On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and it became apparent that Germany would unify and that Europe was about to undergo major geopolitical change. Momentum developed for the European project to respond through deeper political and economic integration. Space precludes a detailed account of the processes that led to the 7 February 1992 signing of the Maastricht Treaty (see, for example, Baun, 1996, and Dyson and Featherstone, 1999), which provided for both political and economic and monetary union (EMU). The Communities became a Union with citizens. Convergence criteria and a timetable were set for the EMU process. The Maastricht Treaty undeniably embodied a series of significant steps forward. The question was whether the UK would take all of those steps together with its fellow Member States. The pragmatic response of the new Conservative prime minister, John Major, was to stay on board as far as possible and to negotiate opt-outs, opt-ins and derogations where the UK could not take those steps. The most significant was the single currency. From the UK's point of view, there were two basic questions to be answered. Should it give its assent to the creation of a single currency? And, if so, should it be a part of it? The Labour Party's answer to both questions was 'yes' (as was that of the Liberal Democrats). For a long time, Labour had differentiated itself from the Conservatives by calling for ERM membership. But in 1990, Thatcher unexpectedly took sterling into the ERM. The party's leader concluded that differentiation could only be renewed through conditional support for membership of the currency union. Major's conclusion was, first, that he could not any more stand in the way of moves to a single currency (his proposals for a parallel currency had gained no traction) but should make sure that the envisaged EMU would be constructed on firm foundations, and, second, that the UK should adopt a wait-and-see attitude to membership for sterling, through an opt-out.
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Table of ContentsPreface by William Outhwaite; Section 1. How Did It Happen? 1. The Increasing Inevitability of That Referendum - Martin Westlake; 2. Vox Populi: Nationalism, Globalization and the Balance of Power in the Making of Brexit - Jonathan Hearn; 3. Exit from the Perspective of Entry - John Holmwood; 4. Brexit, Sovereignty and the End of an Ever Closer Union - Stefan Auer; Section 2. The Politics of Brexit; 5. Populism, Nationalism and Brexit - Craig Calhoun; 6. A Tale of Two Constitutions: Whose Legitimacy? Whose Crisis? - Chris Thornhill; 7. Locating Brexit in the Pragmatics of Race, Citizenship and Empire - Gurminder K. Bhambra; 8. Globalization, Nationalism and the Changing Axes of Political Identity - Colin Crouch; 9. A Divided Nation in a Divided Europe: Emerging Cleavages and the Crisis of European Integration - Gerard Delanty; Section 3. Prospects For/ After Brexit; 10. The EU and Brexit: Processes, Perspectives and Prospects - Tim Oliver; 11. The Impossibility of Disentangling Integration - Antje Wiener; 12. No Exit from Brexit? - Simon Susen; 13. Critical Theory, Brexit and the Vicissitudes of Political Economy in the Twenty- First Century - Harry F. Dahms; 14. European Union versus European Society: Sociologists on ‘Brexit’ and the ‘Failure’ of Europeanization - Adrian Favell; Notes on Contributors; Index.
What People are Saying About This
‘Although most of them were in favour of UK remaining in the EU, the social scientists invited by William Outhwaite to contribute to this book do not settle accounts with Brexiters. On the contrary, they offer a wide range of very persuasive explanations of the choice to Leave, explanations that are not ex post but based on significant previous research. They show that many of the difficulties and frustrations that resulted in Brexit have long been analysed and published.’
Sophie Duchesne, Research Director, National Centre for Scientific Recherché and Sciences Po Bordeaux, France
‘As Brexit was seen as unlikely to happen, it is also difficult to analyse and understand. In this book, sociologists accept the challenge to deal with the improbable rather than the predictable, with the sudden event rather than the ongoing trend. It demonstrates sociologists' engagement with key issues of our time.’
Peter Wagner, Professor, Social and Behavioural Sciences, Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies and University of Barcelona, Spain
‘Only a stellar group of scholars can help us shed light on post-Brexit Europe. This volume features the pioneers of the sociology of the European Union who give us tools to understand the fragile social basis of the European project and the transnational dynamics set into motion over sixty years ago by the postwar integration process.’
Virginie Guiraudon, Research Professor, Sciences Po Center for European Studies, France