Why did the UK change its mind about Brexit?

时间:2019-09-08 责任编辑:印溴稹 来源:2018正规博彩娱乐网 点击:206 次

The wedding could hardly have been more tranquil. As midnight struck on the morning of 1 January 1973 – and Jesus Christ Superstar began its run on the London stage, and the first British hypermarket was sucking in shoppers, while Pink Floyd were about to launch the best-selling album in British pop history, and the motor industry was preparing to give the world the Austin Allegro – the United Kingdom was officially joined to the European Economic Community.

Here and there people held celebrations – some even lit bonfires – yet most of the land was asleep. Writing the front-page story, a duty that fell to me as the Guardian’s political reporter at the time, was deeply unsatisfying. Something that everyone knew was about to happen, had happened! Hardly a story that anyone yearns to write.

There had been enough excitement and turmoil throughout the previous year. , unexpected victor of the 1970 election and as fervent a champion of Britain in Europe as anyone on the planet, had safely steered us in. It is often asserted now that the British public backed that judgment; in fact it wasn’t given the chance.

Heath would hear no talk of a referendum, since he might have lost it. The polls showed public opinion running against British entry, and though in those days, leaders liked to believe that an endorsement from them might be enough to sway uncertain voters, Heath knew he might risk destroying a project at the heart of his political life.

Ted Heath signing the European Union Treaty. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

His battles came over the European Communities bill, the essential preliminary to accession, approved at second reading on 17 February 1972 by a majority of just eight. Though Labour in office had tried and failed to join Europe, they were now against it. , the leader Heath had supplanted, said the terms for entry were not acceptable. But the party divergence was not what it seemed.

A group of Labour MPs wholly committed to membership formed a surreptitious ancillary force for the Tories. The Conservative chief whip, Francis Pym – sternly instructed by Heath that he must not lose a single vote – would tell the dissidents how many abstentions were needed on each division, and they would provide them.

As a newly arrived Westminster reporter, I pestered Pym, who was under cruel pressure to deliver, about this arrangement. He and the chief Labour dissidents would explain how it worked. Perhaps the toughest night was when it came to a vote on a referendum, proposed by a Tory backbencher, which the Labour shadow cabinet agreed to back – a decision that triggered the resignation of the deputy leader Roy Jenkins. But again, as reporters in the press gallery waited hopefully for a sensational story, the Labour rebels saved the day for the Tories: 63 Labour MPs abstained. A Tory leader under pressure had calculated correctly, and got what he wanted.

The referendum denied to the country then came two years later, in 1975, when Wilson was back in power. The call came now from continuing opponents of British membership, and especially Tony Benn – the mentor from whom would learn his long distrust of Brussels.

Wilson began by opposing it, before scenting some merit in the idea. Handled well – a renegotiation to begin the process, to be followed by claims that the EC’s deterrent factors had now been extinguished – and the referendum might help cement Britain’s allegiance to the EEC.

A persuasive case could be made for perpetuation. We had only been in the EEC two years, too short a time to justify permanent rejection. In any case, the people could be relied on to plump for more of the same rather than risky adventure. Voting not to join an organisation was one thing: voting to leave it and shuffle out into the cold was quite another. That year’s was duly rejected by a margin of three to two. A Labour leader under pressure had calculated correctly, and got what he wanted.

Tony Benn, with his daughter Melissa, arrives to cast his vote in the Common Market referendum in 1975. He was a firm supporter of the anti-market group. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

It’s said that hoped to emulate Wilson’s success, using a renegotiation to argue that the organisation in which he believed we should stay was a very different beast from the one that had become so widely distrusted. But the circumstances of the 2016 referendum were different from those surrounding Wilson’s triumph. The European union of 2016 is vastly different from the EEC, vastly more likely to engineer change or frustrate the kind of changes that many UK voters yearn for; dominant in ways that people find menacing. The mere Economic Community had no great ambitions for wholesale political and economic integration.

You had to be there, I suppose, to get a sense of the transformations of these past 40 years. Only those approaching their 60s can know, except by deduction, how things felt. Looking back, the world of 1975 seems not just unsophisticated, but strangely naive.

In those days, when I travelled the land trying to get the sense of a coming election, it was customarily assumed that the component regions of the UK were likely to behave in much the same way. It was further assumed that when a political leader spoke, people listened; and further that when the day of decision came, they would always choose what they knew over what was largely unknown, and certainly wholly untasted. The voice of the expert was loud in the land and largely respected.

Two years (1973-75) isn’t long to start building up resentments: 41 years (1975-2016) is more than enough. There was, too, no equivalent then of social media, where dissidents can so easily come together and disrupt their masters’ ambitions. Instinctive deference and a stoic acceptance of one’s dissatisfactions had yet to be abandoned.

People blame Corbyn for not giving Labour voters a stronger lead. But that’s not how things work any more. Whatever Corbyn had said, the legions of dispossessed Britain, making their protests on Thursday across much of the North, the Midlands and Wales, would not have taken much notice – any more than that former heartland of unswerving loyalty, the Conservative party, dutifully heeded to the voice of its leader.

It has been coming for quite a while – see the fate of Labour in last year’s election, not just in Scotland – but we see at this moment more clearly than ever that the old and comforting certainties that used to be the bedrock of British politics are shattering day by day. There were always political shocks, but never before has the golden rule more clearly been: expect the unexpected. The quiet wedding that began in the earliest hours of 1 January 1973 ended at breakfast time yesterday morning, not just in divorce – but even, in this sense, in the cemetery.