The End of a Thousand Years of History – Labour’s Long March To Brexit

Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Benn, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn all have one thing in common. They have all advocated withdrawal from the EEC/EU at some point in their long political careers. But only Jeremy Corbyn can see it through to fruition. It begs the question, why are we surprised that the party has ended up here?

In an interview this week, Tony Blair claimed that Jeremy Corbyn has not altered his political views once since he first met him in the late 1970s. Back then, Blair was about to stand alongside Corbyn for election advocating withdrawal from the EEC.

Now in 2017, the vision that Tony Benn had always espoused – of a left-wing Labour party breaking free from the ‘bankers’ EU – is finally about to happen. Yet people are still perplexed at Corbyn and McDonnell’s stubbornness in ensuring Britain’s exit from the single market. In order to understand Labour’s current position on this, we must fully understand the party’s fraught history with the European project.

Part One – The End of a Thousand Years of History

Unlike socialist parties on the continent, Labour has always had a tortuous relationship with its European counterparts. Its history of being rooted within the trade union movement and within patriotic working-class communities, have given it a more nationalistic and imperialistic outlook towards the world.

Hugh Gaitskell, who was seen as one of the first great modernising and revisionist forces within the party, understood the deep and romantic working-class attachment to the British identity. In his rejection of the EC in 1962, he claimed membership of the body would mark the “end of a thousand years of history”:

I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth. How can one really seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe (which is what federation means) it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations? It is sheer nonsense.

In the early 1960s, in the midst of deep divisions over nationalisation and nuclear weapons, the loathing of the EEC was an issue that the party could unite themselves around. Yet the reason for this scepticism was rooted in a fear of working-class betrayal. Many within Labour felt that their future still relied upon a prosperous trading relationship with the Commonwealth over the EEC, who we still heavily relied on for food trade.

Protecting the Commonwealth trade would be a key factor in Harold Wilson’s failed 1966 renegotiation with the EC once in government, and a key obstacle for supporting Heath’s entry terms in 1972.  The words of Labour’s manifesto in 1964, the first general election after the Tories had applied for membership, captures their fears:

“Only 18 months ago a Tory Government, driven by economic failure, lost its nerve and prepared to accept humiliating terms for entry into the European Common Market in the vain hope that closer contact with a dynamic Europe would give a new boost to our wilting economy.”

“Only with a new Government, with a sense of national purpose, can we start to create a dynamic, just and go-ahead Britain with the strength to stand on her own feet and to play a proper part in world affairs. We believe that such a New Britain is what the British people want and what the world wants. It is a goal that lies well within our power to achieve.”

Nevertheless, it was under Wilson that the key Labour figures began to see the community as a necessity for future economic prosperity.  The Chancellor and future leader James Callaghan remained a sceptic but could see the virtues of it for purely economic gains.

In contrast, Heath and the Conservatives saw Britain’s future within the block, socially, culturally and economically. From this, it would be the left-wing of the Labour party that would emerge as the staunchest critic of the European project. The left was emboldened by the support of the majority of party members, trade unionists and a large bulk of the PLP. Their hypothesis focused on the loss of sovereignty, lack of industrial intervention and an increase in unemployment that membership of the EEC would create.

The standard-bearer for this new movement would be Jeremy Corbyn’s political hero and mentor; Tony Benn. In the early 1970s, the party sharply divided into two groups. Wilson had managed to fill his cabinet with a mix of pro and anti-common-marketeers. People such as Benn, Foot, Castle and Shore were anti, while Jenkins, Williams and Callaghan were increasingly pro.  But the gap was beginning to widen, as civil servants outlined to Callaghan the costs to the British economy of a withdrawal.

So in 1974, Wilson demanded ‘a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of entry’ and to that outcome ‘being submitted to the British people for final decisions’. This was a purely political move to try and hold the party together and as Labour would find out, the Europeans were in no mood to renegotiate the terms as Wilson had promised.  In March 1974, now as Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan angered the Europeans by delivering a speech signalling the start of the re-negotiations. It had been his intention to deliver an aggressive sign that ‘Britain means business’ and he threatened that if no substantial deal was forthcoming, the government would recommend Britain’s exit from the EEC, before putting it to the people in a referendum.

The biggest issue was with the ‘Common Agricultural’ policy and budget contributions as well as a request for special dispensation for British trading relationships with the Commonwealth. Much like David Cameron with the right of his party, Wilson and Callaghan’s refusal to fully embrace the European project enabled an anti-European faction to grow on the backbenches and within the rank and file party membership.


The referendum was called for June 1975 and was won emphatically by the ‘Remain’ side. Wilson had suspended cabinet responsibility on the issue, which resulted in the spectacle of Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn going head to head to debate the issue on TV. Tony Benn’s toxicity amongst the wider electorate was used as the focal point for a forensic and sustained vitriolic campaign against the ‘Leave’ campaign. Ironically, Benn’s argument that national sovereignty was undermined by the EEC membership, was attacked daily by the bulk of the media, including the Daily Mail. As it is now the same argument advanced daily by our right-wing press, are we to say that they are ‘all Bennites now’?

Benn was demoted to the position of Energy Secretary the day after the referendum. But this only emboldened him amongst the left-wing of the party. As Britain continued its economic industrial decline the Bennite remedy was put forward in the  ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’. It consisted of populist left-wing policies such as protectionism (to revitalise British industry) and mass nationalisation.

During the 1976 IMF crisis, Benn had suggested a ‘siege economy’ whereby the government could introduce temporary controls on overseas imports and the flow of capital. This would allow time to commit to full employment and higher wages by investing in failing British industries, which would be overseen by his National Enterprise Board, None of these policies, he argued, would be possible while still members of the EEC. When Benn brought his plan for cabinet discussion,  Callaghan had ordered everyone to destroy him. Chancellor Denis Healey was aghast at the economic naivety of the proposal. Benn did not consider that his remedy would lead to an international trade war which could tilt Britain to the edge of bankruptcy.


Labour went on to lose the 1979 election. The four years that followed would be the most divisive in the party’s history and almost led to its death. Control of the party had been wrestled towards the left, with Foot and the trade union leaders in the ascendancy. The party had rejected the opportunity to elect Denis Healey, who in the opinion polls from that year was shown to be the most popular figure with the electorate. A poll taken in November 1980 showed that 71% of the electorate saw Healey as the best candidate, in comparison to 16% for Foot, 9% for Silkin and 4% for Shore.

By the time of the special party conference at Wembley on 24 January 1981, the left-wing of the party saw the EEC as an issue to drive out the ‘social democrats’ or ‘red Tories’ within the party. Strong pro Europeans such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams would later cite the issue of Europe as their driving force behind creating the SDP. Tony Benn had succeeded in committing Labour to fight the next general election on three divisive policies: withdrawal from the EEC (without a referendum), unilateral nuclear disarmament and a return to nationalisation.

Moderates such as Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley lamented the SDP breakaway, as the key EEC defenders had now left the stage. As the left and right developed their alternative economic strategies to arrest Britain’s terminal decline, the ‘moderate’ consensus upon which British politics had been based since the end of the war ended. Whereas in 1976 Callaghan had been able to reject the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ in its entirety, it had remained popular with many on the left and it was eventually incorporated into the 1983 election manifesto.

Labour lost the 1983 election as a result of many factors. But the withdrawal from the EEC had spooked the business community in particular. Nissan, who had promised to build a new car plant in Sunderland, claimed they would renege on the deal if a Labour government was elected.  However, the calamitous defeat of 1983 did not immediately reconcile the party with EEC membership.

After the defeat,  Labour elected another passionate anti-European in Neil Kinnock.  The party policy remained unclear and like Wilson and Callaghan before him, Kinnock attempted to fudge the issue. Writing a year after his election as leader, he claimed

“Britain’s future, like our past and present, lies with Europe. But for us socialists, it will only lie within the EEC if the common market can be transformed to measure up to our wider vision of Europe’s own future.”

Whilst complete withdrawal seemed electorally disastrous, the party still didn’t embrace a fully integrated Europe. In their 1984 ‘Labour manifesto for,Europe’ they demanded the repealing of powers lost after the 1972 ‘Communities Act’ and would seek an immediate reduction in budget contributions. By the 1987 election, Kinnock avoided the issue, devoting only three sentences to it in the manifesto, and arguing for the need to ‘reject EEC interference with our policy for national recovery and renewal.

Another electoral defeat in 1987 meant that Labour had spent nearly a decade out of the office and had virtually no impact on government policy. The ‘wilderness years’ had seen a radical alteration of the British economy, with strident anti-trade union policies brought in slowly over a long period. It was from these defeats that Labour became interested in Europe as a vehicle for change. This shift was enhanced when Jacques Delors addressed the TUC in 1988 and set out his vision of social reform. To a standing ovation from the delegates in Bournemouth, he quelled Labour fears about the single market proposals by outlining the EEC commitment to enhancing workers’ rights.

Labour began to embrace the EEC as an antidote to Thatcherism and revelled in the increasing Tory divisions. The following year, as Shadow Chancellor, John Smith persuaded the party to commit to the Tory proposals to enter to the ERM, which enabled Labour to portray a degree of unity in comparison to a divided Tory government.

PART TWO – New Labour, New Europe

benn and corbyn

The early 1990s were dominated by the Maastricht Treaty. Coming just a few weeks after the 1992 election defeat, Labour seized the Maastricht Treaty as the first test of the new and minuscule Tory majority. Maastricht is perhaps the best known and most controversial of the European treaties, and many have pinpointed its creation as the moment when Britain began its slow march towards the Brexit door. It is from this that the three pillars of the Union were established.

Labour had committed to the smooth ratification of the treaty, intending to hold only a virtuous opposition vote – over the acceptance of the ‘Social Chapter’. John Major had negotiated an opt-out of the social chapter, which covered issues such as workers’ pay, maternity rights and health and safety within the workplace.

Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, now consisting of pro-European modernisers such as Blair, Brown, Cook and Harman, agreed that their opposition would consist of a number of amendments in relation to the social chapter. Furthermore, the new leader John Smith had impeccable pro-European credentials, having defied the Labour policy in the 1970s by advocating entry to the EEC. In his leadership contest of 1992, Bryan Gould advocated for Smith to adopt a ‘socialist’ Maastricht treaty, arguing for more accountability of the central bank, in particular. He was thrashed by John Smith, and it appeared that the anti-European sentiment would be forever confined to the backbenches.

Nevertheless, on the second reading of the bill, 59 Labour MPs voted with the 22 Tory rebels against the treaty. Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn being the key figures amongst them. Benn remained totally opposed to the EEC, even if in his eyes, it did advance social equality. He made an impassioned speech in the commons, where he claimed he would tell his constituents

“‘in future, you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better creches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them.’

“If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away. Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.”

For Benn, democracy was more important than improving working conditions through the backdoor. In a prediction of future troubles in the Eurozone, he claimed that the loss of parliamentary democracy would lead to political apathy and riots on the streets;

“If people lose the power to sack their Government one of several things happens. First, people may just slope off. Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent, we are in danger… The second thing that people can do is to riot. Riot is an old-fashioned method for drawing the attention of the Government to what is wrong”

It was admired by many Conservatives, including Norman Tebbit, who said it was the best speech he had ever heard in the house. From this, Tony Benn struck up a great friendship with a little known Tory whip called David Davis. Ironically, it was Davis who infuriated his Eurosceptic colleagues by pushing the Maastricht Treaty through the Commons. It was a friendship that would endure right until Benn’s death in 2014.

When Davis resigned his seat in 2008 over Labour’s introduction of 42 day detention without trial, he received support from both Benn and Corbyn. Benn shared a platform with Davis during his re-election campaign and once quipped to him “You may become the leader of the Tory party, but you’d never be allowed in New Labour, you’re too left wing

Back in 1992, Benn led the group Labour MPs who defied the party over the policy, which included Jeremy Corbyn. On the 13th January 1993 he spoke of his fears of the central European bank

“the whole basis of the Maastricht treaty is the establishment of a European central bank which is staffed by bankers, independent of national Governments and national economic policies, and whose sole policy is the maintenance of price stability? That will undermine any social objective that any Labour Government in the United Kingdom—or any other Government—would wish to carry out”

Corbyn told the house “the Maastricht treaty, as it is now constituted, will not lead to greater democracy in western Europe”. He also raised concerns about the European foreign policy as a result. On May 20th 1993, he told the house that he opposed the treaty on the grounds that:

“it takes away from national Parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community.”

Corbyn also raised suspicions about a potential EU army;

““[W]e are moving towards a common European defence and foreign policy. That being so, one must ask who proposes it, who controls it and what it is for? … Title V states that the objective of such a policy shall be “to safeguard the common values, fundamental interests and independence of the Union”. What exactly does that mean?”

It was to no avail.  On May 20th Members of Parliament voted 292 to 112 to pass the Maastricht bill on its third and final reading.

By the time of the 1997 general election, Labour had a leader who was totally comfortable with the European project. In the 1997 manifesto, Labour outlined three options for Britain;

“There are only three options for Britain in Europe. The first is to come out. The second is to stay in, but on the sidelines. The third is to stay in, but in a leading role.

An increasing number of Conservatives, overtly or covertly, favour the first. But withdrawal would be disastrous for Britain. It would put millions of jobs at risk. It would dry up inward investment. It would destroy our clout in international trade negotiations. It would relegate Britain from the premier division of nations.”

After the landslide, Labour immediately signed up to the ‘Social Chapter’ and negotiated the treaty of Amsterdam. Blair looked to align Britain with both the EU and the USA, claiming that Britain could be the “bridge between the two”. He would later recall in his memoirs his view that:

“Anti-European feeling as hopelessly, absurdly out of date and unrealistic. It is also the product of a dangerous insularity, a myopia about the world…a post empire delusion”

In terms of economics, Labour’s focus was on creating a flexible labour market open to global trade in the pursuit of constant economic growth. From this growth, money could be put back into the public services. The first big test of the new government was a clash over the single currency. Blair would be outflanked by the Treasury over taking Britain into the Euro.

In 1998 Gordon Brown argued that “the decision on a single currency is probably the most important this country is likely to face in our generation.” He lauded that;

“We are the first British government to declare for the principle of monetary union. The first to state that there is no over-riding constitutional bar to membership. The first to make clear and unambiguous economic benefit to the country the decisive test. And the first to offer its strong and constructive support to our European partners to create more employment and more prosperity.”

60 years on from Hugh Gaitskell’s speech crying a betrayal of 1000 years of history, Tony Blair claimed it would now be a betrayal of Britain if we did not join the euro solely  on the basis of patriotic grounds.

Blair looked to use Europe as a tool to finish the Tories off for good. In 1999 he launched ‘Britain in Europe’ at the new, glitzy IMAX cinema in Waterloo. Sitting with Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy, and leading Tory Europhiles Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, he claimed:

“We are told that Europe is bad for the British economy, that being part of Europe means abandoning our allies in the USA, that Europe is obstinately against reform, dedicated to bloated bureaucracy rather than the needs of European citizens, that being in Europe means losing our identity as the British nation, that as a consequence, Britain should rule out joining the euro and should prepare to leave Europe altogether. It is time we took each of these arguments in turn and demolished them.”

The consensus didn’t last too long. A year later, Ken Clarke described the government as “lightweight” and “indecisive” on the European single currency. Michael Heseltine claimed the government was making a mistake in “holding  back” on making the case for the euro and that it was badly affecting business. This didn’t prevent Blair from confidently defending the single currency in his New Year message of 2001. On the eve of its introduction in Europe, he infuriated the Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith, by finally admitted that joining the single currency would be “massively” in Britain’s interests.

By September the 11th 2001, Blair had been ready to give his most pro-European speech to date , at the TUC conference . In it he made the case for joining clear

“”On Europe, I want to make it clear. This government believes Britain’s proper place is at the centre of Europe as a leading partner in European development. There is nothing more damaging or destructive to the true national interest than the anti-European isolationism of today’s Conservative party”

 “From next January there will be a single currency circulating in 12 out of the 15 EU countries. Sweden is considering joining. Denmark rejected membership but remains with its currency tied to the euro. All those people who said it would never happen now content themselves with saying it will be a disaster. I believe they’re wrong. And a successful euro is in our national interest. So provided the economic conditions are met, it is right that Britain joins.”

As Blair awoke that morning to the news of 9/11, the speech was never made and the world would never be the same again. With Blair now focusing efforts on the war on terror, the Euro issue became less potent in the media. Furthermore, Brown and Balls had become increasingly sceptical of the benefits of joining and the Treasury could  see the political benefit of undermining Blair.

Increasingly concerned, newspapers reported that Blair would hand over the premiership to Brown if he committed to the single currency. By this point, Brown didn’t believe a word Blair said. On June 9th 2003, Gordon Brown finally killed the plans to join the single currency. Brown told the Commons that four of his five economic tests had not been met. It passed the financial services test. But it failed the tests on sustainable convergence, economic flexibility, investment and employment.

From that moment on, the euro-sceptics had the upper hand. The increased media antagonism and public concern over immigration led to Blair promising a referendum on the Lisbon treaty after 2005. It was the only way that the centre of the party could hold. This commitment quickly shifted from view as the French and Dutch lost their own referendums on the treaty.

Labour supporters revel in the stupidity in which David Cameron called his referendum, but we lose sight of the distrust that was created through the Blair and Brown fudge on the Lisbon issue. Having previously promised a referendum, they both unsuccessfully tried to claim that the Treaty was different to the EU Constitution, thus it did not require a public endorsement. An ICM poll in August 2007 showed that 82% of British voters favoured a referendum on Lisbon. More worryingly for Labour was that 80% of Labour voters felt the same.

Panic stricken by the vitriolic attacks on his government, we ended up in the unedifying spectacle of Brown missing the ceremony for the signing of the treaty, first by sending David Miliband, then by having his own private signing ceremony.  Rather than tackle the issue head on, Brown looked  rather sheepish and embarrassed. It allowed the right to steal a march on the proceedings. After the signing, Nigel  Farage said:

“This is just about the most thoroughly dishonest political process I have ever been witness to. This is a constitutional treaty with profound, far-reaching implications and for the British Government to pretend it is something it isn’t and deny us a referendum is monstrous.”

By raising the prospect of a referendum, Labour had played into the hands of the Eurosceptic press. The accusations of betrayal would be forever laid at Blair and Brown and neither have yet recovered. Just as Blair had been attacked by The Sun over the Euro, they ramped up the pressure on Brown over Lisbon, claiming ‘NEVER HAVE SO FEW, DECIDED SO MUCH FOR SO MANY. AN EU REFERDUM. HE PROMISED IT. WE WANT IT’.

By 2015, paralysed by fear of euro sceptism, Ed Miliband’s party were selling mugs with their policy of “Controls on Immigration” embossed on them. It was left to Tony Blair, as a lone voice, to raise doubts over Cameron’s proposal for an EU referendum in the run up to the 2015 general election.

Now it is left to Jeremy Corbyn to oversee Britain’s exit from the EU. He has already been described as a hero by Nigel Farage. He had no other choice. Corbyn has respected the result of the referendum and has exerted what he believes can be the benefits of exiting the single market. Yet, Corbyn does seem to be in the opposite view to the majority of the public, and his party, on the issue of immigration (in favour) and the single market (against it).

Every Labour leader since Gaitskell has been accused of betrayal on the issue of Europe. Here we stand in  July 2017 and the two things that Bennites had long given up hope of seeing – a socialist leading the Labour party through the EU exit door –  have now come to fruition. Once more it is Benn’s former pal, David Davis who will make it happen. As Corbyn hits the inevitable collision course with his own supporters over single market membership, perhaps the biggest cry of ‘Betrayal’ over Europe has yet to be heard.

3 thoughts on “The End of a Thousand Years of History – Labour’s Long March To Brexit

  1. I very thoughtful piece with a detailed historical perspective. I would personally stress the straight jacket the Maastricht Treaty puts national governments in by severely limiting the amount of state aid to industry. The unraveling of the EU started at it’s inception, in the sense that disparate economies can not be tied to a single currency, without major devaluations to readjust such economies so they can compete. Capitalism will see it’s final destruction, a irony list on it’s instigators.


  2. Pingback: Now What Do We Do? The First 100 Days of Blair, Brown Cameron and May – The Tides Of History

  3. This is a superbly researched article. The idea that Labour is a pro-EU party is highly simplistic as your story says. Funnily enough, Hugh Gaitskell’s wife noted when he made the speech you quoted that she was worried ‘all the wrong people are cheering’. Corbyn is from the left and they are and always have been wary of the EU. That Benn 92 speech is superb. Just because one likes laws that are being made undemocratically doesn’t make the undemocratic part irrelevant!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s