In June 1975 there was a referendum in the UK on the country’s continued membership of the European Economic Community, as it then was.  I was then a (relatively) young married professional, with one child, and another on the way, in my second period of membership of the Labour Party after some disillusion during the first.  The party was split on Europe, with the right wing arguing broadly in favour, and the left against, on the grounds that the European Community was a rich nations’ club, which would inhibit the development of links with the wider non-European world, which is where their and our interests lay. In this they had something in common with the Conservative right, whose interests in the wider world was justified on more explicitly pro-Commonwealth (or neo-colonialist) grounds.

Having said this, it is fair to say that in the tradition of British pragmatism there was much less debate on these fundamental issues of national orientation or identity.   Dean Acheson’s 1962 speech at West Point suggesting that Great Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role had not really sparked a response within the UK; it seemed to be largely seen as a presumptuous judgment from a country that was itself new to the world government game.  The Atlantic was very wide between the times of Suez and Thatcher, and the two countries view of each other at this time, as seen through their leaderships, were as of regimes in different eras – seen most clearly in the contrast between the sharp progressive proactive image projected by President Kennedy and the urbane reactive Edwardian style of Prime Minister Macmillan and the out and out aristocratics of Lord Hume, who succeeded him.  So it is hardly surprising to say that much of the 1975 debate was around Britain’s economic advantage in or out of the EEC, and the fear of out determined the decisive majority in favour of in. In fact you can argue that since the loss of empire most debate about the future of Britain has been defined in terms of what the country is against rather than what it is for.

I can remember that the referendum was a big deal for me.  I thought that it was going to be historically decisive, that it would determine almost everything about Britain’s future.  I also remember that in my mind neighbouring European countries, some ahead of us economically, all of them seemingly ahead of us in the de-colonialisation of the mind, offered somewhere far from the grouse moors shooting parties, something that smacked of a fairer, more progressive future.  It was the DNA of the British culture cultural politics, the slowing but never-ending dance with the ghosts of empire taking place behind the media facade of “swinging London”, that I found suffocating.  I thought that all that imperial, class ridden baggage, and the politics which it entailed, would be swept away in the hurricane of the resounding referendum ‘yes’: Macmillan’s famous ‘wind of change’ which he had applied to apartheid South Africa, finally striking home…

Last month the British satirical magazine Private Eye produced a 50th anniversary issue front cover.  Prime Minister Macmillan was shown in a picture from 1961, the year of the magazine’s foundation, and David Cameron in 2011.  The caption, headed “how satire makes a difference”, made it clear how little had changed:  as they put it, an old Etonian prime minister, from Britain’s most elitist ‘Public’ School, surrounded by cronies, making a hash of running the country.  Of course a huge amount has changed over the 50 years of Private Eye, or the 36 years since the referendum, but there is also a little too much made over that period of the continuity of tradition, a country a little too fond of looking at itself in the mirror of a carefully crafted historical narrative, one in which the class and ethnic divides and the innate sense of British exceptionalism – that great distorting lens – all of which we have recently started to surmount, are still in place and seem in fact to be gaining ground in many aspects of British culture.  A key part of that narrative, British militarism, has been given fresh impetus by Blair’s wars, both the ‘liberal interventionist’ ones and those which seem almost to be pursuing imperialism by proxy in support of the United States post 9/11.  The regular return of British forces’ bodies from Afghanistan, itself an echo of the 19th century imperial Great Game, became ritualised by the people of the Wiltshire village of Wootton Bassett that the cortege passed through to the extent that they earned their town’s name a “Royal” appendage.  We had a Royal Wedding in 2011, and have the Queens’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.  Eton mess, a rather boring dessert invented in the school, has crept back onto the gastro-pub menu.  Downton Abbey, set in a country house pre- and post- the first World War, has been the most popular television series, alongside a renewed enthusiasm for the costume dramas of the nineteenth century.  So much for my 1975 dreams.

Early on Friday morning in Brussels British exceptionalism hardened into British isolationism as David Cameron vetoed the pursuit of a solution to the Euro crisis through a European treaty.  Cameron’s stated rationale was that he failed to get assurances that his European partners would not pursue increased regulation over the UK financial sector, a sector whose lax regulatory practices contributed to the 2008 banking crisis, as is documented in a report from the Financial Services Authority published today.  His real reason seems to have been the immediate pressure he faced in the House of Commons last Wednesday when a core of hardline Conservative eurosceptic MPs urged him to show “bulldog spirit” (a reference to Churchill) in defending British interests.

This he claims to have done, but it is hard to know what he has achieved.  He is likely to end up one against 26.  He received no assurances of any kind from his European partners, many of whom will regard his action in trying to block a solution at Europe’s hour of need as perfidious.  His insistence that nothing has changed in the UK’s place in the Institutions of EU-27 may be constitutionally correct, but it is politically naïve to suggest that it will not work out differently as the new European position unfolds, particularly since he has created every incentive for others to work against the UK.  Scotland, which claims that its interests have been changed without consultation, may develop fresh impetus towards independence. The wider world, which regarded Britain as a friendly entry-point to European markets, may no longer think this a safe place for inwards investment.  The big business organisation the CBI is worried, and the London stock market today has headed down.  The poorer people, the little people no doubt in the eyes of some of the Eurosceptic MPs, will soon start to suffer.

What should happen next?  Much may depend in the short term as to whether  Cameron can convince others that he had a strategy rather than a spasm in Brussels early on Friday.  From my point of view I believe that we have to fight euroscepticism and the xenophobic nationalism which fuels both it and the worst aspects of British debates about immigration.  This is a political and economic fight, certainly, but a cultural one too, about the representations of Britain that glorify an inglorious past (more on this later) and seem happy to draw on it to support increasing militarism and social inequality in the present.[i] It is long term fight, which needs to portray positive models to which we can aspire. To people who say “but you want to be just like Sweden,” I would answer “why not?”

In party political terms, it is hard to know where support for this battle is to come from.  The government is a coalition between Cameron’s conservatives and a Liberal Democrat party which has traditionally supported Britain leading in Europe, but the signs are not good.  They have become the political camp prostitutes of Cameron’s low intensity class war, always being willing to be screwed and screw others for a few baubles.  There has been a bit of response to Lib Dem grassroots pressure from Nick Clegg over the weekend, but the business secretary, who must know how much more difficult Cameron has made his job, just stopped short of resigning and the chief secretary to the treasury, whose life reducing the deficit has also been made more difficult, this morning offered an astonishing performance in defence of the coalition continuing and reform being secured from within.  Given Cameron’s actions to date, it is hard to see how building on this prime minister in try to reform from within can have any chance of success within his party or carry any political legitimacy abroad. The man will be trusted neither for his judgement, nor for his solidarity.

Labour, my former (and to date only) political party wasn’t solely responsible for getting us into our economic mess, but soft regulation and the start of costly (and in one case illegal) wars did start on its watch, and it has failed to show political courage in facing up to its recent past under Blair and Brown, support for rendition and torture included.

The best we can hope for is that the coalition breaks, the government is defeated and that we can start building a future in which obsessional fantasies about Britain’s past no longer lead us into deeper fantasies about our geopolitical choices for the future. It will require close engagement and hard work, not just as I believed just after the 1975 referendum, the tides of history.


[i] It is interesting that for a short period after the decision at the European Summit on Friday it appeared for a period as if the only country that would be taking the same position as the UK was Hungary, a country which itself has something of a history of narcissism, albeit with large doses of paranoia and self-pity added to the mix.