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What the last referendum on Europe tells us? This one is much nastier, for a start.

Four decades ago, Britain went to the polls in the referendum to decide whether or not to remain in the European Economic Community (EC). I can’t remember being very interested by the result, even though I was at university allegedly studying politics. Europe seemed like a narrow debate within the British ruling class with little relevance to the real issues of inequality, workplace democracy and civil liberty. Plus ca change.

Like today it wasn’t immediately obvious how to vote. Many of us were vaguely committed to internationalism, and the ideal of European integration seemed better than narrow English nationalism. But the EEC itself seemed an equally narrow-minded economic venture, a philistine calculus of national advantage. British businessmen wanted access to lucrative European markets. Countries like Germany and Italy had experienced economic “miracles” in the 1950s and 1960s and our bosses felt they were missing out.

The community was portrayed by its advocates as a big free-trade zone, with added human rights, though of course it was more than that. Seen globally it was a hugely protectionist bloc designed to support inefficient agriculture by epic price support that took half the European community budget. I’d seen the dire effects of the Common Agricultural Policy firsthand while apple-picking in France. We’d spend all week picking Golden Delicious, which would then be dumped into huge pits and covered with fish oil to make the apples inedible. This was all to keep the price of apples artificially high. Being paid to destroy fruit didn’t see to me to be a very noble endeavour.

On the other hand, I didn’t wholly buy the left’s opposition to the European Community. Tony Benn, the TUC and the Trotskyite groups all attacked the EEC as a capitalist plot to undermine workers’ rights, strengthen the power of multinationals and weaken the state. Though it was never entirely clear how this was any different to what was happening anyway. The Tory PM,Ted Heath, who had taken Britain into the EEC in 1973, certainly regarded it as a way of forcing British capitalism to modernise in order to compete in the new markets. Old restrictive practices would be challenged; outdated industries would be allowed to go to the wall; German workers would give the British workers a lesson in efficiency. Or something like that.

A more serious objection, with resonance today, was the free market presumptions of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which founded the EEC, and certainly appeared to place restrictions on state support for the public sector. This was the era of workers’ control when Gordon Brown’s “Red Paper On Scotland” still called for wholesale nationalisation of industry. Also, the introduction of Value Added Tax was (rightly) seen as regressive – a way of shifting taxation from the wealthy and onto people on lower incomes, rather like the poll tax 20 years later.

And Tony Benn, to be fair, did not simply argue that Europe was a capitalist con. Unlike the Marxist left, he cared deeply about the sovereignty of Parliament and was critical of the undemocratic nature of technocratic EEC institutions. In 1975, the so-called European Parliament set up by the EEC wasn’t even elected. Benn, with some prescience, foresaw that these supranational institutions of Brussels would have legal powers over the UK Parliament without accountability. In this he was in accord with the only Tory who seemed opposed to Europe: Enoch Powell.

These are still key issues today, though Jeremy Corbyn – a left-wing disciple of Tony Benn – does not seem to have the same concern for parliamentary autonomy. In his speech last week, he presented the issue as almost the reverse of what the left argued in 1975. The Labour leader appealed to voters to back the European Union as a way of “defending workers’ rights” against predatory Brexit capitalists. He means equal pay, paid holidays and limits to the working week.

But at least Labour seems to have a common policy. In 1975 the Labour cabinet of Harold Wilson was split down the middle by Europe. Right-wingers such as the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, saw Europe as the dividing line with the Bennite left. It was the beginning of the split that led Jenkins and the Gang of Four pro-Europeans out of Labour altogether to create the Social Democratic Party.

This time it is the Tories who are split down the middle, with David Cameron and his deadly rival, Boris Johnson, fighting over the soul of the party. Back in 1975, the Tories were almost wholly supportive of the European Commuity. Margaret Thatcher made her name pounding round the country dressed in a jumper depicting the flags of Europe. It was only much later that she turned into the Eurosceptic Boadicea of Bruges.

In 1975, Tories seemed unconcerned about issues such as free movement and loss of British sovereignty, and didn’t seem to mind that the EEC meant abandoning the Queen’s Commonwealth – the free trade zone created out of the former British Empire. Admittedly, this was some years before Maastricht and Jacques de Lors with his federalist ambitions. But in 1975, few could have been in any doubt that “ever closer union” was part of the EEC project: it was written into the very preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

In the end, Britain surprised itself by voting decisively (by 68 per cent)to remain in the European Economic Community. Scotland was marginally less enthusiastic but still registered 58 per cent for Yes, even though the Scottish National Party, which had just had a major success in the 1974 general election, was nominally opposed to the EEC. This time it is much harder to call the result.

The issues are superficially similar and it is still not obvious how to vote. But everything seems a lot more serious now, with the refugee crisis, immigration and eurozone unemployment. Immigration in the 1970s meant black immigration, mainly from the Commonwealth, and didn’t have an obvious bearing on the EEC issue. Now white migration from the EU has become the toxic touchstone issue on the political right.

Four decades ago, the Yes campaign appealed to voters to participate in a new, forward-looking Europe which had put the nationalist divisions of the past behind it along with mass unemployment and the bankrupt economics of the 1930s. In 2016 the case for remaining has been based on Project Fear – a catalogue of scare stories about house prices collapsing 18 per cent, unemployment rising by 820,000 and families being £4,300 worse off. David Cameron even said that a new European war could be the result of Brexit. Meanwhile the Brexiteers warn of millions of Turkish migrants just waiting to come and take English jobs if Britain votes to remain.

The ideal of free movement in Europe, and the goal of extending democracy and human rights by economic means, still seems worthwhile today, even though civil society has never been the core of the European project. In the 1970s, large parts of Europe had only recently emerged from dictatorship, and Spain was still fascist. The Berlin Wall still stood and eastern Europe was in a communist deep freeze.

As in 1975, I’ll probably vote Yes, but with even less enthusiasm. Whatever side you take, the 2016 campaign has been meaner, cruder and more negative. People look back on the 1970s as an era of strikes, class war and bad fashion. But 41 years on Europe seems a more dangerous place, and Britain has lost a great deal of its social and political optimism. It doesn’t seem much like progress.

 

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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