Brexit, British Government, NI Protocol, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Trade Deals, UK Labour Party

Could Labour take the UK Back into the EU?

This is the first BEERG Brexit Blog I have posted here since my last “semi-final” one about three months back. As I said in June/July I do not intend to continue with the regular almost weekly briefings, but I may occasionally post some more reflective pieces here, from time to time.   


An American friend asked me recently: “Tom, do you think the UK will re-join the EU in the near future?”

My answer was simple. No, not now, and not for a very long time. If ever.  But surely, they said, if Labour gets into government it will start talking to the EU? Its members are pro-EU. Yes, it will, but it will not look to re-join. Quite frankly, Labour does not know what it wants. It has no European policy worth talking of.

It walks in fear in the shadow of Brexit. Brexit has framed the debate

Since the end of WWII, when European integration began to be seriously discussed as a way to avoid further wars between the great nations of the continent, one or other of the two major UK parties, the Conservatives and Labour, at one time or other, was broadly in favour of closer European cooperation. However, even when well disposed, they were generally opposed to the limited pooling of sovereignty that continental Europeans appeared to be considering. 

Today in 2021, following Brexit, neither major party is proposing any sort of fresh rapprochement with the European Union. For political and economic purposes, the European Union is “Europe”. There is no other “Europe” that the UK can engage with, much as it wishes there was. If the UK wants to be involved with “Europe” then it needs to be involved with the European Union.

The Conservative Party, once the party most sympathetic to EU membership, having become completely dominated by Brexiters is now a nationalist party gripped by an ideology of unconstrained British sovereignty, seemingly willing to join any trade bloc anywhere in the world other than the one on its own doorstep. For the Conservatives, the fewer ties with Brussels, the better.

As I started writing this, the UK’s foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, had just made a speech at the Conservative Party conference in which she listed all the UK’s close allies. She mentioned everyone and anyone, except the European Union. For Conservatives, the EU is a “non-person”. If only the UK could be towed from where it is and relocated to the Pacific all would be well, especially as Truss later in the week said that sparkling Australian wine was better than French champagne.

Lord Frost, the UK government’s point man on EU relations told the same conference: “The long bad dream of our EU membership is over. The British renaissance has begun.”

If the Conservative Party has set its face against Europe what about the Labour Party? Could it take the UK back into the EU?

In a column in the Observer, Nick Cohen notes: “Fear works. You normalise an idea by making opponents afraid to contradict you.”

Because the Conservatives have normalised the idea that support for Brexit equals British patriotism, the leadership of the Labour Party has become rooted to the spot where Brexit is concerned, despite that fact that the vast majority of party members think Brexit was the wrong decision for the UK to have made.

The position of the leadership is that the Conservative government is “doing Brexit badly” and they would do it better. However, “doing Brexit better” appears to come down to asking the EU to be more “flexible and pragmatic”, without being able to say what that means in precise policy terms. Little more than complaining to the waiter that there is a fly in your soup and expecting the waiter to guess what you want him to do about it.

To put it another way. Labour’s position appears to be this: We have a problem with Brexit. It is up to you, the EU, to come up with a solution to it.

That is not going to happen.

Labour: A return to its roots

In reality, Labour’s new found Euroscepticism is really just a return to its roots.

For most of the time since WWII Labour was the more anti-European of the two main parties. In the 1990s and 2000 it was more “EU tolerant” than the Conservatives, who were becoming increasingly Eurosceptic, but never in its heart of hearts did Labour buy into “ever closer union”.

Let’s take a walk back through time. Labour won the 1945 general election with a landslide. Ernest Bevin, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, the T&G, became foreign secretary, having been one of the driving forces of the wartime Churchill Conservative/Labour coalition government. Bevin was an imperialist, believing that the Empire was essential to Britain’s future. He had written in 1938 in the T&G’s house journal:

The great colonial powers of Europe should pool their colonial territories and link them up with a European Commonwealth, instead of being limited to British, French, Dutch or Belgian concessions as is now the case. Such a European Commonwealth, established on an economic foundation, would give us greater security than we get by trying to maintain the old balance of Power”.

Or take the comments of Denis Healy, in 1950 the International Secretary of the Labour Party and, later, in the 60s and 70s to be one of its dominant leaders. In a pamphlet, European Unity, he wrote:

No Socialist Party with the purpose of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority, since such an authority would have a permanent anti-Socialist majority and would arouse the suspicions of European workers.

In 1962, Hugh Gaitskell, gave a speech condemning the application by the Macmillan government to join the then “Common Market”. It became memorable for the following passage:

We must be clear about this: it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. 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.

Most in the conference hall stood to applaud. Gaitskell, viscerally opposed to the Labour left which was ferociously anti-Europe (except for Russia), turned to his wife and said: “That seem to go down well.” To which she replied: “Dear, all the wrong people are applauding.” The Labour right, to which Gaitskell belonged, was sitting on its hands.

Thankfully for Gaitskell, and Labour, General De Gaulle vetoed the UK application to join. In essence, De Gaulle’s view was that the UK would never be a “good European”. As it turned out, he was not wrong.

When the Labour Party’s Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, he also was driven by economic necessity to apply to join the Common Market despite his previous hostility to doing so, but only after torturous discussions within the Cabinet between pro- and anti-factions. Again, De Gaulle said no.

Finally, when under the Conservative government of Ted Heath the UK did succeed in joining the Common Market after De Gaulle had resigned in 1969, Labour rejected the terms on offer and opposed them in Parliament. As did a group of Eurosceptics in the Conservatives. The decision to join only carried the Commons when a sizable number of Labour MPs defied the party and voted in favour.

The UK, along with Ireland and Denmark, joined the EU on January 1, 1973.

In a subsequent general election Labour said that it would renegotiate the entry terms if elected. The renegotiation amounted to little in practice and Wilson, back as prime minister, avoided a party split by putting the revised terms to a referendum and allowing cabinet members to take sides. The 1975 referendum was the first time any political decision in the UK was decided in this way. The “will of the people” as expressed through the referendum was to stay in the Common Market.

Labour becomes “pro-Europe”

After Labour lost office to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 it reverted to a full-blooded anti-European position and had exploratory discussions with Brussels about how the UK might leave the European Community if Labour returned to power. However, Thatched won the next election, and the one after that, decisively.

“Thatcherism”, with its policy of privatisation, deregulation and the curbing of trade union power, shifted the view of the trade unions and Labour towards the European Community. The turning point was the speech by the then Commission President, Jacques Delors, to the TUC annual meeting in 1988 at which he spoke about the European “social dimension”. Suddenly the unions, and Labour, saw the possibility of reversing, or at least curbing, Thatcherism through Europe. They had no choice. It was the only game in town. here.

But Delors’s speech infuriated Thatcher who responded with her now famous Bruges speech, often regarded as the founding document of what ultimately became Brexit, though a close reading of it suggests that Thatcher was not anti-European, just anti the Europe envisaged by Delors. Then again, history is always shrouded in myth and legend and so it is with Bruges. Bruges was the beginning of the Tory Party moving from being a pro-European party to becoming the British nationalist party that it is today. Whether this is the right choice for the Conservatives to have made, only time will tell.

The Maastricht Treaty, negotiated to provide a legal framework to allow for the creation of the Euro, saw the European Community renamed the European Union. John Major, who has succeeded Thatcher as Conservative prime minister, negotiated an opt-out from the euro for the UK plus an opt-out from the more expansive social and labour policy provided for in the Treaty. The debate on Maastricht turned into a parliamentary nightmare for Major, as the forces of Euroscepticism in the Tory Party went from strength to strength. Brexit was forged in the crucible of that debate.

The Labour Party of Tony Blair, which came to power in 1997, reversed the social policy opt-out but thereafter, despite Blair’s pro-European rhetoric, was always semi-detached from the European Union. Labour has never really gotten over the Bevin/Healy/Gaitskell neurosis about European integration.

For an insight into this neurosis read Denis MacShane’s Brexit: How Britain Left Europe. Denis was Europe Minister during the Blair administration. Denis himself has been double-jabbed against the Bevin-ite neurosis.

It is also worth remembering that when Gordon Brown replaced Blair as prime minister he refused to attend the collective signing by other leaders of the Lisbon Treaty but snuck in the next day and signed it when no one was looking. Europe has always been a heavy burden for Labour. It was happiest when “Europe” could be portrayed as a Tory project that Labour had to oppose.

The depth of Labour anti-Europeanism again found voice with the lacklustre campaigning of Jeremy Corbyn during the Brexit referendum in 2016. Corbyn, a lifelong anti-European, barely turned up to the campaign and when he did, did so grudgingly.

Between 2016, when the UK voted for Brexit, and 2020 when Johnson finally “Got Brexit Done”, to say that Labour was all over the place on the issue would be an understatement. One half of the party wanted a new referendum to reverse the result of the first. The other half, traumatised by the extent of the Brexit vote in what Labour regarded as its “heartlands” in the Midlands and North, backed a Brexit deal, but were uncertain what deal they wanted to back.

It ended badly with the Johnson landslide in the 2019 election. No wonder Labour does not want to talk about Brexit.

The Future

Reading histories of the UK’s approach to European integration, three themes in British thinking become quickly evident:

  1. In the 1940s and early 1950s, UK political leaders across the spectrum still believed themselves to be the leaders of an Empire and, subsequently, the Commonwealth. Britain was not just a European power, is was a global power.
  2. The UK was in favour of European “cooperation”, but not European “integration”. The UK was allergic to any form of supranationalism, to anything that diluted UK sovereignty. Intergovernmental processes were acceptable. Anything that looked like pooled sovereignty was out.
  3. The UK political elite was hostile to any developments in Europe which it had not initiated itself and of which it was not the leader. The UK could never play second violin. This has never changed. In more recent years, Brexiters dreamed of other countries following the UK out of the EU and the UK becoming the leader of a new, non-EU grouping. Hasn’t happened and is not going to happen.

As there had been from the time of Henry VIII, over 500 years ago, there was also an undercurrent of anxiety on the part of “Protestant Britain” at the machinations of the “Catholic” European powers, always determined, in British eyes, to “do down Britain”. This undercurrent still plays out today in the controversies around the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. When the DUP and other Unionists complain about the Protocol undermining their “Britishness”. Religious definitions of Britishness are never far below the surface.

The UK was willing to be “part of Europe” but only a Europe constructed to the UK’s liking.

Very simply, the UK never wanted the Monnet/Schuman EU to exist in the first place, tried to strangle it at birth, and did not want to be a part of it. It joined with the utmost reluctance and then spent its years of membership demanding its money back and constantly seeking to negotiate policy opt-outs. It refused to be part of key EU developments such as Schengen and the Euro. It always gave the impression that it was not so much a “reluctant European” as it was a hostage, held by Europe.

It ended with Brexit

As for the future, even if a parliamentary majority emerged in the UK in favour of re-joining the EU how easy would it be? The idea that the EU would welcome with open arms a returning UK is wishful thinking. That is, if there is still a UK in some years’ time, what with a renewed push for Scottish independence and growing demands for a Irish referendum on re-unification.

Even if there is still a UK when the issue of re-joining becomes a political possibility, new terms will have to be negotiated. The old one will not be available. Would the UK surrender the pound for the euro, agree to join Schengen, and the rest?

How would the European Union react to a UK approach from a Labour government if it knew that 5 years later a Conservative government might like to Brexit all over again? Does the UK’s political system of “first past the post”, winner-take-all system make the UK incompatible with the EU’s model of negotiated governance built around stable, pro-EU consensus in member states?

Ironically, Brexit has created a vibrant pro-European Union movement in the UK, one that did not previously exist to any great extent. It encompasses people of all political persuasions and none. It has its own newspapers – The New European and the Byline Times network. There is a vibrant pro-EU community on social media.

But, for now, their political voice is largely unrepresented in Parliament. That cannot last forever. The pro-EU constituency is too big and too strong to ignore.

It will find a way of breaking through. Not just yet. And not for some time to come.