Back in the 1970s, British socialists made a free-trade case against the EU

As Brexit dominates the news, we can look back and notice that the United Kingdom had a very similar debate on the European Union 40 years ago. The positions of left and right, however, were reversed.


In June of 1975, the United Kingdom held a referendum to decide whether or not it wanted to remain in the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union. The EEC was set up to further the economic integration of the member countries (then Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and West Germany), and in 1993 became the European Community (EC) with the treaty establishing the European Union. The UK had joined the EEC under a conservative government in 1973; but after a change of leadership in 1974, British socialists ran on the promise of giving the country a referendum.

The EEC, as it was when Britain reconsidered its membership in the referendum of 1975, had established a customs union with a common external tariff, as well as a common agricultural policy, paired with integration of regulatory norms (such as traffic regulations). This took away the UK’s control over its own trade policy and created the subsidy monster that is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which massively funds farmers while restricting entry to foreign competitors.

British membership was confirmed by 67% of votes cast.

The 1975 Oxford Union debate

Prior to the 1975 vote, the prestigious Oxford Union held a debate on the same question, pitting former conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (in office 1970-1974) and liberal democrat Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe – both in favour of the EEC – against former socialist Secretary of Health and Social Services Barbara Castle (in office 1974-1976) and former socialist Secretary of State for Trade Peter Shore (in office 1974-1976), who argued in opposition to the motion that Britain should remain in the Community.

What is most fascinating about this almost two-hour-long debate are the parallels one can draw to the political debates that have been going on in Britain since 2015, culminating in the Brexit referendum.

Heath and Thorpe, a conservative and a liberal democrat, argued in a favour of the motion for reasons of remembering the dangers of a divided continent resulting in two world wars, as well as the importance of the economic cooperation taking place on the continent. Their positions were described by Britain’s 1970s Left as being “pro-market”, and had wide-ranging support at Oxford University, where the motion was approved 493 to 92. In context, the rate of favourability towards this European economic cooperation did make sense: the then Labour government was being held hostage by the unions, unemployment was high and productivity low. Until the arrival of the economic reforms of Margaret Thatcher (in office 1979-1990), the UK was on the brink of collapse. Voters looked south to the European continent and believed that the Germans, French, and Italians must be doing something right.

Barbara Castle, arguing against the motion in 1975, worried that the EEC would cut Britain off from its former colonies. The Commonwealth countries often benefited from tariff exemptions for a large number of goods on which the EEC threatened to impose high tariffs. As a socialist and internationalist, she believed that turning away from Britain’s Asian partners was motivated by “euro-jingosim” (xenophobia), meaning a belief in the superiority of Europeans over other cultures.

“Listen to that great pro-marketeer Woodrow White in the Sunday Mirror last weekend, I quote: ‘The common market contains the 225 million most intelligent, cultured and developed peoples in the world. United, no-one can push us around.’ […] These are your great pro-marketeers, your great internationalists. It is this mentality that has motivated the British establishment from the Foreign Office upwards in the past few years in its determination to manoeuvre us into the Community, to persuade us to turn our backs on the multi-racialism of the Commonwealth […].”

Castle also gave examples of how Commonwealth countries would be affected by the policies of the EEC. As she defended pineapple trade from Malaysia, Castle was sneered and laughed at by the members of the Oxford Union. She also made a case for how international trade stood a better chance of reducing the price of food than would a restrictive trade relationship with a few countries in Europe.

It is hard to imagine socialist politicians making a similar case these days. The Labour Party is divided over Brexit–not because it believes in free trade with the world, but either because it defends union workers hurt by the policies of the EU (in the case of socialist eurosceptics), or because it attacks anti-immigration arguments on the Right by calling them xenophobic (in the case of pro-EU socialists). The Conservative Party is also split between those who maintain the position that the party held back when the UK joined the bloc and those who believe that the EU holds the UK back from engaging in trade with its former colonies, such as India. To a certain degree, the positions have become reversed.

If anything, the case that Barbara Castle and Peter Shore made back in 1975 are even more valid today. The EU’s agricultural policies erect non-tariff barriers against goods coming from African, Asian, and South American countries. Meanwhile, the economies of most of those countries are growing rapidly, and with the inability to conclude multiple free trade deals, the EU once again proves to be too insular for an opportunity-seeking nation such as the UK. However, decades of economic liaisons with the European continent and turning its back on the Commonwealth have also made Britain’s withdrawal from the trading block more difficult. This explains the Brexit drama that has been going on for the last two years: Britain can now turn to the rest of the world to do business, but its existing trade ties with Europe are immensely important for the foreseeable future.

This article was first published by Values4Europe.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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