First time as tragedy…

Submitted by on 13 August, 2002 - 7:24

Jim Denham looks how the left responded to the 1975 referendum on the "Common Market"

The idea that the left can run its own "socialist" anti-European campaign without being tainted by the nationalism (bordering, at times, upon racism) of the official "No" campaign has been put to the test in Britain before now.
In 1975 the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EEC ("Common Market"). This was a political necessity forced upon Wilson in order to hold the government together. Official Labour Party policy was for withdrawal and prominent Labour figures (and members of the government) like Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Industry Secretary Tony Benn were anti-EEC. Wilson allowed his ministers to campaign for whatever position they pleased, with whatever allies they chose.

Thus Foot, Benn, Shore, the Tribunite left, most trade union leaders and the Communist Party, formed the backbone of the "No" campaign. Wilson, Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and the future SDP leadership joined forces with Edward Heath's Tories, the Liberals, the CBI and the majority of British capitalists in the "Yes" campaign. A minority of capitalists (notably Tate & Lyle, for whom trade with the old Empire was crucial, and obstructed by European tariffs) backed the "No" campaign.

The parallels with the forthcoming Euro referendum are obvious. But there are also important differences. The "No" camp in 1975 had a coherent (if reactionary) alternative to offer: the so-called "Alternative Economic Strategy" (AES), which boiled down to a proposal for a British siege economy buttressed by massive import controls. In more "left wing" versions, the AES also involved a degree of "workers' control" of industry (in reality, class-collaborationist "participation" schemes like that at British Leyland).

Another obvious contrast between today and 1975 is that the Tories (and the Tory press) were then overwhelmingly pro-European, apart from a small rump of Powellites and their fascist friends. In fact, the "Yes" campaign was co-ordinated from a headquarters provided by the Tory building tycoon McAlpine - now a leading opponent of the Euro.

The other important difference to note is the role of the Communist Party (CP), then an influential force within the labour movement. The crassest jingoism and union flag-waving in the "No" camp often came from the CP - who were also quite willing to share platforms with Powellite right-wingers and racists, in defence of "British sovereignty" and even "parliamentary democracy" (which, they claimed, was at stake!)
The revolutionary left, naturally, denounced the nationalism of the official "No" campaign. The journal International Socialism of April 1975 carried a trenchant and clear-sighted critique of the arguments being peddled by the CP and the Labour left:

"The reformist left is quite right to argue that EEC membership is incompatible with a socialist planned economy. Of course it is. The whole object of the EEC is to strengthen West European capitalism. But it is hardly the EEC Commission or the Treaty of Rome that constitutes the immediate road-blocks holding up the 'advance to socialism'. Nor is it 'loss of sovereignty'. The British capitalist state machine, headed by the government of James Harold Wilson, is way out in front of them. And if foreign intervention were to become the big threat, then NATO - about which messrs Benn, Foot and Shore are remarkably silent - is the real menace, not the unarmed bureaucrats of Brussels".

Yet, illogically and opportunistically, the International Socialists (forerunners of today's SWP), together with the vast majority of the British revolutionary left, concluded that: "The place of socialists is, of course, firmly and unequivocally in the NO camp, alongside the great majority of class-conscious workers".

This extraordinary piece of double-think led serious socialists with internationalist politics to add their weight to a nationalistic, little-England campaign, consoled by empty slogans about a "Socialist Europe" that few workers ever heard, and fewer still took seriously.

And though the internationalist left, of course, rejected any "popular fronts" with dissident Tories, Powellites or fascists, they inevitably did ally with the CP and Labour left, who were not so scrupulous. So, from one step removed, the British revolutionary left found itself on the same side as Enoch Powell and the National Front! And in fact they were part of an anti-European popular front.

It was a shameful episode and one we should not repeat when it comes to the euro referendum.

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