“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.”
It was 22 October 1962 and the speaker was Rt Hon Hugh Gaitskill, MP, CBE, leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. The audience was the Labour Party Conference. As Gaitskill railed against British membership of the European Economic Community (later the European Union) the applause in the conference hall was thunderous.
But while all other eyes were fixed on Gaitskill, one pair of eyes was scanning the audience. They belonged to Gaitskill’s wife, Dora. And she did not like what she was seeing. “All the wrong people are clapping,” she said. The waves of loud applause were coming from the ordinary members of the Labour Party in the hall and a handful of senior left wingers. The senior moderates of the shadow cabinet and the guests from the higher ranks of the civil service, press and society were all sitting on their hands. George Brown, the party’s Deputy Leader, actually had his head in his hands.
It was a prophetic moment. Over the decades that followed, the British establishment would pursue their dream of taking the UK into the EEC, and keeping it in the EU, with a ruthless determination. Promises were made, and ignored. Predictions were made and broken. Above all, the real decisions would be kept away from the hands of the hoi polloi who had applauded Gaitskill, and who would later applaud Thatcher, Farage and Boris.
But Gaitskill would not be around to see his wife’s observations carried into action. He died of a rather mysterious auto-immune condition before he could win the 1964 General Election. But how did Gaitskill and the UK get into the position where he could give such a powerful speech to such a divided conference hall?
As with so much about British politics in the later 20th century, the roots of the speech and the reaction to it can be found in the aftermath of World War II.
Politicians across Europe, including the UK, were seeking ways to end the destructive cycle of wars between France and Germany that had broken out three times in 70 years. Various schemes for economic or political co-operation were floated. The brutal imposition of Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union gave renewed urgency to the need to keep France and Germany – the two great economies of western Europe – friends with each other.
In 1951 the Treaty of Paris created the European Coal and Steel Community. This not only put the coal and steel industries of France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux Countries under state control, but created a supranational authority to ensure that those countries lacked the independent armaments industries to go to war against each other. Six years later that organisation morphed into the European Economic Community (EEC) – retaining the same supranational structure.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, was not interested joining a continental European organisation. There was the Empire to convert to the Commonwealth, friendship with the USA to enjoy and global free trade to encourage. Then came the Suez Crisis.
In 1956 the UK joined with France and Israel in a war against Egypt, aiming to wrest control of the Suez Canal back from Egypt. The USA stepped in to oppose the move, threatening to destroy the British economy by selling the USA’s entire holdings of British currency. The British and French pulled out, Egypt closed the canal and the world changed. The UK’s friendship with the USA seemed over, the smooth transition from Empire to Commonwealth was disrupted and global trade was hamstrung by the closure of the Suez Canal.
The blow to the self-confidence of Britain’s ruling establishment was terminal. They henceforth saw their role as managing an inevitable decline in Britain’s wealth, culture and prestige. Even the UK’s continued existence was in doubt. Clearly, the establishment thought, the Europeans had been right all along.
Hugh Gaitskill, meanwhile, was ploughing his own furrow. He had spent the war as a senior civil servant in the Ministry for Economic Warfare. In 1945 he was elected as Labour MP for South Leeds and less than a year later became a junior minister with responsibility for nationalising the coal industry.
During his subsequent rise up the ministerial ranks, Gaitskill fell out with the mighty Aneurin Bevan, who led the left of the Labour Party. The hostility between the two broke into open warfare in 1950 when Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee promoted Gaitskill to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Rapidly, Gaitskill became the great hope of those MPs and activists who did not want to see Bevan take over as party leader when the inevitable happened and Atlee resigned. Although not himself particularly right wing in Labour Party terms, Gaitskill came to be seen as such in opposition to Bevan.
Atlee lost the General Election of 1951, and lost again in 1955 before standing down as Leader of the Labour Party in December 1955. Gaitskill made huge efforts to beef up his socialist credentials in speeches and articles. He did this well enough to gain the support of some left wing MPs. When the result was announced, Gaitskill had won with 157 votes, to Bevan’s 70 and Morrison’s 40.
Having been in Parliament only 10 years, Gaitskill was considered inexperienced to be Leader of the Opposition, and he had a powerful and angry Bevan to his left.
When the Suez Crisis broke, Gaitskill supported the government up until force was used, when he turned passionately against Prime Minister Eden. That meant that he came out of the crisis with his reputation enhanced. He also went out of his way to support some left wing policies supported by Bevan and his supporters. As a result Bevan rejoined the shadow cabinet as Shadow Foreign Secretary.
The newly reunited Labour Party was expected to win the 1959 General Election, propelling Gaistkill into No.10, but it did not. Many Gaitskill supporters blamed rabidly socialist outbursts by supporters of Bevan for having alienated key voters and renewed civil war threatened to break out in the Labour Party. The main issue at stake was unilateral nuclear disarmament, a policy favoured by the left.
At the 1960 Party Conference bad tempered debates saw the trades unions ram through a motion supporting unilateral disarmament. Gaitskill had no choice under party rules but to accept the decision as official party policy, but it was up to him when a new policy would be implemented in the form of votes in Parliament. Unsurprisingly, Gaitskill delayed implementing the new policy until after the 1961 Party Conference. At that Conference, Gaitskill came forward with a carefully worded motion supporting nuclear disarmament on a multilateral basis, not a unilateral one. The vote was narrow, but Gaitskill won.
The following month Gaitskill was challenged for the leadership by a former shadow cabinet minister named Tony Greenwood. It was not a challenge with any hope of success, but was intended to show the level of discontent with Gaitskill. Greenwood got the support of 25% of the Labour MPs – enough to worry Gaitskill.
It was in the midst of all this internal Labour turmoil that Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced that he wanted the UK to join the EEC. Many Conservative MPs were unhappy with the decision, but most of them were fairly junior and amidst all the turmoil of the “Night of the Long Knives” cabinet reshuffle, the decolonisation of Africa and concerns over the viability of the UK’s nuclear missile programme, they made little fuss.
The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the famously bibulous George Brown, spoke out in favour of EEC membership. He forcefully put forward the view that Britain, having won the War and with a strong economy, long-standing constitution and sound fiscal system was in an ideal position to lead the EEC. He foresaw the UK’s role as being that of the first among equals, rather like a Prime Minister in cabinet. So far as the Labour party was concerned he was a voice crying in the wilderness.
To Gaitskill the issue seemed a godsend. Other than George Brown, few in the Labour Party cared very much about the EEC one way or the other. Those who had given it any thought at all were opposed to British membership. A large number of working class Britons had emigrated to the Empire after the War, especially to Australia under the “£10 Pom” scheme. Their relatives back in the UK were mostly Labour supporters and activists who feared that joining the EEC would lead to estrangement from the nascent Commonwealth growing out of the Empire.
To Gaitskill, looking at the EEC issue in terms of internal Labour Party machinations, it had many possibilities. He could attack the Conservative Government, gain the support of the working classes and reunite the Labour Party all in one go. It seemed a straightforward move to him, and to his supporters.
But Gaitskill himself could also see some economic arguments in favour of British membership. That was why he slipped into his speech a section in which he left the door open to the UK joining but “only on our conditions, only if Europe is a greater Europe, only if it is an outward-looking Europe, only if it is dedicated to the cause of relieving world poverty, only if it casts aside the ancient colonialisms, only if it gives up, and shows that it gives up, the narrow nationalism that could otherwise develop.”
Caveats aside, the speech achieved its purpose. The Labour Party rapidly reunited and began to prepare for the General Election that could not long be delayed. Gaitskill, it seemed, was on his way to No.10.
But the speech proved to be Gaitskill’s last major contribution to British politics. Three months later he was dead. His place was taken by Harold Wilson. At this point, Wilson was not particularly bothered about the European issue. Having come from the left of the party, he sought to build bridges to the right wing by appointing key moderates to his new shadow cabinet. And after he won the election, to his cabinet. He made George Brown Foreign Secretary, accepting that this meant that the UK would apply to join the EEC. But the wily Wilson had first assured himself that the application would be vetoed by France. Wilson was free to concentrate on domestic reforms, as he had planned. But a collateral victim of Wilson’s cunning was that the Labour Party had abandoned its formal policy of opposing EEC membership.
Gaitskill’s vision was dead. The men who had not clapped had won.
This piece is part of the paper: Fathers of Europe, which will be published by Red Cell shortly. You will be able to find it by following this link.
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