Richard Ritchie: Brexit. Four great Commons debates that show how we got here – and what’s at stake.

That’s to say, those of 1950, 1961, 1967 and 1971. Sovereignty was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning.

Richard Ritchie is the author of The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

The reading of past debates in Hansard is a salutary exercise. I learnt this in researching my recent history of The Progress Trust where I was constantly impressed by how often political arguments seem to repeat themselves. But no more so than on the question of Europe.

Before joining the European Community, the Commons held three debates on the question of principle – four, if one includes the debate concerning the Labour Government’s refusal to countenance the Schuman plan in June 1950. All of them were considered historic by their participants. The final debate lasted six days (21st – 28th October 1971), sitting often until 2am and on one occasion until 7am.

In passing, it’s impossible to ignore changes in Parliament’s character between then and now. In 1971, speeches were still of unlimited duration, there were far fewer female contributions, and the Speaker (unlike now) was polite and impartial. The only time a Speaker came near to issuing a rebuke in all these debates was when Selwyn Lloyd on October 27 1971 exploded “It is really not tolerable that the Rt. Hon. Member for Leeds East (Denis Healey) should continue to interrupt from a sedentary position.”

But what strikes one most is how, with hindsight, the inevitability of today’s crisis is apparent. The issue of sovereignty was always acknowledged as crucial, and politics took precedence over economics from the start. Moreover, the Commons was always divided on the issue, with a constant sense from opponents of entry that the Government of the day was exceeding its democratic mandate.

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The debate on the Schuman Plan is instructive, because it shows how the Conservatives were as willing as Labour to say one thing in Opposition, and another in Government. Churchill criticised the Labour Government for its refusal to consider a plan which he himself, as Prime Minister, was to judge unacceptable. The kernel of the argument was whether Schuman’s plan necessitated a “supra-national authority” as claimed by Attlee, but denied by Churchill who described it as “an odious phrase.”

And yet, Churchill took Attlee’s view once he regained office. Incidentally, it was during this debate that Edward Heath made his maiden speech, urging the Labour Government to “go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to coordinate it in the way suggested.” Heath, at least, was always consistent. The most striking comment was uttered by the left-wing intellectual, Richard Crossman – “The amount of enthusiasm for federal union in any country is a measure of its defeatism and of its feeling of inability to measure up to its own problems.”

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It was not until Harold Macmillan’s attempt in 1961 to join the ‘Common Market’ that the Commons again fully debated the principles involved – although only in respect of authorising negotiations. The debate contained many interesting statements, including Macmillan’s assurance that “it is quite unreal to suppose we could be compelled suddenly to accept a flood of cheap labour.”

Of special relevance to today was the distinction between applying for membership under Articles 237 and 238 of the Treaty of Rome. The Labour Party preferred the latter because it simply meant joining ‘a customs union’. But as Macmillan pointed out, this amounted to no more than becoming “country members” (it was typical of Macmillan to use a club analogy). He continued: “it would raise all the same problems without giving us any position in which we could share in the decisions of the Community in all its aspects.” In other words, precisely the same objection as is made today of Theresa May’s approach.

On the economic side, the debate was between those who feared economic exclusion from a large market, and those who felt this country was betraying its farmers, and the Commonwealth. On the political side, the argument was over sovereignty. Derek Walker-Smith was the main Conservative opponent of entry, urging the Commons to consider “the direction and destinations” to which membership would lead, and emphasising that “for the Community economic union is a prelude to political union.”

He was not alone in warning of what came to be known as the ratchet effect. The word ‘sovereignty” was discussed frequently during this short two debate in August. It’s a myth to suppose it was of lesser concern in 1961 than in 1971 or indeed today. And from the start, it was divisive. As the Conservative MP Sir Robin Turton warned, “there are hundreds of thousands of Conservatives who hold the views that I hold” on sovereignty, and continued “I fear that the Government will split not only the Commonwealth but the Conservative Party.”

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Because this attempt to join the Common Market was blocked by de Gaulle, the Commons was never required to debate the actual terms of entry. By the time Harold Wilson launched a second attempt to join the Community in 1967, there was a greater appetite to debate in detail the economic dimension.

A three day debate took place between 8th and 10th May, by which time Edward Heath was leader of the Opposition. While resentful of the lack of support offered by Labour to his negotiations in 1961, Heath offered the Government almost unequivocal backing on condition that, as he had stated a few months earlier, Wilson’s application was based on full acceptance of “the Treaty of Rome, the common external tariff, the abolition of the internal tariff, the common agricultural policy and the movement towards economic union.”

Wilson opened the debate with a speech lasting nearly one and a half hours, and most of it was devoted to economic matters relating to agriculture, the movement of capital and the Commonwealth. On the political dimension, Wilson was mostly interested in how membership would affect relations with Russia, and issues of peace and security in general. He was less concerned with ‘sovereignty’ although he did make the extraordinary claim that “by far the greater part of our domestic law would remain unchanged after entry.”

There was also greater concern than in 1961 over the dangers of exclusion. Sir Alec Douglas-Home argued “the country is in danger of being put out of business” although he conceded that “the difficulties of grafting Britain on to a Community which will achieve complete integration by 1970 are much greater than they would have been five years ago.” By 1967, immigration was also a much bigger issue than in 1961, but this did not prevent Wilson from echoing Macmillan in his emphasis that “the Government do not believe that there is likely to be any large net increase in the number of EEC nationals coming here to work.”

Backbenchers of both parties preferred to debate the issues of principle. Duncan Sandys, for example, was the precursor of Michael Heseltine in arguing that “in this age of super-states, Britain by herself is no longer in a position to exercise any really effective influence in international affairs.” Socialists such as Michael Foot feared a capitalist conspiracy (just as Corbyn does today). Internationalists argued that internationalism does not “reside behind tariff walls.” And it was the Ulster MP Captain Lawrence Orr who expressed most succinctly the sovereignty concern: “It is a loss of sovereignty which can never be regained. Once we sign the Treaty and are in, every kind of sanction could be used against us, and would be used against us, if we sought to abrogate it.” The Labour MP Manny Shinwell urged that more attention be paid “to what is being said on the other side, on the Continent”, a warning ignored by the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, who stated “we expect to get in.”

But what distinguished this debate from its equivalent six years earlier was that Conservative opponents of entry tabled their own critical amendment, albeit unsupported by the official Opposition. While only 26 Conservatives supported the ‘rebel’ amendment (although 62 MPs voted against the application itself), it was the first manifestation of divisions to come. Before leaving the 1967 debate, the temptation to quote Percy Grieve, Dominic Grieve’s father, is too great to resist in illuminating the family atmosphere in which his son grew up: “The changes in law resulting from accession to the Community would not affect the ordinary man or woman in this country, who simply would not realise the changes resulting in the laws dealing with commerce and restrictive practices.”

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Everyone was agreed that the final debate of principle, in 1971, was different from its predecessors because here Parliament was asked to approve a final decision to join “the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated.” Inevitably, therefore, the debate was not just about the principle but also the terms of entry.

The consequence of this was an inordinate amount of time was taken up by a boring quarrel between the two front benches as to whether Harold Wilson and the Labour Party had again changed their minds and could have negotiated something better. Wilson denied the former, and asserted the latter. Heath and the Conservatives in turn accused Wilson of subterfuge and lack of principle. It was a forerunner of what we are seeing today. Wilson had no more chance of winning better terms in 1971 than Corbyn has in 2019. But the farce of pretending otherwise has to be enacted, while the issues of principle are evaded.

However, a six day debate afforded plenty of opportunity to debate every angle, and the arguments expressed on this occasion retain a resonance for us today. Dennis Healey described the debate “as the end of the beginning of an argument which has lasted for more than 15 years.” Peter Shore put it better in saying “I sense that neither here nor in this country are we at the end of this great debate but rather at the beginning.”

When it came to the economic dimension, the quarrel was over familiar ground, although regional policy had assumed greater importance for Labour because of its radically different approach. Also, this debate contained for the first time detailed discussion over Britain’s net contribution to the EEC Budget, which the Government was keen to downplay but where Labour was ultimately vindicated – culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s struggle to reduce this country’s net contribution in 1984. Nevertheless, much of this argument was about statistics, growth rates and forecasts about which, like today, neither side had any justification for certainty. One could almost substitute the numbers cited then for the numbers extrapolated now, and be none the wiser. As in 1967, for Sir Alec Douglas-Home the question was simple: “Where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

But the political implications were not to be crowded out by disputes over “the terms” or economic projections. These implications now included to a greater extent than before the issue of defence, as Heath was suspected by an increasingly unilateralist Labour Party of planning an Anglo-French nuclear force. Essentially, the sovereignty argument was still between those who, like Keith Joseph, believed “it will never be requisite upon us once we are in the Community to take any decisions, or to join in any decision, against our national interest”; and those like the Labour MP Michael English who pointed out that “if every member of the Cabinet had a right of veto, there would be no Cabinet decisions.”

A Conservative MP called Peter Trew predicted “The British people could find themselves on a bandwagon travelling in a direction not of their choosing and at a speed which they could not control.” Tony Benn argued that defence and foreign policy “are to be put in for harmonisation with tariffs and taxation.” Derek Walker-Smith referred to “the new fashionable expression” of ‘elitism’ and concluded “If this is the product of elitism – government by community decree, with Parliament a rubber stamp – new elitism is old autocracy writ French. If this is elitism, then give me democracy.”

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So, what are the main lessons of these debates for today’s MPs? It was Benn who said in the debate: “I think that history is unlikely to confirm any of our certainties expressed, and that what the historians will want to know is how deeply we thought about the possibilities.” Events have occurred which were not fully perceived. Perhaps the most important is the unification of Germany and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The second is the enlargement of the EU. It is harder now than then to argue that the EU does not embrace most of Europe. Another development not fully acknowledged was Scottish nationalism, although the Tory MP Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell (known to his contemporaries as “Mad Mitch”) got it right when he argued that “nation states are being eroded, but are being eroded not only from above but from below as well, and with the weakening of nation states there are supra-national groupings and sub-national independence movements.” The Northern Ireland border was hardly discussed, although Stanley McMaster, the Unionist MP for Belfast East, feared the movement of labour from Eire to Ulster.

But just as striking are the similarities. For example, then as now there was concern over Britain’s influence in any alternative grouping. The Labour MP Ronald Brown, who was George Brown’s younger brother, stated “I object to this country joining any grouping (such as EFTA) in which we have a subordinate role. This is the great value of our joining Europe, that we will be on equal terms with our partners.” This is precisely what is argued by today’s critics of ‘Norway-plus’ and its variations. It was also frequently argued that the Government failed to listen to the Community. One can’t help wondering whether it would not have been better for everyone if the advice of “people of some authority” in the Common Market, quoted by George Brown in 1961, had been followed: “If you are coming in believing that this is no more than an economic arrangement, we would much rather that you did not come in.”

Finally, there is the issue of public consent. There were just as many complaints then as now over the Government’s attempts to influence public opinion and the illegitimate use of taxpayers’ money. There were frequent calls for either a general election or a referendum. Benn again put it best when he said “There are such sharp differences of opinion within each party that it would not be possible to decide the issue at a general Election, even if the leadership of the two major parties were taking contrary views.”

That was the dilemma then, as it is today. Parliament and Parties have always been divided on this issue. ‘Sovereignty’ was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning. The question now is whether those divisions within the Conservative Party which have been apparent ever since Macmillan made his first application (and before) are finally bringing about its destruction. If so, nobody can say they weren’t warned.

The unknown names that live for evermore

These acts of remembrance may in some slight measure salve grief, and enable those who have not had to endure such things to give thanks for those who do.

Most of us have walked at some time through a war cemetery. We read a few of the inscriptions, and see how young they were.

A gardener is perhaps at work. We admire how well the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after things, and how fitting everything looks, the stones and the greenery, and how peaceful.

Without making any particular attempt to do so, we find the graves not only of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers, but of Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, and wonder how a member of the Royal Hellenic Air Force came to be buried here.

This week I went for the first time to the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey, which I had glimpsed each year from the road, but never entered. One of my brothers had suggested that on the hundredth anniversary of our great-grandfather’s death, we should place a cross for him.

What a density of small crosses is found on the grass, each with a small hand-written inscription, standing in lines as neat as one of the cemeteries.

Here is an equality of remembrance, as of sacrifice. Each of the fallen gets the same headstone, the same cross.

It was recognised from the first that there were some who would have no named grave, because their remains would never be identified. On their tombstones are found the words “Known unto God”.

And in Westminster Abbey, the “Unknown Warrior” was buried on 11th November 1920, to represent the hundreds of thousands who have no known grave.

Over a million men lost their lives in the service of the British Empire during the First World War. In earlier wars, almost no attempt was made to mark such graves. Thomas Hardy described what happened in the Boer War:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

From 1914, it was felt such informal arrangements would no longer do. The story of how the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was amid angry argument formed is told in David Crane’s book Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves, and more briefly in this piece in Prospect by Joshua Neicho and Kath Temple.

The result was what Rudyard Kipling called “work greater than that of the Pharaohs”, a vast expression of atonement, remembrance, reconciliation, gratitude, guilt and grief.

And yet to us, a century later, it seems quite natural, and done with a modesty that seems just right. We would be appalled if it had not been done. The numbers were so great, the grief so deep and wide, that something had to be done, to show that these sons and brothers, friends and lovers were not forgotten or taken for granted; not left unmourned or unthanked.

Nor, in a democratic age, was it any longer tolerable to raise general memorials, or monuments only to commanders. So far as possible, every individual soldier had to be remembered by name.

The success with which this was done is attested by the internet. How astonishing it is to be able, with a few clicks, to find the record of an uncle or cousin whose name one may not even remember quite accurately, and discover in which cemetery or on what monument his name is inscribed. Here is a rejuvenation of memory which could not have been expected.

We are fortunate to be able to remember like this. In Germany, it was too difficult, after the Nazi period, to try to remember the sacrifice of individual Germans. The term Opfer – victim – was used instead, to cover everyone who had suffered from war, or from fascism.

Only in recent years, as the war generation dies out, has a more individual approach become possible. The Stolpesteine, or stumbling blocks, which so far commemorate about 70,000 people who perished in the Holocaust, were devised by a German artist in 1992, and are set into the pavement as small brass plaques outside an individual’s last freely chosen place of residence.

Perhaps another century will have to elapse before we can begin to see in a true perspective how the two world wars have marked our country. From 1834, when the Duke of Wellington’s last brief prime ministership occurred, to 1940, when Winston Churchill took over, not a single British Prime Minister had served in the armed forces.

British politics was a civilian affair. We were intensely proud of the Royal Navy, but the ancient prejudice against standing armies took a long time to die out, and our leaders had the sense to realise that large-scale fighting on land was better avoided – a view which the Crimean War served to reinforce, while at the same time bringing the sufferings of the ordinary soldier to wider attention.

From 1940 to 1979, every Prime Minister, with the exceptions of Harold Wilson (a wartime civil servant) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (debarred by illness), had served in the armed forces, and so had hundreds of MPs. Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan were wounded in the First World War. The nation was bound together by a shared experience of suffering.

Those who had lost beloved brothers in the First War feared the same was going to happen to their sons in the Second. Children mourned and still mourn parents who fell, and savage if less total wars have caused many deaths since 1945.

Common acts of remembrance, such as we engage in today, may in some slight measure salve grief, and enable those of us who have not had to endure such things to give thanks for those who do.

Sir David Cameron-Hume. In time, why not?

He may eventually be able to construct a case for return which, while tortuous, would not be beyond the reach of his powers of persuasion.

David Cameron is in a horrible bind as he perseveres with writing his memoirs.  Remainers boo him for losing the EU referendum.  And Leavers don’t cheer him for calling it – because he was on the wrong side, as they see it, and oversaw a Project Fear campaign whose apocalyptic predictions were swiftly disproved.  He cannot believe that the decision to call the poll which, in effect, pitched him out of Downing Street was the right one.  But he must go on claiming that he was correct to give the British people the choice: to come clean would be an admission of failure.  Cameron has escaped from many a trap in his time, but this one holds him fast.

Furthermore, he surely can’t return to Parliament, at least for the moment.  The Brexit negotiation is arduous, and he would be blamed, not without reason, for failing to make preparations for leaving.  If, in the short-term, Brexit is turbulent, because it comes with an acrimonious and disruptive No Deal, he would be held responsible for harm.  If, on the other hand, the economy manages just fine – either because there is a deal, or because No Deal works out better than some expect – he would scarcely be able to take the credit.  So for the moment he has little option but to plug away at his book, while actors knock him for relaxing in France “with his trotters up”.

The medium-term could  be different.  Cameron is young enough to be able to look forward to it (he is 52), and the passing of time is a wonderful thing.  If Brexit turns out well and the Conservatives win in 2022, he would be able to construct a case which, while tortuous, might not be beyond the reach of his powers of persuasion.  Of course he didn’t want Britain to leave the EU but, look, the country’s steaming ahead now and, you know, that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the courage to call that referendum – whatever the cost to himself.

That would be the first part of his pitch.  We appreciate that it is less than full and frank.  But the second part would be less easy to dismiss – namely, that he still has something to offer, and wants to put something back in.  Having urged Cameron not to leave the Commons, we are scarcely in a position to argue that he shouldn’t return.  He ran a government which, for all its ups and downs, ground the deficit downwards and delivered a remarkable run of public service reform.  Think Iain Duncan Smith.  Think Michael Gove.  Think Francis Maude’s work in Whitehall, or Steve Hilton’s drive for transparency.  For all that, Cameron must ultimately take the credit.

If Cameron really does want to become Foreign Secretary, he will be well aware that there is a precedent – well, of sorts.  Alec Douglas-Home, having been succeeded as Conservative leader by Ted Heath, went on to serve him as Foreign Secretary from 1970 to 1974.  He had left the Lords because it wasn’t believed practicable to run the country from the Upper House, and we can’t quite see the Foreign Office being run from it in this day and age, either.  So the Commons it would be.  No Association would have him, some will say.  We disagree. He would persuade his way in somewhere, somehow.  The chance to select a former Prime Minister would be irresistible.