Wednesday 2 January 2013

Echoes From The Past

On 28 April 2012 in The Telegraph, Christopher Booker in an article picked up in EU Referendum discussed a document from 1971 that he had come across in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers, FCO 30/148. 

A senior official had written a memorandum that specifically considered the impact on the UK if it signed up with the European Economic Community.  It set out to consider the full consequences and argued that it would inevitably lead to a loss of powers and the ability to make independent decisions.

It would go further, in that as time went on and the European Project that had been developing over most of the previous two decades went on to become more powerful and more involved, not just in trade, but in the economics, monetary, social and legal elements in the member countries then the impact would be much greater.

In short, membership would mean an effective surrender in time to whatever bodies ran the Community of a great deal of government powers, centrally, locally and in whatever sphere the Community, later EU might determine.

What was clear that if this was spelled out in full to the electorate and all the implications were apparent it might put in question whether any referendum or other voting might succeed. 

Not only were there the sundry mobs of Leftie Soviet lovers to worry about, or the remnants of those who still hankered after Empire, but a good many other groups would have cause to doubt.

The result was that Heath and his key ministers kept quiet and worse they were joined by the then leadership of the Labour Party.  Moderate Labour, as it then was, had given up on either America or the Commonwealth for help and was eager to go into Europe

Both of the major parties, with all the arrogance and belief in the powers of Britain and its Civil Service, did not believe that we would just join as an ordinary member.   Because of World War 2 and all that, we would be running it.  How often have we heard British politicians bleating about being at the heart of Europe?

The reality has been that we have been neither the heart nor the brain.  For that matter we have not been any of the vital organs.  Nowadays, it is being argued that the bowels in the body are the forgotten vital organ.  So at best, the UK has been the lower bowel of Europe, although subject to chronic haemorrhoid issues.

In 1971 the UK was just beginning to realise that the Commonwealth project, that is an Empire rebranded, downsized militarily, looser and more federal but reliant on The Sterling Area and the guidance of The City was not working.  All those lovely constitutions hand crafted in London were mostly coming badly unstuck.

In the world we had become Airstrip One to the USA, a very junior partner, necessary because of the Cold War situation as a forward nuclear base but dependent on them for a great deal of equipment and strategy.  We had avoided Vietnam but could not avoid our then dependence on foreign oil supplies.

The Sovereignty debate was nothing new.  In closed circles and limited to the relatively few experts in international law, diplomatic history and such the debate had really begun in the mid 1950’s.  It was then it had become clear that the days of Empire were over and the Suez Crisis had unmasked our weakness.

Before, the theories on Sovereignty and general ideas had more or less been taken for granted in Government and the closely connected academic circles.  In government they thought we all knew and differences were thought to be a matter of emphasis or detail.  But reality was intruding and it came as a shock to the policy makers.

The USA is about to learn that a combination of economic weakness and failed foreign policies mixed in with a confusion of political ideologies and lack of direction will mean a decline not just in influence but the ability to make its own political decisions.

It is arguable that the USA has already lost Sovereignty to a group of large international corporations that seem to answer to nobody and pay tax only where they want to.  This is not new to us.  In 1971 the UK was not just engaged in giving up power, it was allowing former dependencies to become the tax havens of today.

What is dismaying at this length of time that the Sovereignty question, which was alive and under debate, although in limited circles in the late 1950’s, should have taken so long to become more public and enter the national political debate.

How do I know this?  After military service in my studies I had a tutor who was an expert in international history, law and diplomacy and moonlighted for the Foreign Office.  There were a handful of others there connected to the highest levels of politics.

One winter afternoon in the late 1950’s after an in depth discussion of the rugger club’s poor results he gave me a task for the coming week, suggesting a think piece of expanded analysis as opposed to an historical exercise.  He would be interested in a take by someone who had handled Top Secret documents.

More to the point I had already done a long item on the Zollverein (see Wikipedia) the Germanic customs union founded in 1818 that culminated in Imperial Germany.  Looking at this in the context of many other international trading structures in history, it had been my view that one thing always led to another and eventual messy collapse.

The question set was what did the concept of Sovereignty entail?


  1. What I still find a little weird is how the sovereignty issue has been well known for decades, yet has never been a really major political issue.

    Yes, it pops up all the time, probably because it is so serious and well-known, yet it always seems to be slapped down successfully by the major parties.

    I put a lot of blame at the door of the BBC, which has never been the forum it should be.

  2. How true the comment. Unfortunately the first two items of the Reithian ethos, inform and educate, are lost - I believe it is now only to entertain.