In a secondhand bookshop in Settle the other day and I came across a Fabian Society pamphlet Europe: the way back by arch Eurosceptic, the late Peter Shore, published in 1973. I wondered how it stood up 50 years later, and so shelled out a quid (original price 30p) for it. Shore really wanted the UK out of the then EEC, a decision he thought should be determined by the British people in either a general election or a referendum. But, not wishing to be too much of a negative chap he did make a number of recommendations for how the Treaty of Rome and our accession arrangements could be altered. None of which of course would stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted by the six existing member states. Things like reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and returning democratic lawmaking powers to national parliaments. Within the EEC, Shore felt that the UK could perhaps gain headway by being disruptive, using its veto power to bring business to a virtual halt, and he cited de Gaulle’s similar tactics from 1965.
Shore didn’t hold back. Referring to the projected UK financial contribution to the EEC’s budget he had this to say: ‘It takes us into an area of surrender on the one hand, dictat on the other: into something akin to reparations payments of the kind which Prussia imposed on France in 1870 and which the victorious allies imposed upon Germany at Versailles in 1919.’ Perhaps if so much of the EEC budget wasn’t spent on the CAP supporting small French farmers it would have been more acceptable, but even when changes were made and more support was put into regional development policy (surely a Leftwing sort of thing) it would still be unpopular especially since, in the case of e.g. Hungary such money could be misappropriated by Orban’s regime.
Much of Shore’s faith was invested in the development of free trade outwith the EEC, not least with the Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth countries and the US. This of course was when growing free trade seemed a surefire bet, even before China was in a position to join the party. Now things have changed, with e.g. the collapse of the ‘Doha round’ of the World Trade Organisation talks, the return of protectionist talk a la Trump and the growing threat to world food supplies caused by climate change. The rosy picture anticipated by Shore for the UK outside the EEC/EU came head to head with the inevitablility of things going belly-up. Now we have accusations that Preident Biden is punishing Brexit Britain by stymieing a trade deal. Very naughty!
For me the question remains what might have the UK achieved if it had simply stayed out of the EEC/EU in the first place. For those on the Left there was always the possibility that levers denied to us through membership could have been employed, particularly for example in the absence of rules on state aid. Yet we always had the option to support ‘vital’ national interests—but classicly we Brits always managed to ‘goldplate’ the rules when other large EU countries found ways around them. How for example did other countries maintain their significant shipbuilding industries? We might also recall that of the 43 years between the publication of Shore’s tract and the Brexit vote in 2016 the Tories were in power for 25 of them. Being out of the EEC/EU didn’t guarantee local Leftist economic policies being pursued.
Where I can agree with Shore is with one of his concluding remarks ‘If there is one thing that the experience of the 1930s should have taught us, it is that no regional market however large, not even that of the United States itself, can protect its citizens from unemployment and slump if the world economy has ceased to grow.’ Well, perhaps I should make a slight emendation in the light of climate change, and supplant the last word with ‘exist.’