When the UK acceded to the European Communities – the collective term for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) – in 1973, it did so mainly on economic grounds. The battle for the referendum, which took place in 1975, was fought between pro-market politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, the new leader of the Conservative Party, on the one hand, and protectionists such as Labour’s firebrand Tony Benn, on the other.
The economic rationale won the day and the result was a large majority for Yes (67.2%). Although there were those who voiced their concerns over the future sovereignty of the United Kingdom, this had little impact back then, as the EC was more akin to a club of partners than an overt political union – there were few signs of the super-state that we now know as the European Union.
Nevertheless, there were some far-sighted politicians who realised that Britain’s membership of this club had the potential to undermine our democracy. One of those politicians was Labour’s Peter Shore, then Shadow Leader of the House of Commons:
“This is a treaty which carries the most formidable and far-reaching obligations. It is a treaty – the first in our history – which would deprive the British Parliament and people of democratic rights which they have exercised for many centuries. I can think of no treaty, to cite only one characteristic of the Rome Treaty, in which the British Parliament agree that the power to tax the British people should be handed over to another group, or countries, or people outside this country, and that they should have the right in perpetuity to levy taxes upon us and decide how the revenues of those taxes should be spent.”
With the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the European Communities became the European Union, marking the entity’s evolution from an economic club into a political union. This was no longer just a financial affair. In fact, as we now know, the UK had become embroiled in a constitutional spider’s web from which it would prove very difficult to disentangle itself. The principle of ever closer union – which is adhered to almost fanatically by the ‘true believers’ of the European Project – meant that the EU and the UK were set on a collision course.
The history of the United Kingdom is almost unique in that the people won their freedom not in one bloody and tumultuous revolution (as has been the norm in most other countries, not just in Europe but around the world) but by a gradual process of Fabian progression. From the time of the earliest parliaments in the 13thcentury, the sovereign – the monarch – found it expedient to consult his subjects on certain matters, mostly relating to taxation. Over time, however, parliament grew in stature to become a body that represented the Will of the People, so by the time of the Civil War it was challenging the monarch’s claim to absolute sovereignty.
What came out of the Civil War was the principle of mixed monarchy – the notion that the King-in-Parliament represented the sovereign body of the land. From then on, no monarch was ever able to successfully govern without the support of Parliament, the representatives of the people.
For centuries, Parliament has protected the ancient Rights and Liberties of the British people. But once MPs started giving away power to Europe, they created a fundamental paradox: Was that sovereignty theirs to give away as they saw fit, as representativesof the people? Or does Parliament derive its sovereignty directly from the people? (In which case they had no business giving away those powers in the first place without a referendum.)
Pro-Europeans like to talk about our similarities with Europe, but the fact is that the UK’s political and democratic systems have evolved very differently to those on the continent.
Our legal system is a particularly good example of this, with British common law taking its cue not from the diktats of judges but from the evolution of law through precedent set on a case-by-case basis. In fact, UK law stands out like a sore thumb in Europe, as continental legal systems are overwhelmingly based on civil law, put in place since the Napoleonic era, which differs markedly from our own common law framework, developed over centuries. With this in mind, the UK would have an easier time annexing itself to the United States of America as the 51ststate, than it would being subsumed by the European Union in the decades to come.
In the last referendum in 1975, economic issues were at the forefront of people’s minds. This time round, people wanted to “take back control”, in spite of all the warnings of economic catastrophe. After being dictated to on whether or not prisoners should be allowed the vote, and what shape and size our vegetables should be, the British People, in their infinite wisdom, decided that they were quite capable of deciding for themselves, thank you very much.