Neil Carmichael is Chairman of the Education Select Committee and is MP for Stroud.
Daniel Hannan wrote recently on this site that ‘it’s time for Conservative MPs to come off the fence on the EU’. Whilst it is a matter for each and every one of my parliamentary colleagues to take this momentous decision for himself or herself, I have never been on the fence: I am a committed supporter of our continuing membership of a reformed European Union.
When I was growing up and developing my interest in politics, it soon became clear to me that the only party that really understood the challenges faced by the nation was the Conservative Party. It understood both what needed to be changed and also what was better conserved. One of my earliest political campaigns was the 1975 referendum on Europe. I campaigned on the pro-EEC side, and so did the overwhelming majority of my fellow Conservatives. We were excited by our membership of the EEC and associated it with the positive future development of our nation, both economically and politically. Not only did our membership promise increased trade and economic growth; it also established our place in the emerging, new world order, as a leading member of the European family.
Having been a (young!) participant in that campaign, I have always been very frustrated – and not a little concerned – by the myths, exaggerations and false memories associated with that campaign and referendum. Many people still believe the 1975 referendum was about whether or not to join the then EEC. It wasn’t. We had already joined, in 1973. In reality, what we were voting on was whether or not to endorse the historic decision to join the EEC.
Harold Wilson had returned as Prime Minister in 1974. The nation was badly divided, and so was his party. When the Commons had voted on the principle of joining the EEC less than three years earlier, Tories had a free vote, but Wilson imposed a three-line whip against the Heath Government’s proposal. Led by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, 69 Labour MPs rebelled and supported the application, delivering a substantial margin of victory – 112 votes.
That vote changed the destiny of a nation, but further divided the Labour Party. The referendum was designed principally to let off steam, allowing the likes of Tony Benn and Peter Shore to argue against the EEC, while Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and others campaigned in favour – all remaining as senior ministerial colleagues, since Cabinet collective responsibility had been suspended.
Now, however, the Prime Minister has presented a reform agenda over the past three years which is of considerable potential benefit both to the UK and also to the wider EU, most notably in his Bloomberg speech, which I believe every Conservative should feel able to support. The current negotiations focus around “no” to “ever-closer union”; ensuring that Eurozone integration remains fair to those who will remain outside the single currency (an important reform to ensure the future of our financial services sector; the need to complete and expand the single market and reforms to benefits. I also believe that many of our EU partners on the centre-right welcome these reforms, and in recent years it has been the Labour Party’s allies who are in political retreat across the continent.
My position on our membership of the European Union is straightforward, and has been consistent throughout my involvement in politics. The EU is not perfect and needs to be reformed – and the Prime Minister has set out a path to achieve that. There is no point in being dogmatic about it. This is a simple question of where and how our national interest is best pursued. There is nothing inherently patriotic about being a “Eurosceptic”; nor is there anything inherently unpatriotic about supporting our EU membership. This is about balancing complicated questions of influence, cost, democracy, migration, self-determination and economic advantage.
It certainly isn’t just about trade; of course it isn’t. It wasn’t in 1972, when Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Accession; it wasn’t at the time of the last referendum in 1975; it wasn’t in the 1990s, when enlargement and fundamental reforms were on the agenda; and it isn’t now. There will always be trade within Europe. Our trade with our fellow EU members is of immense importance to us; and so it is to them too. We buy more from them than they buy from us, but the point is that both figures are immense. As members, we have significant say over the functioning of the EU internal market. As non-members wishing to remain as trading partners, we should have to pay the entry fee, but lose our influence.
It is another of the great canards about 1975 that the pro-EEC campaign played down the political significance of our membership. It suits some people to say that, even to believe it; but that does not make it true. Look at the coverage. Look at the campaigning literature. There was no “great lie”; no “hoodwinking”. It was a grown-up campaign, treating the voters as grown-ups and trusting them to take a mature decision, after due reflection. Going forward in time, consider Margaret Thatcher, pouring scorn upon Labour’s desire to leave the EEC and pressing the case for diminishing the national veto, as was duly embodied in the Single European Act, one of her greatest achievements.
The “Out” campaign always implies that there is a clamour amongst friendly nations to see the UK out of the EU, in order that we should have a series of mutually beneficial, exclusive, bilateral trading and political alliances with them. The reality is that not a single significant ally of ours is advocating our departure from the EU. In particular, since the days of Harry Truman, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States has favoured closer integration between the free nations of Europe, with the United Kingdom at the heart of that. As I understand it, even the modern Republican Party, whose interest in overseas affairs, to put it kindly, has been known to wax and wane, still wants to see the UK at the heart of Europe – not just economically, but politically and diplomatically too.
So I hope more of my colleagues take Dan’s advice – and affirm their support for our continued membership of the EU. The EU requires reform. It should be less monolithic, more democratic: the single market is still nothing of the sort. I regretted it when the Blair Government threw away our hard-won opt-out from the Social Chapter. I support the Prime Minister’s renegotiation. I believe our membership of the EU is in the national interest and will enable us to play an active and robust role in shaping Europe’s future.