Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. Read more of his historical articles on his website.
1st January 1973 was by any standard an historic day. For years prominent members of all the main political parties had proclaimed that Britain’s post-imperial destiny lay in the European Economic Community, as it was then called. What they confidently expected to be a new, glorious era could now at last begin. One man in particular felt the hand of benign fate upon him. Edward Heath, who had driven the necessary legislation through Parliament against considerable opposition, hailed a “tremendous moment” in British history. “My heart”, he said, “was full of joy”.
But few shared his excitement. A sense of national euphoria was wholly absent. There were no rejoicing crowds, no royal appearances, no street parties on this day forty years ago. In the run-up to it Heath laid on a Festival of European Art despite the refusal of some of his new European partners to lend a number of the pictures he wanted to include. Unsurprisingly, this failed to provide a stimulus for mass celebration when the historic day came.
Heath’s so-called Fanfare for Europe, which marked the actual start of the new era, also passed most people by. It opened with a gala night at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden followed by a banquet at Lancaster House. Heath, who was supposed to represent a new classless conservatism with widespread popular appeal, proved wholly incapable of reaching out to the nation at large at this historic moment. One obvious popular gesture was suggested to him. “If there is a suitable football match”, his advisers told him, “it might be a good idea for you to go”. Heath groaned at the prospect.
On 2nd January Heath made a major speech at another banquet, this time at Hampton Court. Those looking for an inspiring vision of Britain’s European future were disappointed. He spoke platitudinously about “the prizes to be gained by common action”—peace, prosperity and the “building in Europe of a society which will correspond more closely to the hopes of the peoples we represent”.
His real agenda was not included in the speech. His audience was not told that he had already agreed that Britain would join its new partners in full economic and monetary union, for which a target date of 1980 had been set. It was a matter of regret, he told President Richard Nixon, that the EEC was making “relatively slow progress towards political unity”. It was clear, he said later, that “the Community needs to develop a positive political personality in international affairs”. He hoped that within a few years it would become much more than a economic bloc and take “the name of union”.
Britain’s joyless accession to the EEC forty years ago on terms that were presented disingenuously to the people made the ever deepening discontent that followed virtually inevitable.