When it came to the EU, history held a gun to David Cameron’s head

When it came to the EU, history held a gun to David Cameron’s head

Historically, referendums are called to rub­ber-stamp decisions that have already been made. Governments know and plan for the direction the voters will go. Prime Ministers are not supposed to lose referendums. But David Cameron lost his.

In the aftermath of Brexit, much has been written about the campaigns. What went wrong and what went right. But my new book, co-authored with Sky News correspondent Jason Farrell, argues that the result was more to do with what happened before Cameron called the referendum. How to Lose a Referendum – the Definitive Story of Why Britain voted for Brexit (available for BrexitCentral readers at a special discount – see below) suggests that history held a gun to David Cameron’s head.

We believe Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was the result of not one Prime Minister’s blunder, but those of a succession of Prime Ministers, foreign ministers, civil servants and European leaders to boot.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just about politicians and their special advisers; it was about people’s lives. It was economic, it was social and there was a heavy dose of events – yes, ‘events, dear boy’ – that led to Britain’s decision to depart the EU.

That, and an ingrained attitude of non-cooperation, disagreement and misunderstanding of the idea behind European unity dating back to its very beginning; the UK’s historic approach to Europe played a huge role.

To tell that story we travel back to 1945 when the Second World War ended with only Britain left standing in Europe with its government intact. Trying to square the ‘three circles’ of the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, the trade relationship with the Commonwealth, and the need to help rebuild Europe as well as itself, Britain’s Labour Government remained determined to stand apart from any commitment to tie itself to what was being created on the Continent.

The project that was being formed was the brainchild of French civil servant Jean Monnet, who was convinced that the security of France could be secured by joining its coal and steel industries with Germany’s. This would help the latter rebuild but do so under a ‘higher authority’ that would watch over production, meaning for instance that the Germans could never again re-arm in secret. Monnet took his idea to members of the French government and it got taken on by Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. His ‘Schuman Declaration’ created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), saying memorably that ‘The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.’

What followed for the next 23 years was that Britain refused to take the opportunities to join what was to become the European Community (EC) until it was too late to influence its creation. Instead it became a set of institutions that required considerable economic and political contortions to fit into.

Just one story is that of Russell Bretherton.

In 1955 Britain had been asked to send Harold Macmillan, its then Foreign Secretary, to a set of meetings in Brussels to talk about setting up a ‘Common Market’ between the six members of the ECSC (France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands) and the UK. It would be a customs union, so free trade between the countries and a common external tariff put on any trade into the countries. But they would also discuss the possible harmonisation of social laws and monetary policy.

Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Chancellor Rab Butler refused to send any politician, believing that the UK was unlikely to sign up to anything which threatened its trade with the Commonwealth. However, they were happy to send a ‘representative’ to take part in the discussion. Since it was thought this was all about economics and trade, the UK sent an economics and trade expert, one Russell Bretherton.

He was a civil servant from the Board of Trade and way out of his depth in a meeting of Foreign Secretaries who were looking to revolutionise European politics by creating the EC. What’s more, Bretherton was under strict instructions not to agree to anything.

He was a classic civil servant who followed those instructions to the letter. So, in the meetings he agreed to nothing and tried to steer discussions onto a free trade area. But behind the scenes he was communicating frantically back to London what was really going on. The project, he argued, was predominantly political, and the other members were serious about achieving a full European Community. He felt he should be replaced by a minister, because “if we sit back and say nothing, it’s pretty certain that many more things will get into the report [that was agreed] which would be unpleasant from the UK point of view whether we in the end took part in the Common Market or not.”

How prophetic.

Eventually, Bretherton was sent home by ministers from the other nations, and they created a single market for goods, services, labour and capital, without the UK.

A different approach might have created a different European Union – in which the UK could have fitted more comfortably.

What followed was Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ignoring the advice of President John F Kennedy to change the EC from the inside instead of trying to change it from the outside before entering – resulting in two famous ‘vetoes’ for Britain’s applications from French President Charles de Gaulle.

Edward Heath eventually took the UK into Europe without a referendum and after a negotiation described by the leader of his team as ‘peripheral, accidental and secondary’ because nothing could be achieved.

Once the UK was in, there was a referendum in 1975 that ‘rubber-stamped’ the decision but left many feeling betrayed by the ultimate destination of a project that had been sold to them as only about trade. The EC was by then already about political integration. After that, British sovereignty was pooled far further than the leaders involved could have imagined.

Our book charts the ever growing pressures on the EU/UK relationship over the course of 70 years. In eighteen chapters we cite eighteen reasons why the UK voted for Brexit. Some of them you will recognise, such as Boris joining the Leave campaign, but many – like the Bretherton fiasco – have been overlooked and forgotten.

They matter because they shaped things. They helped create the unease that spawned UKIP and other anti-EU movements. They formed the bedrock of the UK’s motivation to part company with the EU. Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party were of course significant agitators at the time – but it was history that pointed a gun at David Cameron’s head: he merely pulled the trigger.

BrexitCentral readers can purchase a hardback copy of How to Lose a Referendum – the Definitive Story of Why Britain voted for Brexit at a 25% discount (£14.99 instead of £20) by entering the code BREXIT at the checkout on the Biteback website. You can also secure a 25% discount on the eBook by entering the code EBREXIT on the same website.