In the second of a three-part series, RTÉ's Europe Editor Tony Connelly examines Britain's complicated history with Europe.

In January 1963, Britain’s long and winding road to membership of the EEC was finally and fatally dashed by the French President Charles De Gaulle. 

The torch of European unity, with Britain somewhere near its heart, had been lit as an idea in the first instance by Winston Churchill. It had been carried aloft with various degrees of enthusiasm by the great Tory statesmen Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.

But at the very moment that the British political and newspaper class had finally conquered decades of angst and unease over Europe to pass through the Common Market door, it was slammed shut by the French.

A year and a half later, in October, 1964 Harold Wilson became prime minister after Labour won the general election. He had toed the strict anti-Europe party line in opposition and wasn’t about to change when he entered Number 10.

Harold Wilson became prime minister after Labour won the general election in 1964

His immediate concerns were economic. Britain had a balance of payments deficit of million and Wilson was forced to impose a 15pc surcharge on imports excluding foodstuffs and essentials.A run on sterling followed.Wilson was forced to seek a $1bn loan from the Americans.

The issue of Europe was by no means centre stage in Wilson’s first months as prime minister. When pressed, Wilson defaulted to the previous formulation that Britain would seek as close cooperation between EFTA and the EEC as possible – but the Commonwealth would always come first.

But the Commonwealth of the public imagination was not the Commonwealth as it really existed. Conservative MP Richard Hornby, a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, was commissioned to write a paper on the changing nature of the organisation.

"Within a generation [the Commonwealth] has changed from a closely-knit group of Britain and the white dominions and has become instead an association of 21 independent nations, of whom nine are in Africa, comprising some 750 million people, the majority of whom are Asian."

In other words, the once white-ruled club had become a teeming entity, increasingly interested in trading with the US and the Soviet Union.It wasn’t necessarily at Britain’s beck and call, if it had ever been. 

Despite Wilson’s public opposition to re-submitting an entry application, a debate on Europe was taking place within Whitehall below the radar.

The Conservative opposition, too, was keeping the pressure on Labour (the Tories, out of office, were always staunchly pro-European).Wilson eventually acknowledged that the Commonwealth was not the guaranteed globe-spanning asset it once was.

In March 1966, Harold Wilson took a gamble on a general election and it paid off.Labour was returned to office with a greatly increased majority. Despite a public opinion which was uncertain on Europe, the new dispensation gave Wilson sufficient fresh air to allow a cabinet committee to examine the prospect of a fresh bid to join the EEC. 

Favourable business sentiment towards the Common Market, too, had held up since the Macmillan years. A trip by a British thinktank to Paris concluded that, while opposition to British entry remained, President De Gaulle would not be around forever and that a more favourable climate may evolve.

In June 1966, a Campaign for a European Political Community was launched, attracting 150 signatures from a formidable array of academics, industrialists newspaper proprietors, unions and business leaders.

The British ambassador to the US informed the State Department that Britain’s “economic survival” depended on it joining the EEC.

Henry Kissinger, then a Harvard faculty member, wrote to the British government saying it ought to “seek its future in Europe instead of the Himilayas…”

But what ultimately forced Wilson into a U-turn on Europe was the state of the economy.Sterling had faced three crises since Wilson had taken office and the UK was finding trouble facing new lenders.

He told President Lyndon B Johnson that Europe had changed since the last abortive membership bid and that he could foresee a second attempt.

The Americans, needless to say, hadn’t abandoned their hope that the EEC would be strongly unified by British membership.

A Daily Telegraph opinion poll in February 1967 found that 67pc of the public favoured membership “if Britain’s best interests were served.”

A tour of European capitals convinced Wilson that a second application would be greeted warmly.

The mood in Paris, however, was still unwelcoming.General De Gaulle was still hostile to British entry.A strategy followed whereby Britain would threaten to retreat from Europe into an American embrace if it were to be spurned a second time.

When in April 1967 the EFTA countries said they would have no objection to Britain joining the EEC, Wilson felt the moment was right.

He told the House of Commons on May 2 that Britain would seek, once again, to join the EEC and the European Coal and Steel Community. 

The response from De Gaulle, predictably enough, was swift. On May 16 he announced that Britain’s economic situation and its place in the world meant it was not a suitable candidate for entry.

Britain, he said, was “insufficiently European”.

In further utterances that summer De Gaulle made it clear that Britain was a Trojan Horse for an Atlanticist takeover of the European project, one that would thwart his own burning ambition to have France in the driving seat, and his hopes for a rapprochement with the USSR.

Charles de Gaulle believed Britain was not a suitable candidate for entry to the EEC

Privately, many in the French government believed Britain was interested in joining the EEC not as a way to restore lost supremacy, but because it was the only way to avoid an irreversable industrial decline.

Although other EEC members were furious at De Gaulle’s rejection, he persisted.

On November 27, 1967 he slammed the door shut a second time.Common Market membership was incompatible with Britain’s economy and its currency, he said. British entry would “lead to the virtual destruction of an edifice which has been built at the price of so many difficulties and amidst so much hope.”

The ink on De Gaulle’s statement was barely dry when the Wilson government was reeling from yet another sterling crisis, the latest one leading to the devaluation of the pound by 14.3%.

Britain was forced to massively scale back its global military footprint to try and balance the books (pulling its troops out from the zone east of Suez, a move literally and symbolically dimmed even further the light of Empire).

Washington looked on with dismay. A State Department memo dated June 1968 described Britain as “at best, a middle-sized European power… [with] a continuing, if diminished, status as a favoured partner of the US.”

As the tumultuous decade drew to a close, the ideal of British membership of the EEC was kept alive, despite, or rather because, of the country’s parlous financial situation.

The lobbying was maintained by a cross-party group of MPs, and by business leaders and academics.

The final years of the 1960s were also the last years of Charles De Gaulle’s life;his shock rejection of the United Kingdom’s bid to join had been greeted with anger not just in Britain but also in France and Germany, while at home he appeared to be losing his grip on power.

With France beset by student riots and social unrest, De Gaulle lost a referendum in April 1969 on a raft of reforms. He promptly resigned (the following June fulfilling a lifetime wish by visiting Ireland where he was hosted by President Eamon de Valera).

Within 18 months President De Gaulle died suddenly from a ruptured blood vessel.

With De Gaulle’s death came a rapid reset in the political climate around Britain’s smouldering European ambitions. He was succeed by George Pompidou who was much more sympathetic to Britain’s plight.

George Pompidou meeting Edward Heath in Paris

Events had moved rapidly as well in Britain. On June 18, 1970 the Conservatives defeated Labour in a general election. One of the staunchest pro-European leaders in Tory history, Edward Heath, entered Downing Street against the backdrop of a shift in the European mood.

The stage was set for a third and ultimately successful bid by Britain to join the Common Market.

And yet, happenstance may have played a crucial role:Heath’s general election victory was surprising, as was his leadership of the Conservative Party, which he had won in 1965 (his Tory rival Reginald Maudling then was much more Eurosceptic).

Had Harold Wilson won the 1970 election, which had been on the cards, his chemistry with Pompidou may not have been entirely conducive to a fresh start.

But Heath was the coming man. 

“The most qualified ‘European’ in Tory politics asssumed the leadership of Britain,” wrote Hugo Young in This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair," at a time when the question of entry into Europe was ready for its final resolution.

He was made a European, not least, by his formation, but he was made a European leader by his character. What he brought to the table…was not merely a ‘European’ policy but exceptional single-mindedness in pursuing it.”

On June 30, just weeks after his electoral victory, Heath sent his foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home to Luxembourg to formally re-launch Britain’s EEC accession negotiations.

What seemed to the Tory establishment to be the natural zenith of a decades old dream, was, however, not shared from below.

There were shifting sands within British domestic politics and a sense of betrayal within the Commonwealth at Britain’s sudden re-embrace of Europe. Heath and his cabinet’s enthusiasm was suddenly, and perhaps fatally, at odds with the sentiment of the ordinary people.

Having lost the general election, Labour, which had been leaning closer and closer to Europe, decided to tack away in order to steal popular political support from the Conservatives.

At the same time, a eurosceptic bloc within the Tory Party, which had first emerged during Harold Macmillan’s bid in 1963, was attracting more and more recruits, now that membership finally looked imminent.Within the Commonwealth, New Zealand was leading the charge against membership because its prosperty was largely due to the preferential trade arrangements its dairy sector enjoyed with the UK.

The New Zealand factor, indeed, became a lighting rod for party political anxiety about Britain selling its soul in the negotiations to enter Europe.

If Britain could sacrifice the Commonwealth to get a deal on joining the Common Market, it would sacrifice anything, was how opponents framed it. Europe was therefore costing Britain the Empire.

“To a post-imperial public that was struggling to find its place in the world after empire,” writes Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, author of a new study entitled Continental Drift: Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the Rise of Euroscepticism, “this was a compelling analysis.”

Ironically, having come so close to his dream of EEC membership, Heath was to discover that the British public were heading in the opposite direction.

An opinion poll in November 1970 found that 61% of voters opposed membership, with just 24% in favour (a survey six months later found that the British were resigned to joining Europe, but were not that happy about it).

Pro-European Conservatives realised they had to win hearts and minds fast.

The party’s research department recommended, first and foremost, an economic argument: the living standards of the six EEC members had already matched, and were now outstripping those of the United Kingdom.If Britain joined, its exporters would have access to a market of 300 million consumers, not just 55 million in the domestic market.

Britain in the EEC would have a greater voice in the world, while Europe would benefit from Britain’s (albeit declining) imperial influence.

(Again, the parallels with today are uncanny.)

Against a backdrop of deepening Labour Party hostility to the Common Market, and public disenchantment with either the level of information about what it all meant, or the project itself, the accession negotiations lumbered on. 

On June 23, 1971, a full forty-five years to the day before the 2016 Brexit referendum, the EEC approved Britain’s membership.

The deal provided guarantees for New Zealand’s butter and cheese sectors, and worked out the ultimately toxic issue of Britain’s contributions to the EEC budget (8.64% of the Community budget in 1973, rising to 18.92 in 1977).

After decades of mood swings, dithering and failed attemtps, Britain had finally joined “Europe”. 

The next day the headline emblazoned on the front page of the Daily Mail (of all papers) read: “Now We Can Lead Europe.”

On October 28, 1971, the House of Commons voted by a majority of 356 votes to 244 to approve the European Economic Communities Bill (the very bill that was to drag Theresa May into, first the High Court, and then the Supreme Court, after the Brexit vote). 

It was momentous, but traumatic. The vote saw the biggest backbench revolt on the Tory side since May 1940. Heath relied on the support of a minority of pro-Europe Labour MPs, whose own party leadership quickly opposed the terms of Britain’s entry.

The Conservatives were, however, now unambiguously the Party of Europe. Labour was the eurosceptic opposition.

The public appeared to be resigned rather than enthusiastic.

“The mood when Britain joined was one of wary acceptance,” wrote the historian Kenneth Morgan, “since no obvious alternative could be found.It appeared even a kind of surrender, a recognition that the loss of Empire and the breakdown of an equal partnership with the Americans had left Britain an enfeebled and divided off-shore island with nowhere else to turn.”

This was graphically illustrated in the first opinion poll after Britain joined, alongside Ireland and Denmark, on January 1, 1973. Thirty-six percent were “quite or very pleased,” while 33pc were “quite or very displeased”. 

A total of 20% of the population was “indifferent”.

The mood among the europhile Tory establishment was buoyant. Harold Macmillan lit a bonfire on the Cliffs of Dover to celebrate entry, in a quixotic gesture of reverse-chauvinsism.

Harold Macmillan lit a bonfire on the Cliffs of Dover to celebrate entry to teh EEC

The government launched a “Fanfare for Europe”, a series of concerts and events including a Royal Gala at Covent Garden, featuring performances by actors Lawrence Olivier and Judi Dench, and singer Kiri Te Kanawa.

But the European glow was to be short-lived.

Popular disenchantment over Britain’s entry terms increased. The British economy was deteriorating, unemployment was soaring and tens of millions of man days were lost to strikes.Inflation was rampant, hitting commodities hard.Voters quickly associated rocketing food prices with entry into the Common Market and the loss of Commonwealth trading preferences. 

The 1973 Oil Shock following the Yom Kippur War made matters worse.

Edward Heath became increasingly exasperated that the public was conflating economic misery with EEC membership.

He urged ministers to sell the benefits of membership at every opportunity, convinced that if only the public understood the EEC better it would grow to like it.

But the public was shivering in the grip of coal and oil shortages. That the nine foreign ministers of the EEC launched a document on “European Identity” during the privations of the three-day week (announced by the government to save energy) did not endear the rank and file to the ideals of the Common Market.

With Britain’s economy sinking, and the social fabric fraying through energy shortages and strikes, Heath was forced to go to the country. 

Despite British business largely supporting the EEC as a bright spot in an otherwise brutal landscape, it was a highly damaging issue during the election, bringing together as the perceptions of soaring food prices and it did the Common Market.

Enoch Powell, the staunchly right-wing, imperilaist Tory MP, was in his heydey, antagonising the europhile leadership of the Conservative Party by urging voters to support the Labour Party. In the event he was credited with handing enough seats to Labour for them to emerge as the largest party, but short of an overall majority.

Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street for the second time on March 4, 1974. 

The economy was in ruins and Wilson was forced to lead a minority government. His first move was to appoint the fiercely anti-Common Market Jim Callaghan as foreign secretary, while the increasingly eurosceptic Tony Benn became Secretary of State for Industry.

The Liberal Peer Gladwyn Jebb noted ruefully that so low had support for the EEC sunk (12%, according to one poll), that voters would have blamed it for cholera and the crisis in the Middle East, such was the anti-European vitriol with which they had been bombarded during the campaign.

The Wilson government’s first move was not to withdraw from the EEC, but to seek to renegotiate the terms agreed in January 1973. If the new deal was not to the government’s liking (à la David Cameron 40 years later), Wilson would have no hesitation in recommending to the British people that they pull out.

But this was a minority government. Not only was the cabinet divided on Europe, the new government seemed, wrote Hugo Young. “to signal hostility, verging on contempt.”

Roy Jenkins lead the pro-Europe camp, but he had been moved to the relatively remote Home Office. Michael Foot was the leader of the anti-EEC group. Harold Wilson decided to go to the country again to seek a firmer mandate before the EEC issue came to a head. 

On April 11, 1974 Labour was victorious, and Wilson had a majority of 42 seats under his belt.

Labour now pressed ahead with rengotiation, promising a referendum on the outcome.London’s demands, presented to a meeting of EEC leaders in Paris in December 1974, touched on the same neuralgic areas that would characterise British angst over Europe for the next four decades: the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), Britain’s budget contribution, avoidance of any move to Economic and Monetary Union, asserting parliamentary sovereignty, and limiting transfers to poorer member states.

And yet, Harold Wilson’s EEC colleagues were pleasantly surprised, regarding the demands not so much as rengotiation, butreinterpretation. Eurosceptics in both Labour and the Conservatives were also surprised, but not pleasantly. 

They regarded the demands as too timid.Tony Benn described the government’s approach as “shocking” and “devious”.

That Christmas Benn issued a message to his constituents that continuing EEC membership would mean “the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation and the end of democratically-elected Parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom.”

In January 1975 Wilson told the House of Commons that the renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the Common Market would conclude in April, and that a referendum would follow.

Mirroring David Cameron’s move decades later, cabinet collective responsibility would be suspended so that Labour ministers such as Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Tony Benn could all campaign for a No vote. 

The Daily Mail, still an ardently pro-Europe paper, mocked the move as “Midsummer Madness.”

On March 17, Wilson put the terms of the renegotiation to the cabinet: there was a dramatic split, with 16 ministers in favour, and seven against.The Labour government was in a ragged condition, but the die was cast.A range of organisations, including the Ulster Unionists and Scottish Nationalists, large swathes of the Labour movement, and the overwhelming majority of British trade unions, lined up to oppose Common Market membership.

On the pro-membership side were business organisations, a small majority of the Labour Party and most of the Conservative Party.But on the Tory side, the referendum campaign would be led not by Ted Heath, but by a newcomer who had blazed on to the scene: Margaret Thatcher.

The problem for Margaret Thatcher was that she was cool on Europe, although she did toe the official party line.

Margaret Thatcher was cool on Europe

“Her instincts were hesitant about the EEC,” writes Grob-Fitzgibbon, “and she retained a Germanophobia dating from the Second World War that was difficult to shake; put simply, she did not trust the Germans and did not like the French.”

As such, very much like Theresa May in the June 2016 referendum, Thatcher campaigned for a Yes vote, but zero passion and little profile.The Sun wrote that Thatcher had “mysteriously disappeared from the Market Referendum Campaign…”

Dissenting Labour ministers issued a final appeal on the eve of the poll which today looks very much like a UKIP campaign ad:voters had the chance to “get back” the right to obey only British laws, to pay only British taxes, the right to have a British job in a British industry, and to trade with the rest of the world.

In the event, the British public, whether because of the fears of an unstable global economy, or because the pro-Europe arguments had eventually gained purchase, voted by a significant majority, 67.2 to 32.8, to remain in the EEC.

Although neither of them convinced Europeans, both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher felt that it was probably on balance that Britain – without an empire – was better off in the EEC than out. 

They both believed that Britain’s policy on Europe, after thirty years of angst, prevarication, bitterness and division, was finally settled.

How wrong they were.

Read part one of Tony Connelly's blog