The EU was never right for Britain

By June 23, 2018February 18th, 2021No Comments

Why I loathe Brussels: they steal our fish, squander our cash and treat us with contempt


23 June 2018

Austin Mitchell was a backbench Labour MP for 40 years before stepping down in 2015.

A self-confessed maverick who refused to toe the party line, he has always been strongly opposed to Britain remaining in the EU.

Here, on the second anniversary of the EU referendum, he delivers a powerful and timely reminder of why Brexit must be seen through.

My long-held and passionate attitude to the European Union is summed up in four words — three of which are ‘the European Union’, preceded by a commonly used four-letter Anglo-Saxon verb that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as ‘vulgar’.

I’ve always been a Eurosceptic, ever since I first stumbled across the Common Market, as the EU then called itself, in 1962. I was 28, Yorkshire born and bred, and, with my doctorate from Oxford, was teaching history at a university in New Zealand. A colleague gave a lecture on the Common Market — and, to my horror, he endorsed it as ‘a good thing’.

Incredible. Almost blasphemy. Britain led the Commonwealth. New Zealand, rich in dairy products, was its antipodean farm. Europe was there for us to defeat in war. How could an Englishman be so daft?

Fortunately General De Gaulle, the French president, agreed with me and dismissed British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s efforts to join a club he should never have applied to join the first place.

I was further comforted when a succession of British politicians came out to New Zealand to assure us that if Britain did join this alien institution then, scout’s honour, New Zealand’s access to the British market would be protected. The old relationship would carry on.

They lied. Parliament can be perfidious and was particularly so when it betrayed New Zealand by joining in 1973 — inveigled by Tory prime minister Ted Heath, who was so eager to get us into Europe that he did so on less than favourable terms. We were asking to be clobbered and duly were.

I was back in Britain and had switched jobs to become a journalist and a presenter on regional television when two years later Harold Wilson, the new Labour PM, called for a referendum to endorse or reject that decision.

I voted ‘No’. But two-thirds of the country said ‘Yes’. We were staying in.

I was far from convinced this was the right decision, and my hostility increased when in 1977 I was elected Labour MP for Grimsby.

The town’s fishing industry had been ruined when the Eurocrats declared the seas around Britain common waters and gave other members, even landlocked Luxembourg, equal access.

As a result, we got only a small proportion of our own fish.

I formed a Save Britain’s Fish campaign, which attracted support from all over the country.

Tory MP Edwina Currie pointed out that: ‘You don’t want to save Britain’s fish. You just want to eat them.’ Which was true, but far better for us to eat them than have them gobbled by undeserving continentals who took our jobs and the processing industry with them.

There was more to my scepticism about Europe than a lingering desire to catch our own fish, however.

I believed then, and still do now, that the nation state is not only the best but the only way of advancing the cause of the people while maintaining their democratic control of the process.

There is nothing the EU can do for us that we can’t do better for ourselves. Europe is too big, amorphous, divided and powerless.

It’s not a democracy but a plutocracy with a rootless bureaucracy, always pursuing an ever-closer union the people don’t want, yet never able to reach it.

As a concept it is a piece of mystification and nonsense, a mirage.

The trouble was that the EU couldn’t break away from its original purpose of protecting French agriculture and boosting German industry.

With these two states dominating, western Europe embarked on a journey few wanted to undertake, towards an ever-closer union only the Brussels bureaucrats sought, imposing policies without democratic consent and always prepared to overrule the people for their own good.

My basic reason for opposing membership was economic. The European Union drained Britain of jobs, money, demand and growth.

It became a brake on our economy, not an accelerator.

Being a deal between the interests of Germany, which needed a bigger market for its manufacturing, and France, which wanted agricultural protection for its food, the EU didn’t suit Britain, a net agricultural importer with a less modern and less well-invested industry.

The basis of British trade had been buying cheap food, particularly from Commonwealth countries, and sending them our manufactured goods in return.

That stopped after we joined. The Common Agricultural Policy required us to buy France’s more expensive food. Costs went up and every family of four lost £20 a week.

Meanwhile, Labour’s policy to boost jobs in the regions had to be scrapped because it was against the rules. What had been a surplus in our trade with Europe before we went in became a steadily growing deficit.

Our membership contributions — in effect, our payments for being damaged — went up year by year, siphoning off money to Europe, particularly to the powerful German economy, which generated ever-bigger surpluses at the expense of everyone else and particularly us.

To cap all this, Europe’s fast growth, which enthusiasts had claimed Britain would hitch up to, slowed substantially.

That’s why in my successful campaign in the 1979 General Election, I stood on a soapbox outside the Bird’s Eye frozen fish factory in Grimsby to denounce Brussels. And I’ve been doing so as vigorously as I can ever since.

But I’ve increasingly found myself out on a limb in a political class inexorably drawn to Brussels.

Europe is very attractive for those who hate Britain.

For the liberal intellectuals and many of our ‘elite’, who saw themselves as cosmopolitan rather than nationalist, Europe was nicer than their ‘xenophobic’ compatriots.

Those suffering in Britain — the unions, local government and the Labour Party — were seduced by the beguiling hopes Europe held out for them.

They didn’t see that it had no ability to help lame dogs over stiles and that its handouts were really the nation’s own money coming back, but with the EU’s heavy costs deducted.

My views remained unchanged as the Common Market marched on, morphing into the European Community, then the European Union.

Major Labour figures from Roy Jenkins to Peter Mandelson went off to Brussels and found a bigger and better stage to strut on.

There, people actually listened to them rather than dismissing them out of hand. They came back to proclaim Europe’s benefits.

Then Brussels came up with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, to set in stone rates of exchange between the various European currencies.

Tory Prime Minister John Major took us in briefly. It was a disaster. The whole system collapsed and Britain was humiliatingly forced out.

We sceptics heaved a sigh of relief, forgetting the propensity of dogs to return to their vomit.

Instead of backing off, the EU went for an even stronger monetary union by creating the common currency, the euro.

Unable to get electoral support for ever-closer union, the EU bureaucracy tried to smuggle it in through the back door.

A common currency, they hoped, would lead to convergence and develop the central institutions necessary to manage it.

By now Tony Blair was in Downing Street with his New Labour re-make. It wasn’t a respray job on the old jalopy but a total re-engineering.

Daft as a Liberal when it came to anything that would demonstrate his Euro-enthusiasm, he was passionately in favour of a single European currency.

Not understanding economics, he didn’t realize that Britain would be shackled by a fixed, and inevitably overvalued, exchange rate, with consequences ruinous for our weaker economy.

Fortunately, Gordon Brown, his Chancellor, saw the dangers and managed to think up five tests, failure in any one of which would forbid entry until the time was ripe. Which in my view it never would be.

Britain stayed out of the euro, thank heaven, leaving us peripheral to the Eurozone, the EU’s great adventure into the clouds.

The Eurocrats persisted with monetary union, even though it forces deflation on weaker and less competitive partners.

Britain would have been one of these if we had been foolish enough to join.

Brussels showered money on the weaker European economies, then crippled them with unsustainable and unrepayable debt, as the Germans refused to underwrite it. Any grudging help went to save the banks, not the individual nation.

Increasingly the EU was losing its shine. Unemployment was high, with a quarter of its young people out of work.

Germany built up huge economic surpluses, which it didn’t spend or recycle to the less successful economies.

To manage the euro, the EU needed the economic institutions of the nation state, but the Germans couldn’t accept that.

The EU could only move forward by greater federalism to create ‘ever-closer union’ but the members didn’t want this straitjacket. It was hit by the ‘refugee’ crisis and couldn’t agree on what to do about it.

It could possibly have conciliated British public opinion by delivering benefits to Britain, whose EU membership costs were spiralling all the time.

But it wouldn’t and didn’t. It was deadlocked: rudderless and dominated by Mrs Merkel, the most cautious politician in Europe.

Yet still Britain clung to the edge of this rickety raft.

The public were told to be happy with this developing disaster, and a Euro-enthusiastic Tory-led coalition government did nothing about it.

That is, until an overconfident David Cameron buckled to pressure in his own party and announced that he would solve his party problems by renegotiating improved terms for our membership, to be endorsed by a referendum.

He asked Brussels for changes to make the EU more acceptable in Britain. He got nothing worth having but still embarked on what he confidently assumed would be an easy victory.

The battle of Brexit was a thrill for me. I had stood down from Parliament by the time of the referendum. I was in my 80s and had been an MP for nigh on forty years.

Suddenly I was in demand again.

As one of the few survivors of that rare breed, the Labour Eurosceptic, I was hauled into debates to provide a balance to overconfident Euro-enthusiasts who couldn’t believe anyone would be insane enough to want to leave the Franco-German condominium.

It was the best fun I’d had for years. It was marvellous to harangue large audiences who were with me, for a change, rather than sitting there in stony-faced silence as Labour audiences had.

Even more wonderfully, the campaign ended in triumph. To the amazement of Cameron and the rest of Britain’s ‘elite’, he lost. The British electorate, two-thirds of whom had voted to stay in 1975, had changed its mind.

Victory was a strange new phenomenon. It had never happened to me before. I was as euphoric as any politician is ever allowed to be.

What happened, though, was in fact a peasants’ revolt rather than a triumph for my arguments.

The people, angered by [uncontrolled mass immigration,] cuts, stagnant living standards and de-industrialization, used this unaccustomed power to express their unhappiness not just at Europe but at three decades of neoliberal politics and globalization which had done little or nothing for them.

The educated and the liberal middle classes had come to identify with Europe as part of their privileged way of life, and supported a union that they saw as the symbol of enlightened internationalism and civilized (ie their own) values.

The less well-off, the less educated and the people who’d been left behind felt differently.

Britain’s elite were shocked by the nation’s rejection of their wisdom and advice. George Orwell once remarked that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality’.

That remained true of the liberal intellectuals, who’d given up on Britain and saw Europe as the future.

For the people to reject the EU just showed how irredeemable the British were.

It was, as they saw it, a surrender to ‘racism’, xenophobia, insularity and everything liberal intellectuals dislike in their own people.

On the other hand, Eurosceptics like me saw the vote as the result of a 40-year learning experience.

For me, the referendum result was the turning point I’d hoped for since 1979. The people had achieved what the politicians had failed to do.

It’s a shame it took so long and that so much damage was done before it came. Winning is rare in the political game. But it’s nice.

It has not, though, led to any belated acclaim coming my way. After the referendum, invitations to speak dried up as if I’d been a personal friend of Jimmy Savile.

The Guardian lost every article I sent them (as it had before, but now without explanation or reply).

The BBC, which had used me as a tame Brexiteer throughout the campaign, once it was over immediately replaced me with a Muslim to keep up their ‘diversity’ targets.

As for what lies ahead of us, the EU’s intransigence and the weakness of an insecure Government in negotiating are making withdrawal messy and difficult.

The Remainers don’t help.

They denounce the vote as the result of fear, ignorance, even Russian deceit, and have unleashed another, even bigger tide of fear about the consequences.

They do everything they can to discredit the British case for withdrawal, to shackle, soften and weaken the Government’s negotiating position and to collude with the EU to resist it, in the hope that eventually the people will give up their foolishness and stay, unhappily or not, in the promised land.

The Brexiteers, in contrast, can only wait and see, hoping for a good outcome which can’t emerge until negotiations end.

The British Government has been weakened by its second election and Remain’s long rearguard action.

The EU Commission, struggling to keep its rickety show on the road and facing unmanageable difficulties in Eastern Europe and Italy, wants to punish Britain pour encourager les autres.

These are the symptoms of an impossible negotiation. I fear that the account by the former Greek minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis, of the way the EU crushed his country’s aspirations may well be an omen of what’s to come.

Intransigence, delay and simple bloody-mindedness were their weapons — and clearly still are.

Those who believe they have a divine right to rule don’t give up easily. Nor must we.

Extracted from Confessions Of A Political Maverick by Austin Mitchell, to be published by Biteback on 3 July at £20. © Austin Mitchell 2018. To order a copy for £15 (25% discount), call 0844 571 0640 or go to P&P is free on orders over £15. Offer available until July 9, 2018.