Brexit is really about escaping the emotional ordeal of Europe
Britain has always seen the EU as something to be endured rather than embraced
What we have been witnessing since the 2016 Brexit referendum is the inevitable culmination of a history of melancholy morphing into vehemence. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
A century ago there were nearly 170,000 miners working in County Durham in northeast England.
The growth of the mining industry in the 19th century had transformed the Durham landscape and its population, with a proliferation of colliery villages and an influx of workers from all over the UK.
The industry declined in the county after the second World War and many of its pits closed in the 1950s and 1960s. The last colliery in the Durham coalfield closed 25 years ago.
The Labour party minister Herbert Morrison famously evoked the Durham miners in 1951 when Britain refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community, a precursor to the EEC established in 1957.
Morrison insisted “the Durham miners won’t wear it”. The following year Britain refused to countenance involvement in a European Defence Community; according to British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, Britain could not join a federal Europe, as it was “something in our bones we know we cannot do”.
Twenty years later, with Britain on the cusp of EEC membership, the irreverent theatre critic Kenneth Tynan recorded that the Tory attitude to impending membership was “as if it were somehow an inevitable and character-building ordeal”.
In the referendum in 1972, 83 per cent of Irish voters voted in favour of EEC membership
This question has always been an ordeal for British politicians, and an intensely emotional one.
The sentiments it has generated have trumped rationality, which is why the current implosion in British politics was inevitable. Prime minister Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Rome in January 1973 and Britain was finally in, if not emotionally of, the EEC camp.
A “Fanfare for Europe” in the form of a Gala at London’s Convent Garden was held to mark the occasion; outside, protestors jeered and an effigy of Heath was hanged as a crowd chanted “traitors, traitors, traitors”.
By contrast, in Ireland emotions were low-key.
For over a decade, the Irish political establishment had insisted joining the EEC should be seen as entirely practical and certainly not a betrayal of the revolutionary generation who had fought for independence because, in the words of Garret FitzGerald in 1962, a year after Ireland’s first unsuccessful application, eventual entry would be negotiated by Ireland as “a sovereign state . . .but for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not after all in vain.”
Whether this was true or not was not the point; it was a deliberate strategy to discourage emoting about European integration.
In the referendum in 1972, 83 per cent of Irish voters voted in favour of EEC membership – a result, suggested historian Joe Lee, which indicated “the dangers appeared distant, vague and abstract, while the gains appeared immediate, precise and concrete”.
While the opposition of those Irish opposed to EEC membership was heartfelt, there was a distinct lack of emotion generally.
Taoiseach Jack Lynch even rejected the idea of an event at Dublin Castle to mark accession as being too elitist and instead wanted “countrywide symbolic tree-planting ceremonies”.
This newspaper announced on January 1st, 1973 that “Ireland enters EEC without any fanfares . . . ceremony or flourish”.
Brexit was about a feeling; about knowing in their bones, about guts, about getting something “back”
What we have been witnessing since the 2016 Brexit referendum is not only a fascinating piece of British political history, it is also the inevitable culmination of a history of melancholy morphing into vehemence.
Labour’s Tony Benn observed in December 1975 that he “saw a picture of our blue British passport disappearing and a purple European Community passport being substituted. That really hit me in the guts.”
Almost 20 years later Labour MP Chris Mullin recorded in his diary that he was on a trip to Strasbourg: “I am astoundingly ignorant about Europe. This is the first time I have set foot in France for 20 years . . . everything about the European parliament seems ludicrous.”
In their bones
Addressing those who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement during the week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked, “Was Brexit really about trade restrictions and protectionism, tariffs, borders, restrictions on trade? Is this what Brexit was really all about?” No, it was not about that; it was about a feeling; about knowing in their bones, about guts, about getting something “back”.
As John Major pointed out in February 2017 on the back of such emoting, “obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”.
Both the Tory and Labour parties bear responsibility for this, but whether senior ministers who were apt to distil the sentiment opposing European integration were truly engaged with those they sought to champion is debatable.
Herbert Morrison’s comment about the Durham miners not wearing Europe was not spoken in a coal pit, but in the plush Ivy Restaurant in London.
Many of those responsible for the meltdown of British politics on the EU question will undoubtedly continue to dine comfortably there, described by those who run it as “this most British restaurant”.