More Funeral March than Europe Fanfare
Britain on the day it joined the European Community
If Britain’s joining the European Community should turn out to be the historical turning point that Macmillan predicted twelve years ago, then it certainly will not be because the British people wanted it that way. Even on the eve of accession, which, at any rate, is an irrevocable fact sealed by the parliament a few months ago, almost one in four British voters had either no opinion or no idea. Thirty-nine percent were still opposed and only 38 percent in favor. In view of attitudes that are indifferent, predominantly grumpy, and partly hostile at best, it is not surprising that animosity has increased against the festival staged as a “fanfare for Europe,” the announcement of which was attacked as a mistake both inside and outside of parliament.
When, in an enquiry posed in the House of Commons, Labour MP [Willie] Hamilton asked the Prime Minister what he regarded as his government’s greatest error, [Edward] Heath said cuttingly: “To have underestimated the extent to which the Labour party, including its leaders, would betray its European obligations.” Labour leader [Harold] Wilson, normally so quick to respond, took quite some time to strike back with the counteraccusation that Heath “cynically and deliberately broke his election promise not to enter the Common Market without the full approval of the British people.”
Because Heath has long been familiar with this argument, which is based on a falsified quotation, it was easy for him to maintain the upper hand in this parliamentary exchange of blows. “If you had had a majority of 112 votes in favor of joining the EEC, you would have been the first to boast about it, as in fact you did when you made your own failed attempt.” It was the final parliamentary clash before the accession date of January 1, 1973, and it accorded exactly with the icy political climate, in which relations between the prime minister and the opposition leader have played themselves out since Wilson’s departure from his own European course.
Whereas Wilson’s pro-Europe turnaround cannot be dated precisely, since it marked the end of a process that had progressed relatively slowly, Wilson’s relapse into his old hostility toward joining the EEC, which had already manifested itself at the 1962 party congress, can be traced back to a specific date: the Labour defeat in the House of Commons elections of June 18, 1970, despite the fact that this debacle had nothing at all to do with the European course.