Déjà vu: here it comes again
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
As well as being New Year's Day, today is the first day of Britain's total exit from the European Union. The rant that follows first appeared on my old web site on 30 June 2016, exactly a week after the British referendum which led to the exit door. Four and a half years later, I wouldn't change a word of it.
I first arrived in Britain in August 1964, as the London correspondent of The Australian newspaper. The Profumo scandal was still ringing in our ears, the Great Train Robbers had just been sentenced to 30 years prison, and Harold Wilson, currently billed as the new John F. Kennedy, looked like winning the forthcoming general election. The Beatles were world stars, swinging London was the place to be, and Mary Quant was designing the shortest skirts in history. Exciting times.
To my astonishment, Britain turned out to be a dump. Decay was everywhere. The City of London was not the glittering wonderland of glass skyscrapers so familiar today. Instead it was a largely charmless collection of dreary old buildings, and littered with bomb sites left over from World War II. These had been converted by opportunists into open-space parking lots. In the industrial Midlands, industries were failing and had to be “rescued” by the state, growth was stagnant, strikes were constant and commonplace, inflation was rising, gloom prevailed. People talked about Britain as “the sick man of Europe”. Dean Acheson had just delivered his stinging verdict: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
Britain also turned out to be pretty racist. In the 1964 election Labour lost the safe seat of Smethwick, a suburb of industrial Birmingham. The covert slogan that turned the tide: if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.
The class system was horrifying to my egalitarian Australian eyes. Companies felt obliged to include at least one Lord on their board of directors. It looked impressive on the company letterhead, you see. In the midst of all this, there was a flash of optimism when Harold Wilson won a narrow victory in the October election, but that didn’t last.
It was a period of horrendous currency crises, brought on by failing exports and rising imports. At one point, travellers were limited to £50 spending money to take out of the country on holidays, and whatever you took had to be recorded in your passport.
The illustration on the left is straight out of an old passport of mine, showing I was authorised to take £40 out on 24 May 1965, £50 out on 14 July 1967, and £50 out on 27 January 1968. I can’t remember where I went with £40 in 1965, but the £50 in 1967 was to cover four weeks in Formentera, Spain. The next £50 covered my trip back to Australia, including stopovers in New York, Mexico City and Honolulu. In the midst of all this, Harold Wilson’s government devalued the pound, making foreign adventures that much harder to deal with.
I remember one of my early journalistic assignments was to interview the novelist C.P. Snow, who had been promoted to Lord Snow and appointed Minister for Technology in the new Wilson government. I met him in his office in Aldwych, where he sat with his feet on the desk looking like an ageing Humpty Dumpty. He rapidly began interviewing me. What was the biggest difference between Britain and Australia? Easy. Australia was optimistic. Tomorrow would be better than today, and the joys of the day after tomorrow would undoubtedly be off the Richter scale. In Britain it was the opposite. The country was going to the dogs. Tomorrow would be dreadful, and the horrors of the day after tomorrow were unimaginable.
There was also a disturbing fact. Germany was in the middle of its Wirtshaftswunder (“economic miracle”) and was rapidly overtaking Britain as Europe’s biggest economy. France wasn’t doing too badly, either. It dawned on the right in British politics, and their supporters in the British business community, that maybe these Froggies and Krauts were onto something. Could what was then called the Common Market be the answer to Britain’s woes? In 1961 a Conservative British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, applied to join. The left, under Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, opposed. It didn’t matter. In 1963 the French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed the British application.
That might have been the end of it, if it weren’t for Harold Macmillan’s winds of change, which he saw sweeping through Britain’s old colonial empire in Africa and elsewhere. If Britain could no longer rely on enriching contributions from the Empire, and on Empire trade, where could it turn, as Dean Acheson had so perceptively asked? Europe continued to look like the best bet.
At this point the right persisted in liking the idea of Europe, and the left vehemently disagreed. To the left, Europe was a conspiracy of capitalists and plutocrats out to do the workers down. Let’s have nothing to do with it, they warned. So Britain moved on to galloping inflation, stagnation, relentless industrial turmoil and general dismay. Europe now looked like a better bet, even to some on the left, and for a second time Britain applied to join. This time the application came from a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. No matter, de Gaulle said no. Again.
In my capacity as The Australian’s London correspondent, I followed and reported on all this. Then in 1968 I returned to Australia to open the Curtis Brown literary agency. I kept an eye on British politics across the 12,000 miles of ocean between us, but I’d lost my ringside seat. In 1971 I moved back to Britain, still with Curtis Brown, and returned to following British politics avidly.
After 1969, when de Gaulle fell from power in France, Britain made a third application to join. This time, no veto. It was a Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who sealed the deal, in 1973. Heath then lost an election to Harold Wilson, who offered a referendum on Common Market membership. The old right-left split was very much in evidence during the 1975 referendum campaign. The leader of the anti-Common Market vote was a Labour cabinet minister, Tony Benn, a charismatic and thoughtful left-wing ideologue. However Harold Wilson won the day. Britain voted to remain.
The left-against, right-for attitudes to Europe remained in place until the arrival on the scene of Margaret Thatcher. She saw Europe as a bureaucratic monster delivering lousy value for money. She never advocated leaving Europe, but she fought the Brussels machine as hard as she could (which was pretty hard), swinging her handbag at any European Union target within range. Meanwhile, at home she waged war on the trade unions, particularly the miners but also the print workers.
Suddenly the left discovered that Europe offered them their best protection against the Thatcher onslaught. European social legislation in particular defended workers rights. The European courts turned out to be a more comfortable arena than the British courts in which to take on the Thatcher government.
So the mood swung. The far right now became anti-Europe, seeing Brussels and all its works as threatening the Thatcher revolution, while some of the left saw Brussels as their best bet to contain the excesses of Thatcherism and continue to enjoy a more convivial soft-left world. That reversal remains to this day. The centre-left and centre-right are in favour of Europe. The far left and far right remain opposed, hence Jeremy Corbyn’s tepid support for the Remain vote in the recent referendum.
Where does all this lead? The first thing to say is that one of the less discussed lies of the Brexit campaign was to hint that Britain would be better off if it could return to its old pre-EU glory. I can only repeat: that Britain was a dump. I lived there, and I know.
Take an example. One of the delights of Britain today is the country pub. When I stay with my daughter in Somerset, we go out to Sunday lunch in pubs offering food and wine to a standard that would have been unrecognisable in 1964. In those days, if you asked for food in a pub - which had to be before the 2:30 afternoon closing, natch - you were lucky to get a cold pork pie wrapped in cellophane, washed down by a pint of warm Watneys beer tasting like stale bread. Who can doubt that travel, particularly European travel, has led to a revolution in lifestyles in Britain, to everyone’s advantage? Yet European freedom of movement is one of the primary targets of the Brexiteers.
So if there’s another opportunity to vote on Brexit - and an early general election looks like the best bet to me - then remember that a vote for Brexit is a vote for cold pork pies in cellophane. Don’t risk it.
As so often, the headline over a leader in today's Le Monde caught the situation perfectly: "Pour les Britanniques le Brexit équivaut à un 'retour vers le futur' ... dans les années 1950". "For the British, Brexit is the equivalent of a 'return to the future' ... in the 1950s."