All the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the British people firmly believe in the nation state and consider that it provides much the best vehicle for government that is representative of, and answerable to, the people it serves. Rightly or wrongly, citizens traditionally looked to 'the government' to address both their own concerns and the problems of society generally. Turnout at parliamentary elections has consistently been considerably higher that those for local authorities or the European Union. Most people identify with the nation state, owe their allegiance to it and consider that it should take the lead in their own governance. In short, the overwhelming popular view is that national identity and parliamentary government should coincide.
Following the devastation caused by the Second World War a number of European leaders became convinced that the only way to secure a lasting peace between their countries was to unite them economically and politically. As a first step, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed integrating the coal and steel industries of Western Europe. This took effect in 1952 with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), with another early euro-visionary Jean Monnet as its president. The six member countries were France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. At the time, relatively little interest was aroused in Britain by this new body. However, it was the acorn from which in time a mighty oak was gradually to extend its spreading branches to cover virtually the whole of Europe.
From its inception the 'European Project' has been propelled by its own momentum. It is never enough to stand still, it has to both expand and deepen its authority. In 1957 the member countries of the ECSC signed the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC) that sought to remove trade barriers between them, resulting in the formation of a 'Common Market'. This was a major development in European unity and again Britain, watching from the sidelines, showed little enthusiasm for this new venture. At the time it was seen primarily as a means of increasing trade between member countries, and debate within Britain on the EEC, over the next two decades, concentrated on the issues of free trade with Europe and the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The commitment in the Rome Treaty to ever-greater political and economic union received scant attention.
In the early 1960s Britain was experiencing some economic difficulties. Despite full employment and relatively high economic growth there was concern over the 'stop-go' nature of the British economy. During the same period the EEC countries were experiencing exceptional economic growth and this resulted in their GDP overtaking that of Britain, a development that was regarded by many as humiliating. At the same time Britain was in the process of divesting itself of its colonial territories. In the much quoted words of former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Britain had 'lost an empire but had not yet found a role'. So on both economic and political grounds, joining the EEC began to look attractive, as it was seen as a panacea for boosting a relatively sluggish economy as well as a substitute for the loss of a wider world role that the empire had provided.
Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan judged that the time had now come for Britain to apply for membership of the EEC. Edward Heath, future Prime Minister and committed euro-enthusiast, was entrusted with negotiating the terms of entry. Most of the political establishment, and the British public, of the time supported membership, although there were some reservations by the Labour Party and amongst some Conservative backbenchers. It was widely seen as a golden opportunity for Britain to share in the incredible economic success that the EEC countries were experiencing. Both Tony Benn on the Left, and Enoch Powell on the Right, who were later to become fierce critics of European integration, supported membership at this time. However, despite all the energy and effort put in by Edward Heath, French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed the application in early 1963. He judged that Britain’s special relationship with the USA would compromise Britain’s commitment to Europe, and he may have been particularly piqued by the nuclear agreement that Britain and the USA had signed in Nassau a few months earlier, from which France had been excluded. Another factor was the negotiations that were still taking place on the CAP. De Gaulle wanted to ensure that it remained highly favourable to French farming interests, an outcome which might be jeopardised if Britain entered the Community before agreement on it was reached. De Gaulle’s Non! provoked a sense of great national disappointment and was regarded as a huge setback not just by the Government but also by most politicians, as well as the British people. De Gaulle rubbed salt into the wound when he vetoed a second application by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1967 on much the same grounds.
Britain’s exclusion from Europe was to end with the election of Edward Heath as Conservative Prime Minister in 1970. Heath, had been a strong Europhile since his youth, and his wartime experience convinced him of the need for close European ties. He was an ardent, almost fanatical, supporter of the EEC. It therefore came as no surprise when his Government entered into immediate negotiations for EEC membership. By this time De Gaulle was no longer in power and the British application was welcomed by member states. However, on the home front, support for the EEC had begun to fragment, and Heath faced some stiff opposition not only from Labour but also from rebels within his own party of whom Enoch Powell was the most vocal.
Opposition to Heath’s application came mostly from the wings of the political spectrum; those in the centre overwhelmingly supported British membership. However, the Right and Left disagreed on the grounds for objection. The Left considered the EEC to be a 'capitalist club' that would prevent their vision of a state controlled, nationalised, protectionist and trade union dominated economy being realised. On the other hand, some on the Right had begun to wake up to the threat posed to British sovereignty by the drive for ever closer political and economic union, particularly as specific, albeit unduly optimistic, proposals for achieving this were now firmly on the EEC agenda. Labour, still led by Harold Wilson, decided to oppose the application for membership. However, a sizeable number of Labour pro-Europeans, most notably the then Deputy Leader Roy Jenkins, supported the government and as a result Heath won all the parliamentary votes on EEC membership, although some with only very slim majorities. Heath signed the treaty of accession in 1972 – the pinnacle of his political ambition and his proudest moment – and Britain formally became a member of the EEC at the beginning of 1973, along with the Irish Republic and Denmark. However, unlike those two countries, no referendum was held in Britain despite Heath’s promise to seek the 'full-hearted consent of parliament and people'. The stage was now set for the EEC, and later the European Union, to extend its tentacles into the governance of Britain.