How the political class sold our sovereignty

As soon as we won universal suffrage, the Tories gave our democratic rights to the EU.

Doug Nicholls

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Each year of late has been packed with anniversaries of major events in working-class history.

Last year, we celebrated the bravery and foresight of the Suffragettes. This year was the bicentenary of the massacre at Peterloo. And perhaps less prominently, today is the 180th anniversary of the Chartists’ Newport Rising. These were three of the many heroic moments in the struggle for the vote that was to culminate in another key anniversary for this year: the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1969, which reduced the age of enfranchisement from 21 to 18.

The struggle for the universal franchise had taken well over a century. Some argue it stretched back further to the Agreement of the People in 1649 – the Levellers’ manifesto. Either way, too few recall the sacrifice and struggle that led to the right of all citizens over 18, regardless of gender and property, to vote for their representatives. We were left with the House of Lords and the monarchy, which together, under the shifting conventions of the unwritten constitution, still make up our parliament. But nevertheless, the people had a powerful voice for the first time.

Ironically, this new voice elected Ted Heath’s Conservative government in 1970. As we now know, Heath was embroiled in secret talks to give powers to the then embryonic EU over and above our parliament. Our voice was hushed before it had properly spoken.

The referendum in 1975 on whether to stay in the Common Market was a con. Socialists and trade unions, led by those like Tony Benn, opposed EEC membership. They rejected the Project Fear of the day and asserted national independence and democracy above the control of our country by an unaccountable foreign body.

Our elected representatives in parliament duly began stripping parliament and the people of our sovereign powers. First, in October 1979 – another, more devastating anniversary this month – Margaret Thatcher did the quintessential EU thing and removed constraints on the movement of capital. The genie was out of the bottle and a new breed of financiers and globalisers ran rampant. ‘Hark what discord followed’ as the real economy was pulled apart, public assets were sold off, and public services were put into incompetent, private hands. Super-profits went untaxed in offshore havens and the happy billionaires emerged. Even the annual Sunday Times Rich List had to be expanded from 200 entries to 1,000 to account for the egregious wealth at the top.

In 1986, the Tories signed Britain up to the Single European Act, consigning public procurement to the lowest bidders overseas, making market customers of us all. Stunned by the ferocity of Thatcher’s attack on the unions, in 1988 the TUC thought Jacques Delors sounded nice. They then started the long process of deluding organised workers that our salvation lay with those we don’t elect in the European Commission. Twenty years later, the European Court of Justice made it clear that workers’ collective rights were inferior to the rights of businesses in a number of landmark rulings.

The Tories signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, giving the unelected EU control over our public spending limits. And so it went on, EU directive after EU directive, treaty after treaty, draining away the democratic base of sovereignty in a parliament only able to pass laws if the unelected of Brussels approved of them.

In the 2000s, unlike France and the Netherlands, the British people were not even offered a referendum on the 2005 EU Constitution or the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 (a rebranded version of the constitution), which centralised powers in the unaccountable EU.

In the same period, the EU expanded its borders eastwards, making nomads of whole populations fleeing chaos and poverty and tragically believing that the grass was greener elsewhere. Many migrant workers toil in slave-like conditions. Accession states were told by the EU to break up collective bargaining and tear up their favourable agreements with unions. A bonfire of these agreements took place, culminating recently in the struggles in France and Italy against the assault on their labour codes. Britain’s unique system of negotiated final-salary pensions was kicked into terminal decline by the EU Directive on Pensions. Yet we are still told by some that the EU protects workers’ rights.

Over the past few decades, we went from the food mountains of the Common Market to mountains of mass unemployment in the permanently deflationary European Union. The country that gave us the word democracy, Greece, was ravaged and taken over to be ruled by bankers. Despite heavy austerity, money could always be found to pay German arms manufacturers. Britain argued for a rebate on the huge EU membership bill in 1984 and has consistently avoided entry into the Single Currency. Who knows how desperate things would have been if we had succumbed to the Euro.

By the time of the EU referendum, the British parliament had become so used to not having any real power that when the people’s voice demanded we leave the EU, some within it thought they could use parliament itself – under the cloak of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ – to oppose the desire of the majority for national self-determination. In the process, a new authoritarianism was born. Some parliamentarians took it as their mission to remove any executive power that would allow the government to follow the mandate of the referendum, including via the Supreme Court.

Brexit is about independence from unelected power over our decisions. National independence is an essential condition for democracy and socialism. It is something which millions have sacrificed their lives for throughout the world. Yet any opposition to parliament’s attempts to act against the majority will of the people has been stereotyped as ‘right wing’.

In a painful twist, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, passed by the coalition government in 2011, in the hope that it would extend the Liberal Democrats’ moment of glory, did the very illiberal thing it was designed to do – it made it impossible for the people to hold their MPs to account by recalling them.

To the very last, the Remainers are undermining democracy and resisting accountability. Remainers made Theresa May’s deal. Remainers opposed the May deal. Remainers opposed No Deal. Remainers will continue to oppose Boris Johnson’s deal. Yet now they face an election, and the people can finally pass their judgement.

Doug Nicholls is chair of Trade Unionists Against the EU.

Picture by: Getty.

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Colin Cronin

4th November 2019 at 4:12 pm

Well I’m voting Brexit party and hang the consequences. If commie Corbyn gets in he will devastate our economy and probably turn us into an even bigger laughing stock but he will also teach a valuable lesson to the electorate, and especially the young, about the far left. It seems some of us older ones have forgotten the 70’s and early 80’s

Colin Cronin

4th November 2019 at 3:53 pm

Yes lowering the voting age is a cynical thing to do. Just as when it was lowered to 18 and we stupidly voted (with hindsight) to enter the common market so the current bunch of idiots in Parliament want to give the vote to 16 year olds. You have to wonder why. Could it be because children are easier to manipulate as we are seeing in our schools with the climate emergency hysteria. I believe the voting age should have been left at 21 and even then an awful lot of 21 year olds are too immature to realise when they are being conned.

john larkin

8th November 2019 at 10:21 pm

Remain high Priest Lord Adonis said on the radio the other day, that we voted to join the Common Market in the 1975 referendum; we did no such thing … we voted not to leave what Edward Heath had taken us in to, he having won office on the 1970 manifesto which promised only to explore the possibility of membership.

Forlorn Dream

4th November 2019 at 1:20 pm

Election on 12th December so we get the results on Friday 13th.

I fear the game is up for us Brexiteers as the Brexit party will split the leave vote. This will allow commie Corby and his rabble to slip in through the back door.

I foresee massive parties over the following weekend as the minority celebrate the crushing of the majority. And this will be how our democracy die’s, not in war but in celebrations.

Christopher Tyson

4th November 2019 at 12:32 pm

I enjoyed the article and we probably need some more historical sketches of the history of the EU. I think there Is a danger of reading history backwards. For example when Thatcher came to power in 1979 the EU (or EEC or Common Market) was the all consuming question in British politics. Thatcher came in to power at a time when the IMF had recently intervened in the British economy, there were anxieties about OPEC and the escalating oil prices, there were major concerns about Trade Union power and also about the troubles in Northern Ireland. When I got to university in 1982, ‘The Ungovernability Thesis’ had emerged and there was a growing body of literature about British decline (economic, social, imperial etc). Thatches was initially unpopular, but her popularity grew particularly after the Falklands War, and there was a sense that she was a British patriot, and whatever are actual policies the perception that most of us will have of Thatcher would be of her being anti EU but circumscribed by all the bureaucratic difficulties and complexities as discussed above. In ’79 we were still in the cold war and Britain was closely tied to the US, there was a love/hate relationship, we lover US popular culture, but many particularly on the left were concerned about US influence. The Clash sang ‘I’m so bored with the USA’, but when they went there they loved it and did pretty well, this captures our ambiguity in relation to the US. For some the EU was an alternative to the US/USSR axis. I can’t remember the specifics of the freeing up of capital flows, I do remember bemoaning the fact that capital could move but that people couldn’t, perhaps envisioning the political Right accommodating capital while maintaining there anti-immigrant rhetoric. We can sometimes focus too much on institutions rather than relationships. Close ties with Europe are not inherently a bad thing, but we can question the nature of those ties and whose interests they serve. For example move free movement of people may be introduced to serve capital, not to improve the lives and freedoms of those people. As an analogy I’ve use before; charity and the charitable instinct is in my opinion generally a good thing. But the person giving the charity holds all the cards, they decide how much to give, who to give it to, and they reserve the right to stop giving. This is the case with paternalistic and therapeutic politics, the state is doing things for you and on your behalf, and sometimes this is okay, but they have power and you don’t. So close relationships with Europe are not necessarily a bad thing, but many of us have no say or control over the EU bureaucracy, we are alienated from it , and sceptical or suspicious about whose interests it serves. We can see that our own state apparatus has become deeply interwoven with the EU, and we can agree that there are complexities in extricating ourselves. We can also argue that this is as good a time as any to make this break.

Christopher Tyson

4th November 2019 at 12:36 pm

Correction: ..when Thatcher came to power in 1979 the EU (or EEC or Common Market) was NOT the all consuming question in British politics.

Philip Humphrey

4th November 2019 at 8:41 am

I don’t see how the British people can make a difference through this election. Even if you want out of the EU and its undemocratic rule and history of slow growth and economic failure, who do you vote for? The Tories? We have just seen their legacy of sellout and giving in in the article, and even with Boris in charge, he has already shown some disturbing tendency to give in to the establishment. Or the Brexit Party? Unfortunately, our electoral system is so stacked against them and any minor national party that there is a good chance that they’ll get a significant vote but no seats, and by dividing the leave vote it could even result in a hung parliament with the remainers calling the shots. I’m afraid I have a very bad feeling about all of this.

Robert Spowart

4th November 2019 at 8:30 am

“Either way, too few recall the sacrifice and struggle that led to the right of all citizens over 18, regardless of gender and property, to vote for their representatives.”

No, that should read “…. regardless of SEX and property,….”

Ardy Fardy

4th November 2019 at 1:55 am

As I left the UK in 1971 this is all news to me. I am shocked that the British people would accept this and that 48% of them would fight to retain it. Forget your history and you are doomed to repeat it?

Lord Anubis

4th November 2019 at 10:54 am

I seem to recall in an interview given some years ago, Heath admitting that had the British people really understood what a “Yes” vote meant in the 1975 common market referendum, we would never have gone for it.

Bill Cecil

5th November 2019 at 5:58 pm

Heath’s views were shaped by the War and he arrived at the wrong conclusions for the wrong reasons. However subsequent developments were laid bare in the infamous Foreign & Commonwealth Office memo FCO 30/1048 which remained classified for 50 years. It makes sobering reading.

john larkin

8th November 2019 at 10:39 pm

Heath’s views and ambitions in Europe were shaped by Suez, and America’s hostility to Britain over her military action; much later, Enoch Powell came away from a meeting with Heath at which they agreed that reliance on America was hazardous if not lethal, but it transpired they drew different conclusions from this analysis.

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