Lachlan Macrae explores the history of Britain’s relationship with the European Union and what we can expect from the potential final month of Boris Johnson’s reign.
Brexit is a mess. It seems that the whole saga has dragged on for so long that no one really understands what is happening. Countless court cases, meaningful votes, suspensions, renegotiations, and even multiple prime ministers seem to have fried people’s brains. No one has any interest (let alone the time) to really get their head around it. This is despite the fact it’s all anyone seems to be talking about. In fact, a survey commissioned by Channel 4 News estimates that there are 92 million conversations about Brexit every day within the UK. And there’s a good reason why everyone is talking about it. The issue of Brexit goes beyond the UK’s relationship with the EU; it is actually changing British politics forever. It is threatening the fabric of our democracy in a way that could affect our generation for the rest of our lives.
So, with a general election coming up and the UK withdrawal date on the horizon (despite its constant postponement), it's time we got a little more informed about the Brexit mess and what Boris Johnson really intends.
Let's start at the beginning - the very beginning - in the 1960s, when Britain failed to join the EU. Believe it or not, in the 60s, Europe didn’t want Britain: it wasn’t the other way round. First in 1961, and then again in 1963, Britain tried and failed to join what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC). Only in 1973 did Britain manage to join after France, who had previously blocked Britain's entry, backed down. Despite the desire of the British government to join the EU, the issue of Europe was still divisive. Much like Britain now, there was an angry split between Remainers and Brexiters, or as they were called then: “eurosceptics” and “promarketers”. And so in 1975, to put the issue to bed once and for all, (or so they thought), a referendum was called.
Despite this sounding awfully familiar to the 2016 referendum, there were important differences. Firstly, the result was a landslide, with remain winning 67% of the vote and leave only taking 33%. Interestingly enough, Scotland voted with a higher proportion in favour of not being in the EEC than England, which of course was reversed in 2016. In fact, the SNP came out for not joining, taking the position that Scotland would never be truly independent if they were within Europe. This position is the complete opposite to the subsequent line of the SNP which famously argued for “independence in Europe”.
However, just like in 2016, the 1975 referendum did not put the already 14-year old issue to bed as Harold Wilson, the prime minister at the time, had hoped. Euroscepticism still remained a hot issue that divided both major parties. What needs to be taken from this era of British EU relations is that the UK has always had a difficult time with the EU. These issues on trade, sovereignty, immigration, and British nationalism are still the issues that shape the debate today.
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