All the past British Prime Ministers since 1957 wanted Britain to be a member of the European Community. Could they all have been wrong?
In the past 62 years, there’s only one Prime Minister who wants us to turn our back on Europe – the current incumbent, Theresa May.
(However, before she became Prime Minister, she told the nation that it was in Britain’s best interests to remain in the EU.)
Britain is now throwing away the combined wisdom of ten consecutive past Prime Ministers, all of whom wanted Britain to be in the European Community.
PRIME MINISTER HAROLD MACMILLAN – CONSERVATIVE, 1957 to 1963
Mr Macmillan explained to the nation:
“By negotiating for British membership of the European Economic Community and its Common Market, the present Conservative Government has taken what is perhaps the most fateful and forward looking policy decision in our peacetime history.
“We did not do so lightly. It was only after a searching study of all the facts that we came to accept this as the right and proper course.”
“By joining this vigorous and expanding community and becoming one of its leading members, as I am convinced we would, this country would not only gain a new stature in Europe, but also increase its standing and influence in the councils of the world.”
PRIME MINISTER SIR ALEC DOUGLAS-HOME – CONSERVATIVE, 1963 to 1964
Mr Macmillan’s successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was briefly prime minister for one year from 1964. He supported Britain’s application to join the European Community. Sir Alec said:
“I have never made it a secret that I cannot see an alternative which would offer as good a prospect for this country as joining the EEC [European Community].”
As Foreign Secretary in Edward Heath’s government, Sir Alec said:
“I, too, have concluded through the years that membership of the Community would be advantageous to Britain.
“I almost add ‘necessary for Britain’, because I am acutely conscious that there are two questions which have to be asked : not only whether we should go in, but what is the prospect for Britain if we stay out.
“Those two questions have to be asked because, whether we are in or out, the Community goes on.”
PRIME MINISTER EDWARD HEATH – CONSERVATIVE, 1970 to 1974
It was Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who joined Britain to the European Community following the backing of Parliament after 300 hours of debate.
On the evening of 28 October 1971, Mr Heath addressed the House of Commons during the momentous debate on Britain joining the European Community. He said:
“Surely we must consider the consequences of staying out. We cannot delude ourselves that an early chance would be given us to take the decision again.
“We should be denying ourselves and succeeding generations the opportunities which are available to us in so many spheres; opportunities which we ourselves in this country have to seize”
Mr Heath added:
“..tonight when this House endorses this Motion many millions of people right across the world will rejoice that we have taken our rightful place in a truly United Europe.”
Parliament did endorse the Motion, and Britain subsequently joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973.
Mr Heath explained to the nation just before we joined:
“The community which we are joining is far more than a common market. It is a community in the true sense of that term.
“It is concerned not only with the establishment of free trade, economic and monetary union and other major economic issues, important though these are — but also as the Paris Summit Meeting has demonstrated, with social issues which affect us all — environmental questions, working conditions in industry, consumer protection, aid to development areas and vocational training.”
PRIME MINISTER HAROLD WILSON – LABOUR, 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976
In 1975, just two years after Britain joined the European Community (also then called ‘the Common Market’), Prime Minister Harold Wilson offered the nation a referendum on whether to remain a member.
In that referendum, Mr Wilson endorsed the ‘Yes’ vote which won by a landslide – by 67% to 33%.
Before the referendum, Mr Wilson told the House of Commons on 7 April 1975:
“My judgment, on an assessment of all that has been achieved and all that has changed, is that to remain in the Community is best for Britain, for Europe, for the Commonwealth, for the Third World and the wider world.”
During the referendum campaign, he said that he was recommending continued membership in “strong terms”.
He said that it would be “easier and more helpful” to solve Britain’s economic problems “if we are in the Market than if we were to be out of the Market.”
In recommending continued membership, Mr Wilson’s government sent a pamphlet to every household explaining the primary aims of the Common Market:
• To bring together the peoples of Europe.
• To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
• To promote growth and boost world trade.
• To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
• To help maintain peace and freedom.
PRIME MINISTER JAMES CALLAGHAN – LABOUR, 1976 to 1979
As Foreign Secretary during the first referendum on Europe in 1975, James Callaghan supported the ‘Yes’ vote for Britain’s continued membership of the European Community, having led the negotiations for Britain’s new terms of membership.
He said, “Britain is in, we should stay in” and he also said, “The Government asks you to vote ‘Yes’, clearly and unmistakeably.”
Although critical of the European Community’s “nonsense” agricultural policy, Mr Callaghan as Prime Minister supported continued membership. For his party’s 1979 manifesto he wrote:
“We are ready and willing to work with our European partners in closer unity.”
The manifesto called for Greece, Portugal, and Spain to “receive an early welcome into the Community” and for reforms to the European Community’s Common Agricultural Policy.
PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER – CONSERVATIVE, 1979 to 1990
During the referendum campaign of 1975, the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, strongly campaigned for Britain to remain a member of the European Community.
In a keynote speech at the time she said:
“It is not surprising that I, as Leader of the Conservative Party, should wish to give my wholehearted support to this campaign, for the Conservative Party has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party.”
During her tenure as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher is credited with pushing for, and making possible, the Single Market of Europe.
In September 1988 Mrs Thatcher gave a major speech about the future of Europe. She said:
“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”
“Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour.”
Crucially she said in support of the Single Market:
“By getting rid of barriers, by making it possible for companies to operate on a European scale, we can best compete with the United States, Japan and other new economic powers emerging in Asia and elsewhere.”
PRIME MINISTER JOHN MAJOR – CONSERVATIVE, 1990 to 1997
It was Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, who negotiated and won Parliament’s backing to sign the Maastricht Treaty, that among other benefits gave us EU Citizenship rights allowing us to reside, work, study or retire across a huge expanse of our continent.
At the Tory Party Conference of 1992, just six months after John Major won a surprise victory in the General Election, he said to the party faithful:
“I speak as one who believes Britain’s future lies with Europe.”
And Mr Major warned about Britain walking away from Europe:
“We would be breaking Britain’s future influence in Europe. We would be ending for ever our hopes of building the kind of Europe that we want.
“And we would be doing that, just when across Europe the argument is coming our way. We would be leaving European policy to the French and the Germans.
“That is not a policy for Great Britain. It would be an historic mistake. And not one your Government is going to make.”
“Let us not forget why we joined the Community. It has given us jobs. New markets. New horizons. Nearly 60 per cent of our trade is now with our partners. It is the single most important factor in attracting a tide of Japanese and American investment to our shores, providing jobs for our people..
“But the most far-reaching, the most profound reason for working together in Europe I leave till last. It is peace. The peace and stability of a continent, ravaged by total war twice in this century.”
PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR – LABOUR, 1997 to 2007
Tony Blair, Labour’s longest-serving Prime Minister and, so far, the longest-serving Prime Minister of this century, was and still is a natural pro-European.
Mr Blair was recently described by Andrew Adonis, his former policy chief, as:
“The most instinctively pro-European prime minister since Edward Heath.”
In his memoirs, Mr Blair wrote:
“I regarded anti-European feeling as hopelessly, absurdly out of date and unrealistic.”
Mr Blair’s first manifesto, just before coming to power in 1997, promised that:
‘We will give Britain the leadership in Europe which Britain and Europe need.’
In a keynote speech to the European Parliament in 2005, Mr Blair said:
“I am a passionate pro-European. I always have been. My first vote was in 1975 in the British referendum on membership and I voted yes.”
He added that the European Union is:
“a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people, of not just a common market in which we trade but a common political space in which we live as citizens. It always will be.”
“I believe in Europe as a political project. I believe in Europe with a strong and caring social dimension. I would never accept a Europe that was simply an economic market.”
Mr Blair concluded:
“The broad sweep of history is on the side of the EU. Countries round the world are coming together because in collective cooperation they increase individual strength.”
PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN – LABOUR, 2007 to 2010
Gordon Brown was the first Prime Minister from a Scottish constituency since the Conservative’s Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964. He came into power just as the world was going into economic meltdown.
But he saw the European Union as being uniquely placed to “lead the world through global crisis.”
In a speech to the European Parliament in 2009, Mr Brown said:
“Today we enjoy a Europe of peace and unity which will truly rank among the finest of human achievements and which is today a beacon of hope for the whole world.”
He was proud to say that Britain today was a country “not in Europe’s slipstream but firmly in its mainstream”.
Europe was uniquely placed to lead the world in meeting the challenges of globalisation precisely because it had achieved:
• “the greatest and biggest single market in the world”,
• “the most comprehensive framework of environmental protection”,
• “the world’s biggest programme of aid” and
• “the most comprehensive social protection anywhere in the world”.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON – CONSERVATIVE, 2010 TO 2016
David Cameron was the only leader of a main political party to call for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Community.
During the subsequent 2016 referendum campaign, he urged the country to vote to ‘Remain’ in the EU, which was his government’s official position.
In a keynote speech just days before the vote, Mr Cameron told the country:
“I feel so strongly that Britain should remain in Europe. Above all, it’s about our economy. It will be stronger if we stay. It will be weaker if we leave.”
“Britain is better off inside the EU than out on our own. At the heart of that is the Single Market – 500 million customers on our doorstep…a source of so many jobs, so much trade, and such a wealth of opportunity for our young people.
“Leaving the EU would put all of that at risk.
“Expert after expert – independent advisers, people whose job it is to warn Prime Ministers – have said it would shrink our economy.”
“I believe, very deeply, from my years of experience, that we’ll be stronger, we’ll be safer, we’ll be better off inside Europe. To put it as clearly as I can: our economic security is paramount.
“It is stronger if we stay. If we leave, we put it at risk.”
▪ ALL OF THESE 10 PRIME MINISTERS had good points and bad points, and policies that not everyone agreed with.
But during their premierships, they all without exception unanimously supported our membership of the European Community as being in Britain’s best interests.
Could they all have been wrong? Please think about it.
Just one Prime Minister (Theresa May), out of Britain’s eleven Prime Ministers of the past 62 years, wants us out of Europe, when all the other Prime Ministers wanted us in.
* Before Harold Macmillan, Sir Anthony Eden was Conservative Prime Minister from 1955 until he resigned on 9 January 1957. He was a Eurosceptic who made the momentous decision for the UK not to be a founder member of the European Economic Community, when six other European countries signed the Treaty of Rome, just two months after Sir Anthony left office.
* Before Sir Anthony Eden, Sir Winston Churchill was the Conservative Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955. In the immediate post-war years, he strongly promoted ‘a union of Europe as a whole’ and a ‘United States of Europe’ but he did not envisage at that time Britain joining such a union. There is compelling evidence, however, that Churchill – who is recognised as one of the 11 founders of the European Union – changed his mind in the late 1950s. Please see my separate report ‘Winston Churchill: A founder of the European Union’
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