THE BENN DIARIES
Tuesday 18 March 1975
The day of the Cabinet decision on Europe and
the day of the parliamentary decision, the day of the dissenting
Ministers' declaration, of the signature of the motion on the
order paper, and indeed probably one of the key days in the history
[TAPE TURNED OVER HEREMAYBE A FEW WORDS
It was the first time that this key question
had ever been discussed, and it came after the end of renegotiataion
because it had been referred to a different committee from the
ECS which had considered our renegotiation strategy. He[?] said
it posed the whole question of whether the Community is to be
supranational or a community of soveriegn states.
Jim Callaghan said, "Now, how many laws
were passed last year that had direct effect in Britain? Does
anybody know? Douglas Jay had said Three thousand." Ted said
he didn't know but it was certainly over two thousand last year,
so Willy Ross said, "Well, when we get statutory instruments,
at least the Secretary of State signs them."
Crosland said that he wasn't concerned with
sovereignty because he thought sovereignty had passed anyway to
the power workers and the hospital workers, but he was concerned
about the cost of gratuitous harmonizations which he found he
had to deal with. He said he would like this matter put to Ministers
to try and stop it.
Alf Morris said he was concerned about the powers
of the Commission.
I said, "Sovereignty is not the same as
omnipotence, nobody is omnipotent. The Americans aren't sovereign,
they were actually beaten by the Vietcong, they can't do what
they wanted. Sovereignty means democracy in the sense of power
to make your own laws, not even the power to enforce them, because
that might depend on circumstances not within your control."
I said that there were three options open to
us. One was to protect our parliamentary democracy, which would
offend the Community; another was to abandon parliamentary democracy
which would offend the Manifesto; the third option was to fudge
I said that this was the most important constitutional
document ever put before a Labour Cabinet. The whole political
history was contained in this paper. It recommended a reversal
of hundreds of years of history which had progressively widened
the power of the people over their governors. Now great chunks
were to be handed to the Commission. As to the Commission, it
was theological. There certainly wasn't the sort of argument that
occurred when Conference only asked for its views to be respected
by Cabinet. Yet we were quite happy to give it to the Commission.
I said I could think of no body of men outside the Kremlin who
had so much power without a shred of accountability for what they
I said that the Community would destroy the
whole basis on which the labour movement was founded, and its
commitment to democratic change. That was one of the reasons why
we had a small Communist Party, why the ultra-left was so unimportant,
it was because you could say to people "Change your MP and
you can change the law". That was where the attack on democracy
was coming from. If we accepted this paper, we'd be betraying,
in a very special sense, our whole history.
Michael said, "We're being asked to accept
everything we opposed when we were in opposition. Take the tachygraphs,
these little machines you put in lorries to measure mileage. We'd
opposed that in opposition, but it was imposed on us. The theology
of the Common Market is written into the whole centre of their
Treaties. We are conniving at the dismemberment of Parliament.
We are destroying the accountability of Ministers to Parliament,
and if we have a European Parliament elected by 1978, it will
destroy our Parliament. It will encourage Scottish and Welsh separation
because they'll say "If you can do that, what about helping
us to govern ourselves?" This would dissipate the powers
of the British Parliament, people think we're crazy to dismember
our Parliament at the most dangerous moment in our history.
Jim said that it wasn't the first time that
a document of this importance had been before a Labour Cabinet.
It was all set out in the 1967 White Paper. Sovereignty of Parliament
was not an issue, it wasn't even in the Manifesto.
This led to a protest from Michael who said
that it was a draconian curtailment of the powers of Parliament.
Harold said that that was from the first manifesto. Michael said
that the authority of Parliament was used in the October Manifesto.
"Well," said Wilson, "these are the differences
between the old and the new testaments."
Jim said, "Sovereignty is not new, nor
should we say we should have raised it when we didn't. As to taxation,
the limit is 1% by the Commission." He disagreed most strongly
with me when I said that there was more of a danger from the Commission
than from Mick McGahey, certainly the International Socialists.
He said, "Well, the Communist Party may have gone over the
top, but the International Socialists are penetrating the authority
Jim said he too was worried about things like
the "standardisation of rear-view mirrors which he said was
offensive, he thought there may be too many commissioners, but
the time to study the Commission would be after the referendum.
"We don't want to give Parliament the power to hold things
up." (This is typical of Jim who regards the power of Parliament
as something derived from Ministers instead of the other way round.)
"Sovereignty was destroyed by interdependence," said
Jim and he was confident in what Elwyn Jones, Lord Chancellor,
had said, that the power was there if the people felt strongly
Harold Lever said, "Tony Benn is a legal
pedant," and as for Nick McGahey versus the Commission, he
didn't share that view. He said that debates on whether this was
irrevocable were silly. The decision to come out would be even
Harold Wilson said, "The British Parliament
has the power to come out at any time." I asked if he'd be
prepared to say that publicly. "Well," said Harold,
"we can discuss that later when we come to the handling of
Elwyn Jones said, "Political sovereignty
is the power to make our own laws and Parliament could repudiate
the Treaty at any time. Parliament has handed over part of its
law-making powers already. In opposition, it was the exercise
of the power that we had ceded that we criticised. British influence
can be exercised in future by the Foreign Office. Government can
continue to declare war. Parliament can continue to throw out
the Governments that fail. We have given limited powers to the
Commission, Parliament can take away what it has given. A legal
framework is difficult and disturbing. The practice is more important
than the legal machinery. (This coming from the Lord Chancellor,
I might add)
Reg Prentice said that he accepted Paragraph
2b, ie. the surrender of sovereignty and improved scrutiny. "We
need to strengthen the power of Parliament over the pressure groups
at home," he said, "and we must institutionalize our
external interdependence, but of course, the juggernaut lorries
can and must be stopped, but we mustn't be too neurotic about
a seepage of powers away from Parliament."
Barbara Castle said that it was because she
knew about this that she had opposed it in 1967. The philosophy
and theology of the Common Market was to remove the distortions
to competition, and that is what the free movement of capital
and labour were all about.
Bob Hellish said that Parliament was completely
inadequate. He knew as a Party manager that the statutory instruments
were frustrating, we needed a review of parliamentary procedure.
He couldn't believe it would affect our sovereignty. The powers
of the Commission were strong but Parliament is a farce, it will
have the final say, and Britain will always have the veto over
laws they try to pass over it.
Peter said, "There is anxiety, and I regret
there haven't been earlier discussions. Sovereignty is the right
to make your own laws, and the minutiae are not the real issue.
Freedom of movement of labour is very important, and the Courts
will enforce our law at the moment but they won't later."
"Well," said Harold Wilson, "the
free movement of labour had never been an issue."
By then it was just after 11.00 and we went
down and had tea. I had my coffee and I had my mug of tea and
I thanked Harold for it, and it was then he told me that he had
sent over to get it. We went back into the Cabinet.
Ted Short said that Gunderlach, one of the new
Commissioners, had cut down on harmonization. He said that Parliament
could not divest itself legally of its own sovereignty. He said
Parliament has the right to bring the UK out at any time, and
if we tried to change the sovereignty, it would change an essential
feature of the country, of the Community, namely the direct applicability
of their law in Britain. Could we amend the Common Market Act?
He said, as to the sovereignty, statutory declaration of sovereignty
would be purely cosmetic, therefore we couldn't do anything because
it would have no effect. We could strengthen our procedures, and,
therefore, he would favour radical proposals for strengthening
That was the end of that discussion. It was
quite clear that it was going to be absorbed and wrapped up in
a later discussion, and I learned nothing about the views of my
colleagues. But as is already evident, the effect of a referendum
and the Common Market discussion is to produce some very deep
discussion about the meaning of Government. I really wonder whether
many of my colleagues have thought about it. I've had so long
to think about it, with the experience of the peerage battle and
all that, that I feel I am a jump ahead.
Harold said, "Well, we now come to the
main question. Should we accept the terms or not? I recommend
that we should stay in and that is the view of the Foreign Secretary
though he will speak for himself. We have substantially achieved
our objectives. The Community has changed de facto and de jure,
and the attitude of the Commonwealth has changed too. The Commonwealth
wants us to stay in, and the Commonwealth trade patterns have
changed; though I regret it. If we had a free trade area for the
UK, the conditions upon us would be even stiffer or as stiff,
and I am only persuaded 51% to 49%, indeed I had anxieties right
up to the last few days, but I recommend that we stay in."
Jim Callaghan said, "In supporting you,
I would like to say something about the development of Europe.
I am unashamedly an Atlanticist, but we are living in a regional
world and we must use the regional organisations. The Soviet Union
does not find our membership of the EEC a hindrance to detente.
Indeed, I think secretly, they might like us in to control the
Germans. The 77 non-aligned countries who are now banded together
at the United Nations could destroy the UN and we are better in
a regional group to withstand them. As to the prospects for democratic
socialism in the Community, four of the countries are Labour,
or have labour representation in the Government: Holland, Denmark,
Germany and the Republic of Ireland, and now Britain. The market
economy is really as an idea quite fly-blown, and the withdrawal
of Britain would strain our relations with Ireland."
He quoted Benjamin Franklin who said something
like this, "When I first looked at the terms for this Constitution
I was not persuaded of it. As wisdom came, I came to see that
I was wrong."
Willy Ross said, "We cannot ignore the
Manifesto, Parliament has lost its power, the only power left
would be to come out. Anything less than that, the Courts would
decide. The Commission is still completely independent, and we
have not changed their power at all. In 1967 the Cabinet did not
accept membership. It just decided to apply to see what the terms
of membership might be. The Manifesto only listed our main objectives,
and we didn't change the CAP and the power of the Commission is
unaffected. On fishery policy, the anxiety in Scotland was that
under the Common Market rules, people would be able to fish right
up to the shore. The Scottish National Party has won all the constituencies
round the coastline on fishery policy grounds."
Harold Wilson said, "Well, that has never
been raised at all in the last twelve months."
On the terms, Willy quoted the Foreign Office
paper. "Regional policy is another problem, once in, it will
grow. The greater degree of oversight from Brussels is being urged
and we read from an article in the Times in which George Thomson
said he had a development plan for Scotland, and it would all
be monitored. As to steel, the cost of coming out, it could be
argued, might .be serious but it sounded like the story of the
lady in the brothel who was told it would be more expensive if
she came out," a most improbable comment I might add from
Willy Ross. He went on, "I am not satisfied, though it's
a matter of balance."
Ted Short said, "I've been awarding points
as a schoolmaster on the eight matters of renegotiation. CAP 3
out of 5, budget 4 out of 5, EMU 3 out of 5, regional and industrial
policy 4 out of 5, steel 1 out of 5, fiscal policy 4 out of 5,
capital movements 5 out of 5, Commonwealth 5 out of 5. So 29 out
of 40, or 72.5%." He thought Jim Callaghan should be awarded
a doctorate in renegotiation. He wants us to stay in and we'd
take advantage of the agreement to differ if Cabinet decided to
Harold Lever said, "You know, this is not
a great divide. This is the beginning of a new relationship with
Europe." He favoured staying in.
Shirley Williams favoured staying in, and said
"We could stop the Commission, and indeed we did when they
tried to harmonize our milk and beer . . . The Prime Minister
and the Foreign Secretary have achieved a great deal in the Third
World." "And with Judith" said Harold. He's always
trying to implicate her. "Oh yes," said Shirley.
She went on, "On the market economy, in
fact they had gone much further on the continent than we had,
and in industrial democracy, they had gone much further in Germany
than in Britain. They spend more on the public services, all higher
than us. On the mixed economy, France and Italy have a larger
public sector than us and they see it not as an ideological matter
but as a practical advantage to their country. On democracy, they're
doing well too."
Bob Mellish said that the Common Market was
here to stay and we should stay in. Then it came to my turn to
make my main final speech. I said, "Prime Minister, I fear
that the Cabinet is about to make a tragic error. It recommends
that Britain stay in. I recognize that Jim has done his best and
probably got the best terms that are compatible with continuing
membership, but we have not achieved our manifesto objectives
and indeed we did not even try."
"We deferred the real issues, the really
difficult issues, like the authority of Parliament and regional
and industrial policy until after the renegotiation was over.
We have confused the real issue of parliamentary democracy for
already there has been a fundamental change. The power of electors
over their law-makers has gone, the power of MPs over Ministers
has gone, the role of Ministers has changed. I hope we won't be
told this is all theology and not law because the history of the
world has been written by theologians and not pragmatists, and
as to the law I remember the efforts I had to spend, ten years
of campaigning to get the courts to accept the supremacy of the
Commons over the Lords at a time when two judges said that a peerage
was an incorporeal hereditament affixed in the blood and annexed
to posterity. That was a huge battle just to establish a simple
I said, "The real case for entry has never
been spelled out. It is that there should be a fully federal Europe
in which we become a province, and in fact it hasn't been spelled
out because people know it isn't acceptable. We are at the moment
on a federal escalator, moving as we talk, going towards a federal
objective we do not wish to reach."
"In practice, Britain will be governed
by a European Coalition Government that we cannot change, dedicated
to a capitalist or market economy theology. This policy is to
be sold to us by projecting an unjustified optimism about the
Community, and an unjustified pessimism about the United Kingdom,
designed to frighten us in. If Jim quotes Benjamin Franklin, let
me quote what Benjamin Franklin said. "He who would give
up essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither
safety nor liberty." The Common Market will break up the
UK because there will be no valid argument against an independent
Scotland with its own Minister and Commissioner, still enjoying
the Common Market with the rest of the UK and England. We shall
be choosing between the unity of the UK and the unity of the EEC."
"It will impose appalling strains on the
labour movement, however responsibly we may argue it. No-one in
this whole discussion has mentioned the TUC with whom we signed
the Social Contract, or the National Executive, or Conference
who are joint partners in the Manifesto and to whom we should
report back. It will block off the path to peaceful change with
consequences we cannot foretell. It will create a new myth that
the future of Britain can be solved by others. In fact we all
have to build the new Britain ourselves. I feel strangely cheated
that after each colony has escaped from the British Empire, when
only the English are left, we are handed over to Brussels to govern.
I believe that we want independence and democratic self-government
and I hope the Cabinet in due course will think again."
Michael came after me and said, "We've
given up so much. The Commonwealth view is not our view. We shall
dismember Parliament and the UK. Western Europe is a coalition
system, and we shall be caught adopting it. It will permit the
operation of coalition policies over party, and the British don't
want coalitions. We must present this fundamentally, the cost
of coming out is used, but it is a defeatist movement. Gaitskell
said that we should make that clear."
Denis Healey said that it would be a mistake
to present the issue as Michael and Tony Benn had suggested. The
consequences outside would be serious, and economic problems are
more important. He said this is a matter of judgement and choice
between evils on a balance. In real life it was a mistake for
the British not to have gone to the Messina Conference which started
the Treaty and the movement to European unity. The Commission
was set up with the Treaty of Rome and it would have been better
if we'd been there at the start. Leaving now would not end the
matter and there would be pressure for reversal of the decision
and for our continued entry later. That's why I approved the application.
As to the renegotiation, he said we have improved
it in practice, and there's growing support in the Common Market
for our approach. The decision to leave now would be more damaging
than the decision not to join. We had no sympathy from the White
Commonwealth if we left, we'd have no sympathy from the US which
is turning inwards, and the idea of a North Atlantic Free Trade
area is out. Europe is a bargaining counter with, the US and there'd
be a long period of uncertainty if we decided to leave, and industry
needs certainty. We'd have to negotiate with a hostile Common
Market and even EFTA and the Commonwealth and the USA. It would
not be a disaster but a risk, and he hoped we wouldn't overplay
the disaster if we leave, or we would have no credible posture
with the British people to vote for withdrawal. The consequences
would be too dangerous, and therefore he hoped the people would
vote to stay in and improve it from the inside.
Tony Crosland said he agreed with Denis, he
was an agnostic, sceptical about large markets, he thought there
were strong arguments for staying in, partly because the Common
Market was going anti-supranational, partly because of the effect
on investment, partly because we would be deceiving the country,
and partly because the psychology of the UK would go back to a
sort of Churchillian myth that we were the greatest and most important
country in the world. Therefore he had to accept the Common Market
exists, and it's going to concern us, it is an important force
for good and it would be crazy to come out.
Reg Prentice said, "I was against and now
I am for staying in. The onus of proof has shifted. We have to
consider the investment effect. There would be a disastrous effect
on the economy if we came out, political matters mattered most.
I am a one-world man and regional groupings help the third world.
The EEC exists and we're in it. It would be a danger to detente
if we came out. The. third world with the world food crisis was
our great problem and we would make a bigger effort to deal with
it if we were in."
Eric Varley said, "I was against in 1967,
never inflexibly, and I'm sure that the improved terms will help
the UK if the referendum goes for membership. I would certainly
hope to make it work if it did, but for my own part I shall be
voting no. We are being asked to take too much on trust. There
have been no fundamental changes in the Common Agricultural Policy
of the Economic and Monetary Union. I'm worried about Parliament,
but my main worries are about energy and oil, because if the Treaty
of Rome is applied to the Continental Shelf, and the Community
have asked to study the application, then we'll be in difficulties.
I asked the officials at the Department of Energy to look at the
pros and cons and the North Sea Oil is under study. The Treaty
may apply, and then in 1990 we'd have to look at our depletion
policy and then we couldn't resist Common Market pressure to maximize
He went on to say, "We can survive outside.
I regret the long campaign which will strain the Party, but I
am opposed to our remaining in."
Peter Shore said that the balance of advantages
was unfavourable. "Parliamentary institutions would suffer,
the unity of the United Kingdom would suffer, the relationship
with the world as it is nearer to the Commonwealth, the English
speaking world than to the continent. That is how the British
As to the regional and national argument, Peter
said, "The EEC disintegrates when it comes up against real
issues like the energy problem. Our base is not in Western Europe.
It is too weak, too small and too old fashioned. In real instances
it makes the problems worse. France is no friend, she has frustrated
our approach to the world energy problem through the Agency. I
do not think you can have this degree of intimacy without a real
community, we are friends and allies with our neighbours on the
continent but we don't have that degree of intimacy with them.
We can survive without, and prosper and contribute more."
Malcolm Shepherd said, "It has been a privilege
to listen to the debate and I hope the same spirit will illuminate
the referendum, and the Government and the Party would come out
of it stronger." He said he had always been a supporter of
entry, he had lived abroad a lot of his life, he did not like
the old terms but he was 85% for the new terms. We were now in
and the price of leaving would be too great.
Fred Peart said his attitude was obviously coloured
by agricultural matters. The deficiency payment scheme had not
even been in the 1947 Tom Williams Agricultural Act. France also,
looking wider, will contain Germany. He had attacked entry in
the old terms but we had achieved a lot, beef and lamb subsidies,
we've defied the Council, we've liberalised sugar, and we should
stay in on grounds which had been most influenced by Denis.
John Silkin said only Harold Wilson could have
kept us together over this period. It was an irrevocable decision
to be made and to suggest we could change it would be like suggesting
we could repeal the Treaty of Paris 1789 and bring the United
States into colonial status again under Britain. It was the last
chance either way. He said he would accept it as binding, we should
leave the EEC because the logic of a federated Europe would involve
a fundamental change in the Common Market if we wanted to stay
in, our Manifesto contained minimum terms. He would vote no.
Elwyn said he was agnostic and still had doubts,
renegotiation had been beneficial, there was no leap in the dark
if we stayed in now, the Commonwealth, America and the Common
Market wanted us in, he didn't want a confrontation with the Common
Market, the consequences of withdrawal were disturbing. If we
left, our practical freedom of action would have gone, we can
contain the risks to parliamentary democracy, he thought our law
was more threatened at home.
Merlyn Rees said he was not a federalist but
he noticed that the French and the Germans were working better
together and the youngsters today in Europe don't think nationally
at all. He'd read every paper he could find and he'd come out
for yes. He said the Commission worried him a bit and the Party
and the Conference and the unions might take a different view
but there were many Labour voters off the emotional hook now and
he thought that was to the good.
Roy Mason said, "You know my views. We
have succeeded in getting some substantial changes. The awareness
of a series of successes is well known, regional groupings are
here to stay. We have changed the face of the Common Market, we've
helped in the Third World. To begin to unravel Europe beginning
with Denmark would be terrible, it would mean the UK withered
on the vine. Our balance of payments, and he had spoken to the
former President of the Board of Trade, would be badly affected.
It would be traumatic for Britain, an embarrassment for the City,
and he was for staying in.
Barbara said, "You know my view, I've given
my reasons, it is bad to ask people to stay in an organisation
whose principles we do not share. As for pragmatism we have accepted
that we cannot challenge the theology so we have not really tried
on parliamentary control, on steel and the Common Agricultural
Policy. The power on council to veto, to safeguard national interests
sounds attractive but it is not as simple as that. The EEC works
by compromise. Everything is a bargain, and this is a charter
for coalition which would destroy the Labour Party. The EEC is
an institutionalized coalition."
Roy Jenkins said he was in favour of staying
in. He agreed with Denis and said we should have gone to the Messina
Conference. He himself had been wrong to underestimate the scope
there had been for improving the terms. He thought it was a remarkable
achievement but it would be a terrible blow if we left. He was
an Atlanticist too, more at home in America than on the Continent.
But Europe is a pillar of Atlantic cooperation.
Willy Ross said he believed in the maximum strength
for the UK, to prevent the division of the UK. He was unconvinced
about the terms and he would vote no. If we conceded powers to
Brussels we could not resist conceding them to Scotland and Wales.
John Morris said that on forms and principles,
he thought the Common Market was frightening. In practice it was
more acceptable. We should try to change the Commission, we must
meet the needs of Parliaments. He regretted the entry but could
we do anything now but stay. It's too late to get out, he would
recommend we stay.
It was 16 to 7 for staying in. Harold said,
"I hope nobody will think that has anything to do with the
way I composed the Cabinet because when I formed it a year ago,
there were eight for Europe, 10 against and five wobblies. Now
I want to know who, of those who have expressed their view, intend
to take advantage of the agreement to differ?" The replies
were as follow:
Thus it was that the Cabinet reached its view.
Then the guidelines were passed round, very
rigid saying no debating with Labour Ministers or appearing in
constituencies with MPs or taking a different view without their
permission, no appearing on platforms with others.
I said, "Well, as you know Harold, I had
set myself these targets but they've got to be done sensibly and
it's the spirit rather than the detail."
Harold said, "I based them on what I heard
you were going to do."
Shirley said, "What about appearing with
Geoffrey Howe on the Tory side?"
Harold said he didn't want to discuss them today
"and anyone who says anything between now and then, perhaps
we could discuss them again on Thursday."
So with that the Cabinet left, it was about
1.30. I went out into Downing Street which was very crowded. I
walked to the end of Downing Street, down Whitehall and back to