The UK launched its third bid to join the EU (then known as the EEC – European Economic Community) in 1969, shortly after the resignation of French President Charles de Gaulle who had vetoed the two previous applications. France, led by President Pompidou, was now more amenable to UK entry. Membership was approved in principle but whether the UK would proceed to join the EEC required assent of the House of Commons. A debate would take place across six days with the Commons eventually voting in favour of entry by 356 votes to 244.
By Francis Boyd and Ian Aitken
29 October 1971
The Commons last night voted for entry into Europe by 356 votes to 244, a majority of 112. 39 Conservatives voted against entry, and 69 Labour MPs in favour.
The Government is well pleased with the result of the vote on the principle of entry into the EEC recorded in the House of Commons last night. Conservative votes in favour of entry (282) exceeded all the votes cast against entry (244) by 38.
If, however, Labour members (289) had all voted against the government, the Conservative vote for entry would have been five fewer (allowing for Labour tellers) than the Labour total. Therein lies the threat to the consequential legislation.
While Mr Heath last night celebrated the European majorities in both Houses, a difficult time lies ahead for the government in getting through the legislation which follows the accession to a treaty with the EEC.
Although it is not yet certain what form this legislation will take, any detailed bill is certain to be contested not only by the majority of anti-Europeans among Labour MPs, but perhaps by some of the pro-European Labour MPs, who feel that they have done their duty to the European cause by voting in favour of the principle of entry.
A number of Conservative members who opposed the principle of entry last night will certainly oppose any consequential legislation. But apart from any criticism of provisions in such legislation, there will be a fierce battle in the Commons if the government proposes that the committee stage of any major EEC legislation should be taken in a small committee off the floor of the house.
If the government made such a proposal, it is possible that the five Liberals supporting the principle of entry might oppose the removal of the committee stage from the floor of the house. The only consideration which might deter pro-Europeans from embarrassing the government over the new legislation would be the fear that Britain’s attempt to enter the EEC might be destroyed by a fatal Government defeat.
The UK’s membership raised concerns among some MPs and points in the debate ranged from the impact upon agriculture and sovereignty to broader social, political and economic issues. Pro-Europeans countered that the Common Market would provide opportunities for the UK to boost trade, strengthen its economy and increase prosperity. Following the announcement of the results, the Guardian’s correspondent Norman Shrapnel reported that the news brought ‘cheers much louder than the groans.’
28 October 1971
The chancellor of the exchequer, Mr Anthony Barber, opening the fifth day of the debate on entry into the Common Market, said the decision was probably the greatest peacetime issue to be decided in this country in this generation.
“There is nothing small, trivial, or ephemeral about the matters on which we have to reach a conclusion. This is genuinely the parting of the ways: it is the time that marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.”
Mr Barber said it was not the view of the Commonwealth that Britain would be deserting them. He recognised that the process of disengagement from an imperial power was a difficult transition for older people in particular to accept and it had left them with a sense of loss. “It has deprived the younger generation of, at any rate, that sense of immediate purpose which has drawn out the best of our talents in the past.”
But Britain could now look forward to cooperation and have the opportunity of a new purpose in working towards a new goal more worthwhile than a programme based on purely national lines.
The Labour party, however, remained divided on the issue of EEC accession and some questioned whether it ought to be approved by a referendum.
29 October 1971
The leader of the opposition, Mr Harold Wilson, raised a burst of Labour cheering in the Commons when he said: “Today is not an end. It is the beginning. Never before have the press and other communications media been so united and so ineffective over an issue.”
He was speaking on the last day of the Commons debate on the government’s motion approving its decision of principle to join the EEC.
Mr Wilson said the only result of the propaganda campaign in favour of entry had been an unprecedented loss of circulation by the press.
Mr Wilson went on: “The most serious charge against Ministers in negotiating these terms relates to their consequences for Britain’s balance of payments, with all that means for prices and unemployment.
“It is a grave commentary on the parameter on which this debate has been conducted, in the press and elsewhere, that we have had what has been tantamount to a conspiracy aimed at discounting the Commonwealth throughout the debate.”
The UK formally acceded to the European Community on 1 January 1973. Barely a year later, Edward Heath would lose power after the February 1974 general election resulted in a hung parliament. With Heath unable to persuade Liberals to form a coalition, it would be Wilson who returned to Downing Street as prime minister of a minority Labour government. As pledged in their manifesto, the Labour party held a referendum on 5 June 1975, resulting in a near two-to-one majority in favour of the UK remaining in the EC, thus ending Wilson’s aim of renegotiating the terms of membership.