Posted by: westlancashirerecord | December 6, 2018

Does This Seem Familiar?

Nearly half a century ago the Commons was obsessed and convulsed for a year by a whole series of meaningful votes on whether Britain should join the European Community. The passionately europhile liar Prime Minister Ted Heath had personally managed to persuade President Pompidou of France to rescind his nation’s veto on Britain’s entry . But Heath faced a monumental struggle to get the necessary legislation through Parliament.

He knew he couldn’t command a majority on Tory votes alone, as he was up against a fervent band of some forty anti-Europeans in his own party, led by Enoch Powell. Nor could the PM rely on Labour votes. Harold Wilson had reversed his party’s previous pro-Europe stance, to the dismay of the large body of Labour europhile MPs led by Roy Jenkins.

Parliament’s most mesmerising orator, Enoch Powell, once a keen European, was now Heath’s deadly enemy. In the Commons, Powell declaimed that the battle over Europe “is a life and death struggle for Britain’s independence and authority. A struggle as surely about the future of Britain’s nationhood as were the combats which raged in the skies over Southern England in the autumn of 1940. The gladiators are few, their weapons are but words: and yet the fight is everyman’s”.

The first big vote on the principle of joining Europe came in October 1971. It followed weeks of open and covert pressure by the party whips on both sides. Disinformation, bluff and counter-bluff were matched by what the Euro-historian, Uwe Kitzinger, described as “nose counting, arm twisting, weak knees and stiff upper lips”. As the great debate began, the galleries in the Commons were so crowded that one world-weary doorkeeper confided “I haven’t seen it so full since we used to matter in the world.”

The debate lasted six days. Among the 176 MPs who spoke were the party leaders, including the debonair Jeremy Thorpe, as well as Jim Callaghan, Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, and Jeffrey Archer.

While Labour imposed a three-line Whip instructing its MPs to vote against the government, Ted Heath, himself a former Chief Whip had been more cunning. He had eventually agreed with his own Chief Whip, Francis Pym, to have a free vote. This made it easier for Labour’s pro-European MPs to defy their own party. In the division sixty-nine of them did so, while thirty-nine Tory eurosceptics led by Enoch Powell voted against their government. The Prime Minister had won by over a hundred.

And, apparently, we still don’t matter in the world. Who played a part in that? During the ensuing Parliamentary battles, Kenneth Clarke, then a fresh-faced young barrister turned Tory MP and Whip, was among those who, as he puts it, “had to work out how many rebels we had at a particular time on a particular issue and how the devil we could get the Bill through”. He, and Heath, did!


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