Brexit Secretary signs “Commencement Order”
Whilst MPs voted for the EU Withdrawal Act which repealed the original legislation making us members of the EEC, it required a “Commencement Order” to come into force, It’s reported that Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, has now signed that order to trigger the end of the supremacy of EU law in the UK in a major moment on the path to the country’s exit and freedom.
Political historians know that 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 europhile Prime Minister Edward Heath had persuaded 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 band of 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.
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 Jeremy Thorpe, as well as Jim Callaghan, Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, and Jeffrey Archer.
In his speech, Wilson declared that if he were returned to Number 10 “if the Community refused to renegotiate the Tory terms, we would sit down amicably and discuss the situation with them.” The House, crowded and tense, just laughed at him.
In his summing up speech Heath said “I do not think that any Prime Minister has stood at this box in time of peace and asked the House to take a positive decision of such importance as I am asking them to take tonight”. And whipping became important. While Labour imposed a three-line Whip instructing its MPs to vote against the government, 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 but that big margin was illusory. The real problem he faced was to pass the legislation he needed to turn the vote into law.
Wilson declared that the result was a one-off. He would allow no more voting in support of Heath. As he put it “I cannot imagine a single Labour Member who, faced with this legislation, will not be in the lobbies against the government”. Heath and Francis Pym realised that they would need to deploy all the dark arts of whipping to deradicalise the Powellites. And they would need a number of Labour europhiles to support them or at least abstain.
In the Second Reading debate, Michael Foot, Benn’s fellow frontbench sceptic, furiously denounced the bill as “a lawyer’s conjuring trick, the government has decided to treat the House of Commons with contempt”.
Heath said if the government were to be defeated “this Parliament cannot sensibly continue”. His special advisor Michael Wolff had written a resignation speech for him. With the country in chaos, in the middle of a miners strike, with much of Britain blacked out and Northern Ireland in bloody turmoil, a general election was an uninviting prospect. Many Tories, both pro and anti, risked losing their seats.
During the Parliamentary battles, Ken Clarke, then “a fresh-faced young barrister turned Tory MP”, was among those who, as he put 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”.
As a new and relatively unknown member of the whips office, he had been chosen to form an unlikely alliance with the Labour europhiles. Clarke had become friendly with a fellow member of the 1970 intake, the young pro-European Labour MP John Roper, who was one of the Jenkinsites’ quasi-whips. The two men would liaise regularly.
“We might not have got into the Community if we hadn’t had an unofficial arrangement in which I was the go-between” said Clark. “I would meet John each day and discuss with him how many Jenkinsites should fail to turn up that evening. We’d have to negotiate it because they all had troubles with their constituency associations. I would suggest the number we needed to match the number of Conservative rebels we knew we were going to have that night. I would always request a number that we thought essential and John would try to help his colleagues by negotiating me down to the absolute minimum that would avoid real risk”.
Roy Jenkins felt reluctantly he could not himself defy the whips and abstain, but he described those who did “The abstainers were made up in almost equal proportions of old men who had decided their fate no longer mattered and young men with the gallantry of 1916 subalterns. Typical of the latter was Michael Barnes the MP for Brentford and Chiswick. “They at once provided us with an essential little shield behind which to shelter and made our political calculations rather tawdry. It’s never comfortable to be dependent on men braver than oneself”.
The battle over the European Communities Bill was the longest of its sort on record. Between March ‘72 when the Bill went into Committee and the Third Reading on 13 July there were 104 divisions. “On one occasion we nearly lost the Bill” said Clarke, “when John Roper and I made a serious miscalculation, or he had pressed me too strongly. The majority fell to just four. That was the narrowest squeak that the Bill, the government and the Whips office had throughout the whole process”.
On the Third Reading division, Francis Pym was still taking no chances. Seven sick Tories were brought to Westminster to be ‘nodded through’. With the Bill so close to being enacted, a record number of thirteen labour europhiles abstained and helped the government to a relatively comfortable final majority of seventeen. Clarke said later “I hugely enjoyed my unseen and minor role in these momentous proceedings. At the historic moment when the Bill finally received Royal Assent I firmly believed that at the age of 32 I would be extremely satisfied with my political career if it went no further”.
When the result of the Third Reading vote was announced in the House to resounding cheers while the Tory antis sat in sad silence, the Chief Whip, Francis Pym, said in rare public statement “It has been a terrific battle full of tension and drama. I am immensely relieved it is over, and that goes for the whole House of Commons. The determination and patience of the Conservative Party has been remarkable”.
In the Commons after the Division, Prior said “Francis Pym gave vent to his feelings. Much to the amusement and delight of us all, this cautious and phlegmatic character danced a jig on the floor of the House”. Nearly fifty years on, what are the odds that there will be more dancing in the Commons as we are freed from the shackles of the EU?