It’s 50 years since the head of British intelligence in John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was embroiled in exposing the Soviet mole undermining the state. In 1973, the hunt for the double agent began. What would the man who unmasked the treachery, George Smiley, make of a Britain gaslit by Brexit?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UK finally joining the EU. In 1973, it finally joined the then six founding members of the European Economic Community, along with Denmark and Ireland. Over the preceding 20 years, French President de Gaulle twice rejected the UK’s bid to join. His successor, Georges Pompidou, agreed with Germany on the need to have a strong UK at the centre of Europe.
Labour did much of the spade work to make this happen but it was Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, elected in 1970, who took the UK in. On 5 June 1975, a Labour government put his ‘terms of entry’ to the British people in an advisory referendum on continued membership and 67% voted Yes, with only the Shetland and the Western Isles voting against.
Plus ça change?
Labour and the Conservatives have made Europe their political football since 1945. That’s one of the reasons why it has been so easy domestically for those unable to see how fast the world moves on, to fancifully frame UK membership of the EU as an ‘attack’ on British sovereign independence. Dive deeper and, like Smiley, we can see that there is far more to it: the criss-crossing of major Soviet (Russian) initiatives with the strengthening of the EU is unmistakable, as is the UK’s role in that. Pulling the UK out of it seems an error of epic proportions.
Today, even the timid speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, recognises that his predecessor John Bercow was right in seeing Brexit as the biggest threat to parliamentary democracy since 1945. Certainly, le Carré felt very strongly on the subject and no doubt his creation Smiley would also agree with Bercow that Brexit is the UK’s biggest mistake since then. Why?
In 1973, the UK was welcomed into the EU, simultaneously giving its institutional structure democratic, parliamentary teeth, and enhancing the EU’s status on the international stage. Over the years, it lived up to that promise.
The EU’s democratic legitimacy was boosted, firstly by the first transnational elections ever – the election in 1979 of what was to become the European Parliament. Secondly, by strengthening its power to hold ministers and the EU Commission accountable (often pushed by the UK). And thirdly, by creating the single market and freedom of movement, complete with tangible, shared symbols of belonging, including optional magenta passports, the flag and the anthem Ode to Joy.
Without the UK, the EU would be weaker internationally, then and now. And vice versa.
UK – from team captain to the plaything of moles?
Many post-war loose ends were tied up before the UK joined the EEC, including steps to end the Cold War with the Soviet Union and promote East-West reconciliation and peaceful co-operation.
Only five years before UK accession, in the Prague spring of 1968, the USSR’s Warsaw Pact militarily quashed dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Only two years earlier, in 1970, the leader of the Western half of a still-divided Germany, socialist chancellor Willy Brandt, signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland, ratified months before the UK joined the EEC. It was significant because of Poland’s residual fears that Germany might one day seek to recoup territory ceded to the East when Russia annexed former parts of Poland at the end of the war.
At that time no peace treaty had been signed by the allies – the UK, France, the US and Soviet Union – with Germany; and the Helsinki peace process leading to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was just starting.
In 1973, there was no EU foreign policy or EU peace corps. The EU had been created as a European project using economic interdependence to cement conflict resolution by negotiation, not force. Once in the EU, the UK was helped to apply that at home on the island of Ireland.
As international expectations grew of all members acting together (not just those in NATO) to help resolve conflict further afield, Margaret Thatcher was key to overcoming EU taboos on defence and security cooperation. She was persuaded to back German reunification in 1990, and rolling enlargement to former Warsaw pact states. Two military conflicts were key – in Poland in 1980-81, and the disintegration of, and wars in, Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s from which Slovenia and Croatia became independent states, joining the EU in 2004 and 2013 respectively. Croatia joined the euro on the 50th anniversary of UK accession to the EEC.
John le Carré’s Smiley would surely have rooted out moles, and exposed treachery and parliamentary cowardice. He’d have ensured the UK was strong inside a resilient Europe. How would he feel about Russia still trying to divide the Western alliance? Would he relish us undermining the rule of law and choosing once again to be the poor man, or worse the beggar man, of Europe?