Tag Archives: Edward Heath

Parliament Week: Britain and Europe: Britain’s third (and final) attempt to join the EC, 1970-73

Britain’s two previous attempts to join the European Community – in 1963 and 1967 – had been humiliatingly rejected by the French. Two British prime ministers – Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson – had both failed. Brought to power in the 1970 elections a new leader, Ted Heath, was determined to have a third try. But Heath faced two massive challenges: negotiating a place for Britain in Europe, and bringing the British public with him.

Like so much related to the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the story of Britain’s three attempts to join the EC are largely forgotten by the general public. Yet, as well as fundamentally changing the course of British post-war history, they can clearly inform current discussion of Britain’s place in Europe.

Getting in

So, what had changed between 1967 and 1973? First, and perhaps most important, was the fall from power of General de Gaulle. De Gaulle, who had vetoed both British applications, was a victim of the 1968 student protest which forced him from the office he had held for a decade; in his place, the new president Georges Pompidou was considerably more sympathetic.

Brought to power in the 1970 general election, the Conservative government of Ted Heath decided that the time was right to revive the application that had been left dormant in 1967 after the veto. For Heath, the domestic pressures for Britain to enter the EC were just as powerful as they had been for Wilson. The lack of export markets for British industry was becoming an ever-greater problem and hastened the decline of British living standards. In 1945, Britons had been 90 percent better off than citizens of ‘the Six’; by 1969, they were six percent poorer.

Negotiations opened in June 1970 alongside parallel negotiations with Britain’s traditional allies Ireland and Denmark. In January 1972, Heath finally signed the accession treaty in Brussels.

Party and people

The diplomatic negotiations were just the first obstacle that Heath faced; bringing Britain into Europe would also require the support of his party and the British electorate. This was a challenge that faced the Conservative Whips as they tried to make sure that enough MPs would vote with the government to pass the European Communities Act – the piece of legislation that was finalise the negotiations. It is on this aspect that many of the papers held by the Conservative Party Archives at the Bodleian focus.

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Report and Analysis of the State of the Party’ (c. Jan 1971).

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Report and Analysis of the State of the Party’ (c. Jan 1971).

The Conservative Party, which had stood on a pro-European platform since Macmillan, clearly had a parliamentary mandate if only its MPs could be brought on-side. Looking at the Conservative Party’s 326 MPs in January 1971, the Whip’s Office was not entirely happy with what they saw. At least 218 could be counted on to support the government’s position but 75 were ‘in doubt’ and 33 ‘against’. Although comparatively small in number, the 33 (not to mention the large in-doubt contingent) could stop the government getting the votes it needed to pass the bill, especially considering the divided and disorganised state of Labour. The judgement on the 33 was pretty damning: ‘a hard core of right-wingers, backed up by some Powellites, Ulster members, a handful of new Members, and one or two who for specialist reasons oppose entry…[and] 15 of the anti’s come from the old brigade…who have always been against the Market and always will be.’ (CCO 20/32/28) By August 1971, when the terms of the negotiations had become clear, there was a big rallying to the government’s side. Just 21 were estimated to be implacably hostile and almost all of the undecideds had been won over. The Whips were also delighted to note that this rallying ‘has taken place in the House, in the Parliamentary Party; it has also taken place in the Conservative Party outside the House and amongst voters as a whole.’ (CCO 20/32/28)

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Third Report and Analysis on the State of the Party on Common Market Issue. August 1, 1971’.

Some voters writing into the party expressed their concerns whilst others wrote in support. Ultimately, however, the issue remained unsolved and the public divided. With the Labour Party also ambivalent towards Europe (a radical change of direction), confrontation was inevitable. In 1974, new elections brought Labour back to power with the promise that continued British membership of the EC would be decided by referendum. The result – a surprise 60 percent majority in favour of staying – guaranteed Britain’s role as a major player in European integration for almost half a century.

Guy Bud

40 years ago: Britain joins the EEC

On 1 January 1973, after decades of discussion and frustration, the United Kingdom became a full member of the European Economic Community.

The successful application was a long time coming. The UK had applied for membership in 1963 and 1967 but had been rejected – largely due to the hesitance of Charles de Gaulle, the French president. 

In 1969, the Party explored the issues involved in further negotiations, estimating that a conservative estimate would extend them until 1971 (LCC 1/2/17)

When Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, he continued to press for membership. In July 1971, Heath told a Central Council meeting, ‘We believe, as we stated in the White Paper, that our people will be more prosperous, our economy and our industries stronger as a result of joining the European Communities’. In fact, 1971 became a year of much discussion and consultation, from the launch of the Government’s White Paper to the vote at the Party Conference in October – the Party’s Weekly News called it ‘the summer of the Common Market. Of the great debate’ (PUB 193/23). Party members, the Opposition and the public all had many questions about what EEC membership would mean for the UK. Heath’s Central Council speech was met by no fewer than 29 detailed questions from the audience, and the Conservative Party Archive holds reams of correspondence about terms of membership, debates over the possibility of a referendum and discussion of Conservative policy. Heath stopped short of holding a referendum, however; the UK did not hold a public vote on the EU until 1975.

A question from Party members at the Central Council meeting in July 1971. Heath answered 29 questions, many in great detail (NUA 3/1/4)
A record of the vote in favour of EEC admission at the Conservative Party Conference, 13 October 1971. The motion passed by 2,474 against 324 votes (NUA 2/1/76)

On 1 January 1973, newspapers nationwide celebrated the work Heath did in bringing the UK into the EC, and the Union Jack was raised in Brussels to celebrate the occasion. Over the following months, however, the Conservatives – and indeed, the UK political body as a whole – turned to the practical issue of working as a part of the EEC government.

This was no small matter; the UK sent upwards of 1,000 civil servants to Brussels, and the Conservative Party Archive’s papers explore the negotiations and practicalities of EEC participation. The CRD, for example, proposed that its role in relation to European Parliament should be as a source of political advice as well as a liaison between backbench members and MEPs (CRD 4/22/8). Central Office explored direct elections throughout the 1970s (CCO 20/32) and debated the possibility of a referendum. British MEPs joined those from Denmark to form the European Conservative Group – later the European Democratic Group – on 16 January 1973, and some of the group’s working papers can be found in CCO 508.

The UK’s membership in the European Union remains a subject of discussion and often debate. As Cameron’s government explores the possibility of an EU referendum in coming years, the history of the UK’s membership and previous votes, the CPA provides much fodder for those interested in Conservative policy and position toward the EEC/EU. Though recent files are closed, those up to 1982 provide a rich perspective on the UK’s first few years in Europe. 

50 years ago today: Britain applies for membership in the EEC

Although the United Kingdom didn’t join the European Economic Community until 1 January 1973, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government had applied to join the group as early as 10 August 1961.

Ted Heath, then Lord Privy Seal and charged with EEC negotiations, spoke to the assembly at Brussels in August 1961:

“These discussions will affect profoundly the way of life, the political thought and even the character of each one of our peoples… The British Government and the British people have been through a searching debate during the last few years on the subject of their relations with Europe. The result of the debate has been our present application. It was a decision arrived at, not on any narrow or short-term grounds, but as a result of a thorough assessment over a considerable period of the needs of our own country, of Europe, and of the free world as a whole. We recognise it as a great decision, a turning point in our history, and we take it in all seriousness. In saying that we wish to join the EEC, we mean that we desire to become full, whole-hearted and active members of the European Community in its widest sense and to go forward with you in the building of a new Europe.”

(Address given August 1961, requoted in address given 29 January 1963 at the 17th ministerial meeting between the Member States of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the United Kingdom, a draft version of Heath’s 1963 speech forms part of the Edward Heath archive, which was acquired by the Bodleian Library earlier this year and will be available to readers following cataloguing (see story and image of Heath’s notes)

The front page of the Weekly News Letter (August 1961; PUB 193/17)

The United Kingdom’s membership in the EEC/EU has sparked much debate and discussion over the years. Its initial application was part of Macmillan’s efforts to develop fresh policies for the Conservative Party; the application “acknowledged that Britain’s standing as an independent great power, and its emphasis on empire, were all but over, which were bitter pills for the right to swallow.” (Seldon and Ball, 1994, p. 51).

However, this first bid was unsuccessful; it was officially and harshly vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and again following the United Kingdom’s second application in 1967; de Gaulle claimed that Britain displayed a distinct “lack of commitment” and refused very publicly to countenance the union. In a public statement in January 1963, he said:

“She [Britain] did it [asked to join] after having earlier refused to participate in the communities we are now building, as well as after creating a free trade area with six other States, and, finally, after having — I may well say it (the negotiations held at such length on this subject will be recalled) — after having put some pressure on the Six to prevent a real beginning being made in the application of the Common Market. If England asks in turn to enter, but on her own conditions, this poses without doubt to each of the six States, and poses to England, problems of a very great dimension … In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation (conjuncture) that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.”

(Press conference held by General de Gaulle, 14 January 1963; Audio version available in French)

European Policy (a paper by the Conservative Research Department outlining possibilities and policies for another EEC entry attempt; LCC 1/2/17)

It was only after a change of power in France and the further negotiation of the EEC’s agricultural policies that the United Kingdom’s bid was finally successful (along with those of Ireland and Denmark), and the nation was welcome into the EEC on 1 January 1973, under the premiership of Ted Heath.

Bodleian Libraries acquire Sir Edward Heath archive

1970 election poster from the Conservative Party Archive Poster Collection

Last month, the Bodleian Libraries, with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) acquired the archive of former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath (1916-2005). The collection comprises almost 1,000 cartons and includes rich and diverse papers from his time in office and the shadow cabinet, as well as personal papers from his early life including his time as an undergraduate at Balliol College and his active role in student politics during the 1930s.

 A Young Conservatives flyer from the Conservative Party Archive

An Oxford alumnus, Sir Edward Richard George ‘Ted’ Heath, KG, MBE (9 July 1916 – 17 July 2005) served as Conservative Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974 and was Leader of the Conservative Party from 1965 to 1975.  He continued to have a major influence on British politics throughout his life and was Father of the House from 1992-2001.

The Heath Archive complements other holdings of modern British political papers within the Bodleian’s Department of Special Collections, including our material in the Conservative Party Archive.

The archive will be made available to scholars and researchers following cataloguing.