• My European Journey

    In 1964, when I had completed my studies at Balliol College, Oxford, and emerged with a post-graduate law degree with first-class honours, I was undecided as to what I wanted to do next. As a New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, I had the option, of course, of returning to my homeland, either to practise or teach law, or perhaps to serve in the New Zealand diplomatic service.

    I realised that I wasn’t quite ready to return home – there was still a lot of the world to see – and so, almost on a whim, I entered for the Foreign Office entrance exam, and, very much to my surprise, I came top. The Foreign Office thought that it was perfectly understandable that I might want to join their ranks (and my passport then described me, after all, not only as a New Zealand citizen, but also as a British subject), so it seemed an attractive option.

    I was first sent off to Tours in France to spend three months at the Institut de Touraine to brush up on my somewhat rusty schoolboy French. On my return to London, I was appointed to Western Organisations and Coordination Department which was regarded as the department that dealt with the issues that were most important to British interests. – the appointment supposedly marked me out as a “high flyer.” It was presided over by the legendary FO eminence, Sir Con O’Neill, and headed up by John Barnes, a famously feisty and irascible FO figure. They were both excellent role models for a tyro diplomat.

    My less exalted colleagues, with whom I worked on a daily basis, were also instructive and fascinating in their perceptions of where Britain stood at that time, and they were also more than ready to discuss them with even a junior colleague.

    The question of Britain’s true role in world affairs was indeed a live one. Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State, had recently advanced the proposition that Britain “had lost an empire but had not yet found a role” and we were less than decade away from the ill-fated Suez adventure which had revealed with cruel clarity how little room we had to operate without American support.

    My Foreign Office colleagues were not slow to recognise the accuracy of Acheson’s aphorism and they were – post-Suez – not so prone to wishful thinking as to imagine that we had as much influence with the Americans as we would have wished. In retrospect, I can see that it was already becoming clear that the Americans had opted to put their European eggs in the German, rather the British, basket – a development brilliantly exposed and analysed by Yanis Varoufakis in his And the Poor Suffer What They Must.

    The loss of empire, and the limitations of a role that, at best, meant riding as self-appointed (and not necessarily greatly valued) shotgun for the Americans, meant that “finding a role” was a major Foreign Office preoccupation. Inexplicably, the possibility that heading up the Commonwealth might fill the gap seemed not to occur to anyone; the Commonwealth was beyond the FO’s purview and was the responsibility of a separate department of state.

    It is hard to think that any other comparable country would in such a cavalier fashion have turned its back on the opportunity offered by a world-wide association of countries, including some that were destined to become major players on the world stage – countries, like India, Australia, Malaysia, Canada and South Africa that had strong historic, cultural and trade links with the mother country and that would in most cases have welcomed the chance to develop those links further.

    That blind spot, and the limitations of our role as an American ally, suggested that a new sphere of British influence should be urgently sought. The obvious candidate was Europe; the Common Market was in course of establishing itself and seemed to beckon as a possible beneficiary (so it seemed to British minds) of British leadership.

    The initial British reaction to the project had been cool, but as interest in it grew, a snag presented itself. The French President, Charles de Gaulle, was not keen to see France again involved with Britain and potentially beholden in any way to British support, and was determined to see the Common Agricultural policy, one of the twin pillars on which the Franco-German bargain was constructed, set in concrete before he would allow the British to join and try, as he feared, to dismantle it.

    The lifting of de Gaulle’s veto on British membership became the primary focus of British policy. I was personally involved in the effort to promote an arrangement called the Western European Union, whose purpose was never well defined but was vaguely to do with military cooperation with our European allies. It was primarily used, however, as a means of circumventing the French veto by allowing us to stay in touch with and to meet regularly with those allies.

    The WEU would meet in Common Market capitals and the chance would be taken to compare notes as to how de Gaulle could be faced down. I recall, for example, accompanying Michael Stewart when he was Foreign Secretary to a WEU meeting in Luxembourg and helping to write the speech he delivered on that occasion.

    I was in due course appointed to a position in our Brussels embassy and, although my role was a commercial one, I was also involved in the efforts being made to promote the cause of our membership of the Common Market. I saw at close quarters the efforts, such as the Wilson/Brown tour of Common Market capitals, made to drum up support for the cause. I was, incidentally, the duty officer on the weekend of the 1967 devaluation of sterling and was required to give advance notice of that development to the Belgian government.

    I had by this time, despite my early enthusiasm for British membership of the Common Market, seen enough to know that it was very unlikely to serve British interests. The Franco-German bargain on which it was based required Britain to forego access to cheap and efficiently produced food and raw materials from around the globe and instead to push up food prices to European levels, thereby negating the one competitive advantage enjoyed by British industry – the lower wages made possible by lower food costs.

    The Common Market also meant that the British market was opened up to direct competition from powerful German manufacturing which, by virtue of the FrancoGerman deal, had privileged and unrestricted access to the whole Common Market— and as a result, British industry (with the help of home-grown policy mistakes) was in due course duly (and literally) decimated.

    I was left with the impression that the Foreign Office at the time had been induced to act as the agent for Europe in Britain, rather than the other way round – influenced perhaps by the consideration that if all major decisions were in future to be made in Europe, the standing of the Foreign Office in Whitehall would be enhanced.

    By the time I had decided to leave the Diplomatic Service and take up a Fellowship as a law don at Worcester College, Oxford (with a longer-term intention of pursuing a political career), I was clear that Europe (or at least the version presented by the Common Market) was a snare and a delusion.

    I recall that, when – in the early 1970s – I had become the Labour candidate in Southampton Test, Roy Hattersley – at that time, the coming man – came to speak for me at an election rally in the city. We got on very well, and he at one point took me aside and said that, when I entered the House of Commons, he would have something important to say to me. I took this to mean that he would offer to make me his Parliamentary Private Secretary – the first small step on the ministerial ladder.

    When I was eventually elected, however, one of the first speeches I made – drawing on my knowledge of the constitutional law I had taught in the Oxford law course – was on the theme that Common Market membership would mean a damaging loss of parliamentary sovereignty. Roy was in the Chamber and heard the speech. I heard no more from him on the subject of a PPS-ship and our relations were – sadly, from my viewpoint – somewhat strained from that point on.

    I rapidly became known as an “anti-Marketeer” – a label I did not object to, though I always resented being described as “anti-European” which, in view of my interest in European history, the frequency of my holidays in European countries, and my appreciation of European art, sculpture, music, literature and architecture, was manifestly absurd.

    My views opened me up to considerable criticism from some quarters. I recall being interviewed on the subject by Charles Wheeler, the esteemed BBC political correspondent, on College Green, outside the House of Lords. When the interview was over and I had explained my views, he berated me in no uncertain terms, attacking “you people” as knowing nothing about the subject on which I had pontificated. When I described to him my long involvement with the issue, he had the good grace to apologise and to look a little deflated.

    On another occasion, I was introduced by a friend to a young woman in the Central Lobby. “This is Bryan Gould,” he said, “He is an intelligent anti-Marketeer.”

    “Is there such a thing?”she said airily, thus exemplifying the attitude, constantly met, that all the best-informed and right-thinking people were committed to a future in “Europe” (whatever form that might take) and that only the ignorant took a different view. Such people regarded themselves as the cognoscenti of European issues; they had an almost religious certainty that they were right, and that the promised land had been revealed to them.

    With other like-minded people, like Nigel Spearing, I got myself appointed to the House of Commons Scrutiny Committee whose function it was to examine Common Market legislation and judge its impact on domestic law. It provided a useful way to keep tabs on what the Common Market was up to.

    In the world beyond Parliament, I also became active on the issue. With the help of long-time colleagues like John Mills, Shaun Stewart, Austin Mitchell, and David Stoddart, I became a leading figure in the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee and chaired it for a time. The LCMSC’s fringe meetings were for many years the best attended gatherings at Annual Conference.

    On one such occasion, the LCMSC organised a joint meeting with those of a different view, at which David Marquand and I would each speak.  David was personally likeable and less dogmatic than most of that ilk, but I think I can say that my own training in the forensic skills proved to be a decisive advantage.

    At a special conference event, on one occasion, I heard a powerful speech by Peter Shore and, later, an equally powerful one by Michael Foot. I made contact with Peter and we became firm friends and allies. He eventually made me his PPS.

    That appointment came to a sad end. My own Labour government introduced one evening some subordinate legislation whose effect was to impose duties on imported lamb. Many anti-Marketeers objected to the measure, as I did – but in my case, not – as was sometime supposed – because of my New Zealand background, but more pointedly because I thought it was wrong to tax food destined for the tables of ordinary families.

    I duly voted against it. The following morning, I was accosted by a journalist, Tony Bevins of the Sunday Express, who said “You voted against the government last night, didn’t you?” When I agreed, he said “I’m going to get you sacked as PPS.” True to his word, he raised the issue with Jim Callaghan at a press conference later that day and the Prime Minister felt obliged to require Peter to dismiss me.

    My profile as a leading anti-Marketeer brought me into contact with people of similar views on all sides of the House, not least with people like Ronnie Bell, Neil Marten and Enoch Powell. These links, which I tried to manage very carefully for obvious reasons, led to my chairing for a short time the Safeguard Britain Campaign, the all-party group formed to resist further involvement with the Common Market. I resigned after a while because I found it too difficult, while collaborating with right-wingers, to maintain my standing with my Labour colleagues.

    The referendum in 1975 provided the next milestone in my involvement with the issue. I took an active part in the campaign, speaking at a number of pubic meetings. I recall one evening in Southampton, when I marched in candlelight with a large crowd to the venue, and was accompanied by my parents who were visiting on holiday from New Zealand. They had never been to such an event in their lives, and enjoyed it immensely. The referendum result was a great blow to them, as it was to me. It was produced because those who, it was thought, could be trusted and knew about these things, had strongly supported a “yes” vote.

    Over this period, Peter Shore, Michel Foot and I sometimes discussed the question of whether patriotism could have any part to play in formulating left-wing politics. Our conclusion was that there was no reason to leave all the best tunes to the devil, and that the push for democracy and self-government, or “sovereignty”, was a legitimate element in a socialist programme.

    I think is fair to say that my own chances of advancement were somewhat diminished by my known position on the Common Market issue and I found myself being cold-shouldered by Euro-enthusiasts. The issue undoubtedly created a fault-line in party unity and contentious matters within the party tended to be resolved by votes cast by one side of the Common Market issue against the other. The pro-Marketeers tended to come from a more centrist position within the party.

    They formed a cohesive group who watched out for each other; I recall overhearing a conversation in which anxiety was expressed as to whether one of their number, Giles Radice, had been able to improve his vote in the Shadow Cabinet elections. An indication of how closely they worked together as a group and how ruthlessly they discriminated against those who did not share their enthusiasms came shortly after I was elected. The Prevention of Terrorism Act had just been enacted and my lawyer’s concerns about its provisions and their impact on civil liberties brought me to the attention of Alex Lyon who was Minister of State at the Home Office. Alex mentioned to me the possibility of my becoming his PPS.

    As luck would have it, Tommy McAllister, a constituent of Bob Mitchell (the Southampton Itchen Labour MP) was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for pro-IRA activities – and, as Bob was away on holiday, his family came to see me.

    I visited him in Winchester prison and was satisfied that he was (although an Irish nationalist) no threat to security. If he had been resident in the UK for 20 years or more, the Act could in any case not apply to him. I discovered that he had had a Southampton address for 19 years 9 months and that prior to that he had served on a merchant ship sailing out of Southampton, which was the equivalent of residence.

    I accordingly wrote a long hand-written letter to Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, making the case that Bob’s constituent could not be subject to the Act. My argument succeeded, but it prompted Roy Jenkins to make inquiries about me – and when he was told of my views on the Common Market, he vetoed my appointment as Alex Lyon’s PPS.

    I enjoyed an occasional success on the floor of the House – especially on one occasion at Prime Minister’s Question Time when I trapped Mrs Thatcher into an uncharacteristic admission of failure on her return from a meeting with Common Market counterparts. But I fear that my identification with the issue reduced my ability to make common cause with a substantial part of the Parliamentary party.

    Through this whole period, I was constantly involved with European issues. In 1989, Neil Kinnock asked me to run the Euro-elections campaign for Labour, which I agreed rather reluctantly to do. I was also consulted on European monetary developments. Roy Jenkins, as President of the European Commission by this time, put forward in 1978 his proposals for a European Monetary System. Jim Callaghan stopped me in the corridor one day and asked me whether I thought we should join. In line with my abiding interest in exchange rate policy, I replied that it would be essential to join at a competitive rate, since getting locked in at the wrong rate would be damaging for us. Jim nodded thoughtfully and said “that’s what Helmut says.”

    I was rather more closely involved with the successor to the EMS, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which was a rather more serious attempt to hand exchange rate (and therefore monetary) policy over to a European agency. I spoke regularly against such a proposal, which seemed to me to threaten many of the disadvantages that were subsequently to become apparent when the euro was created. I became, within the Shadow Cabinet, the principal opponent of British membership, to the extent that Sam Brittan of the Financial Times told a PLP economic committee that they should put Bryan Gould “on a slow boat to China” so that the obstacle I represented could be removed.

    In the event, a “slow boat to China” was not needed. I was removed from the issue by being moved from Trade and Industry to the Environment portfolio. Neil and I had, by this point, diverged somewhat in our views of “Europe” and he was keen to demonstrate his European credentials. I attributed this shift to the influence of his son, Stephen, who had studied at an Italian university and to his own increasing warmth, matching that of his wife, Glenys, towards the European “ideal”.

    The European issue was given significantly added point when the Maastricht Treaty was put forward. It seemed to me to represent a major further step towards a European super-state and a consequent loss for Britain of the powers of self-government. I spoke against it whenever I was able but I was profoundly depressed by the lack of interest shown in it by my own colleagues. The Chamber I spoke to was usually virtually empty – my colleagues could not only not be bothered to reach a view on the subject but were content to let the issue be resolved by default.

    The attitude of the Labour front bench was a complete disappointment to me. They had persuaded themselves, following a speech by Jacques Delors at the TUC Conference, that the so-called Social Chapter was of great value and could be secured only as part of a settlement that included the Maastricht treaty.

    I was considerably disaffected by all this, to the point that I decided that I had to resign from the Shadow Cabinet in order to register my disagreement with their policy. That, in turn, led to the loss of my seat on the National Executive Committee, and in due course to my resignation from Parliament altogether and my acceptance of the Vice-Chancellorship of a New Zealand university.

    My return to New Zealand was a great success from a personal point if view. It gave me time to lick my wounds and to reflect on the fact that the battle over Europe was no longer mine to fight. It was a relief to turn to other matters.

    But my journey across “Europe” was not over. In 2016, in the run-up to the referendum on EU membership (for the outcome of which I had no great hopes), my wife and I were coming off a cruise liner and boarding a bus in Rome. The only other people on the bus were an elderly couple from Manchester. They were keen to get into conversation and it became clear that top of their minds was the referendum.

    I was reluctant to discuss the matter, for fear of provoking a disagreement, but I became a little more enthusiastic when they revealed that they were desperate to vote to leave. Their account of what the EU had meant for them and their jobs, houses, services and way of life confirmed all that I had gleaned from my own sources.

    I suddenly became aware that if their view was replicated on any scale, the referendum was not a foregone conclusion. The result, when it came, was still a major (but very welcome) surprise, but less so than it might have been.

    Since that date, I have had the frustrating experience of having a lot to say (much of which I have published in New Zealand on my website and in the columns that I write) – but I have had no means of commenting on the debate in the UK, since my usual outlets, (such as the Guardian), have forsaken their normal standards of impartiality in order to become campaigners for a position contrary to my own and accordingly did not welcome what I wanted to say.

    I nevertheless followed very closely the convoluted process by which the UK sought to disengage from the EU stranglehold and I was delighted when, after the Theresa May exit deal had been rejected by the House of Commons for the third time, I was approached by one of London’s leading international finance lawyers, who suggested that, with another round of “indicative “ votes about take place, it might be opportune to alert the Labour Party to the constraints that a Labour government would face if the exit deal allowed, as was proposed, that the EU Commission would have the de facto power to prohibit, for as long as the Irish backstop and transition arrangements remained in place, the kind of state aids and interventions that such a government would wish and need to utilise in order to prepare the economy for a new, post-Brexit situation.

    I immediately agreed to write such a piece. I had no idea whether it would influence any outcome, but it was a great pleasure for me to be called into service – at 25 years and 12,000 miles distance from the scene of so many of my past battles. I wish my colleagues – and the country – well for a happy and conclusive ending to this sad chapter in British history.

    Bryan Gould
    3 April 2019

     

     

     

     

     

1 Comment

  1. Paula Fay says: April 23, 2019 at 10:57 amReply

    I found this a very enjoyable read. I remember you, Mr Gould, as a high-profile Labour politician & I recall (I was a Labour voter then) being disappointed that someone of your quality returned home & left the political world here.
    I was a child during the 1975 referendum but I vividly recall my mother declaring that Ted Heath was signing the country away & the ‘Common Market’ was an initial ‘first step’ only rather than the end state.
    I voted Leave in 2016. I had watched how the EU/Troika reduced Greece to pulp the previous summer. If I’d been asked in previous years, I’d have probably been fairly neutral on the subject of the EU.
    But watching the 2015 Greek crisis, I began to read about the EU. I recalled how John Major had practically whipped The Maastricht Treaty through the HoC back in 1993 as a confidence vote.
    I thought about consent. I was not asked if I had wanted to even join the self-birthed EU- let alone if I wished to become a citizen of theirs’.
    Since then- I have thought deeply about the issue & the political time-line that led to the 2016 referendum result.

    I’ve seen what almost half a century of the EC/EU has done to the expectations of ordinary people like myself, in the UK.
    There is a battle raging & I cannot see how the two sides are ever going to live at ease, as we once seemed to.
    This entire 3 year process had thrown open the curtains & the light has flooded in on the deep embedding of the EC/EU that successive GB governments & the EU have colluded in, to ensure that we literally “cannot leave” as many now say.
    Europhiles blame ordinary people for “this mess”. This must surely be the most egregious case ever of victim-blaming!
    People who never asked for any of the deep embedding, who were misled for decades, are now screeched at by those who want “more democracy” in the form of another referendum.
    We all know the pattern by now- keep voting until the *correct* result is achieved, at which point, “democracy” will once again cease at the Establishment’s preferred fixed-point.
    Successive electorates were disenfranchised by having no party to vote for once Michael Foot lost the Labour leadership to Kinnock. All we could choose was “more Europe”.

    The only positive thing is that British people are not the Irish, or the Danish or the French. We have an island mentality & while I now accept the battle to exit the EU is far from over- it is also now far too late to return to the pre=2016 referendum consciousness.
    Best wishes from Liverpool.
    Paula Fay.