Gaitskell and Europe

R.W. Johnson

When the issue of Britain joining the EEC was raised following Harold Macmillan’s opening of negotiations in July 1961, Hugh Gaitskell had no time for those who saw the issue as one of principle, whether they were passionate pro-Europeans like Roy Jenkins or passionate opponents like many on the left who saw it as ‘a kind of giant Catholic, capitalist conspiracy’. (All quotations come from Philip Williams’s magisterial 1979 biography of Gaitskell.) Everything would depend on the conditions.

In theory, Gaitskell and Macmillan’s conditions were the same: a complete rejection of European federalism and safeguards for Britain to retain an independent foreign policy and economic planning; safeguards for the Commonwealth, in particular the recently decolonised nations of the New Commonwealth; Britain’s partners in the European Free Trade Association to be ‘looked after’; and a reasonable deal for British agriculture (which signalled Gaitskell’s complete revulsion from the Common Agricultural Policy).

In April 1962, Jenkins invited Jean Monnet to address a meeting of Labour intellectuals. Monnet insisted that all problems could be solved if they committed themselves emotionally to a supra-national Europe. Gaitskell plied him with questions about the single market's practical effects, especially on the Third World. Monnet tried to evade such detail. ‘You must have faith,’ he protested. ‘I don't believe in faith,’ Gaitskell replied. ‘I believe in reason and you haven't shown me any.’ Jenkins was dismayed, believing Gaitskell was turning against the EEC, though in fact Gaitskell continued to sit on the fence and furiously denounced an anti-EEC paper from Transport House.

Gaitskell had a similar clash with the Belgian Socialist leader Paul-Henri Spaak, who shared Monnet's federalist vision. Spaak insisted that Europe's political reconciliation was the most important development in world politics. Gaitskell said he could share some enthusiasm for Europe but stopped well short of federalism. Meanwhile, he thought the EEC ‘parochially European’ and made it clear that he personally had more in common with North Americans. He also dismissed the Liberal notion that European integration was a question of moral idealism: the CAP, after all, was ‘one of the most devastating pieces of protectionism ever invented’.

He had strong feelings for Labour’s socialist friends in Europe who were keen on British entry. ‘The Communists,’ he pointed out, ‘naturally oppose our going in … because they believe it would strengthen the democratic forces of the West. They are right.’ From his correspondence with President Kennedy, the Americans concluded that he was ‘moderately in favour’ of entry, even though he inveighed against the ‘complete nonsense’ talked by both sides in the debate, and said he found the issue ‘always a bore and a nuisance’. But he returned always to the conditions. If Britain went in on the wrong terms, ‘history will never forgive us.’ The worst outcome of all would be Britain going into the EEC but having to retreat from it later, which would cause ‘a huge dislocation’.

Until July 1962, Gaitskell remained ‘reasonably hopeful’ of entry and was planning how ‘to handle the extreme anti-Marketeers’. At the beginning of August, however, he was shocked when Macmillan announced his provisional agreement on entry, which effectively gave way on every key point. Only then did Gaitskell realise that Macmillan and Ted Heath, who was responsible for the negotiations, had decided to go in on principle, whatever the cost. He wrote to Kennedy that he was ‘bitterly disappointed and indeed astonished. Had such terms been announced at the beginning of the negotiations, they would have been rejected out of hand by the British people.’ It was not even clear that Macmillan would resist European federalism. To Gaitskell that was the crunch: ‘It means the end of Britain as an independent nation … It means the end of a thousand years of history; it means the end of the Commonwealth.’

‘It seems certain’, he wrote to Kennedy, that the Tories ‘are shortly to launch a major propaganda campaign in favour of Britain's entry on broadly any terms … leading up to the General Election’. Heath, he said, ‘had been accepting anything to get in quickly’. As Gaitskell’s attitude hardened, he came under criticism from the quality press, all of it now pro-EEC. He was enraged:

We are now being told that the British people are not capable of judging the issue … the government knows best; the top people are the only ones who can understand it; it is too difficult for the rest … what an odious piece of hypocritical supercilious arrogant rubbish.

At the Labour party conference in October, Gaitskell denounced entry on the terms provided by Macmillan, provoking a huge ovation – though even then he hoped that Europe could be ‘argued out of its protectionism’. By this time he was getting messages from France to the effect that De Gaulle would not accept federalism either, and that he was cool to British entry. On 11 January 1963, Macmillan noted that once negotiations were successfully concluded, ‘we can let loose a great pro-European propaganda’. Three days later De Gaulle announced he would veto British entry and four days after that Gaitskell died.


  • 24 October 2016 at 9:09pm
    Sock says:
    Fascinating. Might have been instructive for this kind of information to have been aired prior to the referendum, and perhaps even more so now. Shallow but also very aggressive suggestions that those who voted to leave were fascistic, xenophobic and racist Little Englanders have served to sour the national mood and to erect very real barriers where before there had at least been a modest commitment to "debate". I wonder how many who voted to remain would throw that accusation at Gaitskell were he alive now?

    • 25 October 2016 at 2:31pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Sock
      I can see no reason why anybody would accuse Hugh Gaitskell of being a "fascistic, xenophobic and racist Little Englander": the issues he was concerned about were all political, economic or to do with already existing alliances (The Commonwealth, EFTA). I don't remember seeing the same level of argument going on among, Johnson, Davis, Fox, Farage,and company as we could have expected from Gaitskell, however.

      Present day pols have either given off dog whistle or (in the case of UKIP) openly racist signals, as have the right-wing press. No wonder, then, that reported hate crimes (including against darker-skinned British nationals) have risen by 41% since the referendum result. While I am sure the average Brexit voter was far from a "fascistic, xenophobic and racist Little Englander", much of the rhetoric leading up to the vote certainly encouraged those who are.

      And who has made the "fascistic, xenophobic and racist Little Englander" remarks, anyway? Many of the Labour Right have been falling over themselves to be more anti-immigrant than thou since the vote, on the grounds that democracy has spoken (referendum on the death penalty, anyone? or how about internment for anyone who looks a bit muslim?)

      Given that a certain type of politician has a habit of blaming EU legislation for all the UK's ills, avidly supported by the Mail, Sun, etc., while glossing over their own rôle in the growing impoverishment of the country, it is hardly surprising that a (slim) majority went along with the referendum.

      As for debate, there were a lot of boring reasonable attempts at debate on the Remain side about economics, but this really didn't set the electorate on fire. Modern populist politics is more about emotion than common sense. The distortions, half-truths and downright lies about economics, the EU and immigration from the leaders of the Brexit side, however, can hardly be called debate.

      I fail to see what your point is, really.

    • 25 October 2016 at 8:46pm
      Sock says: @ Alan Benfield
      Extraordinarily long refutation of what is apparently a pointless comment. And so palpably ANGRY!

      My point (which you have admirably illustrated) was that, at least as evidenced by this article, Gaitskell's sentiments, let alone his actual wording, would have been howled down by one side of what passed for debate during the lead up to the referendum. And as you note, he was concerned with politics and economics which was really the point of the referendum was it not? Both sides were at fault though you prefer to highlight the failings of the Leave side rather than the "plague of locusts, downfall of Western civilisation, alien invasion" hysteria of the Remain camp.

      You exemplify perfectly the reaction of so many reasonable and liberal progressives to the issue of whether or not Britain should leave the EU or remain part of it. Not Europe, but the EU. The amount of vitriol, condescension, naked aggression and sheer anti-democratic anger and bitterness was and still is unpleasant to behold. Friends of mine expressed such vicious anger at those who voted leave that I wondered how they could sell themselves as lovers of debate, diversity, free speech and progress.

      That's my point

    • 26 October 2016 at 9:44am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Sock
      Woo, bit of pot and kettle, there, I think. No anger on my side at all (though a little sadness), but you seem somewhat discombobulated. I think it may be a case of what Freud referred to as 'projection'. :-)

      Actually, if a latter-day Gaitskell had been on the Leave side making such arguments, I suspect the level of debate would have been a little higher. As it was, however, no such serious arguments were put forward by the Leave side. All we got were (untrue) claims that we would have loads more dosh to spend on the NHS, vague promises about 'taking back sovereignty' and reducing immigration and a bit of hand-waving about the rest of the world falling over itself to make advantageous trade deals with the UK (of which we will see). To characterise the arguments of the Remain side as hysteria is a little rich, anyway, as, while not taking place as precipitately as some observers perhaps expected, the economic effects of the Brexit vote are gradually making themselves felt. And not in a good way. And if you look at the cack-handed way in which Davis, Johnson and Fox are preparing for Brexit, well...

      And whatever careful distinctions you draw between the EU and Europe, the EU is effectively Europe, so get used to it. I am also aware that the EU is largely the author of its own failings (I criticise it from the Left, by the way, rather than being a slavish follower of the EU in all it does, which seems to be the default characterisation of EU supporters by the average Brexiteer) and that it needs reform. This is perhaps better done from the inside than the outside.

      I apologise on behalf of your Remain friends, who seem to have made the same error as many Brexiters in dealing with this on an emotional, rather than a logical, level. But politics these days seems to have descended to the level of the playground: I remember as a primary-age child in the 60s that at General Election time a certain type of young bully (and his mates, of course) would accost you in the corner of the playground and demand 'Labour, Liberal or Conservative?'. The 'wrong' answer earned you a punch or a Chinese burn.

      But I am also old enough to remember (and to have voted in) the first such referendum (on remaining in the EEC) in 1975. The Brexiters of 1975 were exclusively on the Left, from Barbara Castle through Tony Benn to the CPGB and even the Sun and Daily Mail were Remainers. You can read all about it here:,_1975

      One notable thing about that referendum, however, was that it was argued on political and economic issues, not emotional ones. How times change.

    • 26 October 2016 at 12:20pm
      Sock says: @ Alan Benfield
      We'll agree to disagree but the cod psychoanalysis is unwelcome. As you well know, like the charge of racism, once made it's impossible to defend against. One either agrees that the assessment is true or argues against it which is always taken as proof positive that the charge was true all along. It's a particular and well recognised tactic.

      Much of what we disagree on is indefensible in any case. Arguments can be crafted to prove a point and it becomes a matter of faith whether you are convinced or otherwise - surely that's a fundamental tenet of the postmodern world in which we live. History will tell what the economic, political and social results will be and thus who is right. I'll be long dead.

      BTW, no time to go into your long post further down but the phrase "for want of worse" seems apposite. It's not really a positive endorsement and one which I suspect holds true in many countries. I don't gain any pleasure from this but I don't give the EU in its present form very much longer and equally sadly I suspect the fallout will be unpleasant.

    • 26 October 2016 at 1:44pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Sock
      Ha ha, I think if were talking about cod psychoanalysis, it began with your seeing ANGER in my post where there was palpably none.

      Otherwise, I note that you do not really engage with any of my points. I can only assume that, like many people these days, you are not prepared to engage in real argument but prefer to make your pronouncements ex cathedra for our edification.

      Very postmodern, I am sure.

    • 26 October 2016 at 2:54pm
      Sock says: @ Alan Benfield
      You're extraordinarily arrogant. Re-read your posts - you confidently assert rather than make points, and then glorify your assertions with the name "argument" (are "gagging for it" and "France is France" really considered "points"?). I am happy to accept that in such limited space I too assert, make counter assertions and put forward suppositions (without resorting to wikipedia as a source) but I am modest enough to acknowledge that that is what happens in spaces like these. You, quite obviously, are a special case, far superior in your crafted, closely reasoned and well supported posts.

      Really (to coin a verbal tic of yours :) ).

      Ta ra. Lives to live, things to do.

      PS There's an interesting DEMOS survey out now.

  • 25 October 2016 at 11:11am
    rae donaldson says:
    So, the souring of the 'national mood' has nothing to do with the relentless dishonesty and nastiness of both the pro-Brexit press and the principal figures leading that campaign? Whilst it's obviously true that not all the votes to leave were motivated by racism, xenophobia etc it's equally true that those feelings-I'm tempted to call them pathologies- played a significant role in determining the result of the referendum.

    • 25 October 2016 at 8:49pm
      Sock says: @ rae donaldson
      Of course, There could be *no* other reason to vote Leave. None whatsoever. Quite pathetic reasoning. I wonder why disillusionment with the EU as institution is widespread across the continent? It *must* be entirely doe to racism and xenophobia.

    • 26 October 2016 at 11:03am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Sock
      "disillusionment with the EU as institution is widespread across the continent?"

      Yes, certainly, but the picture is more complicated than you like to think:

      Here in The Netherlands, while we have a vocal minority on the extreme Right for "Nexit", public opinion is in the main very supportive of the EU and it is extremely unlikely that a referendum would lead to departure. (By the way, we have lots of Poles and other Eastern Europeans here: nobody cares).

      Germany similarly (with the greatest respect for AfD), while having its problems with refugees, is predominantly pro EU.

      Belgium, while having its separatists, also largely agrees that the EU is a good thing for Belgium (particularly the Wallons, who benefit much from structural funds; the Flemish also realise that economically they are better placed in the EU rather than outside it).

      France is France and Marine Le Pen is on the up these days, but that's on the back of anti-Islam sentiments, not anti-EU. Nobody seriously expects France to leave.

      Further afield, Poland and Hungary, both notably xenophobic (and in the case of Hungary openly racist), nevertheless regard the EU as a good thing: they know which side their bread is buttered. Similarly Slovakia (which is happily in the Eurozone without problems). The Baltics are all happy members, too (but perhaps this is coloured by their proximity to their big bad neighbour to the East). Romania and Bulgaria are also keen, despite their continuing problems with corruption, and Slovenia is a great EU success story.

      Even in Greece, which has seen most of the downside of EU high-handedness in its economic crises, there is still a majority for remaining in both the EU and the Eurozone, for want of worse. Go figure.

      If we then look at former Yugoslav states which are not yet in, they are all gagging for it. Montenegro is so keen that it actually uses the Euro as currency, despite not being a member of the Eurozone.

      But I have to agree, what disaffection there is is generally not based upon racism or xenophobia. While these abound (try being Roma or Sinti almost anywhere in Eastern Europe), they are not usually bound up with anti-EU arguments, which are economic or nationalistic, but not racist.

      But we aren't talking about Europe, we are talking about the UK and its recent referendum. While racism and xenophobia may not have been the only factor (which, by the way, is what Rae Donaldson said above), it cannot be denied that it was a factor. My own view is that a large part of the Leave vote was generated by the feeling that the UK's failure to provide many of its citizens with decent housing, income and social provision can be laid at the door of the EU, which is, of course, false. For that you have to look a little closer to home, where neo-liberal economic policies have been applied much more enthusiastically by British governments than the EU ever has.

  • 25 October 2016 at 11:31am
    James Alexander says:
    Evidence? Quantification (of 'not all' and 'significant')? Sour grapes?

    • 25 October 2016 at 11:55am
      rae donaldson says: @ James Alexander
      'Sour grapes' has nothing to do with do it. I responded to a post which, absurdly, suggested that the ugliness of the 'national mood' can be attributed to Reamainers' accusations of racism etc against Brexit voters. Poor Brexit voters! Not content with winning the referendum they also want the rest of us to believe that nothing nasty was involved in the campaign. Did you not notice the prominence of 'fears-that weasel word-about immigration in every poll taken before the referendum? That's 'quantification' enough for me.

  • 25 October 2016 at 3:13pm
    Graucho says:
    One of the few occasions when Le Grand Charles did us a favour. Shame he wasn't around when Edward Heath rolled over on his back and waved his legs in the air as a negotiating position. A soon to be oil rich U.K. applying for entry after the 1973 oil crisis might have received terms that would have avoided all the subsequent difficulties, acrymony and ultimate withdrawal. It's one of history's big what ifs.

    • 25 October 2016 at 7:29pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Graucho
      Yeah, about time you got over it, really...

    • 25 October 2016 at 9:57pm
      Graucho says: @ Alan Benfield
      To give a for instance, the only reason English is a working language in the EU is that the Irish insisted on it, not our Ted. My comment is to the effect that Mr. Heath was not the sharpest blade in the box when it came to negotiating entry to the EU and Gaitskell's hostility to his stance quite justified. If the terms had been better at the outset it might not have come to this. As it is, it's the remainers who are having to get over it.

    • 26 October 2016 at 11:10am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Graucho
      Love to see a reference to evidence for that. I have failed to find one.

      In any case, whatever you might read in e.g. the Telegraph, the demise of English as an EU working language is extremely unlikely. With 27 member states having 24 official languages between them the need for a 'lingua franca' is essential. Over 50% of EU nationals speak English as a first or second language and it has largely supplanted French as the language of business in the EU. To abandon it as a working language would thus be to cut off the nose to spite the face.

    • 26 October 2016 at 3:36pm
      Graucho says: @ Alan Benfield
      This was something I picked up in a TV program about Brexit, but I can't find a web reference either. The thing is that Heath's terms were then renegotiated by Harold Wilson and a referendum held, then Mrs T went in with her handbag to get a rebate which has been a bone of contention ever since, then there the rows about Maastricht and Lisbon. Correctly or not our partners started to regard us as perfidious Albion and a substantial proportion of the British populace started to regard the EU as a racket for politicians to extort money from tax payers (not my view I hasten to add). The remainers I have heard analyse why they lost frequently mention a failure to show the EU in a positive light. Given the history, they really had an uphill task and maybe if entry had been done right in the first place their job would have been a lot easier.

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