Little England, Europe and the Wide World
I am old enough to have voted in the 1975 European referendum, the first referendum to be held across the United Kingdom as a whole.
Winston Churchill had the idea of a ‘United States of Europe’ to prevent future wars breaking out between France and Germany but British governments in the Fifties failed to get us in at the beginning.
In the 1960s both Conservative and Labour governments tried to join the EEC, but this was the decade of President de Gaulle, who always said, ‘Non!’
Only when Georges Pompidou became President of France could Conservative Edward Heath successfully negotiate Britain’s entry, in 1972.
When Harold Wilson formed his last Labour government in 1974 he renegotiated the terms of entry, partly to settle the question within the Labour Party and partly to improve the terms agreed by Heath.
I was not a Labour Party member then but I followed the debate, which I remember as being of very high quality, unlike the present one.
Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams on the Labour right campaigned in favour of European membership while Peter Shore on the right and Tony Benn on the left campaigned against.
The result was about two-to-one to stay in.
I voted to stay in. I voted not so much for economic reasons as because I hated the Little Englandism of the country I grew up in during the Nineteen Fifties.
Well before I joined Labour, I thought of myself as a citizen of the world, of Europe, of Britain, of England and the place where I lived – then, Bedford where I was born, now Great Cornard which has been my home for more than half my life.
I still do hate Little Englandism, and if there is one thing I am grateful to UKIP for it is for reminding me of how strongly I felt then.
Recently, like so many on the Left, I found myself in a quandary as to how to vote, because the leaders on both sides of a very poor debate were all Little Englanders one way or another.
Little Dave and Little George versus Little Boris and Little Nigel – Lawson or Farage, take your pick.
We have had a Prime Minister since 2010 with no vision at all for Britain’s place in the world, but driven by opportunism for what will keep him in power. Around him, are Tory ministers more interested in taking his job than in the risks they are taking with other people’s jobs.
I didn’t want to give comfort to any of them or take part in Tory infighting.
But I can’t abstain in a vote about the future of our country.
Of course, I understand that working people fear for their jobs, their pensions and their services, especially the NHS.
But if the Cameron government had played a constructive part in Europe, we might be saving our steel industry from dumping instead of letting it go to the wall.
Germany, an EU founder member, has been able to create conditions in which its heavy industries thrive.
If the Cameron government cared about traditional British values of tolerance and protecting the weak and vulnerable, we might be playing our part in making Europe safer for both our own citizens and refugees from failed states recent Western actions have helped to create instead of banging on about Britain’s interests, narrowly considered.
I recently visited the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.
From US-led isolation before 1988, Vietnam’s policy of renewal has seen them take their place in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) which with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 is rapidly moving towards just the kind of relationship on their continent which some people want to leave on ours!
I am sure this is a relationship which Vietnam sees as a major means of maintaining peace and parity with the might of China, as well as a vehicle for increasing the prosperity of Vietnamese people in a global economy.
Of course, as well as prosperity the global economy brings problems which threaten the planet itself, but there is no opt-out from facing up to these problems in co-operation with others world-wide.
Some ASEAN countries are also Commonwealth members.
So there is no reason why we cannot be a success in Europe, in the Commonwealth and in the wider world too.
We could learn from Vietnam’s example.
Of course, we need a government which has the interests of its people at heart rather than a government which has no heart.
We need a government which ensures that all its citizens contribute to our prosperity, not one that allows its wealthiest citizens and biggest companies to offshore their riches to avoid making any contribution to our collective prosperity at all.
But if England votes to leave the European Union and Scotland votes to remain, then it is certain that a majority SNP government would hold another referendum on Scottish membership of the UK, with or without the permission of Westminster.
Almost certainly, this time the Scots will vote to leave the UK.
Scotland won’t have to reapply to join the EU but simply occupy the seat vacated by the UK.
A major argument for Scotland to remain in the UK will sink below the North Sea without trace.
And who is to say that if Wales and Northern Ireland also vote to remain, they won’t ultimately prefer to be in the European Union than isolated outside in a rump United Kingdom?
David Cameron will go down in history as our most foolish Prime Minister, the man who broke up Britain.
Except that our common history will no longer matter to anyone else, we will be so diminished as a country we will have to kowtow to every major power and power bloc.
Then we really will be Little England!
Great Cornard in Babergh, South Suffolk