Britain ceased to be independent in 1973 when (without a referendum) Edward Heath, took us into the EEC. Those who want Britain to remain in the EU would have us believe that this ushered in a new age of progressive liberalism, but let’s contrast how liberal and progressive Britain was in the four decades before and after this date.
In the 40 years before we joined the EEC Britain fought fascism, set up the NHS, set up the Welfare State and rebuilt our shattered cities. Also in the 40 years before we joined Britain pioneered equality and environmental legislation with great reform acts that liberalised our society:
Britain passed the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947 to protect important buildings and the green belt.
Britain passed the Clean Air Act in 1956.
Britain passed the Race Relations Act in 1965.
Britain decriminalised homosexuality in 1967.
Britain passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
Those are not the achievements of parochial bigots but of visionary reformers. Britain was already a progressive, liberal, multicultural society before we joined the EEC.
Now let’s contrast that with the big reforms after 1973. I would say the most significant political acts of the last 40 years were:
The Thatcherite privatisations, the ‘Big Bang’ to deregulate the City of London, Thatcher’s signing of the Single European Act, Section 28, the ‘Community Charge’, joining the ERM, the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the independence of the Bank of England, the bailing out of the banks, the subsequent austerity, and the current deregulation of planning law.
Spot the general trend? Notice how there hasn’t been a Great Education Reform Act? Or a Great Energy Reform Act? The great reform acts of the last 40 years have not been so much about liberalising people’s lives as liberalising trade, finance and commerce. I accept that is a generalisation and that bad things happened before 73, and good things happened after (like the minimum wage) but broadly speaking Britain slowly went from being liberal to being neoliberal.
When Britain was independent there was a direct correlation between votes and power so voters were engaged and our elections were meaningful battles of ideas between conviction politicians who passed great reform acts. Today we just have a meaningless choice between bland career politicians who generally have the same background, education, views and policies.
When Britain was independent, one body – Westminster – was ultimately responsible for government, so law had to be well written, and if it wasn’t it was amended. Today we are half-governed by two dysfunctional parliaments simultaneously, so legislation has become less visionary and more technocratic with nobody ultimately responsible for successful reform. For example, education. When Britain was independent you got a grant to go to college, today you get a loan to go to college. I’m not blaming the EU for that, I’m blaming our failure to govern ourselves like grown ups – the disconnect between votes and power has made legislators less thoughtful, voters less engaged, and society, ultimately, less well governed.
Since 1973 has Britain confronted the energy crisis? No – we shut down the coal mines (because we didn’t want to be dictated to by the NUM) and instead became dependent on imports of fuel produced by the dictatorships of Russia and OPEC – effectively subsidising a tyranny infinitely worse than anything Arthur Scargill planned. We became less liberal.
In 1973 the goods in our shops were manufactured by people with rights, today we import goods made by slaves – effectively subsidising tyranny. We have become less liberal.
When Britain was independent Monty Python mocked religion, today mocking religion is branded a blasphemous hate crime. Free speech has actually been curtailed since 1973.
Has feminism progressed over the last 40 years? In the late 60s and early 70s feminism raged against moronic bigotry, but today hundreds of women are mutilated every month and none of the criminals responsible are ever even arrested. The consummation of arranged marriages to under age girls is tolerated and polygamy has effectively been decriminalised. In 1973 it would have been inconceivable that 40 years later, the police would just stand by as women were mutilated and subjugated on an industrial scale, but it actually happened. We became less liberal.
The remain side may point to the progress on disability issues, and will naturally claim credit for all good change, but I would make these observations:
1, When researching this essay I was genuinely astonished at the number of acts passed in Britain prior to 1973 to advance the lot of disabled people. A list of them is here. It is surely comparable to legislation elsewhere in Europe. Who is to say an independent Britain would not have progressed these issues anyway? (As Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland etc have done)
2, Humanity has become better at diagnosing and treating disabilities, better tools and medicines are available, and it has become easier to adapt buildings to accommodate them. That’s not the achievement of the EU specifically but of humanity generally.
3, In the architecture office where I work, when I make a building compliant with access requirements I set it out in accordance with BS 8300 which is the gold standard of DDA legislation. The ‘BS’ stands for ‘British Standards’. It’s our law. This document was recently renamed BS EN 8300 (EN refers to ‘European’) but just because someone stuck the word ‘European’ on the front cover, it doesn’t mean to say that the EU should be credited with the contents.
A similar point could be made with environmental legislation – the EU amend a portion of our law, then claim credit for the whole of it!
Thomas Paine said “the greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes” and indeed the EU masquerades as progressive even as elected leaders are removed, societies are crushed and whole generations are denied prosperity. What is so progressive about external rule? If Britain has become more liberal since 1973 then how come inequality, debt and pollution have increased? Since 1973 where are the great reform acts? What institutions have been successfully reformed? Name them.
Those on the Left who fear Brexit would mean permanent Right wing rule should think again, Harold Wilson won FOUR general elections, how many Labour leaders since him have won a general election? Only one – Tony Blair. The nightmare scenario for the ‘progressive Left’ in which they are permanently powerless is the scenario that actually happened after 1973.
So to answer the original question, not only is there a progressive, liberal argument to be made for independence, but I would go further and say that independence is the only progressive choice on offer.
By Sebastian Handley.