History / Politics

1989: the roots of Brexit

In this extract from his book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Alwyn Turner looks at how the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe allowed the growth of Euroscepticism in Britain…


In 1989, while the Berlin Wall was still standing, the American commentator Francis Fukuyama had published his essay ‘The End of History’, arguing that the world’s ideological conflicts had been resolved in favour of capitalist democracy. Whether or not this were true, the proposition found a receptive audience and confirmed what had become unavoidably apparent over the last decade: that the intellectual tide had turned in favour of free-market economics.

Ideas about state ownership of manufacturing and services, or about how to plan and regulate the economy, were unlikely to get much of a hearing in the foreseeable future. As Tony Blair explained in opposition: ‘People will look back on the present century and say that, in a curious way, it was an aberration – that you had this war to the death about ideology.’

In Britain the reinvigoration of the right had taken a very specific turn, under the influence of that doughtiest of cold warriors, Margaret Thatcher. The European Community had once been embraced by Conservatives as a bulwark against both international communism and domestic socialism, but now that the external threat was imploding and the power of the trade unions had been curbed at home, there seemed little further need of anything save the free market, operating on as wide a basis as possible. Everything else about the European Community – its aspirations to exert influence in social matters and foreign affairs, for example – was inherently suspect.

The fall of the Berlin Wall allowed an instinctive patriotism to reassert itself. The Manichean rhetoric of the Cold War era survived, but was directed now at Europe; any hint that it might seek to impede the free workings of capitalism was portrayed as socialism in disguise, a return to the bureaucratic statism of Eastern Europe.

‘Maastricht, and most of the Euro-legislation which had gone before it,’ insisted Roy MP Teresa Gorman, ‘is essentially socialist in nature, designed to create a centralised structure for Europe.’ The Eurosceptic press barons tended towards the same view; Conrad Black was happy to explain that he was against the EU because it is a ‘socialist organisation’. The more philosophically minded argued further that the collapse of the Soviet bloc signalled the end of the era of the superstate, thereby necessitating a rethink of the European drive towards ever closer union.

Such claims helped bolster the new-found enthusiasm for Europe evident in the Labour Party, where Euroscepticism was a fading memory, associated with old folk like Tony Benn, Bryan Gould and Peter Shore, and where debate on the issue had virtually ceased. In his 1989 book Livingstone’s Labour: A Programme for the Nineties, Ken Livingstone argued for a wider internationalism, suggesting that a future Labour government should work with ‘progressive forces in both Eastern and Western Europe as well as in the USSR’, but he actually had far less to say on the subject of the European Community than on the Soviet Union. And what he really wanted to talk about was the neo-colonialism and economic imperialism of the USA.

Hatred of America had long been a defining characteristic of the British left, and had led to a slightly ambivalent attitude towards the Eastern bloc. On the one hand, very few – even within the Communist Party of Great Britain – wished to adopt the system, after the crushing of Hungary and Czechoslovakia; but on the other, the existence of the Soviet Union and China was seen as a counterbalance to America.

In some quarters, open criticism was considered inappropriate, so that when Benn spoke at a rally in support of the demonstrators killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he could record, slightly surprised at himself: ‘It was the first time I had ever spoken in public against a communist government.’ It was a bit late by then, of course, and the established sections of the British left made little contribution to the hurried recalculations that followed the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe. Outside the Labour Party, a group like the Socialist Workers Party could claim that events had proved their theory that the Soviet Union had long since descended into state capitalism, but no one much was listening.

The whole political spectrum in Britain shifted as a result of the fallout blowing from the East, the right attracted again to nationalism, the left abandoning its attempt to accommodate both capitalist and socialist impulses. In the words of Jack Straw: ‘the Labour movement would no longer uneasily have to straddle the theoretical divide which had so hobbled it since its foundation.’

Blair was to confirm this shift, but it was evident within Labour long before his Clause IV adventures. ‘By driving out communism from their own countries, the peoples of central and eastern Europe have driven the threat of socialism from ours,’ wrote Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute in August 1992, a couple of weeks into John Smith’s leadership. ‘The reformed Labour Party in Britain no longer threatens to undo what privatization has achieved.’

As a consequence the Tories were deprived of one of their defining characteristics in recent years, now that the Labour Party shared their faith in markets as the only economic model in town. The need to find a new dividing line between the parties was instrumental in the elevation of Europe to the top of the political agenda.

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One thought on “1989: the roots of Brexit

  1. “In ten years, 80 per cent of the laws affecting the economy and social policy would be passed at a European and not a national level. … We are not going to manage to take all the decisions needed between now and 1995 unless we see the beginnings of a European government.” These were the words of Jacques Delors in September 1988, at a time when no one in the West foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Bloc during the following year. The push towards European federalism that would lead to BREXIT had started before the Berlin Wall came down.

    In 1988, again before the Wall came down, Margaret Thatcher made her Bruges speech in which she said, “Let me be quite clear: Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” She had good reason to say and believe this. At the time the members of the (then) European Community were moving towards the introduction of the ‘Single Market’ in goods if not in services. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not prompt Thatcher to change her views. Far from it. It encouraged her in her belief that Britain could shape the EC by championing free markets and the relationship with the US.

    Events over the next decade or so would suggest that she had been correct. Germany and the Netherlands welcomed Britain’s opposition to the protectionist impulses arising from southern Europe and France. Many of the countries liberated from Soviet occupation and applying for membership to the EU knew that they could count more on Britain and the US than on France and Germany. Ultimately though Thatcher was wrong. She had failed to foresee the realisation of the developments that Delors had already been championing before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall may have led to Brexit. However, it did not do so by changing Britain’s attitude towards its European neighbours, which has remained pretty constant since the mid-70s. If you doubt this, consider whether the British in 2016 would have voted to leave an European Community, similar to that which had existed in the 70s and 80s. I suspect the result would have been similar to the referendum in 1975. What the fall of the Berlin Wall did do was change the political institution of which Britain was expected to be a part.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall had two main consequences: the unification of Germany and the liberation of many countries who wanted to join the EU. Doubling the number of member states necessitated changes in decision-making. More important though was the attitude of the French to German reunification. It is largely forgotten today how strong the opposition to German reunification was amongst many older European politicians including Thatcher and Mitterrand, even as the television screens displayed the Berlin Wall being pulled down and the euphoria of East and West Germans embracing each other. Post reunification the French knew that they could not maintain parity with Germany either in terms of population or GDP. The French reaction was to seek to tie Germany down within a stronger EU. Agreeing to monetary union was the price Germany paid for the French to agree to German reunification. The French were opposed to a parallel move to political union because they felt that they could exert more power over Germany through unelected officials than through an elected and powerful European Parliament. This is why we have the European Union that exists today: power residing in unelected Commissioners, a Parliament that is little more than a glorified rubber stamp and an European Central Bank answerable to no one. It is a European Union in which it is very difficult to find favour, a task that no one in 2016 tried to do.

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