The common agricultural policy can serve as a lens to shed light on the wider question of how UK governments adapted to European Community membership, writes Katja Seidel.

The Conservative Party has fallen apart over Europe. After expelling its centrist and pro-European MPs, Boris Johnson is set on turning the Tories into a hard-line Brexit party. Labour has thus far avoided a split by adopting a rather fudged position on Brexit, designed to paper over divisions between remain and leave supporters in the electorate.

Yet both main parties have a long history of internal divisions over the EU and its predecessor organisations. Since entering the European Community (EC) in 1973, British Prime Ministers had the impossible task of working constructively with their counterparts in Europe while keeping the anti-Marketeers in their own parties at bay. Party political considerations have consistently limited Prime Ministers’ margin of manoeuvre in Brussels since the 1970s.

Some features of the EC were particularly prone to solicit the excitement and resistance of the anti-Marketeers. The common agricultural policy (CAP) was one such issue, which made it particularly difficult for the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s to adapt the country to EC membership. During the 1960s, the six original member states had negotiated the CAP in lengthy and often highly dramatic Council meetings. The CAP became the EC’s flagship policy and was seen as a success for European integration even though the policy itself turned out to be costly, protectionist and incentivised overproduction – the ‘food mountains’.

In order to gain entry to the EC, the CAP was the bitter pill the United Kingdom had to swallow. Harold Macmillan’s first bid to enter the Common Market in the 1960s remained unsuccessful, not least because he had vowed to change the CAP. Edward Heath who took the UK into the EC in 1973 therefore accepted the policy, bar some exceptions for the imports of New Zealand cheese and butter into the UK, hoping he could reform the CAP once the UK had joined. His successors, Labour Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan, harboured similar plans for CAP reform.

The CAP had been designed to suit the needs of the six original member states, particularly exporters of agricultural products such as France and the Netherlands. The CAP presented several disadvantages for the UK, an importer of foodstuffs. Firstly, with its in-built Community preference, the CAP threatened Britain’s traditional Commonwealth trading preferences. Secondly, the UK would have to gradually change its own domestic farm support system (deficiency payments) and adapt to that of the CAP (price support), consequently shifting the burden of farm support from the taxpayer to the consumer. Thirdly, the CAP, due to on average higher commodity prices, would result in an increase in food prices for British consumers. Finally, importers of food such as Germany, and the UK, were set to be net contributors to the EC budget as long as the CAP remained the largest item of expenditure and other redistributive policies, such as a Community regional policy, remained underdeveloped.

In the context of the economic crisis of the 1970s and the deep transformations Western economies were undergoing in the period, leading to structural unemployment and high inflation, it was therefore not easy for the British government to convey how these sacrifices were outweighed by the advantages of Community membership. Instead, the CAP became a bone of contention between Britain and the Community as well as a domestic policy issue, exploited by anti-Marketeers eager to prove that EC membership did not benefit Britain’s economy and its citizens.

A lack of allies in the Community as well as the inability of the British government to present a convincing alternative to the CAP system meant that during the 1970s the strategy of ‘join now and negotiate later’ did not work out as planned. However, Heath’s Agricultural Minister Joseph Godber strove to obtain gradual changes to the CAP, a strategy Labour’s Fred Peart continued. This approach might have reaped rewards had Prime Minister Callaghan allowed it to continue. Instead, in 1976 Callaghan appointed staunch anti-Marketeer John Silkin to the post of Agricultural Minister. Callaghan thus put a convinced anti-European in charge of dealing with the Community’s most important, most visible, most expensive and most contentious policy. Silkin saw his role in Brussels as one of ‘total opposition’ in contrast to what he deemed the ‘continental’ habit of compromise. Silkin’s ‘total opposition’, however, did not achieve the desired results and, like the continental tactic of holding out for concessions, it also only obtained him minor concessions when negotiations resumed, but the tactic contributed decidedly to poisoning the atmosphere.

Silkin’s aim was to cause maximum outrage in Brussels to play to the growing domestic Eurosceptic audience in the Labour party and the British public. He did not believe that CAP reform was possible or indeed desirable given that his aim remained ending Britain’s membership of the EC.

What were Callaghan’s motives for appointing Silkin to the post? As Prime Minister of an unstable minority government, Callaghan found himself in a difficult position. On the one hand, he had to honour Britain’s membership in the EC and establish a constructive relationship with his European counterparts. On the other, he faced a deepening divide in the Labour party between the pro- and anti-Marketeers as well as having to deal with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Callaghan himself was a self-confessed ‘agnostic’ when it came to European integration. In Silkin he had a strong and determined politician calling out the policy’s wastefulness and ‘doing battle’ in Brussels without Callaghan having to do so himself. This was bound to go down well with the anti-Marketeers in his Cabinet, Parliament and the party.

Domestically the CAP became increasingly contested as it was seen to increase food prices and fuel inflation. Silkin’s confrontational attitude was domestically useful to demonstrate to the public that the government was fighting for ‘British interests’. Silkin’s performance in Brussels was thus far from being out of tune with the government and the party. However, an appointment such as Silkin’s demonstrated to Britain’s EC partners the government’s lack of commitment to Community membership and contributed to establishing Britain’s reputation as an awkward partner.

Britain’s journey to EC membership had been lengthy, with both major political parties struggling to adapt to post-war realities. Being obliged to adopt a policy such as the CAP following accession did nothing to pacify Eurosceptics. Rather, it fuelled continued debates about the merits of membership within the Labour party in the 1970s but also the country as a whole. The CAP seemed to underscore the drawbacks of being tied to common rules and supranational policies within the Community. The CAP was therefore resisted rhetorically both in Brussels and in London, particularly as it came to be tied up with the economic recession and, crucially, the unfolding problem of the British budget contribution that would dominate British policy towards the EC in the early 1980s.

Party-political considerations have consistently determined the UK’s relationship with the EC and the EU. In the 1970s the unity of the Labour party was prioritised over developing effective relationships with the UK’s European partners in Brussels. The CAP, one of Europe’s most important policies, was carelessly left to an anti-Marketeer minister who used his position for point scoring at home. As John Young put it: ‘Britain’s role in the EEC [and the EU] was at the mercy of British domestic considerations.’

The general elections in May 1979 returned a Conservative-led government under Thatcher. It fell to her to address the budget issue. For a party which, when in opposition, had pledged to approach the EC with a more positive and community-minded spirit than Labour, it would be hard to reconcile this contentious issue with this conciliatory attitude. Impossible, really, as it turned out. The poison of ‘Europe’ then started to seep into the Conservative party, leading to Thatcher’s demise in 1990.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Contemporary British History.

About the Author

Katja Seidel is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Westminster.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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