55 years ago, British newspapers jubilantly celebrated the country’s first application to join the European Community. Today, they brand all opponents of Brexit as ‘saboteurs’. This change of heart can tell us a lot about the wider historical dynamics behind Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Mathias Haeussler explains.
British tabloids’ portrayals of Europe have always been deeply conditioned by their very particular historical contexts and issues of the time. During the 1975 referendum, the environment was one of profound crises: fresh memories of the oil shock, the three-day week, and inflation rates still at around 25 per cent all shaped the tabloids’ almost universal recommendation to vote remain. ‘Outside the Market’, the Daily Mirror cried in May 1975, ‘we would be exposed – and ALONE – in an unfriendly world’. In such a climate of anxiety and fear, even The Sun felt that the choice was clear: Britain had to stay in Europe because ‘baby, it’s cold outside!’
But the tabloids’ stance on Europe had not always been determined by purely negative motivations. In the early 1960s, the Daily Mirror even tried to sell British EC membership as a highly progressive and outward-looking policy, embracing the then-prevalent liberal language of competition and social democracy. Its portrayals of Europe correspondingly focused on Europe’s post-war affluence and consumerism. West Germany, for example, was a country ‘where beer flows like water, and money flows like beer’, and the situation in France seemed similar: ‘Bellies Full, Jobs Booming, Birthrate Bounding’. Little space was given to the Continent’s recent past – the Mirror thought it rather more prudent to stress that it was ‘kissing time toujours’ in Paris, and that German girls were the ‘bosomiest in Europe’. At the eve of the swinging Sixties, then, the European Community was hip, cool, and buzzing – at least to the Daily Mirror.
Things only went downhill from the mid-1980s onwards. A potent combination of Britain’s economic revitalization, Thatcher’s Falklands-driven discovery of identity politics, and a left-wing EC Commission pushing for more ambitious schemes of European integration meant that the tabloids’ enthusiasm morphed into widespread opposition and outright hostility. The theme of ‘national sovereignty’, previously largely ignored, now assumed centre stage: The Sun, for example, asserted in 1988 that the British people ‘have no desire whatsoever to become politically involved with foreigners with whom we have nothing in common’ – whereas, during the 1975 referendum, it had claimed that Britain’s entire history was one of ‘absorbing, and profiting by, any European influences that blow our way’. The 1980s were, of course, also when Boris Johnson first started making up stories about EC regulations for condom sizes and prawn cocktail crisps as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent.
It is clear, then, that British tabloid coverage of Europe since the late 1950s does not simply amount to endless and seemingly eternal expressions of Europhobia. Rather, it was a highly contingent and volatile process in which portrayals of ‘Europe’ changed almost beyond recognition according to the political and societal climate of the day. Yet, ‘Europe’ always remained an external ‘other’ – an image against which British national identity could be defined and projected. In the 1960s, the Mirror tried to use the seemingly booming and dynamic EC as an alternative post-imperial identity for the young and affluent consumer; in the 1980s, the Sun’s crusade against the EC’s integrationist agenda offered comfortable assurances of British/English ‘otherness’ amidst the troubles of devolution and the end of the Cold War order. Europe always remained a pawn in the domestic political debate – which is why it could be hijacked so effectively during the ‘Brexit’ campaign.
To other EU member-states, this state of affairs of course seems profoundly irritating, if not outright bizarre – EC/EU membership has been an integral part of most national DNAs for many decades. They thus shudder in amazement, wondering why the European question has become such a key part of Britain’s national discourse. Such Continental puzzlement has not entirely escaped British observers. As early as the eve of the 1975 referendum, for example, The Sun urged its readers that there were ‘worse reasons for voting Yes tomorrow, and overwhelming so, than this – we can then all shut up. […] The argument has been going on for the best part of 15 years and […] we are in danger of boring the pants off the universe’. Sadly, however, it did not heed its own advice afterwards.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Twentieth Century British History, and on an upcoming book chapter.
Mathias Haeussler is currently Lumley Research Fellow (JRF) at Magdalene College.
To the other 27 you might be okay with your country becoming no more than a state with no more control or power than a city and that is fine ,and if so by EU spite I’d rather be a poor master than a rich servant
I’ve been British for 75 years, ever since the day I was born and I’m not anticipating changing that any time soon. I’ve lived in Spain for 35 years and I agree with what Allan Sanders and Knud Moller say. However I also agree with Dipper’s comment, what he says is not opinion, its fact. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is little on the planet that is stranger than a Brit. It’s got to the stage now that when I travel, (with my wife), around Europe, something we do fairly often, we start off by speaking either Spanish or French, with the result that we are made feel more welcome. When we inevitably speak English amazement is expressed at our ability to communicate in something other than English, It’s simply not British, or certainly not expected of Brits. Now, in 2017 it’s worse than ever because of the decline in the effectiveness of the British secondary education system since the 1980s. Brits of my age are not accustomed to seeing Brits retreat when faced with a problem, and that is what is now happening. The UK could and should have been a very powerful force in the EU, like Germany is, however, for reasons unknown, it preferred to remain on the sidelines. To me it is VERY regrettable. It embarrasses me on a daily basis having to explain to Spaniards what Britain has done for no logical reason. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations the relationship between British people and European people has been damaged for generations to come, all for no good reason.
Cosmopolitanism, and for many also internationalism, is a seductive cachet, yet it should not blind us to the cut and thrust of the particular brand of corporate globalisation which has long ago taken charge of the running of most western, notionally sovereign, democratic nation-states.Inevitably, many people view the world through their own personal prism/prison.It most often boils down to personal financial cum economic wherewithal.
After that, it is a matter of what kind of world does one wish to live in and leave for others generations hence.
As someone who has lived 13 years in France and remained in daily contact with the UK I am well placed to comment on the difference between the Brits and the Continentals. The Continentals participate in the affaires of the EUand discuss them within their communities whereas the Brits dont seem to want to be bothered with it, just be in it. Even the UK media dosn’t seem motivated to draw the Brits into participate in discussion. It seems to me that the Brits simply want the benefits of membership of the club, winge about things they are persuaded that they don’t like and can’t get their head around the idea that as members they should pull their weight and make their views known in order to continually improve the union. Think of a husband and wife the marriage works best when there is a constant dialoge between partners. In simple terms the brits don’t deserve a good relationship. Us Brits really need to buck our ideas up. Oh and ask the question who in Britain benefits from a totaly unregulated economy and who as a consequence will suffer.
May I add that at the time of the referendum a Danish commentator noted that for some time prior to the start of the referendum campaign he and representatives of medias from the other 26 countries had noticed a distinct lack of presence from the British media. This presumably mirrored a distinct lack of interest in EU affairs by the media itself and the general public. Perhaps it also meant that reporting on EU politics in a neutral or even positive manner was not seen as ‘sexy’ and not something that would ‘sell’. Consequently reporting became more and more negative and the more horror stories they could find about immigration, integration and bureaucratic excesses they could dig up the better. Cometh the referendum commentators from the said 26 countries noticed a marked increase in the presence of British commentators who ostenbly came to Bruxelles with the sole purpose of scouring the EU archives for even more such stories.
To state the obvious, the Common Market was conceived as a response to two world wars (and other previous wars) that had ravaged Europe. The lesson from these wars for continental Europe was that they could not maintain their freedom in the face of German aggression, so better to negotiate your freedom away in peace time than have it taken from you in war. The lesson from these wars for the United Kingdom was the opposite – that we can maintain our freedom from German aggression. Hence there is no consensus at all in the UK that we need to give up any aspect of our freedom.
The Common Market was sold to the UK as a free-trade agreement, and political integrationist aspects were constantly played down. However over time the political integrationist steamroller has been inching (or perhaps centimetring) its way down the road to a federal Europe, and despite many assurances, change is only ever in one direction. Hence the vote to take us out of a political system which is based round us surrendering things that are important to us to solve a problem we don’t have.
“The Common Market was sold to the UK as a free-trade agreement, and political integrationist aspects were constantly played down.”
Text from HMG’s 1975 Referendum pamphlet (delivered to every household) can be read at the following: http://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm
I’d also look at the No leaflet which also went to every household:
The headline is “The Right to Rule Ourselves” subheadline “The fundamental question is whether we remain free to rule ourselves in our own way”.
Incidentally, I would say that all the leaflets from the 1975 referendum were of a much higher quality than the leaflets from the 2016 referendum.
Back in the 1970’s when caught in hours long queues at the Customs at places like Irun and Strasbourg, I was strongly in favour of the European ideal, if only to get something to eat. Since then we have invented globalisation and changed what we mean by an EU. Now it all seems as quaint as the old Habsburg Empire.
There is a big difference form being asked to vote to stay in a trading partnership, and being asked to stay in an increasingly democratically deficient and corruption ridden would be federal state, The only item that was the exactly the same for both referenda was the project fear campaigns, enacted by the remain supporters.