The following pages are mainly devoted to a study of how the British left struggled to come to terms with the Common Market, in the course of what was known (with a touch of derision) as the ‘great debate’ of 1971. But it should not be thought that either the problem, the left’s reactions and answers, or the conclusions to be drawn from the whole episode are peculiar to Great Britain. In this sense, all that happened was that Britain had to face consciously and deal more rapidly with a dilemma which—by contrast—had ‘dawned’ much more gradually upon the political life of the six original member-states.
In the early 1970s, however, the British left is grappling with the difficulty at the very moment in which its character—that is, its character as a European problem—is becoming more evident everywhere. Those who doubt this should turn to Giorgio Amendola’s recent statement of the Italian Communist Party’s position on Europe, I communisti e l’Europa, where it is maintained that ‘international integration is a reality with which one will have to come to terms’, and that the left can only respond adequately to this process by quickly transcending its ‘narrow national limits’. Or (perhaps still more significant, given its notoriously conservative source) the French Communist position outlined at practically the same time by J. Denis and J. Kanapa in Pour ou contre l’Europe?
These are theoretical indications of the way the wind is blowing. But of course practical politics too have imparted lessons in the same sense. The ‘great debate’, it is argued below, demonstrated how a ruling class can obtain its class aims by moving on to the ‘European’ terrain and simultaneously forcing (or perhaps simply allowing) the left to retreat back to the lost ground of nationalism and ‘national sovereignty’. Hardly six months after the provisional conclusion of the British debate, with the parliamentary vote of 28 October 1971, the French government attempted a closely analogous move with President Pompidou’s ‘European’ referendum of April 1972. This was, in the event, far less successful than the Heath government’s campaign. Pompidou proved that he was not de Gaulle, and could not aspire to use the referendum technique in the classical fashion. Nevertheless (as many commentators pointed out) his strategy by no means met the humiliating échec which it deserved, for the pcf still let itself be manoeuvred into the position of voting ‘No’ rather than abstaining. Gaullism avoided a moral débâcle and could claim a formal victory and pursue its chosen course of government. Fifteen years after the Treaty of Rome, in the country which had always been the heart of the Common Market, a bourgeois régime could still count on the great party of the left remaining within its ‘narrow national limits’.
Both theoretically and practically, therefore, the British debate about entry should be seen as posing a problem (though admittedly in an ‘extreme’ context with many peculiarities of its own) that has some validity for the Common Market as a whole. There is all too little space to pursue the theoretical implications of this problem here. But it should be noted that these concern both the history of marxist ideas about nationalism and internationalism and (perhaps more important) the real historical relationship between marxism and the nationalism which has characterized European history during the century now ending. The Common Market has begun, at least, to awaken marxism from its dogmatic slumbers in this vital area of thought.
In 1971 the British left was forced to define its position towards Europe in one short period of time. Although the question of British entry to the Common Market had dragged on intermittently for more than ten years, it was finally resolved in less than six months, between May and October 1971. In May—as The Times put it—suddenly everyone began to believe in entry. The meeting between Pompidou and Heath on 20–21 May demonstrated a dramatic change in the French position on Britain’s application for entry: it became virtually certain that the latter would succeed. Five months and a few days later, the House of Commons voted approval of entry ‘in principle’ with a majority of 112 votes.