From Wilson to Heath, “successive governments all looked very, very meticulously at alternatives” to joining the European Community. “They looked at going alone; they looked at the European Free Trade Area – but they were forced each time to come back to the view that if Britain wanted to play the international and economic role that it did, there was no alternative to the EC.”
This was the message of Patrick Salmon, the Foreign Office’s chief historian, as he spoke at the launch of The Official History of Britain and the European Community, Volume II by Sir Stephen Wall, the former UK representative to the EU.
Wall’s book sets out in great detail the developments that led to Britain joining the EC. Indeed, such is the level of detail in this book, it comes with a whopping £70 price tag.
The launch was festooned with former diplomats, foreign secretaries and senior mandarins, and situated – appropriately – in the Entente Cordiale Room of the Foreign Office.
Lord Armstrong, the former cabinet secretary, thought it would read as Wordsworth once wrote of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.” Yet with a grand portrait of Napoleon looming above us, Armstrong enjoyed reliving old times. He told us that, when Britain joined the EC, Ted Heath sat at his clavichord serenading the staff. And he told us of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s two and a half hour phone call with foreign secretary James Callaghan on whether to hold a referendum on leaving; the electorate voted to stay by two to one.
Perhaps they wouldn’t do so today, but this book seems a useful primer on why they did. Well worth reading for those pondering the issue today.