Today (October 28) in London History – Joining the EEC

On October 28, 1971 the House of Commons voted for the U.K. to join the EEC. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I’m well aware that this one’s a minefield and I have to be very careful here.

It’s the taboo subject. The subject that must not be mentioned, that it’s best to keep quiet about.

I’m talking about Brexit of course.

London Walks has burned its fingers there before. Back when it happened – well, right after it happened – by it I mean the June 2016 referendum – a couple of guides created and tried to give a Brexit walk. A walk that looked at the smoke-filled rooms so to speak – well, the buildings that housed a lot of those nerve centres.

The epicentres of the Vote Leave movement and indeed those of their opposite numbers, the so-called Remainers. Basically, the Palace of Westminster – Parliament – and a handful of buildings in that immediate area. The guides reasoned – plausibly enough, it seemed – that people might be interested to know, “oh, so this is where that happened, this is where that took shape. This is the now famous 55 Tufton Street and round the corner here is 2 Lord North Street, which housed another main behind-the-scenes high-powered lobby. And sure enough, those are the railings Boris Johnson’s bicycle was regularly chained to because he was often over here of an evening banging heads with his confidantes, and so on.” That was the idea. Put a place, an address to some of the goings-on, especially the behind-the-scenes goings-on. Basically a political battlefield tour.

Seemed like a good idea. Seemed being the operative word. Because of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What we found was that feelings ran so high that every outing ended up as a donnybrook. There weren’t any fisticuffs but there was a great deal of acrimony, walkers at each other’s throats. It wasn’t pleasant, wasn’t fun. The atmosphere on those walks would invariably get sulphurous in no time, degenerate into something very tetchy, even downright poisonous.

We learned our lesson very quickly – a Brexit walk is not a good idea, put that one back in its cage, don’t let it out again, put DANGER signs all around it.

And that, I have to say, is pretty much the case at a more interpersonal level. I voted Remain. I will vote Rejoin when that comes round – as it surely will. But I have friends – and indeed London Walks colleagues – who voted Leave – and basically we just don’t go there. The friendships – and the good relations with my colleagues are far more important to me – and I think to them – than what would be likely to happen were we to lock horns over the great political question of our era. So we steer clear of the elephant on the patio. (And elephant is certainly the mot juste. That referendum vote has swamped – for years now, and quite possibly for decades to come – everything else in British politics. And not just our politics – our culture, our economics, our geopolitics, it’s got into everything, really.) 

Anyway, that’s the background to this podcast, that’s what informs my sense that I have to be careful here. This is the touchy subject of our time and it has to be handled with care. 

I’m here with it today, though, because October 28th is an important date in the story. And because my wet finger up in the wind is telling me – I hope I’m right about this – that things are beginning to change a bit. That it’s a subject that can be – and needs to be – discussed. I think that particularly because of that new Financial Times video. Just published, in less than a week it’s been watched, on youtube, by getting on for 3 million people.  Evidence-based – in other words, the Financial Times is arguing from fact, not from feeling – the video sets out the hard figures, spells out what the economic cost of Brexit has been. 

And the fact that it’s the Financial Times – the Wall Street Journal of Europe – the champion of modern corporate capitalism – that’s put this together and put it out – well, that surely is a straw in the wind.

So, shielded somewhat by that timely – and frankly devastating – Financial Times piece – the 2022 British economic equivalent of the novelist Emile Zola’s J’Accuse open letter to the French President in the Dreyfus affair – here I am, here we are with a Today in London History podcast that’s got considerable bearing on the great issue of our time. Well, one of the great issues. I suspect it’ll be dwarfed in due course by climate change but that is another matter. Suspect that not least because I was only too aware when I went out yesterday that it’s late October and I was out in my shirt sleeves. 

Anyway, here’s our event.

 On this day, October 28th, 1971, the House of Commons voted to join the EEC. The EEC was of course the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU. The story is very well known but perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that Britain’s joining the EEC was touch and go. In 1963 and 1967 French President De Gaulle had vetoed Britain’s entry into the EEC. Had vetoed it because of concerns about Britain’s economic decrepitude. It probably should be borne in mind that even if the tide for rejoining does continue to come back in – and it looks like it will – rejoining will almost certainly be easier said than done. No matter how much we want back in –should that be the case [he added guardedly] – that door might be barred against us for a very long time, perhaps forever. And if economic strength – or frailty – is a factor, as it clearly was 60 years ago – the economic decline the Financial Times is charting might well save the day for Brexiteers. There’s an irony for you. Putting up barriers to trading with the largest market in the world – a market right on your doorstep – bakes in economic decline. Or so says the Financial Times. And that very economic decline bakes in its cause, Brexit. Locks it in, makes it permanent. 

But that’s in the future. Here and now, in this podcast, we’re in the past. In 1971. And here I draw on political historian Iain Dale’s fine account of that fulcrum moment in this country’s history. De Gaulle had died – the Grim Reaper doing his bit to aid and assist British entry. Prime Minister Edward Heath had persuaded the new French government that we really were ok, and that it would be a good thing for all concerned if we were allowed to join the club. The trickiest step – the Hillary Step if you want to put it into Everest mountain climbing terms – was getting Parliament to approve the deal. Heath’s majority was very slender and, surprise surprise, there were a lot of Conservative MPs, members of the Prime Minister’s party, who were opposed. The debate in the House was fierce. It went on for six days. Historians have dubbed it The Great Debate because an unprecedented number – 176 in all – of MPs had their say.

Come the moment of truth – the vote –  Heath needed votes from the Labour benches on the other side of the house to overcome the opposition in his own party. He got it thanks to a brilliant tactical manoeuvre dreamt up by his chief whip, Francis Pym. Pym persuaded Heath to allow a free vote – in other words the government didn’t whip its backbenchers – it let his party members vote their conscience.

That was a stroke of genius. A lot of Labour members were very pro-European, they wanted to support Heath’s membership deal. Because Conservative MPs were not whipped Labour MPs could justify defying their party’s three-line whip. 69 of them did. 20 others abstained. That bloc of support from the opposition benches got Heath his majority – a comfortable majority – even though 39 Conservative MPs voted against EEC membership.

So we were in. The Official joining day was January 1st, 1973.

 In and so began the large march to the OUT door, to leaving, to Brexit. And the even longer march to rejoining. Well, if I were a betting man I suspect that’s what up ahead. It might be 25 years in the future but human beings – even flag shaggers – will in the end – most of them at any rate – act in their own economic best interests. Most people will not vote to be poorer. Or so Adam Smith, the patron saint of free-market capitalism, tells us. 

Ok, wonder if I’ve made it safely through the minefield – come out the other side unscathed. We’ll see what’s in the email in-tray on the morrow.

Anyway, for a Today in London recommendation. Something completely different. My favourite local cafe – I live in West Hampstead – is the Wet Fish Cafe.

How’s this sound? I’ll let the Wet Fish speak for itself.

About once a month we transform into Ronnie Scott’s little cousin in NW6.

We find artists whose music we love.  The music is centre stage, we aim for crystal clear sound and set most tables for only two people to create a beautifully musical ambiance.

There’s a 6.30 pm show and an 8.30 pm show.  Only 12 tables for two in each.

Music dinners always sell out so be sure to book early.  Enjoy!

If that sounds good, just do a search for the Wet Fish Cafe. And take it from there. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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