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The parliamentary battle to join the European Economic Community

11 min read

It was a Commons showdown that divided parties and defined political careers. As a young reporter, Michael Cockerell covered the story of Britain’s entry into the European Community. As MPs vote on the Agreement to leave Europe, he looks back on the parliamentary fight to take us in

Nearly half a century ago the Commons was obsessed and convulsed for a year by a whole series of meaningful votes on whether Britain should join the European Community. The passionately europhile Prime Minister Ted Heath had personally managed to persuade President Pompidou of France to rescind his nation’s veto on Britain’s entry. But Heath faced a monumental struggle to get the necessary legislation through Parliament.

He knew he couldn’t command a majority on Tory votes alone, as he was up against a fervent band of some forty anti-Europeans in his own party, led by Enoch Powell. Nor could the PM rely on Labour votes. Harold Wilson had reversed his party’s previous pro-Europe stance, to the dismay of the large body of Labour europhile MPs led by Roy Jenkins.

Parliament’s most mesmerising orator, Enoch Powell – once a keen European – was now Heath’s deadly enemy. In the Commons, Powell declaimed that the battle over Europe “is a life and death struggle for Britain’s independence and authority. A struggle as surely about the future of Britain’s nationhood as were the combats which raged in the skies over Southern England in the autumn of 1940. The gladiators are few, their weapons are but words: and yet the fight is everyman’s”.

As a young BBC television reporter, I followed the Parliamentary story of Britain’s entry into Europe and talked to the key players both at the time and subsequently.

The first big vote on the principle of joining Europe came in October 1971. It followed weeks of open and covert pressure by the party whips on both sides. Disinformation, bluff and counter-bluff were matched by what the Euro-historian, Uwe Kitzinger, described as “nose counting, arm twisting, weak knees and stiff upper lips”. As the great debate began, the galleries in the Commons were so crowded that one world-weary doorkeeper confided: “I haven’t seen it so full since we used to matter in the world.”

The debate lasted six days. Among the 176 MPs who spoke were the party leaders, including the debonair Jeremy Thorpe, as well as Jim Callaghan, Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, and Jeffrey Archer.

In his speech, Harold Wilson declared that if he were returned to Number 10, “if the Community refused to renegotiate the Tory terms, we would sit down amicably and discuss the situation with them.” The House, crowded and tense, just laughed at him.

In his summing up speech Ted Heath said: “I do not think that any Prime Minister has stood at this box in time of peace and asked the House to take a positive decision of such importance as I am asking them to take tonight.”

The division was on a motion carefully framed by the government in consultation with the Jenkinsites to garner maximum possible support. It simply invited the House to “prove the government’s decision to join the Community on the basis of the arrangements that have been negotiated”.

While Labour imposed a three-line Whip instructing its MPs to vote against the government, Ted Heath, himself a former Chief Whip had been more cunning. He had eventually agreed with his own Chief Whip, Francis Pym, to have a free vote. This made it easier for Labour’s pro-European MPs to defy their own party. In the division sixty-nine of them did so, while thirty-nine Tory eurosceptics led by Enoch Powell voted against their government.

The Prime Minister had won by over a hundred – but that big margin was illusory. The real problem he faced was to pass the legislation he needed to turn the vote into law.


Wilson declared that the result was a one-off: he would allow no more voting in support of Heath. As he put it: “I cannot imagine a single Labour Member who, faced with this legislation, will not be in the lobbies against the government.”

Roy Jenkins and his fellow pro-Europeans were in a bind. They now felt, illogically, that having voted for the principle they could not vote for the enabling legislation. From now on they would grit their teeth and follow the official party line, arguing it was the government’s own responsibility to carry its business – or resign.

For their part, Powell and the antis were not downcast. They knew that there was still a very long way to go. And many of them were procedural specialists, who felt confident they could tie government in knots.

Meanwhile, Ted Heath and Francis Pym realised that they would need to deploy all the dark arts of whipping to deradicalise the Powellites. And they would need a number of Labour europhiles to support them or at least abstain.

The first big crunch came with the second reading of the Accession Bill was on February 14, 1972. It was to be subject to some three hundred hours of debate over the following months.

Labour and the Powellites had been looking forward with relish to an enormous Bill of perhaps a thousand clauses. The government achieved a considerable strategic coup at the outset by contriving to condense the legislation into a short Bill of only 12 clauses accepting all previous EEC regulations, the Treaty of Rome, the terms of entry – and that ‘EEC law should henceforth prevail over British Law’.

In the days before the division, the most intense pressure was put on the 39 Tory rebels of October to come to heel. Enoch Powell claimed the potential dissenters had been subjected to “a more intensive brainwashing operation than any Prime Minister, reverting to his previous character as chief whip, had ever carried out. Those who went into his room in the week before the Second Reading came out looking more like ghosts than men.” 

Tony Benn, one of labour’s leading antis, told Harold Wilson that if Labour polled its full strength the government – which he called “the most reactionary and divisive of modern times” – could be defeated, and Labour would return to power.

In the Second Reading debate, Michael Foot, Benn’s fellow frontbench sceptic, furiously denounced the bill as “a lawyer’s conjuring trick: the government has decided to treat the House of Commons with contempt”.

Heath in his speech spelt out that if the government were to be defeated “this Parliament cannot sensibly continue”. His special advisor Michael Wolff had written a resignation speech for him. With the country in chaos, in the middle of a miners strike, with much of Britain blacked out and Northern Ireland in bloody turmoil, a general election was an uninviting prospect. Many Tories, both pro and anti, risked losing their seats.

As MPs trooped through the lobbies, there were a number of last minute Damascene conversions. A few Powellites had been turned towards Heath by Harold Wilson, whose closing speech they had regarded as slipperly and shamelessly opportunistic. As Heath’s unofficial biographer, John Campbell put it in 1993: “There have not been many moments in British politics this century when the split-second decision of individual MPs has determined the fate of a government – but this was one of them.” 

The result was a government victory by 309 votes to 301. Fifteen Powellites, down from thirty-nine, voted against the government and five more abstained. It was the first time since the war that Tory MPs had refused their support in a vote of confidence. Five Jenkinsites also abstained. Had they obeyed Labour‘s three-line whip Heath’s majority would have been down to just three.

Roy Jenkins himself voted against the government. “I remember it vividly as a day of misery,” Jenkins later told me. “Shamefacedly slinking through the No lobby made a pathetic contrast with striding through the Aye Lobby on October 28th. But it wasn’t any longer about sounding a great blast on the trumpet. What we were desperately concerned with was avoiding a single defeat on any one of the hundred divisions which would follow.”

The legislation was so drafted that it had to be carried unamended for Britain to be able to enter the Community.

Heath and Francis Pym decided that the only way to insure themselves against subsequent defeat was somehow to entice Labour’s pro-Europeans to come to their aid.

One of Heath’s closest Cabinet colleagues was his former PPS, Jim Prior, then Leader of the Commons. “All through this anxious time,” said Prior, “we made great efforts privately to keep Roy Jenkins and his group informed and they, in turn, advised us what was possible and how we could play our hand”.

During the ensuing Parliamentary battles, Ken Clarke, then a fresh-faced young barrister turned Tory MP, was among those who, as he puts it, “had to work out how many rebels we had at a particular time on a particular issue and how the devil we could get the Bill through”.

As a new and relatively unknown member of the whips office, he had been chosen to form an unlikely alliance with the Labour europhiles. Clarke had become friendly with a fellow member of the 1970 intake, the young pro-European Labour MP John Roper, who was one of the Jenkinsites’ quasi-whips. The two men would liaise regularly.

“We might not have got into the Community if we hadn’t had an unofficial arrangement in which I was the go-between,” says Clark.

“I would meet John each day and discuss with him how many Jenkinsites should fail to turn up that evening. We’d have to negotiate it because they all had troubles with their constituency associations.

“I would suggest the number we needed to match the number of Conservative rebels we knew we were going to have that night. I would always request a number that we thought essential and John would try to help his colleagues by negotiating me down to the absolute minimum that would avoid real risk.”

Roy Jenkins felt reluctantly he could not himself defy the whips and abstain, but he described those who did: “The abstainers were made up in almost equal proportions of old men who had decided their fate no longer mattered and young men with the gallantry of 1916 subalterns. Typical of the latter was Michael Barnes the MP for Brentford and Chiswick.

“They at once provided us with an essential little shield behind which to shelter and made our political calculations rather tawdry. It’s never comfortable to be dependent on men braver than oneself.”

At Michael Barnes funeral earlier this year, his son Hugh said: “My father refused to emulate Harold Wilson’s 180-degree U-turn on Europe. He stuck to his principles, which cost him his seat on the front bench.”


There was enormous strain on both sides of the House. The battle over the European Communities Bill was the longest of its sort on record. Between March ‘72 when the Bill went into Committee and the Third Reading on 13 July there were 104 divisions.

“On one occasion we nearly lost the Bill,” says Ken Clarke, “when John Roper and I made a serious miscalculation – or he had pressed me too strongly. The majority fell to just four. That was the narrowest squeak that the Bill, the government and the Whips office had throughout the whole process”.

On the Third Reading division, Francis Pym was still taking no chances. Seven sick Tories were brought to Westminster to be ‘nodded through’. With the Bill so close to being enacted, a record number of thirteen labour europhiles abstained and helped the government to a relatively comfortable final majority of seventeen.

Ken Clarke said later: “I hugely enjoyed my unseen and minor role in these momentous proceedings. At the historic moment when the Bill finally received Royal Assent I firmly believed that at the age of 32 I would be extremely satisfied with my political career if it went no further.”

When the result of the Third Reading vote was announced in the House to resounding cheers while the Tory antis sat in sad silence, the normally taciturn Chief Whip, Francis Pym, said in rare public statement: “It has been a terrific battle full of tension and drama. I am immensely relieved it is over – and that goes for the whole House of Commons. The determination and patience of the Conservative Party has been remarkable.”

In the Commons after the Division, Jim Prior said: “Francis Pym gave vent to his feelings. Much to the amusement and delight of us all, this cautious and phlegmatic character danced a jig on the floor of the House.”

Nearly fifty years on, the odds are stacking up against the terpsichorean Theresa May getting out her dancing shoes following the great meaningful vote on her deal to Brexit from Europe.

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