Philip Johnston: The Magna Carta ... An Old Piece of Parchment that Made England a Nation

Philip Johnston is The Daily Telegraph's Assistant Editor.

Forty years ago today, the United Kingdom joined what was then called the European Economic Community. Where is the celebratory bunting? Why do we not run up those blue flags with gold stars on them and whistle Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? The fact that we are not commemorating what by any measure was a momentous occasion in our national story speaks volumes about our semi-detached relationship with Europe. Almost from the day Edward Heath walked us up the aisle, this has been a loveless marriage with which we have struggled to come to terms.

Largely, this was due to the circumstances that brought about the nuptials and how our motivation for joining differed from that of our continental neighbours. They were wedded to the idea of an ever-closer political union to avoid a repeat of the wars that had twice reduced many of their towns and cities to rubble in the previous 70 years.

For our part, we were more interested in the economic than the community bit of the EEC. With an economy seemingly in terminal decline and with continental Europe enjoying faster growth and lower inflation, the Common Market seemed like the route to prosperity until the oil price shock of 1974 dished that prospect.

So, did we sell our sovereignty for a mess of pottage?

When the Macmillan government unsuccessfully first tried to join the six founder members of the EEC in 1962, the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, said this: "Now we must be clear: it does mean… the end of Britain as an independent nation state… the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: 'All right let it end.’ But, my goodness, it’s a decision that needs a little care and thought."

It is Gaitskell’s reference to "a thousand years of history" that is intriguing...


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