In August 1962, a then 79-year-old Clement Attlee rose to his feet in the House of Lords to address the question of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner. Attlee was no ordinary legislator but the Labour Party’s greatest prime minister and wartime deputy to Winston Churchill. His 1945 government had ushered in a postwar socialist consensus, established NATO, and clandestinely developed Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. By 1962, though, Britain was falling behind mainland Europe economically, but still rejected an invitation to join its emerging union. Despite Britain’s troubles at home, Attlee remained adamantly opposed to British membership.
To Attlee, the prospect of Britain joining the EEC signaled a seismic change in the country’s foreign and economic policy. It would prioritize Britain’s relationship with Europe over the rest of the world and cede national control for regional influence. “We are going to be confined in our powers of running our own affairs,” he said. “It might be right, it may be wrong, but do not make any mistake: It is entirely different from anything we have had before.” In the EEC, he went on, Britain would become a mere “appendage to Europe.”
As Britain held its first referendum on European membership, in 1975, one Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the Conservative opposition, set out the counterargument. "If Britain were to withdraw,” Thatcher told voters, “we might imagine that we could regain complete national sovereignty. But it would, in fact, be an illusion. Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us.” Attlee had raised the question of control, Thatcher had countered with influence.
Attlee’s objections—and Thatcher’s response—remain as relevant today as they were in 1962 and 1975, except today, the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite right is leading Britain’s euroskeptic withdrawal from the bloc, not Labour’s Attlee-ite left.
In the first few decades of Britain’s flirtation with Europe, followed by its full membership in the EEC, opposition to U.K. involvement was found on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. This began to change after Thatcher became prime minister. In 1988, the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, addressed Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the country’s biggest collection of organized labor—and set off an avalanche that reshaped British politics, endearing Europe to the left and radicalizing conservative euroskepticism in the process. Delors had already told the European Parliament that within 10 years, 80 percent of economic and social legislation in the region would be decided at the European level. He also described the Commission as an “embryo European government.” But then in September he visited Britain, winning a standing ovation from union members after urging them to support his bid to build a “platform of guaranteed social rights,” including the right to collective bargaining.