Sir Jeremy Heywood, the late Cabinet Secretary, argued that the scale and complexity of Brexit have never been known in the UK’s peacetime history. The UK’s entry to the European Community (EC) was predicted to have similarly far-reaching consequences, as I explore in my new book The First Referendum: Reassessing Britain’s Entry to Europe, 1973–75. Elected in June 1970 on a manifesto pledge to negotiate the UK’s entry to the European Community (EC), Prime Minister Edward Heath claimed that the Conservatives ‘were returned to office to change the course of history of this nation – nothing less’. The entry talks were (mostly) complete by the summer of 1971, paving the way for accession on 1 January 1973.
The parallels between entry and exit are not simply rhetorical. In 1973 the Community had never previously accepted a new member state and had no enlargement policy. The UK is now the first full member state to leave and although Article 50 states that the EU will negotiate its withdrawal it does not offer specific guidelines. Just as it was in 1973, the UK now finds itself in uncharted territory and it may be, paradoxically, that the history of joining the EC contains some hints of what could happen to the UK after it leaves the EU.
The first place to look is to the imperatives driving both decisions. Since 1961, the goal of successive UK governments had been to join the EC. Membership, it was believed, would boost the economy and offer the UK a post-imperial role, but exactly how to achieve those ambitions once inside the Community was less clear. In similar ways, the politics of Brexit have remained focused on the act of leaving and not on developing distinct ideas about the kind of future relationship the UK might have with the EU, beyond the hope of a free trade deal. As a recent Institute for Government report points out, this is a crucial time during which ministers need to decide on their priorities.
Time is critical because it is limited. At the moment the UK is in the ‘implementation period’, the government’s name for the 11-month transition period between the date the UK formally left the EU and the date on which the UK will fully depart. The countdown started on 31 January 2020. Since then the UK has not elected representatives to the European Parliament, had commissioners, or sent ministers to attend meetings of the Council. But otherwise, the implementation period looks similar to membership – the UK is still in the Single Market, freedom of movement remains in place and the UK is subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice. Boris Johnson may have hoped that this symbolically important but substantively minor disruption to the status quo would demonstrate that Brexit could be achieved without an economic crash or political crisis.
This is not the first time the UK has been in transition. The accession agreement included a five-year transitional period, plus the possibility of a further two-year ‘limitation’ on the full obligations of membership. During that time the UK gradually increased its contributions to the EC budget and adjusted its food prices to meet the requirements of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This was thought to be practical but also politically expedient. In theory, the timing of entry gave the Heath government two and a half years before it would have to call a General Election. During that time, the government could prove the merits of joining the Community to a sceptical public and, because of the transitional arrangements, could do so without exposing British consumers to higher food prices, predicted to be the most damaging and tangible consequence of joining the EC.
The Heath government was never able to capitalise on the transition period to make the pro-EC case to the public. This is partly because 1973 was a particularly bad year, disrupted as it was by the March currency crisis, global food shortages, the Year of Europe affair and huge increases to the price of oil caused by the Yom Kippur War. Yet being in transition itself complicated matters by making it difficult to predict the UK’s future contributions to the EC budget, important figures because of the government’s concern that the UK would become a net contributor. The events of 1973 and the fact of being in a period of transition made it difficult to see, exactly, what full membership status would entail. The realities of post-Brexit life are similarly obscured by the current transition out of the EU and by the Covid-19 pandemic. Once again, the UK has embarked upon a major change in its foreign relations at an inopportune moment.
Additional lessons can be found by examining the tasks of recruitment and institutional reorganisation. In 1973 willing recruits to fill posts in Brussels were not easy to find due to misunderstandings about salaries and the uncertainty inherent in taking a job in the Community at a time when prominent members of the Labour Party – the official opposition – were advocating withdrawal. Heath also decided to change the key department in charge of representing the UK’s interests in the EC. Since 1961 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had managed the UK’s attempts to gain EC membership. Yet the prime minister felt that the best way to support the UK as a member state, rather than as an applicant, was to move control over EC affairs to the Cabinet Office. The resulting interdepartmental politics were a hindrance to deciding the UK’s priorities in the EC and there was significant duplication of the Cabinet Office’s tasks by officials and ministers in the FCO.
The UK now needs an exponentially larger recruitment drive. A report by the management consultancy Deloitte, leaked in 2016, estimated that Brexit could result in an increase in the public sector headcount of between 10,000 and 30,000. Some of that hiring took place to support the exit negotiations but then in January 2020 the Department for Exiting the EU was officially wound up and many staff saw their short-term contracts come to an end. The closure seems to demonstrate Johnson’s commitment to “getting Brexit done”. Yet, the officials that departed the Civil Service took with them knowledge and experience that may have been vital to managing future relations with the EU. This loss of talent and skill is all the more unfortunate because Whitehall shake-ups do not always produce the anticipated results. Furthermore, newly advertised posts may lack widespread appeal in the current atmosphere of uncertainty caused in part by Dominic Cummings’ commitment to a radical overhaul of the Civil Service.
The lessons of 1973 cannot be transposed exactly to the post-Brexit UK. There are important differences between the Community that the UK joined and the more established Union it has now left. Entry and exit are also different, exemplified in part by the transition periods. In 1973 there was a 5+2-year period during which the UK adapted gradually to membership. The one-year implementation period is considerably shorter and is not intended for ‘phasing out’ the UK’s membership of the Single Market. It is all the more important, then, that the Johnson government uses the time that remains to consider the skills and institutional infrastructure that will be needed to support the UK as a third country, as well as the impact of the end of the implementation period. Above all, the government needs to decide its long-term priorities for future relations with the EU.