Callaghan didn’t like being a European grocer, will Hague?

21st January, 2013 7:00 pm

The UK doesn’t have much experience of ‘renegotiation’ with its European partners. We have only been there before when Labour was holding the reins of government. Despite the issues being different, it’s worth looking at James Callaghan’s experience as Foreign Secretary of renegotiation and what may lie in store for William Hague if he has to do the same.

Although Harold Wilson put Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Roy Hattersley ‘nominally’ in charge of the renegotiation, Callaghan did a lot of heavy lifting. He hated the experience. The discussions were long and tedious. It was a highly technical grind into the minutiae of certain aspects of the UK’s membership. Sunny Jim learned far more about the price of New Zealand butter than he probably ever wanted. He said he felt like a ‘multiple grocer’.

When the Cyprus crisis of 1974 broke out (a coup in Cyprus threatening war between Greece and Turkey and the collapse of NATO’s western flank), Callaghan had a major role. He jumped at the chance to get involved with vim and vigour. It gave him a break from the drudgery of renegotiation. While this gave him a chance to avoid discussing butter he found the talks to avert war a tough slog, to the extent that he wrote to Wilson, ‘I much prefer the National Executive Committee’.

Like Hague, Callaghan was quite cool on the European project and wanted to examine some of the key tenets of Britain’s involvement. While he didn’t mind parts of economic collaboration, he was ‘agnostic’ on general European issues. Callaghan gave Foreign Office officials copies of the Labour Party February 1974 manifesto so they would know which policy to follow. Fundamental renegotiations that would look at the Treaty of Accession were on the cards but against the wishes of officials and didn’t really happen.

Callaghan approached renegotiation in an aggressive fashion. His first speech on the matter slated prospects for monetary union, the idea of a ‘European Union’ and the Common Agricultural Policy. It said Britain would need to focus on trade with developing countries in the Commonwealth and the European Community budget would need to be changed. Unsurprisingly, there was a harsh response from European capitals. The exception was the German leadership who viewed this approach as coming from Callaghan’s background as a trade union negotiator – he was putting all his cards on the table at the start as forcefully as possible and would work towards an accommodation from there. Nonetheless, Le Monde wrote that it thought Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was inevitable.

There were also internal party management issues to deal with. The two ministers appointed by Wilson to help Callaghan in Brussels were on completely different sides of the European debate. Roy Hattersley was strongly in favour and Peter Shore, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, loudly against. As negotiations wore on Callaghan developed stronger relationships with other European politicians and as a result started to face criticism from Shore and Tony Benn. Leading Benn to write in his diaries, somewhat predictably, that Callaghan has ‘sold out’ on British sovereignty.

On conclusion of renegotiation in 1975, Callaghan regarded himself as having secured good positions for the UK on economic and monetary union, control of capital movements, harmonization of VAT and regional policy, and improvements in commonwealth trade, in particular on sugar. On the negative side, he didn’t think he did enough for New Zealand, exemptions for butter and cheese ran up against Dutch and Danish opposition, and didn’t have the guarantee he wanted on reducing Britain’s budget contributions.

So is this what we can expect for Hague? A strong aggressive start, moving on to some accommodation and inevitable claims that he sold out from members in his own party? It seems likely. Will he get bored at any point: definitely.

John Clarke writes at

  • robertcp

    A Labour politician might actually be the grocer. Some renegotiation will be needed whoever wins the next General Election, because the relationship between the Eurozone and other EU members needs to be resolved. A referendum on the results of those negotiations would be reasonable.

    • johnmclarke

      Hi Robert,

      Yes, it will be interesting to see how a future Labour government will approach EU negotiations or renegotiations. How the Tories approach this coulc define Britiain’s relationship with the EU for a long a time.


      • robertcp

        I agree John.

  • Paul Convery

    John, the reason that butter, cheese and other groceries featured so high in Labour’s thinking was (1) there were growing inflationary pressures in the early 70s and the Common Agricultural Policy threatened to push up the cost of staple foods because the CAP essentially hiked-up prices to protect farmers; (b) Labour had a strong affinity with Commonwealth countries particularly the newly independent nations (we proudly took credit for decolonisation) and not just for the wheat, livestock and diary-producing countries.

    The Common Market was also seen by people on the left as a kind of Bosses club. Not until the ’80s and ’90s did the left start to appreciate the solid social democratic culture of Europe and its counterweight to the Regan/Thatcher axis. Now that the EU seems to be cheerleading for austerity and the European Commission co-sponsors the IMF/ECB stringency on the southern countries, we seem to be back in a place that the left was in during the early ’70s.

    The other fundamental change which has put many on the left “off” Europe is the result of enlargement … not just the sheer size but the fundamentally different political culture. For a long time, most of us understood the EU to be a place like more like the UK – the original 6 were West Germany, France, BeneLux (Italy being a slightly exotic outsider) theat was enlarged fiorst by Britain, Ireland and the nordics.

    Enlargement was a project to ensure the former Soviet bloc countries came alongside a poitically mature, democratic western Europe. But after 1990, most of the accession countries swung towards Christian Democracy (at best), aggressive neoliberalism or populist right-wing authoritarianism (at worst). So, twenty years later we don’t have a Europe where the political tone is set by social democratic/Christian democratic consensual countries such as Germany but one where right wing Governments like Poland are increasingly ascendent.

    For many on the left, this cocktail makes the EU a much less attractive bloc to be “in union” with. So the prosepct of reform and renegotiation (not least prompted by the urgent need to rearrange the Euro-zone countries into a tighter fiscal union) is becoming very appealling.

    Having said that … I do think the EU membership is still very much better than non-membership.

  • johnmclarke

    Hi Paul,

    Excellent comment and I agree with much of your analysis.

    Callaghan was Commonwealth Secretary as well as Foreign Secretary and it was a role he took very seriously. He built a many strong relationships with leading figures in the Commonwealth during his time as Shadow Colonial Secretary in the 1950s.

    As you well know, Ireland has been on the receiving end of the EU drive for austerity. However, EU countries aren’t as one on this. When it comes to bailouts, etc. policy is primarily driven by France and Germany. There was an element of a punishment beating mentality involved in the conditions imposed on many of the bailed out nations. It’s enough to put many right thinking people off the EU. But I do agree most countries that are members are better off in than out.


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