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CNB George Coșbuc.

Grade 12 – The Making of Modern Britain, 1970-2018

British Foreign Policy, 1970-79
The UK had become the dominant world power during the nineteenth century, with a global empire
upon which ‘the sun never set’ . The twentieth century, however, was a period of economic, military
and imperial decline. This was particularly apparent after the Second World War: decolonisation
reduced Britain to a medium-ranking power in a world dominated by the United States and the
Soviet Union. With the loss of empire, Britain struggled to define its role in global affairs, but by the
1970s British foreign policy had come to be based on two pillars: its ‘special relationship’ with the
United States and its membership of the European Economic Community (EEC).

The ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States
The history of Britain’s relationship with the United States is more complicated than is often
realised. The United States’ origins as the thirteen rebellious British colonies created both mutual
bonds and mutual suspicions. The mutual bonds resided in close trading links, migratory patterns,
familial connexions and language; while mutual suspicions were informed by territorial and imperial
disputes in the Americas and the USA’s general hostility to colonialism and empire. Britain’s
relationship with the United States was strengthened by the latter’s entry into the First World War in
1917 – though Woodrow Wilson was apparently annoyed by the British suggestion that the British
and Americans were cousins. It was during the Second World War, though, that the ‘special
relationship’ was really forged as the United States and Britain fought as allies in both Europe and
Asia – and it was Winston Churchill (whose mother was an American) who popularised the term.

Yet if British politicians imagined the special relationship as a relationship of equals, the postwar
world soon disabused them of that. Although Britain and the United States cooperated closely on
many issues, the US was the dominant partner, for example in the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (Nato), established in 1949 to contain Soviet communism. Britain’s pretensions to be a
independent global power were ended by the Suez Crisis in 1956. The Suez Canal was of enormous
geo-political and economic importance to the UK. When Egypt seized control of the canal in 1956 –
by nationalising the Suez Canal Company – Britain, along with Israel and France, invaded. The
Americans quickly made their displeasure known – and behind the scenes brought diplomatic and
financial pressure to bear on the British. The Suez Crisis ended in humiliation for the British and
French. But whereas France drew the lesson that they needed Europe as a counterweight to the
United States, the UK decided that the Atlantic Alliance – and therefore the special relationship with
the US – needed to be the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Being close to the United States did not mean that Britain was subservient to it – though this was
frequently an accusation made by opponents of British foreign policy. For example, Britain was
willing to give no more than moral support to the US in its war in Vietnam. And during the Yom
Kippur War in 1973 Heath refused permission to the US to use Nato airbases in the UK to airlift
supplies to Israel. Nevertheless, Britain was wedded to the US through the Atlantic Alliance. This was
particularly true of Wilson and Callaghan, both of whom were Atlanticists rather than Europhiles.
But even Heath, an arch-Europhile, was also committed to the special relationship. The extent of the
UK’s dependence on the US, though, is probably best illustrated by the issue of nuclear weapons.

During the Second World War the US and the UK cooperated in the development of nuclear
technology. The US ended this cooperation in 1946, forcing the British to develop their own nuclear

This was in violation of protocol – incoming governments are not allowed to see the files of outgoing governments. Britain’s proposed membership of the EEC was controversial. the solution was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952 – a supranational organisation responsible for overseeing the production of coal. These submarines came into service in 1968. Conservative and Labour opponents had different concerns. the Netherlands and Luxembourg. however. The British. Georges Pompidou. that the ‘Six’ negotiated the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which established the European Economic Community (EEC) – a supranational organisation committed to free trade and ‘ever closer union’ between its members. Italy. de Gaulle resigned as president in 1969 and his successor. was much more sympathetic to the British. iron and steel producer – would pose a renewed military threat. Callaghan then instructed civil servants to pass on the technical briefing notes to his successor. James Callaghan had private and secret discussions in 1979 with Jimmy Carter. Thatcher would subsequently endorse the purchase of Trident from the United States The European Economic Community (EEC) Although the idea of European integration has a long history. faced a number of problems. Although Harold Wilson was a lukewarm European. the origins of what is now the European Union was driven by the specific circumstances of post-Second World War western Europe. West Germany. Although the Labour Party was largely committed to nuclear disarmament. It was generally accepted that the economic recovery of western Europe was not possible without a strong West German economy. which would be launched from British-built ballistic missile submarines. By the early 1950s Britain had succeeded in becoming the third nuclear power – after the United States and the Soviet Union. 1970-2018 weapons – the so-called ‘nuclear deterrent’. That is. the transfer of some policy . joined the EEC. in 1962 the UK negotiated the purchase of Polaris missiles from the US. Britain therefore applied for membership in 1961 – only for its application to be vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle of France. became prime minister. Grade 12 – The Making of Modern Britain. and on 1 January 1973 the UK. and it divided both the Conservative and Labour parties. yet a revived West German economy – as a major coal. And in 1970 Edward Heath. he too concluded that membership of the EEC was in the national interest – another application was therefore made in 1967 and was again vetoed by de Gaulle. above all with regard to the financial costs of the nuclear deterrent. Yet by the end of the 1950s the British government had come to the conclusion that the UK’s long- term economic future required membership of the EEC. but both were worried by the question of sovereignty.CNB George Coșbuc. But Callaghan was very much a patriot – willing to put what he considered was the national interest above the immediate interests of his party. iron and steel in France. At the heart of the matter was the ‘German problem’. the US President. about purchasing the Trident missile system. Belgium. Such was the success of the ECSC. By the end of the 1970s a decision needed to be made on replacing Polaris. along with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. Hence. In the end. preferring to emphasise the importance of the Commonwealth. Margaret Thatcher. an arch-Europhile. The British were not excluded from European integration – British governments chose to stand aloof. Heath lodged a third application for membership in 1971. From the beginning. However. however. The solution was for Britain to purchase the delivery systems and missiles from the United States – though the actual warheads would be British.

had to use all his leadership skills to hold his party together as the necessary legislation made its way through parliament. The leader of the Yes campaign. Moreover. Passage of the necessary legislation through the House of Commons was therefore not easy. it commits us to playing an active. Questions 1. constructive and enthusiatic role in it. but it was far from being an enthusiatic member. Why did the UK join the EEC in 1973? 3. Britain would be an active member of the EEC. The result was an overwhelming vote in favour of the UK remaining in the EEC – 67. What is meant by Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States? Do you think the ‘special relationship’ was anything more than a British delusion in the 1970s? 2. but Wilson also broke with convention by allowing cabinet ministers to campaign against the official position of the government. therefore. all four constituent parts of the UK – England.CNB George Coșbuc. as well as various Conservative Eurosceptics. Grade 12 – The Making of Modern Britain. Wilson. The ‘No campaign’ was headlined by mainly left-wing Labour opponents of the EEC. Plaid Cymru and the Ulster Unionist Party. Imagine your were a voter in June 1975. the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins (1920-2003). that is 301 votes to 284. In short. and Britain’s ability to be constructive on some issues was counterbalanced by its stubborn ability to take a negative stance on other issues. 1970-2018 areas away from the British parliament to the EEC’s supranational institutions. Wales and Northern Ireland – voted ‘Yes’. the Scottish Nationalist Party. while the referendum result banished the idea of Britain leaving the EEC to the political margins. He renegotiated Britain’s terms of membership of the EEC – though in reality he achieved little of substance. but without completely shutting the door on British membership – instead he argued that the bill was disadvantageous to the UK and that if he were reelected as prime minister he would renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership. criticism of the ‘European project’ in general and the EEC in particular quickly became mainstream. following which he would call a referendum. expressed the view that the result of the referendum ‘commits Britain to Europe. Would you have voted ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EEC? . Wilson was returned to power in 1974 and duly made good on his promises.2 per cent voted ‘Yes’ and 32. including many trade unionists. the European Communities Bill was passed by the House of Commons by a relatively small majority of 17.’ The reality would prove to be more complex. Wilson was able to straddle the divisions within the Labour Party by opposing the European Communities Bill .5 per cent voted ‘No’. namely that the UK should stay in the EEC. Britain’s relationship with the EEC was to be nothing other than fraught. The government’s position – the ‘Yes’ campaign – was supported by the Conservative and Liberal parties as well as most business interests and most of the press. A referendum was then held on 5 June 1975 with the question: ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?’ Not only was this the first nationwide referendum in British history. Moreover. The government’s motion in favour of the UK joining the EEC was passed comfortably – by 356 votes to 255 – but only because 69 Labour MPs defied the party whip and voted with the government. Scotland. As a consequence of Labour’s opposition.