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Thirty years of "no"

Posted by Richard Saturday, June 04, 2005

Tomorrow, as we have been reminded, is the 30th anniversary of the first and only national referendum we have ever had, the referendum on whether we wished to continue our membership of the then EEC.

Voters were confronted with the question: "Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Seventeen million voted "yes" and eight million voted "no", giving premier Harold Wilson a 67.2 percent mandate for remaining in what was, in the fullness of time, to become the European Union.

Rehearsing a complaint that we have been hearing in respect of the current Dutch and French referendums about the lack of focus on "Europe", one Conservative campaigner in the thick of the battle wrote afterwards:

What was notable was the extent to which the Referendum, certainly in its latter stages, was not really about Europe at all. It became a straight left versus right battle with the normal dividing line shifting further over than in general elections – hence the Labour Party split and their discomforture. In all the speeches I made to Conservative audiences the trump card was always – "beware Benn, Foot, Castle". It was this, more than anything else, which solidified the Conservative vote and increasingly negated the efforts of anti-EEC Conservatives.
Oddly enough, although I voted in the referendum, searching back in my memory, I cannot remember anything of the campaign – not anything of the arguments or what drama there was. And, although I was one of those eight million who voted "no", it was not for any of the reasons adduced in the campaign. In fact, it was for one single reason – or the inferences I drew from it – the Fresh Poultry Meat Marketing Directive 71/118/EEC.

At the time, I was a newly qualified public health inspector – soon to assume the grandiose title of "environmental health officer" and amongst my duties was the inspection of poultry slaughterhouses, and newly slaughtered fowl – together with red meat inspection.

Call me weird if you like, but I hugely enjoyed the work, much of it out on farms where the trade was mostly Christmas turkeys, and I found the enforcement of hygiene law on their premises intellectually and physically challenging.

After three years in college and two years of practical training, I was justly proud of my qualification and hard-earned skills – not least of which was the ability to sharpen my inspector’s knife to a level that I could have shaved with it (and then not permanently injure myself when I used it).

But, with our accession to the EEC and the introduction of Directive 71/118/EC, I found that my qualification was not recognised. What the Directive did was replace the established – and unique, local authority-based system of meat inspection – with the Continental, veterinary-based system, which required that all operations were monitored by "Official Veterinary Surgeons".

Literally overnight, I was no longer qualified to do my own job. I and my colleagues were subordinated to veterinary surgeons, many of whom had no meat inspection skills and little if anything in the way of practical experience in enforcing hygiene standards.

I did in fact form a campaign group, which we called the Food Law Action Group (FLAG) and we very nearly defeated the UK implementing regulations (one of the very few occasions where a "prayer" was debated on the floor of the House), but it was not to be, after the Conservative opposition front bench pulled out at the last minute and voted with the government.

However, the experience of the "one size fits all regime", which ever more people were to encounter, motivated me to buy a copy of the Treaty of Rome, for which I paid the handsome sum of £1.20. I read it from cover to cover, and still have that original copy, with the declaration on page 3 that: "His Majesty the King of the Belgians" and all the rest were "Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe".

I must have been one of the very few people who went to the polls having read the treaty, and my views formed then, thirty years on, have not changed one bit. Not that I am looking to the past. During those thirty years, I built up a successful food safety practice and even my many detractors would acknowledge that I became a leading authority on food safety issues.

Over term, however, I found that more and more technical issues were decided on political grounds, increasingly at an EU level, to the extent that it was impossible to become an honest practitioner. To resolve what should have been technical issues, one was sucked more and more into the political arena until the two became inseparable.

My initial opposition to "ever closer union", and to the "one size fits all" regime which forms the practical manifestation of the treaty ambition, has thus been steadily reinforced and remains as implacable as ever.

It is ironic, if not fitting, that thirty years on, we are again discussing "ever closer union". But it would be tragic if the British peoples were denied the chance of expressing their opinion on it again.