The 1970s was a decade of serious anxiety about food supplies. Norman Tebbit, of all people, urged the government to consider rationing basic foodstuffs. That played a significant role in the decision to join the EEC, and raises some important questions today. [THREAD]
2. The UK has not been able to feed itself since the early C19th. Even for an industrial economy, it is unusually dependent on imported food. And by the 1970s, a mixture of bad harvests, population growth, inflation & the collapse of Commonwealth agreements was starting to bite.
3. In 1974, for example, Caribbean sugar imports dropped by a third, as producers abandoned Commonwealth trade agreements and sold to more lucrative markets elsewhere. Supermarkets introduced informal rationing, and consumer organisations urged the public to stop buying sugar.
4. Later that year, the Ministry of Agriculture warned that Canada might suspend grain exports if the currency continued to decline. In November, Margaret Thatcher had to open her cupboards to journalists to prove that she wasn't hoarding food.
5. 1974 also saw a bakers' strike, in response to rising costs and falling real wages. Some suppliers restricted shoppers to a single loaf each, prompting queues outside bakeries at dawn. Conservative MPs again raised the prospect of rationing.
6. The UK had joined the EEC in 1973, but was still operating under transitional arrangements on food and farming. So the 1975 EEC referendum saw a serious debate, of the kind we don't seem to be capable of anymore, about what leaving might mean for the supply and price of food.
7. Leave campaigners argued that prices would be higher in Europe, because production costs were greater and the Common Agricultural Policy was designed to ensure farmers a decent wage. Barbara Castle compared shopping bags in London and Brussels, as a warning against EEC prices.
8. Pro-Europeans responded by pointing to rising prices across the world. The days of cheap food from compliant colonial markets, they warned, were over. European prices might, in some years, be higher, but Britain would at least have a guaranteed source of supply.
9. As Margaret Thatcher warned: "In Britain we have to import every second meal. Sometimes we shall pay less in the Community, & sometimes we shall pay more. But we shall have a stable source of supply, & most housewives would rather pay a little more than risk a bare cupboard".
10. The leader of the National Farmers' Union warned of "a clear threat to continued regular food supplies if Britain left the Market". Voters were urged to think of the EEC as "the Common Super-Market. Well-stocked shelves; plenty of choice and just around the corner".
11. The food economy has changed radically since the 1970s. Production has boomed, transportation has improved & prices have fallen. At the same time, Britons have become less suspicious of "Continental" food, & used to abundant supplies reliant on "just-in-time" delivery chains.
12. Yet food poverty remains a desperate social problem. In the year *before* the pandemic, foodbanks gave out 1.9 million food parcels. The poorest 10% of households spend more than double the share of income on food of the richest. If prices rise, we know who will suffer most.
13. 47 years after joining the EEC, it's legitimate to ask whether the old arguments for membership still hold. What's less forgivable is the stunning incuriosity of those tasked with delivering Brexit about why Britain joined, what changed with membership, & what's now at stake.
14. Perhaps Brexiters can find better solutions to the challenges that drove the UK to join. But pretending those challenges did not exist - as if Conservatives like Thatcher, Heath & Macmillan embraced membership in some bizarre spasm of irrationality - is a recipe for disaster.
15. Brexit requires us to rethink nearly every major policy choice since 1973. If we don't understand why those choices were made, we won't be ready for the decisions that lie ahead. If tweeting for lolz is the best we can do, the joke will deservedly be on us in 2021. [ENDS]

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More from @redhistorian

9 Dec
The Brexit negotiations have been such a disaster because Britain never had a serious debate about what it most wanted to achieve. Instead, ministers spent years pretending no trade-offs were necessary. We could have everything we wanted, if we only had the courage to believe.
Ministers boasted, repeatedly, that we could have unlimited sovereignty, frictionless trade, full access to the Single Market & "the exact same benefits" as the CU. Compromise was not a way to achieve the things we most valued, but a surrender of our ability to have it all.
As Ben Jackson wrote in 2019, Conservatives have drawn a dangerous lesson from the Thatcher years. "Compromise" and "negotiation" are dismissed as signs of weakness, not as a way to achieve the most advantageous outcome in a world we do not control.…
Read 6 tweets
6 Dec
It doesn't speak well of our democracy that the most important question in British politics depends entirely on the decision of one man. If Johnson agrees a deal, it happens. If he doesn't, tough. MPs, ministers, the public are all just bystanders, waiting to hear what he decides
As @stephenkb explains in this thread, a trade deal does not need parliamentary approval. If a deal requires changes in domestic law, Parliament may have to vote on those changes - but even there the votes can (and will) be carefully limited.
Concentrating power in the hands of the PM isn't just undemocratic. As @DavidHenigUK points out, it has shut down any serious discussion about what a trade deal *should* do. We've abandoned policy debate for punditry, trying to guess what Johnson might do.
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5 Dec
This is a brilliant article by @rafaelbehr on why we may be looking in the wrong direction for the dangers to liberal democracy. In looking back to old & familiar dangers, we may miss the new forces that are eating at the foundations of our democracy.[1/5]…
As @rafaelbehr argues, what "really challenges the stability of democracy" is not a specific ideology, but a "digital infrastructure" that "facilitates polarisation, sorting people into irreconcilable tribes & spinning them off towards the most extreme iteration of any opinion".
What drives Trump, Johnson & co is not some highly disciplined, common purpose, akin to fascism, but the destruction of any possibility of a common purpose beyond self-gratification. Their lack of seriousness is not a lucky glitch, but intrinsic to the phenomenon they represent.
Read 5 tweets
4 Dec
Was Brexit a product of "imperial nostalgia"? In a new article - currently on free access in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History - I argue that it was not. Here's a summary of what it does (and doesn't) argue. [THREAD]…
1. Britain's European debate has always been closely interwoven with the histories of empire. Membership raised hard questions about Britain's place in the world, its "natural" markets/allies, & its relations with its former colonies, all of which were soaked in the imperial past
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Read 16 tweets
28 Nov
"The Brexiteers’ definition of sovereignty has always been the core of the problem. It is the greatest failure of the Remain campaign that they scarcely engaged in, let alone won, this battle".…
This was not a mistake made by Remainers in the 1975 referendum. Pro-Europeans made a compelling argument that, in a modern, globalised world, sovereignty could *only* be defended by pooling decision-making across national borders.
As Margaret Thatcher told voters in 1975, the idea that Britain could "regain complete national sovereignty" by withdrawing from the EEC was "an illusion". "Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us"
Read 4 tweets
20 Nov
Every healthy democracy in the world imposes checks & balances on the exercise of power. Those checks may be constitutional, legal, conventional or merely ethical, but they're crucial if democracy is not to become the tyranny of the largest faction. How are they faring in the UK?
2. Since taking power in 2019, the Johnson govt has:
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- overseen a huge expansion in lawmaking by ministerial decree
3. cont...
- attacked "activist" judges & "do-gooder" lawyers
- tried to lift itself above international law
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- torn up the Ministerial Code
- suspended procurement rules
-expelled 22 MPs for disloyalty & pledged a "hard rain" for civil servants
Read 7 tweets

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