As the UK gears up to begin talks on leaving the EU, we take a look back on the country’s entry to the European Economic Community in 1973 with an exclusive Lord Plumb interview.
Abi Kay reports.
A formidable figure in the campaign to join the European Economic Community in the 1970s, Lord Henry Plumb – then president of the NFU and later president of the European Parliament – has never wavered in his commitment to the European project, despite his dislike for the CAP.
“My predecessor was lukewarm about it, his predecessor was anti-Europe, I was very pro-Europe. I still am”, he said.
“I have vivid memories of that time because I was heavily involved. It was a time when life was difficult in farming terms.
“The last three years of the sixties were very difficult indeed. The weather had not been kind, prices were not good and there were a lot of farmers who were in difficulty.
“In many ways, I think they welcomed the chance for change, just as some farmers today seem to welcome the chance for change to a system which we can determine for ourselves.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lord Plumb did not fear entering the EEC because he felt the old system of topping up prices, introduced just after World War Two, was already under threat.
“In those very early days, it was a radical change moving from the guarantee system”, he said.
“It was really running out of steam anyway, because we were gradually increasing production, so if the price fell below the guaranteed price, there was a make-up from Government which meant Government was paying more and more each year to support farming.
“They would not have done it much longer – the whole system would probably have gone irrespective of us joining the EEC.”
He felt joining the community would allow farmers to make a living producing food at a price the customer would accept.
“Prices in the EEC were much higher, and in those early days, the market was more buoyant in most other countries than it was in Britain.
“We were more vulnerable to importing products than many of the other countries. We imported a lot of our products from way outside Europe – butter and lamb from New Zealand for instance.”
At times, these imports could ‘ruin’ the market according to Lord Plumb – who relayed a tale of Prime Minister Harold Wilson selling industrial equipment to Romania in exchange for cucumbers.
He said: “It was agreed without realising the damage which was being done.
“It was just the time when the nation was starting to pick cucumbers, and no cucumbers were picked that year because they came in at a very low price to pay for this equipment. This is the sort of thing that can happen.”
But despite the occasional cock-up from the UK Government, and the hope the British would profit from the might of the French and German farming unions, there were a significant number of farmers who were unconvinced of the benefits of joining the community.
“Farmers did not quite know what to accept”, said Lord Plumb.
“I think a lot of them felt we were moving into a foreign land.
“We accepted the New Zealanders and the Australians because they spoke English, but the French, while our nearest neighbour, were not seen to be our greatest friends.
“And when all is said and done, we had just beat the Germans at war, so it was not an easy role to play.”
Concerns were also raised, often in Parliament, about ‘turning our back’ on the Commonwealth after fighting alongside its soldiers in the war.
But Lord Plumb has no truck with this argument.
“What did not seem to come through to the general public was a deal was done with New Zealand to import so many tonnes of lamb, butter and cheese every year on a quota basis”, he said.
“That was done for the sake of supporting New Zealand. They were provided with a market, and in all the years since they joined, they have not been able to supply the quantity on the quota.”
Despite these disagreements, Lord Plumb insists the campaign in the 70s was not as polarised as the Brexit referendum.
“There were for and antis, but it was not a bitter campaign at all.
“During the latest referendum, agriculture has hardly been mentioned. It has been farmers talking to farmers.
“I was fortunate; I would be on the radio three or four times a week in my day. There was an interest there.
“Chaps used to come up to me as we were getting on the train. I had half a dozen people there just getting around me, I used to enjoy myself.”
As for the post-Brexit future, what Lord Plumb fears most of all is the removal of subsidies when the market does not pay a ‘proper’ price for food.
“I am a great believer in removing subsidies, I would remove subsidies tomorrow if I could be assured that you are going to pay the right price for your eggs or your meat or your milk.
“We are not in that situation because the public have grown accustomed to cheap food, and it still is cheap.
“Brexit provides every opportunity to have a good system, but will Government agree? I am there myself. How many friends have I got in the House of Lords who are farmers? We have got a few big landlords and a few big landowners, but not many farmers who see little farms as an important asset for the nation.”