Degree Year

2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

History

Advisor(s)

Leonard V. Smith

Keywords

Great Britain, United Kingdom, National identity, Britons, European Community, European Economic Community, EEC, European Union, EU, Public opinion, Harold Wilson

Abstract

The project of European integration has always threatened traditional conceptions of national identity and sovereignty in member states of the European Community (EC), later the European Union. This is especially true in Great Britain, which has had an ambivalent relationship with the rest of Europe. This thesis presents a comparative analysis of two key moments in Britain's relationship with Europe, and thus two key moments for British national identity: the 1967 debate over British membership in the European Community, and the 1975 public referendum over remaining in the Community in which Britons voted to remain inside the EC by a majority of 67.2%.

For both moments, it looks at the role that Prime Minister Harold Wilson played in the debates using Parliamentary records and declassified Cabinet papers, as well as the public discourse as seen in letters to the editors of regional British newspapers.

In 1967, Britons were largely opposed to EC membership; in 1975 they voted in its favor. This shift can be attributed to a change in how Britons viewed their history. Under the leadership of Harold Wilson, Britons marshaled a new narrative of their history - particularly of their role in World War II - that shifted British national identity closer toward Europe. This shift was not permanent, but the point is that it never could be. National identity itself is impermanent. Though it can have constant pillars, it is ultimately the product of the specific historical narratives to which a nation subscribes. Different stories of the past imply different results for the future. Thus, by aligning behind a new historical narrative, Britons were able to shape their nation's behavior.

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