The Copenhagen connection: Harold Wilson, Jens Otto Krag and Labour European policy

Labour’s European policies in the Wilson era were shaped not just in Whitehall but by formal and informal links between key players in the party and its Danish counterpart, says Dr Matt Broad, author of Harold Wilson, Denmark and the Making of Labour European Policy, 1958–72.

Harold Wilson joining hands with other leading figures from the Labour Party at a 1960s party conference.
Harold Wilson confided his plans for a second bid to join the EEC to Jens Otto Krag before telling his own Cabinet.

Few today would doubt the significance of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. But of course the clash of personalities and politics that has now become so stark a feature of UK-EU ties is nothing new. Instead it is a nexus deeply coloured by over seven decades of disagreements and misunderstandings – and perhaps even a good deal more consensus than some would have us believe.

One constant throughout these years has been the at times bitter dispute within the British Labour Party over whether, and to what degree, it ought to support the ever-closer union of Europe. Naturally Labour is not alone in suffering a long history of division between those keen on a more politically and economically integrated European bloc and those resolutely opposed to the idea. On the contrary, plenty of political parties across the continent, not least fellow social democratic parties, have wrestled with the same question and been dogged by similar splits. And yet as recent history shows us, the rift within Labour seems somehow more deep-seated, and arguably more intractable, than most.

The starting point of my book Harold Wilson, Denmark and the Making of Labour European Policy 1958–72, which has recently been published in paperback by Liverpool University Press, was to delve a little deeper into the party politics of Britain’s European story in order to understand more about Labour’s posture towards European integration. We already know a good deal about how, as prime minister between 1964–70 and again between 1974–76, Harold Wilson gradually came to accept the importance of nailing Britain’s colours to the European mast – a realisation that culminated with the launch of an application to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1967 – only to seemingly back away from this conviction to the point of holding an in/out referendum in 1975. More often than not, however, the story of this vacillation has been told from a governmental perspective, using national archives to recreate ministerial deliberations and Whitehall policymaking as it developed. While no doubt necessary, it does mean we seldom get a sense of how the party’s European policy developed over a longer period – in times of opposition as well as office – or indeed the relative weight of the party machinery on governmental outcomes.

In part, then, the book sought to shed light on this at a party level, prioritising the internal deliberations and influence of Labour’s research department, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and governing National Executive Committee (NEC). Doing so brought some fascinating findings. For instance, the opening chapters of the book revealed how already in the late 1950s senior Labour figures were well-informed of, and actively engaged in discussing, European matters. Significantly, they conceded long before Wilson entered Downing Street in 1964 that the status quo as then existed – with Britain separated from a European bloc and dependent on the Commonwealth – was unsustainable. A picture of a more thoughtful and learned – if still somewhat sceptical – party leadership thus emerges.

Crucially, one central tenet of the book was that Labour rarely thought about or conceived of the European integration process in isolation. Quite the opposite: it did so in conjunction with other social democratic parties, especially the Scandinavian social democratic left. It has long been known that close ties existed between Labour and its Norwegian, Swedish and Danish counterparts. But these had never before been studied with a focus so squarely on the European policy dimension – despite the fact that the parties each dealt with similar international questions at the same time as one another. This is especially true of the Danish Social Democrats (SD). After all, Britain and Denmark were alone in applying for membership of the EEC in 1961 and again in 1967, before both finally succeeded in joining alongside Ireland in 1973. It therefore made sense to compare the trajectories of the British and Danish left as they set about responding to these shared events.

More than a comparison, however, an analysis of various British and Danish sources, together with those of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, did much to demonstrate the degree of interaction between the leaderships of the two parties. In turn, the archival material revealed quite how capable at times Denmark – despite being vastly outweighed by the then still noticeable, if waning, political, economic and military might of the UK – was in being able to influence, shape and constrain British European policy precisely because of the links that existed between Labour and the SD.

It helped massively that Wilson and his Danish equivalent, Jens Otto Krag – both of whom appear on the book’s front cover – were close friends known in private to share a passion for cigars and brandy. Labour figures were even known to holiday in and around Copenhagen. This sort of informal networking, combined with more formal opportunities to meet via the Socialist International, provided the SD an ideal opportunity to liaise, learn from and lobby their sister group. One example, found in Chapter 4, concerned how the SD extracted a promise from Labour to launch a new application to join the EEC. The result on this occasion was that Wilson confided in Krag about his plans before he had informed many of his own Cabinet.

In all, the book represents a call to be less government-centric in our study of European integration as well as being less national-centric when it comes to studying social democratic movements. Labour, and in turn British, European policy was evidently shaped by a multitude of actors and influences, including small states across the North Sea. Today we all know that European policymaking is complex: my book hopefully acts as a reminder that this has always been the case.

Dr Matt Broad is a Lecturer at the University of Leiden. He is the author of Harold Wilson, Denmark and the Making of Labour European Policy, 1958–1972, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2017) – now available in paperback.

Harold Wilson and Jens Otto Krag pictured either side of the Socialist International logo of a hand holding a red rose.
Harold Wilson enjoyed a close friendship with Jens Otto Krag of Denmark’s Social Democrats, developing his thinking on European policy through such informal links and via the Socialist International.