Campaigning for an Independent Britain: The Papers of Nigel Spearing MP

A collection of the passionately Eurosceptic Labour MP’s papers have now been fully catalogued.

Nigel Spearing (1930-2017) devoted much of his career to campaigning for Britain’s exit from membership of European legal and political institutions. A Labour MP from 1974 to 1997, he served on of a number of select committees, most notably the European Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and after leaving parliament became Vice President of the Campaign for an Independent Britain.

Nigel Spearing was Labour MP for Newham South until the seat was abolished under boundary changes before the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair to power (SPRG 2/5).

Spearing’s archive is comprised of his annotated books and pamphlets; working papers on European bureaucracy and legislation, including developments surrounding individual EU treaties; drafts and notes for Spearing’s publications; and a selection of Spearing’s correspondence with Conservative and Labour ministers and figures in the media, mostly relating to parliamentary procedure and scrutiny of European affairs.

Spearing arranged his papers by theme towards the end of his life with a view to making them available to researchers working on European politics, and these headings along with his own explanations of his filing system have been retained in the new catalogue. His subject files contain a mixture of committee papers, research notes, ephemera, and correspondence with other like-minded MPs. They also illustrate aspects to the day-to-day work of the pressure groups Spearing was involved with from the 1970s onwards: the Labour Euro-Safeguards Campaign, the British Anti Common Market League, and its successor, the Campaign for an Independent Britain.

These files can now be read alongside related material on Eurosceptic campaigns in the collections.

Anti-EU leaflet distributed by the Campaign for an Independent Britain, c. 2000s [SPRG 2/5].

Spearing’s ‘publications’, which he arranged chronologically, include a surprising mixture of published and unpublished materials, including draft policy papers, his own notes and recollections on events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and searching questions he wished to put to senior ministers. Spearing expected the materials he was collecting to have, as he put it in a covering note, ‘retrospective significance’, and in the light of the fall-out since the Brexit Referendum he appears to have been an astute observer of the ways in which the two main political parties were both fracturing and dividing over European issues during the late-twentieth century.

British Anti Common Market Campaign leaflet found in Spearing’s ‘Dissenting Organisations’ file [SPRG 2/5].

Although his constituency work in Newham, backbench involvement in European politics, and attention to constitutional matters evidently occupied much of his time and energy, Spearing cannot simply be described as a ‘single-issue’ politician. The Institute of Education holds a separate set of Spearing’s personal papers on education and government, an area which he had been involved in since joining the Labour Party as a secondary school teacher in the 1950s.

A cyclist and oarsman in his spare time, Spearing was also keenly interested in transport. In 1985, he missed a parliamentary visit to the Bolshoi Theatre in order to see the whole of the Moscow metro. He was especially energised by seeking improvements to Britain’s national rail network and safety on the London Underground, as well as the River Thames. During the 1980s he was a vociferous campaigner against the Thatcher government’s London Docklands Development Corporation, while earlier in his career he had written on the capital’s flood defences for Michael Young’s Institute of Community Studies.

Some of these other interests are reflected in the eclectic set of press cuttings Spearing clipped from broadsheet and tabloid newspapers from c.1983-2007. They document the end of ‘Old Labour’ and the dawn of a new era in British politics – including the rise of privatisation and private finance initiatives, welfare state reforms, foreign aid, the growth of ‘popular capitalism’ and deregulation in the City, and the social impact of multinational corporations. Nevertheless, this part of the collection gives the sense that, in Spearing’s eyes, many of the most pressing domestic political issues of the day could also be firmly connected with European Union institutions and directives.

The archive serves as a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of an energetic backbench MP, but it will be of particular interest to researchers studying the British left’s complex relationship with Europe after the 1975 referendum.

The Nigel Spearing Papers

— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant, August 2018