In and Out: White Papers Past and Present

February 5, 2017

Like so much of the Brexit process, the publication of last week’s white paper, The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union, marks a historic moment. It seems relevant, therefore, to compare that paper with a similarly momentous, yet contrasting, document. In July 1971, The United Kingdom and the European Communities white paper was presented to parliament, in order to set out the then government’s plans and argument for the UK’s accession to the European Communities. Of course, the reason many Britons recently voted to revoke the decisions made in the early 1970s, relates to the way in which what was then the European Communities — and is now the EU — has changed greatly since the publication of that white paper. These two documents chronicle significant points in the trajectory of the UK’s role in what, in broad terms, can be seen as the ‘European project’.

Named after the colour of its cover, a white paper outlines proposals for upcoming government legislation. These papers form part of a document production system that is both extensive and colourful: their companions have, over the years, included blue books, green papers, and endless ‘grey literature’. Although white papers often contain the preliminary version of a related bill, last week’s was published a week after the draft Brexit bill, owing to the government’s desired time frame for triggering Article 50.

Alongside certain other government publications — including royal commission reports, and responses to select committee findings — white papers belong to the set known as ‘command documents’, since they are ‘presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by command of her Majesty’. Indeed, that symbolic phrase is printed on the front of the 1971 white paper; last week’s consigns it to its first page. The former document is number 4715 in the fifth official chronological series of governmental command documents; the latter is 9417 of series six, which has been running since 1986. Excluding a smaller initial sequence between 1833 and 1869, which numbered only 4222, these series have all contained between 9,000 and 10,000 documents; in that the government’s website claims that ‘command papers are usually part of a numbered series up to 9999’, we can assume there will be another 582 before the start of the seventh series. The website presently offers access to 285 command papers that have been published since the current parliamentary term began in 2015, 83 of which have been filed as ‘policy papers’.

The most obvious difference between the two white papers in question relates to their size. Since November 1986, such documents have all been presented in A4, rather than the previous ‘royal octavo’ (234 x 156 mm). Other modernisations include font (which has changed from serif to sans), and — somewhat confusingly — colour scheme. Aside from its black ink, the cover of the 1971 white paper was clearly originally completely white (time has yellowed the copy I’m reading); last week’s is mainly dark grey: only a minimal white border, and white title retain the overall descriptor’s significance. The cover of the 1971 document also includes a cost — ‘25p net’ — and acknowledges Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, whereas the sole text on last week’s paper (except for the title, and ‘HM Government’ under the standard coat of arms) is the statutory series number, 9417.

The Brexit white paper has been widely criticised for the quality of its language. However, much of the criticism levelled at its opening words — ‘We do not approach these negotiations expecting failure, but anticipating success. Because we are a great, global nation with so much to offer Europe and so much to offer the world.’ — misses the point that tone is employed varyingly for different political purposes (it is a direct quotation from Theresa May’s recent Brexit speech).

The overall style of the two documents is, however, notably different. The 1971 paper consists almost entirely of dense, neat, numbered paragraphs (which run throughout from 1 to 169), only occasionally broken by emboldened subheadings, a handful of lists, two short tables, and a single budgetary sum. Last week’s paper is replete with bullet points, large grey information boxes, twelve grey bar charts (including the now infamous holiday entitlement comparison), one colourful ‘EU and related membership groupings’ diagram, and a full grey page between most of the chapters. Those additions — along with the inclusion of the extract from May’s speech, a preface by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and several blank white pages at the end — extend the document’s length to 80 pages. This contrasts the forty-five of the 1971 paper, which the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, referred to in the House of Commons as ‘inevitably long’.

In its structure, last week’s paper owes much to May’s aforementioned Brexit speech. That speech’s twelve ‘principles’ — from ‘Providing certainty and clarity’ to ‘Delivering a smooth, orderly exit from the EU’ — form the white paper’s chapters, which are discretely divided into numbered paragraphs (i.e. 8.1 – 8.51). Contrastingly, the 1971 paper is bipartite. Part One describes ‘the decision now before us’ — with information on the origins, purposes, development of, and UK involvement in and negotiations with, the Communities — before setting out a case for membership. This first section concludes with the assertion that ‘every historic choice involves challenge as well as opportunity. Her Majesty’s Government are convinced that the right decision for us is to accept the challenge, seize the opportunity and join the European Communities’. That Part Two, however, outlines the ‘outcome of the negotiations’ is the real difference between these two white papers.

The 1971 paper was published following a year of ‘intensive discussions’ and negotiations between the UK and the European Communities. It was, therefore, able to present many details of the potential new arrangements for which it argued — from the number of members that would represent each constituent country in the ‘largely consultative’ European Parliament, to necessary provisions for the UK’s acceptance of the common external tariff and agricultural policy. While it is admitted in the paper that certain arrangements were ‘still under consideration’, much mutual agreement had already been reached regarding the UK’s proposed change of relationship with the EC.

In contrast, last week’s white paper builds on the government’s positive aims for Brexit Britain, as outlined in May’s speech last month. Although these aims unsurprisingly include those relating to our country’s ‘new partnership with the EU’, we will, of course, need to wait until the negotiations begin for more details about potential agreements.

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