Britain decides: the first European referendum
On 23 June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Writing ahead of the 2016 vote, historian Robert Saunders looked back at the first UK-wide referendum, held in 1975 on the United Kingdom's continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), and considers what we can learn from its outcome...
On 4 June 1975, just hours before the polls opened in Britain’s first national referendum, two men in top hats and tails fought a duel in St James’s Park. They were there as representatives of the Eldon League, a student dining club whose motto was ‘forwards into the past’, to settle the question of British membership of the European Community. Before a hushed and anxious crowd, the two champions paced out the ground, turned and opened fire – not with pistols, but with champagne bottles handed to them by their seconds. As the heavens thundered to the roar of champagne corks, a lucky shot blew one man’s top hat clean from his shoulders. His opponent, a young lawyer and Conservative activist named Neil Hamilton, was declared victorious, and it was at once agreed that the League would oppose British membership.
Britain had joined the European Economic Community – or the Common Market, as it was widely known – on 1 January 1973. After two failed attempts in the 1960s, success was finally achieved by the Conservative government of Ted Heath, who had come to power in 1970 promising “nothing less” than “to change the course of history of this nation”. Joining the EEC was central to that ambition; yet his achievement was almost throttled at birth. When the Heath government fell in 1974 it was replaced by a Labour administration that was bitterly divided on Europe. To hold his party together, the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, made a twofold promise: he would renegotiate the terms of membership, then put them to the people in a referendum. It was an offer that David Cameron would repeat more than four decades later.
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Comparing the referendums of 1975 and 2016 reminds us just how fundamentally British politics had changed in the meantime. In 1975 it was the Conservative Party that was most enthusiastically supportive of membership. Its new leader, Margaret Thatcher, called for “a massive Yes” to Europe, and stumped the country in a woolly jumper made up of the flags of the member states. The campaign for withdrawal was dominated by the Labour left, under the charismatic leadership of the secretary of state for industry, Tony Benn. Newspapers like The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, which would later become fiercely Eurosceptic, all campaigned to keep Britain in Europe. Every national newspaper backed a vote to stay in, save only for The Spectator and The Morning Star.
- Vote of no confidence: a brief history
- Podcast: Brexit and American independence
- Brexit lessons from history
The geography of Euroscepticism was also very different. In 1975 it was England – especially the south of England – that was most staunchly European. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were much more sceptical; indeed, the nightmare for Unionists was that England would vote to stay in, while the rest of the UK voted to leave. In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon has become a key figure in the Remain campaign; in 1975, a young Alex Salmond warned that “Scotland knows from bitter experience what treatment is in store for a powerless region of a common market”.
Different issues also predominated. Immigration was barely mentioned in 1975: at a time when Britain was seen as “the sick man of Europe”, nobody thought that German and French workers were anxious to come and work in the UK. ‘Anti-marketeers’ were more worried about outward migration, with young Britons forced to seek work on the continent. Conversely, questions about food, fishing and the Common Agricultural Policy loomed considerably larger for a generation that could remember post-war rationing. Voters were encouraged to think of the Community as “the Common Super-market”: “Well stocked shelves”; “Plenty of choice”; and “just around the corner”. Margaret Thatcher warned of food shortages if Britain withdrew from the EEC, insisting that “most housewives would rather pay a little more than risk a bare cupboard”.
- Listen | Tom Cutterham describes how the Brexit negotiations compare with America’s departure from the British empire
A recurrent theme of the campaign in the 1970s was the memory of war. 1975, it is worth remembering, was closer in time to the end of the First World War than we are today to the Second. Men like Ted Heath, Willie Whitelaw, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell had all seen military service, and the prospects for peace weighed heavily on the campaign. “Nationalism Kills”, one poster declared. “No More Civil Wars”, said another. And yet another reminded voters that “Forty million people died in two European wars this century. Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter”.
This was a wartime election in another sense, too. The Cold War was omnipresent in the politics of the 1970s, and the same newspapers that reported the referendum were also carrying the fall of Saigon and the defeat of American power in Vietnam. As the US struggled with the scandal over Watergate, the impeachment of President Nixon and the backlash against the Civil Rights movement, Wilson told the Cabinet bluntly that American leadership had gone; in future, Western Europe would have to rely increasingly on its own resources against the Soviet Union. Heath claimed that a vote to leave, by weakening the cohesion of Western Europe, might trigger a Soviet invasion, pointing out that the USSR was the only major power to favour British withdrawal. This was also an important issue for the churches: The Church of England Newspaper told its readers that “if Christians are anti-Marxist, they should support an alliance that is anti-Marxist”.
Throughout the referendum, The Sun ran the strapline ‘Crisis Britain’ above its news pages. Following the oil crisis of 1973, inflation was running at close to 25 per cent; a balance of payments crisis was placing intense strain on the currency, while labour relations were deteriorating rapidly. From 1970 to 1974, more than 70 million working days were lost in strikes, culminating in the collapse of the Heath government during its struggle with the miners. No democracy had ever survived inflation at that level for a prolonged period of time, and the disintegration of parliamentary government in Northern Ireland increased the sense of impending doom.
Tony Benn wrote in his diary in December 1974 that “the final collapse of capitalism might be a matter of weeks away”. The foreign secretary, Jim Callaghan, put it more gloomily, telling the cabinet that “every morning when he shaved he thought that he should emigrate, but by the time he had eaten breakfast, he realised there was nowhere else to go… There was no solution that he could see to our problems”.
More like this
Both sides in the referendum invoked this atmosphere of doom. ‘In’ campaigners warned that withdrawal would trigger the collapse of the currency, a public spending crisis and massive job losses, while Ted Heath predicted the return of rationing. A recurring image in cartoons portrayed Britain as a sinking ship, with the great ocean liner of the European Community offering the only hope of rescue. ‘Out’ campaigners replied that it was membership that was draining the life from the economy. Tony Benn claimed that 500,000 jobs had been lost in the first two years of membership. Staying in, he predicted, would decimate manufacturing and inflict mass unemployment across the country.
The emphasis on risk probably resonated more in 1975 than in 2016, because it connected with people’s experience. For a generation that had lived through rationing, seen oil prices quadruple in 1973 and queued for sugar in 1974, the prospect of economic catastrophe was not something abstract. Private polling in May 1975 found that more than half of voters expected “an immediate economic and political crisis” in the event of a decision to withdraw – a conviction that strongly favoured a Yes vote.
- Listen | Simon Jenkins and Kathleen Burk explore Europe’s history from ancient times until the present day
The big battalions
Right from the start, the 1975 referendum pitted two very unequal armies against one another. The ‘In’ campaign could call on almost all the leading figures in British politics – from Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams on the left, to Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Willie Whitelaw on the right. They assembled a galaxy of actors, sports stars and celebrities, such as the boxer Henry Cooper, the Olympic gold medallist Mary Peters and the former England cricket captain Colin Cowdrey. Football managers Brian Clough, Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein sent messages of support to campaign rallies, while novelists as diverse as Agatha Christie, Karl Popper and Tom Stoppard signed adverts in the press.
The ‘Out’ campaign had some big hitters of their own, such as Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Ian Paisley and Enoch Powell. The problem was that these were all quite controversial figures – the so-called “men with staring eyes” – encouraging an association between the ‘Out’ campaign and political extremism. It did not help in this respect that the IRA, the National Front and the Communist Party of Great Britain all advocated a vote to leave.
Meanwhile, the big battalions of British society were all for staying in. Membership was backed by the Confederation of British Industry, the National Farmers Union and the mainstream churches, while supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer advocated membership in their customer magazines. Companies like IBM, ICI, Vickers and even Ladybird books campaigned for a Yes vote, canvassing their workers, shareholders and customers. Business support for leaving was almost non-existent. While the Trade Union Congress backed withdrawal, major unions like the GMB broke ranks and fought to stay in. Vic Feather, the former general secretary of the TUC, told voters bluntly that “If we go it alone we will be knackered”.
This mismatch was reflected in the accounts of the two campaigns. The government gave each side a grant of £125,000, on top of which they could raise whatever money they pleased. The ‘Out’ campaign raised £8,000 plus contributions in kind from some of the unions. The ‘In’ campaign raised more than £2 million. With all the major newspapers backing membership, the wonder was not that the anti-marketeers lost; it was that they put up a viable challenge at all.
Fourteen years of national debate
The result of the 1975 referendum was a landslide. On a 64.5 per cent turnout, more than two-thirds of voters opted to stay in. Every part of the United Kingdom voted for membership, save only for Shetland and the Western Isles [the electoral district which includes the Hebrides]. The Daily Express published a celebratory editorial, announcing that the British had declared themselves “decisively” and “irrevocably” European. “What had been made out to be the most doubting and hesitant member of the Common Market has shown that it means business”.
After the results were declared, Harold Wilson told journalists that “fourteen years of national debate” had come to an end. As our own referendum makes clear, that prediction was hopelessly optimistic. Just eight years later, Wilson’s own party would run for election on a promise to withdraw from the European Community. Yet the decision made on 5 June 1975 had a lasting impact. For good or for ill, British history since that date has been closely intertwined with the European Union. Membership has affected everything from trade policy and the legal system to gay rights and the Northern Ireland peace process. In this respect, the political commentator Anthony King was right to list the 1975 referendum among the most important decisions in British history since 1945. The vote on 23 June 2016 will almost certainly be closer than in 1975, but its consequences – whatever the result – will be no less momentous.
Robert Saunders is a lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Democracy and the Vote in British Politics (Farnham, 2011) and co-editor, with Ben Jackson, of Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge, 2012). He is completing a book on the 1975 referendum and blogs at www.gladstonediaries.blogspot.com
This article was first published by History Extra in June 2016
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99