History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

A big day in history: the debate on whether Britain should join the European Community

Dominic Sandbrook explores the events of 28 October 1971

Published: April 19, 2011 at 4:38 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


In the recent history of the House of Commons, the evening of Thursday 28 October 1971 stands out above any other. The atmosphere that night was thick with tension, the diplomats' galleries crowded with spectators, the entrances to the Palace of Westminster jammed with demonstrators, well wishers and curious passers-by who just wanted to be on hand for a genuinely historic occasion. The debate over Britain's application to join the European Community had reached its climax; the House was about to vote. "See the Ambassadors' Gallery over there?" an old attendant muttered. "Haven't seen it so full since we used to matter in the world."

To those lucky enough to be watching in an age before television broadcasts, the debate seemed the perfect stage for an extraordinary range of parliamentary talents, from the flamboyant Michael Foot and the avuncular Jim Callaghan to the debonair Jeremy Thorpe. Even Jeffrey Archer got a word in, although only to complain about the queues outside. But it was when the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, rose to speak that the atmosphere seemed most electric. Ironically, Heath was a notoriously wooden speaker, his strangulated vowels reflecting his insecurity about his humble Kentish boyhood. But since serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, he had been a passionate advocate of British’s European future. Now he had reached his defining moment.

“I do not think that any prime minister has stood at this box in time of peace and asked the House to take a positive decision of such importance as I am asking it to take tonight,” Heath began. He listed the great changes overtaking the world in the 1970s, from the onset of globalisation to the rise of China. But he ended on an unusually personal note, reflecting on his part in Britain’s failed application back in 1963. “When we came to the end of the negotiations in 1963, after the veto had been imposed,” Heath recalled, “the negotiator on behalf of India said: ‘When you left India some people wept. And when you leave Europe tonight some will weep. And there is no other people in the world of whom these things could be said.’”

When Heath sat down, the Commons voted. Nobody knew what the outcome would be. How many Tory rebels would join Enoch Powell in defying their party whips? How many Labour pro-Europeans would follow Roy Jenkins, the former chancellor and darling of the liberal intelligentsia, into the government lobby? Passions were running so high that some of Jenkins’s friends were worried for his safety: Roy Hattersley even suggested organising a bodyguard to get him into a getaway car. And when the tellers finally announced the verdict – the Ayes 356, the Noes 244 – there came an extraordinary explosion of feeling. “Fascist bastard!” Labour loyalists screamed at Jenkins, while others pushed and punched his fellow rebels. Even the usually austere Enoch Powell found himself carried away. “It won’t do! It won’t do,” he shouted at his own front bench.

News of the vote travelled fast. All evening, the former prime minister Harold Macmillan had been waiting on the cliffs of Dover with a great bonfire prepared by the European Movement, and as the news broke at 10:30, he set the beacon alight to the cheers of 500 onlookers. Far away in the night, an answering flame burst into life, a beacon of goodwill on the Pas de Calais.

But for one man above all it was a moment of supreme joy, the sweetest of his premiership. Never one for public displays of emotion, Edward Heath slipped away from the parties celebrating the vote. He thought back, he wrote later, to “the battlefields of France, Belgium and Holland, to the rallies of Nuremberg and to Wendell Willkie’s voice, crackling over a radio set at my command post in Normandy in 1944, speaking of ‘One World’”.

And when he reached Number 10, this most reserved of men went up to his sitting room, sat at his clavichord and poured his emotions into Bach's First Prelude and Fugue for the Well-Tempered Clavier. After ten years of struggle, he had realised his dream. But only when the "still, small voice of the clavichord" rang around the silent room, "at once so serene, so ordered and so profound," did he find fulfilment at last.


Dominic Sandbrook's latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4's Saturday Review.


Sponsored content