Britain decides: the first European referendum

On 23 June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Writing ahead of the vote, historian Robert Saunders looks 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...

1st May 1975: Three documents, for and against, published for the referendum on the Common Market. The document 'Britain's New Deal in Europe' (centre) contains a recommendation by the government signed by prime minister Harold Wilson for Britain to stay in the Community. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

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.

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