Back to the future? Britain’s 1975 referendum on Europe

This piece was first published over at The Staggers – The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog.

On 23 January 1975, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community would be held within six months. Forty years on, the pressure for a similar in-out referendum on EU membership is mounting. David Cameron has promised (assuming he stays in power) to hold a vote no later than the end of 2017.

The circumstances that produced the 1975 referendum and those that may well produce another in the near future are uncannily similar.

harold wilson

In the early Seventies, Labour was split over Europe. The parliamentary party was overwhelmingly in favour of Britain’s membership of the Common Market, but much of the rank and file wanted out. When Tony Benn, the unofficial leader of Labour’s anti-marketeers, first put forward the idea of holding a referendum, the party leadership snubbed his proposal. But, as Jim Callaghan presciently remarked in 1970, the referendum idea was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb”.

Five years later, the whole party had indeed clambered into the little rubber life raft and the Conservatives poured scorn on them for doing so. Margaret Thatcher derided Labour’s decision to hold a referendum as, “a tactical device to get over a split in their own party”. She accused the government of being, “incapable of making a decision” and “passing the buck to the people”.

Those words could come back to bite Thatcher’s successors at Tory HQ.

From “lotus eaters” to “benefits tourism”

Extraordinary as it may seem from the perspective of 2015, immigration was a complete non-issue in the 1975 referendum. The same, however, can’t be said for emigration. At the height of the campaign, Tony Benn warned that the, “increasing emigration of our workers and their families to the Continent in search of jobs will be the painful consequence for this country of our continued membership of the European Economic Community”.

Meanwhile, the pro-EEC Labour deputy leader Ted Short denounced Brits who had emigrated to the Mediterranean, calling them “lotus eaters” – a reference to a BBC drama about British expats living on Crete. Those who chose to retire to the Costa del Sol were, in the popular imagination of the time, morally degenerate, unpatriotic tax dodgers.

Today, 1.8m Brits live elsewhere in the EU (many of them on the Costa del Sol). Almost a quarter of them claim a UK state pension – arguably causing a pretty significant drain on the public purse. Yet nobody worries about the costs of emigration any more, just immigration. Why?

Logically, this inversion is hard to explain. Yes, immigration from Europe has gone up exponentially over the last forty years, but so too has emigration to the Continent. The numbers offer, at best, a partial explanation. Much more significant is the shift in the way we see ourselves.

Britain in the Seventies was a nation low on self-confidence, run by politicians whose guiding principle was solidarity and who could still remember an age when the strength of a country was determined by the manpower it could muster, rather than by its GDP. It made sense in this context to worry about people leaving.

Today, Britain is more paradoxical. On the one hand, we arrogantly assume that the whole world must want to come and live here. Yet, at the same time, we guard our privileges jealously, afraid that there may not be enough to go round for much longer.

The business view

If there’s one thing that trumps immigration in the EU debate, it’s economics. Although the scope of the European project has expanded dramatically over the last four decades, for many a referendum today would still be essentially about an economic calculation: are we better off in or out?

In 1975, the business community was pretty clear about its answer to that question. A month before the referendum, The Economist published a poll of 653 chief executives, in which a staggering 95 per cent declared their support for staying in the Common Market. No fewer than 363 companies made contributions of more than £100 to the Britain in Europe campaign, whilst just one gave more than £100 to the rival National Referendum Campaign. This disparity resulted in one of the most lopsided campaigns, at least in terms of funding, in British political history. The pro-EEC side raised almost £1.5 million (about £13.5 million in today’s money). In contrast, the anti-EEC camp raised less than £150,000 (most of which came from the government).

It’s unlikely that business leaders will be as unanimous in their views (or in where they put their money) come 2017. The rise and rise of non-European markets in recent years means that shoring up our ties to Europe seems less urgent today than it did in the Seventies. At this stage, industry spokespeople are focusing on the case for reform. But, when it comes to a referendum, most businesspeople will most likely support staying in. The consequences of not doing so may no longer be unthinkable, but they still don’t look all that good.

How the campaign was won: the leadership effect

In April 1975, a poll was conducted to test the popularity of various prominent politicians, and to discover how well known their views on EEC membership were. The results made happy reading for europhiles. Eight pro-marketeers (Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Willie Whitelaw, Vic Feather and Jim Callaghan) were found to be “respected and liked” by more than 30 per cent of those polled. The only anti-Europe spokesman to come close to these ratings was Enoch Powell, who was liked by 33 per cent. But he was a much more divisive figure, with almost as many (31 per cent) saying they didn’t like or trust him.

Though probably not decisive, the popularity of the pro-European leadership almost certainly did have a big influence on the referendum result (67.2 per cent for continuing EEC membership). Whatever happens in 2017, one thing is certain: the days when a well-liked, pro-European political elite could effectively control the outcome of a referendum are long gone.

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One Response to Back to the future? Britain’s 1975 referendum on Europe

  1. Is the anti-European sentiment a nationalist thing? I ask because immigrants are, according to all the research I can find, far more positive for the economy than they are negative.

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