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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

The argument for voting Yes to Europe was made strongly and unequivocally on referendum polling day, 5 June 1975. One newspaper’s leading article stirringly concluded: “The British people, consciously re-dedicated to European integration, would then be able to add their impetus and inspiration to the great work.” On its way to this conclusion, the piece argued that the existing pace of integration, set by the slowest power under the veto rule, was too slow:
“The integration of foreign policies must go hand in hand with that of defence policies. With equal logic both must be combined with the integrated economic policy which is already blazing the trail… political unity is Europe’s only key to security and the restoration of its beneficent historic influence.”

I’ll tell you later in this piece which starry-eyed liberal Europhile publication printed these musings.

The referendum came after a much-trumpeted renegotiation of the terms of UK membership. As in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, public opinion in 1975 was sceptical in principle, but instinctively attracted to a middle option of staying in, though with some unspecified ‘reforms’ – people wanted a reason to seem reluctant but then actually vote to stay in.

As early as August 1974, the effect of offering an option in which the Government renegotiated and recommended an In vote on the new terms flipped the public verdict from No to Yes, without even specifying how the new terms would differ from the old. In January 1975, Gallup found a 41-33 lead for Leave, but after a hypothetical renegotiation this became 53-22 for Remain. The public seem to treat European negotiations like haggling for a carpet in Istanbul: only a mug would accept the first offer, but one should drink the mint tea and shake hands on something before the whole process gets embarrassing.

Much, however, is different in 2016. Perhaps strangely, given the unsettled condition of Britain in 1975 when inflation was over 20 per cent and there was talk of Watergate and Weimar, there was much less of an anti-establishment backlash. The pro-EU leaders of the main parties reassured the electorate. The power of political leadership was particularly powerful on the Labour side, with Wilson’s seal of approval switching Labour supporters from a No lead of 30 points to a Yes lead of 21 points. But Conservatives and Liberals were also pulled closer to Yes by the Labour Government’s support of renegotiated terms. The political leaders on the No side were several different flavours of Marmite, an even tougher sell than just one flavour would have been; if you liked Enoch Powell, the chances were that you thought Tony Benn was a dangerous lunatic, and vice versa. The Yes leaders – Wilson, Thatcher, Thorpe, Heath – were more popular overall, and much less polarising.

One would be hard-pushed to describe the 1975 referendum as a fair fight. The imbalance in resources between the two sides was grotesque. The government gave grants of £125,000 each to the two lead organisations, Britain in Europe (BIE) for Yes and the National Referendum Campaign (NRC) for No. This was nearly all the income of the NRC, but private and business donations allowed BIE to spend over ten times more than the NRC. BIE had the support of 95 per cent of Britain’s businesses, some of which also made their own public interventions (including state-owned British Leyland).

Nearly all the media were for Yes, overtly in the case of the newspapers – even the crotchety Daily Express had gone soft under the emollient pro-EU Toryism of Alistair Burnet. Although broadcasters strove for balance, the imbalance in the campaigns’ resources was reflected in coverage, and editorial assumptions had been moulded by the long-term establishment project of getting Britain into Europe. Even the official mailshot gave the Yes side two bites at the cherry – one to BIE and one to the Government to distribute a popular version of its post-renegotiation White Paper. The Cameron government has followed Wilson’s precedent – and come in for similar sharp criticism.

It is sometimes said that the 1975 referendum was about a free trade area. It was not. As the Daily Telegraph – for it is from the leader column of that august paper that I quoted at the top of this article – wrote, the option of a free trade area was illusory: “if she opts for a free trade area, she will have to accept the terms without being able to influence them from the inside”.

The problem with the ‘false prospectus’ argument about 1975 is that the argument about sovereignty was made – but there was no sign that the voters were all that bothered about the issue. Polling found only nine per cent regarded it as an important concern; Barbara Castle confessed to her diary that she even had trouble getting her husband, Ted, to care much about it.

The main issues on the public agenda were prices, the economy and food. Humphrey Taylor, polling for Yes, advised BIE to stick to those issues. Labour’s surprise victory in February 1974 had been a recent lesson in sticking to the voters’ agenda – particularly when they agreed with you, rather than pursuing what you thought they should be interested in (such as ‘Who Governs?’, in that case). The Out supporters, particularly Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, regarded Westminster’s legal sovereignty as vital, but the contrasting view of Heath that legal sovereignty was something to be pooled, even sacrificed, in the interests of greater influence and power, at the least fought that view to a standstill.

In 1975 (and 2016?) sovereignty as such was a secondary concern compared to what use might be made of that sovereignty. The pure doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was at a low ebb in conservative circles in the mid-1970s: the feeling was articulated by Lord Hailsham in his 1976 Dimbleby Lecture in which he warned of an ‘elective dictatorship’, based on a narrow parliamentary majority secured with a low share of the vote (then a bit over 39 per cent) but with the power to make radical changes.

Implied in Hailsham’s argument was that Britain could do with a bit less of this sort of ‘sovereignty’. Europe, as a supra-national body, would supply a check to it ,and its capitalist ethos would provide a safeguard against Britain becoming ever more socialist. The centre-right case for Yes was about binding Britain in to a peaceful, democratic and capitalist alliance. The left-wing case against was about the latitude that leaving would give a socialist government to go further with policies like nationalisation, import surcharges and capital controls.

Tony Benn, the foremost advocate of leaving Europe, was at the same time the main proponent of a distinctively socialist industrial and economic strategy, and to him – and his opponents – the linkage was clear. Benn said that the government’s recommendation to stay would be “a reversal of hundreds of years of history which have progressively widened the power of the people over their governors. Now great chunks are to be handed to the Commission. I can think of no body of men outside the Kremlin who have so much power without a shred of accountability for what they do.”

A few right-wing opponents of the European project and supporters of national sovereignty accepted the choice in 1975. Alan Clark’s Diaries for 10 April 1975 recount a brief exchange with Dennis Skinner in the queue for the Tea Room, in which the languid Clark (mostly concerned at the time with gambling florid sums at backgammon, while musing about joining the National Front), said: “I’d rather live in a socialist Britain than one ruled by a lot of fucking foreigners”.,

The Conservative Party in 1975 had a small number of anti-EEC MPs and members, but with the departure of Enoch Powell first to pro-Labour detachment and then to Ulster Unionism in 1974, the Conservative Out argument lacked a leader of any standing. The bulk of the party was unequivocally pro-European, regarding entry as the one indisputable achievement of the party’s most recent period in government.

When Margaret Thatcher replaced Edward Heath as leader in February 1975 it was a move from a passionate, ideological pro-European to a pragmatic but still convinced pro-European. She was at heart one of the less enthusiastic Europeans in the Conservatives’ senior ranks, with Reggie Maudling rudely speculating in 1969 that her misgivings were because “she was worried about the price of hats”, At least Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm support for staying in has not yet been attributed to fears about the availability of socks and sandals. However, Thatcher’s views were strong and clear in 1975. In a Daily Telegraph piece on the eve of poll, she argued for Europe, putting co-operation ahead of trade:

“My reasons for staying in [are]… the ideal and vision of what we could do together if we put as much effort into using our freedom in peacetime as we do to defending it against an obvious foe; with a reasonable examination of the prospects for food, trade and jobs; and with the practical consequences that would arise for Britain if, instead of solving our problems as part of a partnership, we withdrew into the unknown.”

She made similar, forceful arguments in a big Commons debate in April 1975.

The nearest parallel electoral event to the 1975 referendum that British political history can offer is the general election of 1931, and yet the comparison is rarely drawn out. At the time, only Paul Johnson suggested it. The outcome was similar, in that a broad front of Conservatives, the centre and the most trusted Labour Party leaders scored a resounding win over the rest of the Labour Party and scattered independents from the periphery – by a very similar 67-31 margin.

The most emphatic Yes wins in 1975 were in the Conservatives’ suburban and agricultural heartlands, such as Surrey and North Yorkshire, while smaller Yes margins were found in working-class territory such as Strathclyde, Tyne & Wear and the Welsh Valleys. As in 1931, there was a sense of the sensible chaps in politics having got together and the great British middle class -  in its solid, dutiful way – voting for the sensible, lower-risk option.

A Conservative told David Butler after the referendum that it had been “not really about Europe at all”. It became a straight right versus left battle with the normal dividing line shifting further over than in general elections to encompass half the Labour Party. The 1975 referendum was, below the surface, about the choice between a liberal mixed economy capitalism and a socialist siege economy. The 2016 referendum is largely, it seems, about immigration and the broader cultural undercurrents of nationhood (UK and its component nations, particularly England and Scotland) and cosmopolitanism. The result is likely to be a more sharply divided verdict than the broad consensus that was reached in 1975.

Referendums often don’t solve anything. Within eight years of the 1975 referendum, Labour was proposing withdrawal. Nor could the version of Europe that existed in June 1975 be preserved indefinitely. The Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty transformed the EC into a Union with more supra-national characteristics, such as majority voting. Arguing for another vote now does not require any criticism of the politicians or voters of 1975 – although it is ironic indeed that the very same individuals who were 1975’s Euro-enthusiast young voters are now today’s most convinced Brexiteers. But the Britain outside the EU that faces them now would not be Benn’s socialist dream, but a small-state society of a kind that was barely a glimmer in Margaret Thatcher’s eye in 1975.

40 comments for: Lewis Baston: The 1975 Europe referendum revisited – and why it wasn’t about a free trade area

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