What if... Britain had stayed out of the EEC

The referendum on Britain's membership of the EEC is often forgotten today. Yet as the only nationwide plebiscite in our history, the vote on 5 June 1975, when more than 25 million people delivered their verdict on Britain's European future, deserves to be remembered. Of course, it did not go quite as the government and the media were hoping, which is one reason why they choose to overlook it. But in an age when films and comics still celebrated the war and when British was still seen as best, what on earth were they expecting?

The referendum felt like a political earthquake. Britain withdrew its officials from Brussels, and the Union flag came down outside the European Community's headquarters. The leaders of the "No" campaign all found their credibility enhanced, and in the government reshuffle a few days later, Tony Benn was promoted to chancellor of the exchequer - quite a blow for those who had hoped that a "Yes" verdict would give Harold Wilson a chance to demote him. Indeed, it is a sobering thought that, had it not been for the referendum, Benn would never have had the chance to put his ideas into action - and the workers' co-operatives that dominate our life today might not even exist.

Yet perhaps it is in smaller, subtler ways that history would be different. Today, no household is without its beloved New Zealand butter and Canadian cheese, yet it is a chilling thought that if Britain had stayed in the EEC, we might have become a nation of Brie and Gorgonzola addicts. And if we had remained in thrall to Brussels, we would never have had the chance to forge such strong links with Europe's other freedom-loving nations, now our political and cultural partners - our Scandinavian cousins in Iceland and Norway.

Indeed, if the decision had gone the other way, many of our 21st-century tastes and habits might be very different. Would Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim still attract hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers? Would Reykjavik be a Mecca for spa lovers and stag parties? Would the National Gallery's Edvard Munch exhibition have been such a blockbuster? Would the RSC put on its sell-out Ibsen season every winter? And for that matter, would pickled herring still have become the nation's favourite comfort food?

There are always those who think that we would have been better off staying in the EEC, and that today's Britain, with its environmentally friendly monarchy, its entrenched social democracy and its taste for meatballs, is all a bit dull. But it's surely a small price to pay for trains that run on time, redistributive taxes and the world's leading whaling industry. And who wants to be like Italy, anyway?

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule