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29 June 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 12:12pm

Sleepwalking into the unknown

In 1975, voters took the Europe referendum seriously and accepted the results with grace. The 2016 campaign was careless, nasty and mendacious.

By John Simpson

Like most days in Brussels, Friday 7 June 1975 was overcast. Yet the sun shone that morning on anyone from Britain. “You English,” said the grand, cerebral corres­pondent of Le Monde, coming over to me in the coffee room at the Berlaymont Palace: “we can always trust you to do the sensible thing. I wish the rest of us were as sensible as you are.”

During the night the results of the first referendum on staying in Europe had poured in, and 67 per cent of people had voted Yes. Only two administrative areas voted No: the Western Isles and Shetland.

As the junior BBC correspondent in Brussels, I shook hands with the man from Le Monde as though I was accepting the congratulations of a whole continent on Britain’s behalf. When it counted, my fellow citizens always seemed to show a sturdy common sense, a resistance to extremism and wild, utopian claims. People had taken the referendum extraordinarily seriously, as if their one vote was going to decide everything. I got dozens of letters and phone calls asking for advice, and was often stopped in the street with earnest, troubled questions. Was the Common Agricultural Policy really going to destroy British farming? Would food prices go up? Would our cars sell better or worse in foreign markets? What about fishing? I tried to answer each question as best as I could, and would be thanked politely for my answers; this was long before Michael Gove (who was only seven at the time) proclaimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

After the 1975 results came through, and the scale of the Yes victory was clear, the then industry secretary, Tony Benn, who was the de facto leader of the “Out” campaign, accepted defeat gracefully: “When the British people speak, everyone, including members of parliament, should tremble before their decision . . .” The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph had all called for a Yes vote. Only the Communist Morning Star, joined by the Spectator, which was going through a fiercely right-wing phase, had campaigned against.

Forty-one years later, the sheer ­nastiness and mendacity of the 2016 campaign was, by contrast, stunning. So was the careless way many people wandered into the voting booths to vote on the entire future of their country. “Oh yes, I voted Leave,” a specialist at a big NHS hospital told me. “Well, I couldn’t make my mind up, it was all so complicated, so I plumped for No because I thought it’d make life more interesting.”

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An opinion poll carried out immediately after the result was announced indicated that seven out of ten Leave voters hadn’t thought the referendum mattered very much. In comparison to 1975, we seemed to sleepwalk our way to a decision that could have the utmost consequences for the lives and prosperity of our children and our children’s children. “I hate the f***ing old people of this country for what they’ve done,” an engineering student at a notably gloomy street party in Oxford said to me afterwards. Another explained in some detail how the funding of six graduate students he knew would be cut off almost immediately. All of them, he said, would now apply to US universities for jobs there.

We didn’t appear unduly shaken by the murder of a young and immensely promising MP by someone apparently stirred up by the issue. “Britain first” or “Put Britain first”, he is alleged to have shouted as he shot and stabbed Jo Cox to death. To him, it seems, she was a traitor for wanting to ­remain in Europe.

In the two centuries since 1812, only eight MPs have been murdered – six of them by Irish republican fanatics, one by a lunatic. Jo Cox seems to have been the first MP to be killed for personal, reasoned views. Did this change the campaign? A week later, she seemed almost to have been forgotten. When the news of his victory came through, Nigel Farage had put the memory of her murder aside to such an extent that he could say the referendum result was a revolution achieved “without a shot being fired”. He apologised later, but perhaps it showed how far from the forefront of his mind the atrocity had been.

The referendum campaign seems to have coarsened and brutalised our whole public discourse. When David Cameron, whose careless decision to hold this referendum has destroyed his career, arrived at an event in Lincolnshire a few hours after the result, someone screamed “Traitor!” at him. Nor is the savagery confined to one side. When Boris Johnson, triumphant after the events of the night, left his home on Friday morning, a group of people shouted: “Scum!” Well-printed, laminated cards have been put through the doors of houses in Cambridgeshire where Polish people live, calling them “vermin”. Muslims and eastern Europeans have been abused on the streets or on social media and told to get out of “our” country. At a post-referendum rally in Newcastle, supporters of the old National Front unfurled a banner reading: “Stop immigration. Start repatriation.”


The difference between the two referendums, of 1975 and 2016, is the difference between two separate countries. Our political rhetoric has become nastier, cruder and more brutal. For one thing, in 1975 the Murdoch-owned Sun wasn’t yet the paper it morphed into during the Thatcher years; and anyway even Mrs Thatcher acted like an enthusiastic European then. The Daily Mail belonged to the centre right, lively and entertaining, with the reputation of being the paper read by the spouses of the people who ran the country. The Daily Express was still a real newspaper. During the 2016 campaign the Sun claimed the Queen supported Brexit, and the Express declared that British kettles were about to be banned by Brussels. On polling day, the Mail printed a cartoon that showed a family of four locked in a prison cell: Europe. Now, though, the door was open and the rising sun was streaming in. You didn’t have to worry about the facts, or the experts. Today you would be free.

Lies and exaggerations were peddled as truth by both sides, and the papers dealt with them according to their prejudices and political allegiance. Meanwhile, broadcasters, which dominate most people’s awareness of the news, were legally obliged as ever to stay neutral, and were mostly pretty good. Yet this legal requirement to be balanced allowed lies and exaggerations sometimes to be given the same weight as sober truth. The BBC offered an excellent fact-checking service, but not enough people took advantage of it. The voice of authority counted for far less in 2016 than it had done in 1975. Warnings from the Bank of England or the IMF about a recession were dismissed as the tactics of Project Fear; then, after the victory, Nigel Farage agreed that there could indeed be a recession – though not, he assured us, because of Brexit.

The Leave campaign was rebuked several times by the independent UK Statistics Authority for its slogan “Let’s give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week”. As the authority pointed out, this took no account of the British rebate, nor other EU payments to the UK’s public and private sectors. In 1975 this sort of telling-off would have caused a huge crisis in the “Out” campaign. In 2016 Johnson and Gove simply carried on proclaiming the slogan, and Johnson dismissed
the authority as a bunch of “stooges”.

The broadcasters invariably felt obliged to report these assertions in their coverage of each side’s campaign. No doubt as a result, 47 per cent of the respondents to one opinion poll thought the £350m claim was correct; 14 per cent didn’t know. When the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the effect of leaving the EU would be a £36bn black hole in our national finances, it didn’t get much of a mention in pro-Leave newspapers. It was, people could reassure themselves, just another stunt by Project Fear.

As a result, anyone could say anything on television. An elderly woman insisted to Channel 4 News that Britain had been a rich country when it voted to stay in Europe in 1975, but now, as a result, it was poor. No one challenged her. This was vox populi and,
as we all know, vox populi, vox Dei. Well, God has spoken now, with great clarity. I’ve never seen so much fear and nervousness from the politicians and civil servants I speak to, and the academics I live among, in my entire life. Not to worry, though – they’re just experts.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. Twitter: @JohnSimpsonNews

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