The original remainers: how 1975 produced a successful pro-Europe referendum campaign

Had the leaders of the wretched 2016 pro-EU referendum effort modelled themselves on the 1975 one, they might have won.

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My first direct political memory, unmediated by television, is of the 1975 European referendum campaign. As a bleary, tousled teenager I was dragged along one evening by my father to an anti-Brussels rally in a nearby village hall. There, we sat on canvas seats and listened to a politician passionately warning us that a “yes” vote would mean food prices rocketing and food scarcity – a return to malnutrition, to famine in the fat farming valleys of East Scotland. I’d better not say which party he came from, but it remains a powerful player in Scotland today. As we left, feeling a little shaken, I asked my dad whether he’d brought me along because he agreed with the speaker. Certainly not, he replied. It was tripe. He had brought me because he wanted me to think hard before ever believing anything that a politician said.

And here’s a book about the campaign that ought to get people hot under the collar, above all today. Had the leaders of the wretched 2016 pro-EU referendum effort read this gripping account of the 1975 one, and learned the obvious lessons, they might have won their contest. They can be excused, but only because this book hadn’t been published in time.

Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, is quite right to point out that the 1975 European referendum campaign has been badly underplayed by modern historians. They have focused more on Ted Heath’s struggle to get Britain into the community in 1972, and then on the growing rise of anti-Brussels politics during the Thatcher and Major years. It’s almost as if the 1975 vote pretty overwhelming in favour of Britain remaining inside what was then usually called the Common Market, was both a foregone conclusion and relatively unimportant in the story of modern Britain. But both of these things are wrong. It was a very hard-fought campaign, the outcome of which was taken for granted by nobody. And it really did mark a major moment in our political history, even if most of the lessons drawn at that time have turned out to be wrong.

As one goes through it, the question in one’s mind is whether it’s the similarities between 1975 and 2016 that are the more striking, or the differences? Certainly, many of the arguments feel terribly familiar. Contrary to popular belief, there was a vigorous mid-1970s argument about parliamentary sovereignty. The Norwegian parallels were keenly debated. The anti-Brussels side emphasised the importance of Britain engaging with economies all around the planet. The 1975 “Out of Europe and Into the World” banners could have accommodated Michael Gove and Liam Fox in their shade perfectly happily.

There are also curious parallels in the personnel. Like David Cameron, the then prime minister Harold Wilson was no natural enthusiast for European integration. Like Cameron, Wilson agreed to the referendum mainly to resolve problems inside his own party; and preceded it with a hyped renegotiation of Britain’s terms that produced more headlines than substance. In 1975, like 2016, it was a contest between the political establishment – Heath, Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Jeremy Thorpe standing in for Cameron, George Osborne, the Labour Blairites and the Lib Dems – and the rebels, with Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and co, rather than Ukip and Corbynite dissidents.

But as soon as you begin to dig deeper, profound differences emerge. Then as now the referendum took place against the background of profound economic problems – not the aftermath of the financial crisis in the early 21st century, but the oil priceshock, a stock market crash that had wiped 73 per cent off the value of British shares, and inflation that was running at nearly 25 per cent, fuelling strikes across industry. As the author notes: “No democracy had ever survived a sustained period of inflation at this level, fuelling predictions that spiralling prices might destroy British democracy in the 1970s as surely as Germany in the 1930s.”

Here perhaps is the biggest reason for the different outcome. Project Fear was run very hard by Heath and Wilson. There was an enormous, lavishly funded, and very carefully organised business campaign in favour of EU membership, reaching into almost every workplace. Across the country, sceptical trade unionists were assured by their employers that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to put themselves out of work. And why did they believe in 1975 what they didn’t believe in 2016? Britain’s situation was far, far worse than it is today. Simply put, there was a lot more to fear.

Another major difference is that there was great idealism on the pro-EU side. They didn’t simply fight on the numbers or bread and butter, but on peace and the European ideal. Maybe it was simply because so many leaders and voters were closer to wartime experience – but this was a distinctly more high-minded experience than the 2016 campaign. The pro-Brussels campaigners fought everywhere, in every community, deploying everything from Britain’s then much more influential churches, to youth campaigns, wit, humour and endless public meetings. Perhaps even more significantly, they had much more of the press with them. One of the smaller enjoyments of this book is reading the rhetoric of papers like the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express as they turn their fire to defend the great Brussels project. The Express, for instance, hoorahed the result as “louder, clearer and more unanimous than any decision in peacetime history. . . Britain belongs to Europe!”

The Sun, having been against the whole idea of letting the people decide in a referendum (“Rotten… Silly… Alien…”) then attacked Margaret Thatcher for failing to campaign vigorously enough in favour of Brussels: “Missing: one Tory leader. Answers to the name of Margaret Thatcher. Mysteriously disappeared from the market referendum campaign 11 days ago. Has not been seen since. Will finder kindly wake her up and remind her she is failing the nation in her duty as leader of the opposition?”

Changed days, folks. And there is more innocent amusement to be had when Mrs Thatcher, patron saint of the Johnson-Fox-Rees-Mogg wing of the Conservative party, finally confronts voters with the 1975 version of her views: “If Britain were to withdraw, we might imagine that we could regain complete national sovereignty. But it would, in fact, be an illusion. Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us.”

 Still true? We wait to see. But the final chapter in this book usefully reminds us that the commentariat generally knows nothing. After the 1975 vote, 67 per cent to 33 per cent for the EC – it was apparently “obvious” that the centre of British politics was vastly strengthened: Tony Benn, Neil Kinnock and the left were out; Labour belonged to… er… Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. On the other side, Ted Heath was on his way back, Thatcher’s stock was falling and Europe was a finally settled issue for the lucky Tories. Ha, ha and hah again!

This is a quietly argued, punctiliously foot-noted and detailed academic book about political process. It’s also a jaw-dislocating page-turner. If you care about contemporary politics, you really need to read it. 

Andrew Marr’s books include “A History of Modern Britain” (Pan)

Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain
Robert Saunders
Cambridge University Press, 510pp, £24.99

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special