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True stories of the 1975 EEC Referendum

Updated Friday 8th April 2016

As the UK prepares to vote on our future in Europe, what happened last time the public was asked? We've dug through the archives to find some stories from the 1975 EEC Referendum.

The decision to call the referendum was taken by Prime Minister Harold Wilson - but Tony Benn was instrumental in persuading him

There were many pressures on Harold Wilson to find a way to settle the question of EEC membership. His predecessor, Ted Heath, had taken the country in the Community in 1973. Labour's NEC wanted the nation out - but not all the cabinet were convinced. It was Tony Benn who persuaded Wilson that the correct way to act would be to seek the will of the people:

"I felt that a decision of such constitutional importance could not be contemplated without the explicit consent of the electorate in a general election or referendum. This view initially found no support when I put it to the Shadow Cabinet and the National Executive."

From Office Without Power: Diaries 1968 to 1972 by Tony Benn

The Guardian worried that this first referendum might set a worrying precedent:

"Must the country now accept that which has been done by one referendum can only be undone by another? Would Professor Dicey's principle that no Parliament can bind its successor apply also to the results of referenda? So that if the vote in June is for leaving the EEC, there would have to be another referendum if another Government decided to try to rejoin? There is something to be said for referenda when issues arise which, like the European one, divide the political parties internally so that no ordinary election can represent the will of the people. But Parliament will have to watch with care this new constitutional animal."

In May, the campaign was disturbed by a leak of campaign materials

The normally secure printing of government materials fell apart as referendum leaflets leaked. Copies of the pamphlet putting the government case were sent to the Daily Telegraph; not realising it had a scoop, the Telegraph thought they'd been sent them officially and called the Lord President to fact-check. An outraged and panicked political establishment then brought forward the distribution of the documents and launched an investigation.

Jackie Stewart, Lester Piggott and Richard Briers campaigned to keep Britain in

If you think celebrity influence on politics is a modern invention, think again. In 1975, sportspeople, actors and even agony aunts swung into action to keep the UK in the EEC. Writing for British Influence, Robert Saunders says that the use of celebs was in a bid to offset the sense that the In campaign was pretty fusty:

To its critics, 'Britain in Europe' reeked of privilege. It held press conferences in the Waldorf Astoria, was run by a career diplomat - Sir Con O'Neill - and was almost embarrassingly well-financed. Opponents argued that these were the 'guilty men' of British politics, who had presided over thirty years of national decline.

With this in mind, 'Britain in Europe' set out to foreground 'personalities' over 'politicians'; people who could embody sensible, mainstream opinion, without the taint of political responsibility. Sports personalities were thought especially valuable. The broadcaster David Coleman organised a 'Sportsmen for Europe' office, and Henry Cooper, Colin Cowdrey, Jackie Stewart and the Olympic pentathlete Mary Peters all lent their images to the campaign.

Read Winning in Europe: How Celebrities Won the 1975 Referendum

And who wouldn't seek the opinion of a Carry On actor?

Kenneth Williams was invited on Daytime to share his views on the vote.

The revolutionary left hoped British withdrawal from the EEC would hasten a United Socialist States of Europe

Paul Hampton writes at Workers' Liberty:

When the EEC referendum was announced at the beginning of 1975, the IMG’s paper Red Weekly devoted itself to opposing entry. The front-page article (‘”No” to the Capitalists’ Common Market’, 30 January 1975) stated that staying in the Common Market was “a life-and-death question for Britain’s capitalists” and for that reason “the working class should be opposed to the Common Market”. The EEC was “a capitalist institution, designed to strengthen the power of the ruling classes of the different countries within it”. The opposition was unequivocal: “No to the capitalists’ Common Market – on any terms.”

In an explicit re-run of the point made in 1971, the IMG argued that “the job of revolutionaries is to intervene to transform the actual struggle against British membership into a fight against the EEC itself, and in this way lay the basis for a real campaign for a United Socialist States of Europe”.

Read more at 1975 and all that

The far right was also very much pushing for a No

In March 1975, the National Front marched through London protesting against integration. Leaders of the group, though, were as angered by the Front's exclusion from the official campaign (and its funding) as they were with the EEC. Tensions boiled over on on April 12th. Furious at being denied a platform at an anti-EEC meeting in Conway Hall, NF demonstrators tried to derail the rally. The next morning's Observer reported:

Young supporters of the Front wrestled with speakers on the platform, the microphone was seized, leaflets rained down from the gallery and up to 200 National Front members, mainly young men, stood, clapped and stamped, shouting 'Free speech for the National Front'

The No Campaign had its own version of 'Project Fear'...

Just as the Brexit campaign accuses the government of running Project Fear, the National Referendum Campaign's 'Why You Should Vote No' leaflet warned of pro-EEC scaremongering:

It is scare-mongering to pretend that withdrawal from the Common Market would mean heavy unemployment or loss of trade. In a very few years we shall enjoy in North Sea oil a precious asset possessed by none of the Common Market countries. Our freedom to use this oil, and our vast coal reserves, unhampered by any threatened Brussels restrictions, will strengthen our national economy powerfully.

See a pdf of the No campaign leaflet

... while the Government had a 1975 take on a new settlement to pitch...

David Cameron is building his government's position on the strength of his renegotiation of the UK's relationship with the EU. Harold Wilson had a similar take in 1975, in the government's pamphlet:

We explain why the Government, after long, hard negotiations, are recommending to the British people that we should remain a member of the European Community.

We do not pretend, and never have pretended, that we got everything we wanted in these negotiations. But we did get big and significant improvements on the previous terms.

We confidently believe that these better terms can give Britain a New Deal in Europe. A Deal that will help us, help the Commonwealth, and help our partners in Europe.

That is why we are asking you to vote in favour of remaining in the Community. I ask you again to read and discuss this pamphlet.

Above all, I ask you to use your vote.

For it is your vote that will now decide. The Government will accept your verdict.

Harold Wilson

See a pdf of the Government leaflet

... and the Yes campaign said that the French diet showed our traditions were safe

On the question of sovereignty, the Yes campaign pointed to what Dutch drinkers were doing:

We can work together and still stay British. The Community does not mean dull uniformity. It hasn't made the French eat German food or the Dutch drink Italian beer. Nor will it damage British traditions and way of life.
The position of the Queen is not affected., She will remain Sovereign of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth. Four of the other Community countries have monarchies of their own.

English Common Law is not affected. For a few commercial and industrial purposes there is need for Community Law. But our criminal law, trial by jury, presumption of innocence remain unaltered. So do our civil rights.

See a pdf of the Yes leaflet

We know how Basil Fawlty voted

According, at least, to The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers:

May I say how pleased we are to have some Europeans here now that we are on the continent? ... I didn't vote for it myself, quite honestly, but now that we're in, I'm determined to make it work, so I'd like to welcome you all to Britain.

Families were split - even at the very top

Vernon Bogdanor pointed out that Harold Wilson didn't just have a split at the cabinet table - he faced one across the breakfast table, too:

One of the antis, Barbara Castle, said in her memoirs she was putting the case to a lady in her constituency against membership and the lady said, “Well, I have heard what you have said, but Mr Wilson takes a very different view,” although, interestingly enough, Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, who is still alive as it happens, in her nineties, was anti and voted against remaining in.

 

But Mrs Wilson wasn't on the winning side

The final vote was a 'yes' to staying in. Nearly every region voted yes, with only Shetland and the Western Isles returning a no.

The final result:

Yes - 17,378,581 67.2%
No - 8,470,073 32.8%

 

For a fuller view of the 1975 campaign, we recommend Vernon Bogdanor's lecture at Gresham College

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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