Britain And Europe
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The Britain and Europe Referendum, 1975

In 2015, Britain will mark the 40th anniversary of the referendum on membership of the European Community. This was the first national referendum in British history and the only time that the question of European integration has been put directly before the British people. It remains the only national poll to have been fought on non-party lines, and it accelerated both the split in the Labour Party and the formation of the SDP. Though Harold Wilson hoped that it would end fourteen years of national debate on membership, his party would go to the country in 1983 committed to reversing British entry and withdrawing from the Community.

As Britain’s first national referendum, what happened in 1975 was not only an incident in the history of European integration. It was a major constitutional innovation and a remarkable experiment in direct democracy. The decision facing voters in 1975 went beyond one of ’staying in’ or ‘coming out’; it brought into collision competing visions of history, national character and Britain’s place in the world.

The scale of mobilization was extraordinary. The Yes campaign spent about £2 million, roughly eight times the total spend of the No campaign. Britain in Europe (the umbrella group for the Yes campaign) trained more than 12,000 volunteers and spent £400,000 on advertising, including £125,000 on four Guggenheim broadcasts. Both sides sought to mobilize the worlds of sport, culture and the media. For the ‘Yes’ campaign, Sir Matt Busby lined up alongside Don Revie and Jock Stein, while the agony aunt Marjorie Proops joined forces with the boxer Henry Cooper. The star signing for the "No" Campaign was undoubtedly George Best, memorably described as ‘the Enoch Powell of British football’.

Both sides proved imaginative campaigners. The ‘Wales in Europe’ campaign produced bi-lingual literature, appealing to a Europe of nations. Major firms like British Leyland took out double-page advertisements in the newspapers; and the Yes campaign produced bumper stickers, clothing and merchandise to promote its message. Young women were issued with t-shirts labelled ‘Europe or Bust’, and even Mrs Thatcher – newly elected as leader of the Conservative Party – wore a woolly jumper combining the flags of the several member states. Nearly 9 million watched on their televisions as George Brown and Clive Jenkins drove around Brussels in a bus, debating the case for membership. A similar number tuned into the BBC to watch a two and a half hour debate in the Oxford Union.

Specific campaigns were devised for almost every conceivable electoral group, based on the extensive use of polling and market research. There were ‘Christians for Europe’, ‘Actors for Europe’ and ’Women Against the Common Market’. Employers were encouraged to write to their workers, setting out the consequences of withdrawal for jobs and investment. Churches offered services and special prayers, while supermarkets produced special leaflets for their customers. As the ‘Yes’ votes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland demonstrated, voters did not necessarily follow the recommendations of their political leaders – the Ulster Unionist parties, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and much of Scottish and Welsh Labour campaigned for withdrawal – but the cultural authority of the Church, the media and the arts were strongly mobilized behind the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Campaigners fought to establish not only the ‘facts’ of the referendum but the grounds on which it was to be contested. Had Britain joined a ‘Common Market’ or a ‘European Community’? Was membership to be judged on economic criteria or by the exercise of international influence? In a decade marked by Irish terrorism and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the EC raised important questions about the preservation of national identities. At a point when commentators were increasingly warning of a ‘crisis of government’, the referendum marked an experiment in alternative forms of democracy. And at a time of escalating inflation, when talk of economic collapse was widespread, it raised questions about the future of the economy and Britain’s capacity to pay its way in the world. Pro-European Conservatives backed the Community as a bulwark against Communism, and warned of a siege economy if Britain withdrew. Both the secret service and the CIA were alleged to have provided funding for the Yes campaign, and polling found that “military and defence links with Europe” were among the most positive associations of the Community.

The referendum was also an exercise in party management. Harold Wilson had taken up the referendum in order to prevent a breach in the Labour Party, fulfilling James Callaghan’s prediction, in 1970, that it would prove ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. In so doing, he established a precedent subsequently adopted by both Tony Blair and David Cameron, that referendums were to be used principally for subjects that threatened to explode party unity. Yet the referendum neither ended debate within the Labour party nor secured the ascendancy of the pro-Europeans. Within six years, most of the leading pro-Europeans had left the Labour Party, which committed itself to withdrawal in 1983 without a further poll. None of the leading figures in the ‘Yes’ campaign went on to play a front-rank role in government. Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen were becalmed in the SDP; Ted Heath drifted to the margins of Conservative politics; and Jeremy Thorpe’s career was destroyed by scandal.

With a further referendum in prospect, my book provides the first detailed analysis of this event in more than thirty years. It will be published in 2016, ahead of the next referendum. More information will be posted as it becomes available.

Saunders Images.pptx

MEI slides

IHR Europe slides

Slides from CER Research presentation, 2014




Univ History Society 2017.pptx