2019-09-08 01:14:00

A UK political party deeply split on , with a leader pledging to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in it if his party wins the next election. Sound familiar? This was Labour 41 years ago, and the situation leading up to Britain’s referendum on EEC membership in June 1975.

“We do not pretend, and never have pretended, that we got everything we wanted in these negotiations,” said prime minster Harold Wilson, on a pamphlet outlining the government’s case for staying within the European Community, which the UK joined under the Conservatives and Edward Health in 1973. “But we did get big and significant improvements on the previous terms.”

According to Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the opposition, Labour was “passing the buck to the people” by holding a referendum on Britain’s place within the common market.

The question asked in the referendum was: do you think the United Kingdom should say in the European Community (the Common Market)? The vote resulted in a substantial victory for the yes campaign, with 67% backing staying in the common market.

The BBC’s coverage of the 1975 EEC referendum results

. We wanted to hear what they were up to at the time, and whether they’ve changed their mind since.

We discovered that they were busy heckling Shirley Williams, a cabinet minister, or driving a wooden dragon around Luton.

Below are a selection of our favourite stories.

‘As Shirley Williams spoke, I yelled: “You don’t represent the Labour party”’

Christopher Newcombe, Leicestershire

Then: No
Now: Leave

I campaigned actively for a no vote. One evening, we leafleted outside a big yes rally at Leicester’s DeMontfort Hall. During the rally, the no supporters heckled – non-disruptively and without problems from security people, as was normal in the days before highly stage-managed meetings.

As Shirley Williams spoke, claiming to stand for Labour supporters, I yelled: “You don’t represent the Labour party!” She responded calmly: “Well, we’ll see how Labour voters feel when the results come in.” Next day, my head teacher, who it turned out had been at the rally too, congratulated me on my intervention. Heckling was seen as a legitimate part of vibrant public debate.

Ted Heath also spoke. At one point, he asked rhetorically: “So why am I convinced Britain’s place is inside the common market?” A friend of mine shouted from the gallery: “Because you don’t read the Morning Star?” Ted shot back: “I do read the Morning Star – and I find its arguments the least convincing of all!” The audience applauded wildly, even though most of them probably hadn’t a clue what the Morning Star was [the Daily Worker, renamed in 1966].

Edward Heath, as prime minister, is entertained in Rome by his Italian counterpart, Giulio Andreotti. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

I hope that will catalyse the break-up of the EU. The task of finding a peaceful, economically sound and internationalist alternative to blocs like the EU is a daunting one. But I really believe that EU structures are an impediment, not an aid, to such an outcome, and that they are unreformable.

‘Today my thinking on how to vote is not influenced by potential conflicts’

John Parsons, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire

Then: Yes
Now: Remain

I remember very clearly voting as it was not long after my 18th birthday. I think I had made my mind up on how to vote before any campaigning began. I had grown up on a diet of comics about how brilliantly we won the second world war but felt very strongly the EEC could be a way of ensuring that European countries never went to war with each other again.

I don’t remember this being an issue during the campaign but was the prime reason I voted yes, and it was with some considerable pride that I used my first vote to add to the yes vote.

Today, my thinking on how to vote is not influenced by potential conflicts as it was in the first referendum and this possibly shows that for me the EEC/EU has been successful.

There are obvious problems with the EU – I worry about the lack of democracy for instance – but being a member of this large group we can tackle any challenges presented to us much more effectively.

Labour politicians Tony Benn (left) and Roy Jenkins (right) debate the EEC with presenter David Dimbleby on a BBC Panorama referendum special. Photograph: Chris Djukanovic/Getty
David Ross in 1975.
David Ross in 1975.

‘I can no longer think of “Europe” as some threatening place’

David Ross, Cornwall

Then: No
Now: Remain

I was just 19 at the time yet had already voted in two general elections. If I had such a thing as a political hero it was Michael Foot, who was in favour of a no vote. I was also influenced by Scottish secretary Willie Ross, another in the no camp.

As a student, I also recall laughing at the various Trotskyist groups whose slogan was something like “No to the Common Market, yes to a united socialist states of Europe” – which convinced some of their followers to vote yes, when they actually advocated a no vote.

My abiding memory though is of a “Common Market NO” sticker, which I couldn’t remove from a shaving bowl and which remained there for several years before dying of old age. It was a constant reminder every time I stared into the shaving mirror, which is probably why I usually sported a beard.

This time I shall vote to remain. I have recently spent six years living and working in Spain and I can no longer think of “Europe” as some threatening place, determined to destroy the British way to socialism.

‘We had a wooden dragon that fitted on to a car roof rack’

Rosemary Johnson, Bedfordshire

Then: No
Now: Leave

I was living in Luton and was involved with the campaign to leave which involved Communists, the local Labour MP and some far-right people. In the Communist party we had a wooden dragon that fitted on to a car roof rack and a loudspeaker system with a tape recording detailing the ills of the treaty of Rome and urging people to vote no. In fact it began say “No to the treaty of Rome which will reduce our country to the state of Lomé” [the capital of Togo, mispronounced as Lome]. Only later we learned it should be pronounced Lomay.

Barbara Castle and helpers display goods bought in London and Brussels with the intention of showing that Britain should leave the common market. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

‘I campaigned against what I saw as a growing capitalist bloc’

Colin Lowe, Leeds

Then: No
Now: Leave

As an active Labour party member, I campaigned against what I saw as a growing capitalist bloc. Barbara Castle was one of my idols and I remember going to hear her speak on why we should be out of the Common Market. She fired me up for years to come.

What she and Tony Benn said all came true, only on a bigger scale. Now we will have TTIP (the transatlantic trade and investment partnership) to battle with, and the loss of our NHS as we know it, and we will have to contend with American capitalism let loose on us.

‘The prospect of a lasting peace was worth the risk of diminished sovereignty’

Graham Matthews, South Yorkshire

Then: Yes
Now: Remain

My recollection is that, although supporters of staying in strongly promoted the “this is just a trading community” argument, most of us realised that it could, and probably would, widen in scope. My own view, as a child of the postwar baby bulge generation, who had four uncles and an aunt in uniform in the second world war and who could remember the bomb damage still visible in London, was that the prospect of a lasting peace was worth the risk of diminished sovereignty.

‘At that point Enoch Powell hadn’t quite achieved the retrospective notoriety which he has now.’ Photograph: John Mitchell/Getty

‘At about nine, we gave up and went for a pint at Brandhall Labour Club’

David Hallam, West Midlands

Then: No
Now: Remain

I was at the AGM of the Christian Socialist movement in Kingsway Hall on Friday 17 March 1972 when our guest speaker Tony Benn first argued for a referendum on membership of the Common Market. He announced that he would make the proposal at the next meeting of the national executive committee of the Labour party the following week. It was gratifying to get publicity for an event which normally passed unremarked.

We were all a bit stunned with the suggestion. Several people pointed out from the floor that the only provision for referenda in the British constitution were in Wales, where each local authority area had to decide whether it was “wet” or “dry” on a Sunday. It was about pub opening, not the weather. Benn got his way and the vote was scheduled for June 1975.

I was resolutely for no. I firmly believed that the Common Market was a club for the rich and a conspiracy against working people.

My no became less certain as I saw some of my fellow travellers. There was a huge controversy as to whether the National Front should be allowed to be part of the official campaign. At that point, Enoch Powell hadn’t quite achieved the retrospective notoriety which he has now, but many on the left were uncomfortable that the “rivers of blood” man was sitting on the same platform as the revered Michael Foot.

I put out leaflets around Smethwick a few days before the poll and spent the early evening on polling day on the loudspeaker urging the no vote to make their voices heard. At about nine, we gave up and went for a pint at Brandhall Labour Club.

It would be such a fundamental mistake to leave the EU now. There are problems but we need to express our solidarity and work through them together. If we leave, I am certain than in a few very short years we will be asking to return. Perhaps a Europe that we left when the going gets tough may not be so keen to welcome us back when better times return.