On 20 May 1975, midway through the UK’s last referendum on , the Daily Mail published an article about how life would be if voters chose to leave the EEC. “No Coffee, Wine, Beans Or Bananas, Until Further Notice” read the headline. The country would become “Siege Britain”.
Forty-one years ago most of the press, many voters and many Westminster politicians talked and thought about the EEC in ways that are startling now.
The 1975 vote, the anniversary of which falls on Sunday, was the first national referendum in British history. It was called by the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Like David Cameron, he was a recently re-elected premier who was nevertheless distrusted by many in his party, and whose authority was ebbing. Like the Conservatives now, Labour were acrimoniously divided over Europe. And like Cameron, Wilson calculated that a referendum, held soon after a successful-looking renegotiation of the country’s membership, would calm the whole issue down.
In other ways the 1975 campaign was fundamentally different. The UK had only been in the EEC for two years. After more than a decade of trying, Wilson’s predecessor, the Conservative Edward Heath had finally secured membership. Most Tory MPs and activists were pro-European. They believed that being part of the EEC, or the Common Market as it was widely known, would toughen up the UK’s increasingly flabby postwar economy by opening it up to foreign competition. In Heath’s words, it would give the country “something to get us going again”.
Many on the left regarded the EEC as too aggressively pro-business. Tony Benn, then Labour’s industry minister and the referendum’s leading anti-EEC campaigner, said that if the UK voted to stay in we would “be governed by a European coalition government that we cannot change, dedicated to a capitalist or market economy theology.”
Fittingly, the pro-EEC side, Britain In Europe (BIE), set up a large headquarters in Mayfair in plushest central London. It was supported by most big British companies, every major party except Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and every national paper except the communist Morning Star. A campaign logo was commissioned that combined patriotism, pan-European high-mindedness and heavy-handed, 70s-style corporate branding - a Union Jack superimposed on the outline of a dove.
Meanwhile tThe anti-EEC alliance, less slickly named the National Referendum Campaign (NRC), based itself in a cheaper part of central London, “two smallish rooms on a fourth floor off the Strand”, recorded David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger in their book, The 1975 Referendum . The NRC was supported by most but not all of the trade unions, a third of the cabinet, half a dozen Conservative MPs, and the maverick former Tory and nationalist Enoch Powell. BIE outspent NRC by more than 10 to one.
The anti-EEC campaigners often felt like beleaguered rebels. “I found myself driven to consort with Communists, International Socialists … and Maoists,” wrote one more conservative activist in sedate Twickenham in west London. “Only a most passionate love of this country gave me the stomach to do so.”
The pro-European press attacked Benn relentlessly as a dangerous extremist, and Britain’s EEC membership was presented as a crucial defence against his schemes to steer the Wilson government in a more socialist direction. At other times, the anti-EEC coalition was met with indifference. In Doncaster in south Yorkshire, activists handed out 200 invitations to a public meeting, but no one turned up.
Opinion polls suggested that Britain in Europe would win comfortably throughout the seven-week campaign. Some volunteers took part in a state of “civic euphoria”, write Butler and Kitzinger, flyposting illegally and excitedly collaborating with activists from rival parties. In the smart Cotswold market town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, a horsebox was turned into a pro-EEC propaganda centre. A beaming, unusually talkative Heath led the Conservative strand of the campaign with an ease he had rarely shown as prime minister.
There was also an air of unreality about the referendum. Heath was no longer Tory leader. Margaret Thatcher had deposed him three months earlier, but played little part in the campaign, something journalists increasingly noted. She was struggling to establish herself as leader, and “did not pretend to any great expertise in the subject [of Europe]”, writes her official biographer, Charles Moore.
The referendum also took place during a period of broader political turbulence in the UK. There had been two general elections in 1974, both of them close, which had exhausted the appetites of many voters. During the referendum campaign the rate of inflation surged, seemingly uncontrollably, briefly reaching a frightening annualised figure of 50%. Throughout 1975 there was press and parliamentary talk of national crisis and emergency political solutions, encompassing everything from military coups to all-party governments.
The referendum sometimes seemed a diversion. The anti-EEC campaigner and Labour minister Barbara Castle went shopping in Brussels to try to show that continued membership would mean higher prices. Incongruous celebrities were deployed. The anti-EEC campaign had Paul McCartney, Britain in Europe the actor Kenneth Williams and the former Leeds United hardman Don Revie.
Meanwhile much of Whitehall idled: “The government had virtually ceased to exist,” wrote Ronald McIntosh, the head of the National Economic Development Council, in his diary on 2 June 1975. “For the last two weeks there had been no collective decisions or discussions about anything.”
The arguments deployed in both sides’ newspaper ads and broadcasts, pamphlets and city centre rallies were mostly unsensational ones about jobs and prices. Immigration was hardly mentioned. In 1970s Britain, the population was stagnant or falling rather than rapidly expanding. The anti-immigrant National Front, despite being at a historic peak, was generally kept out of the anti-EEC campaign.
Confrontations between the two sides were rare. In Surrey, a pro-EEC activist had his car scrawled with lipstick. In Hertfordshire, a shop borrowed by pro-EEC volunteers had its keyholes blocked up. Public encounters between the campaigns’ big players occasionally suggested differences that went beyond Europe. On Panorama, the Europhile home secretary Roy Jenkins faced his cabinet colleague Tony Benn across a table, their eyes not meeting, as they talked over each other with undisguised contempt. Six years later, Jenkins would help set up the Social Democrats, largely to defeat Benn’s vision of Labour.
Come polling day, Britons voted in unspectacular numbers. At 65%, the turnout was significantly lower than in any early 70s general election. The opinion polls, which had dramatically misread several of those elections, turned out to be accurate. Britain In Europe won by 67% to 33%.
There were some striking regional results. In the Western Isles, only 29% voted for EEC membership and in Shetland only 44%. In both places, the EEC was sometimes seen as a southern imposition. In Shetland there were also fears it might meddle with North Sea oil. Scotland and Ulster as a whole were far less keen on membership than England, and southern and eastern England in particular. In Surrey, 76% voted yes. In Lincolnshire, today a Ukip stronghold, the figure was 75%. London, poorer and less confidently multicultural than now, was less supportive of the EEC than the Home Counties.
Yet the national margin felt definitive. “The Common Market issue is settled,” wrote the respected David Watt in the Financial Times. The Daily Mail was even more sure: “This is the most crushing victory in British political history. The effects of this thunderous YES will echo down the years.”