Britain and Europe (4) – The 1975 Referendum, part one: How it Even Happened


If I have some memories of Britain entering the EEC, I have very strong memories of the 1975 referendum. Arguably, the reason we are having an EU referendum now has far more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative party than the issue itself (something I will go on to argue anon). Certainly, the reasons for the 1975 referendum had almost everything to do with the internal politics of Labour.

In short, Labour were split three ways over Europe. There was a strongly pro-EEC minority, most associated with Roy Jenkins. In the other camp, were those for whom entry to the EEC was anathema. Then, there were those who were either undecided, ambivalent or for whom it was primarily a matter of political manoeuvre (probably, one of those was Harold Wilson).

Several strands of Labour politics did not sit easy with the EEC. One was the romantic patriotism of men like Clement Attlee, whose favourite historian was the robustly English Sir Arthur Bryant. When Hugh Gaitskell announced Labour’s opposition to Macmillan’s EEC application in 1957, he did so on those terms: it was ‘the end of Britain as an independent nation‘ and ‘the end of a thousand years of history.’ If any one Labour leader in the No camp in 1975 personified this strand it was probably Peter Shore.


For Bevin, the heart of his resistance to pan-European institutions was instinctive, as best summed up in his reaction to the proposals to create a European parliament and a Council of Europe:

I don’t like it. I don’t like it. When you open that Pandora’s box you’ll find it full of Trojan horses.

That gut feeling was allied to Bevin’s Labour tribalism. No less famously, the Schuman Plan that created the European Coal and Steel Community was rejected in part because the Durham miners would never put up with it.


Perhaps the true heir of Bevin’s tribalism was James Callaghan. As foreign secretary in 1974 he attacked the EEC’s council of ministers. When he was reminded he was one of them, his retort was that he didn’t feel like one of them. I the end, famously, for Callaghan it was like getting up on a Monday morning: something you didn’t want to do, but just had to.


For Gaitskell, opposition to EEC entry was in part owed to his continued romantic attachment to the Commonwealth: he made his mind up to oppose entry after meeting Commonwealth leaders. If Wilson was ambivalent, one root of that ambivalence was his desire to preserve and revive the Commonwealth. Wilson’s first foreign secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker was a Commonwealth man for whom the EEC was merely a ‘neighbour’. By 1975, the Commonwealth mattered less, but old attachments to the Commonwealth were usually accompanied by a faith in another pillar of British foreign policy: Atlanticism.

Bevin’s idea of Britain being a third force quickly gave way to a robust pro-Americanism as the Cold War got underway. Certainly, Bevin played a key role in the creation of NATO, and its Atlanticism was characteristic of Bevin’s politics and what was to become mainstream Labour foreign policy thereafter. Ironically, it was consistent US policy to favour British engagement in the Council of Europe, the ECSC and the EEC, but the more fervent Atlanticists were certainly more prone to unease about the EEC at the very least. A leading right-winger in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, Douglas Jay, opposed the EEC because of what he saw as its anti-Americanism. Gordon-Walker’s successor at the foreign office in Wilson’s first government, Michael Stewart, was so pro-American that he contemplated Britain joining the war in Vietnam; upon taking office, he had no attachment in any form to the idea of joining the EEC at all. Once more, Jim Callaghan’s unease about the EEC owed much to his robustly pro-American approach to foreign policy.

It is also ironic that there was a perception that the EEC was anti-American. Whilst Charles de Gaulle ruled France, indeed, that was precisely what he wanted the community to be. Indeed, Anthony Wedgwood Benn’s support for the EEC at this time was of a piece with his anti-Americanism. The ‘fifties and ‘sixties saw the development of a new kind of left-wing politics, often borne out of opposition to nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. Those left-wingers were also increasingly rabid anti-Americans. By the 1970s, for those from that part of the left, Western Europe was part of that American club, and the EEC and NATO were the chief western European institutions. On the principle of Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad, the EEC was the part of that western imperialist conspiracy. If anyone opponent of EEC entry personified that view, it was Tony Benn (as the aforementioned Anthony Wedgwood Been had since styled himself), now well along his journey from modernising technocrat to romanticist neo-Trotskyite prophet: similarly, the once pro-European Benn was, by 1975, Labour’s leading anti-marketeer.


Numerically, the most important strand of opposition to the EEC in the Labour movement came from the Unions, based upon the belief that the community was a ‘capitalist’ club’. If any one figure personified that tradition (and the trade unions in the 1970s, come to that) it was the leader of Ernie Bevin’s old union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Jack Jones.


At the same time, the was a small, but passionate and influential, group within the party’s centre-right who were passionately committed to the idea of the EEC, and to Britain’s membership. The most important of those was the leader of the YES campaign in 1975, Roy Jenkins. Jenkins was not alone though.

George Brown’s reputation, insofar as he still has one, now seems to revolve around his drinking. Brown was a notorious drunkard, and most likely an alcoholic, about whom there are a legion of stories: some very funny, some very embarrassing, some very sad, some all three. It was in describing Brown’s drunkenness that Private Eye coined the euphemism ‘tired and emotional’.


He was, however, a rather more substantial figure than that simplistic view allows. He was one of the key figures in the Wilson government (though not as one of Wilson’s inner circle). His 1967 speech to the Western European Union probably stands still as the best reasoned case for British entry. He was also pivotal in persuading Michael Stewart of the virtues of EEC membership.

There is a good argument for saying that Wilson’s decision to apply for EEC membership in 1967 was pretty half-hearted. There is certainly an argument to be had that when he came out against the EEC when in opposition it was Wilson at his most unprincipled and opportunistic (which is saying something). To be fair to Wilson, something neither contemporaries or history were always inclined to be, his opportunism was at least in part a consequence of the bitter divisions within his own party over the issue, as well as the fact that an overwhelming majority of the wider Labour movement were very much against it.

His public opposition to Heath’s terms left him with a very real political problem though. The party’s policy, to seek a ‘fundamental renegotiation’ of those terms, was, in truth, little more than a device to hold the party together over the issue.

There was no legal provision for a renegotiation of Britain’s terms, and upon winning power again in 1974, Wilson could only get a renegotiation of any kind if the other members felt so inclined. In that regard, Wilson got lucky. The new French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the new German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, were prepared to play along.


The whole process of renegotiation was a political shadow play. Wilson had to be seen to be tough, and to be getting something: in part because he had to placate his own sceptical party, and it part to try and make the process look convincing. It was probably for that reason that he put his foreign secretary, Jim Callaghan, in charge of the negotiations: as outlined above, Callaghan’s scepticism about Europe was well known. Wilson also created a classic British Europe scare story (along straight banana lines), when he fought off non-existent EEC proposals for a Euro-loaf and Euro-beer. Callaghan demanded that Britain should have the right to restrict movements of capital, exempt some goods from VAT and keep the right to regional planning. Unsurprisingly, he got these: unsurprisingly, because Britain already had those powers. Callaghan also claimed to have secured Britain’s right not to be forced to enter the EEC’s system of fixed currencies, the European Monetary Union. The EEC had never had that power, and France had recently pulled out of the EMU.

One of Britain’s key demands got nowhere. Both the British and Germans wanted to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. The problem was that the CAP greatly benefited French farmers: Giscard d’Estaing would never accept change (and the inter-governmental nature of the EEC meant the French veto was fatal on the issue).There were some changes in Britain’s relations with the EEC. Trade arrangements with the Commonwealth were changed, but that was as a consequence of the Lomé Convention. At the EEC summit in Dublin, two issues remained: Britain’s right to import New Zealand butter, and a rebate on British contributions to the community’s budget. On both, Wilson won concessions. They would always have the support of pro-marketeers like Roy Jenkins (left) and the opposition of anti-marketeers like Barbara Castle (right). Harold Wilson had been, in both senses, in between. Now he had made his mind up.


Wilson had got his deal, even if it didn’t add up to an awful lot. He was now set to put to a referendum. The issue was, could he make sure he won, and could he do so without tearing his party to pieces. He did: how, next time.

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