Britain and Europe (5):the 1975 Referendum

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In retrospect, the result of the 1975 referendum was never in doubt: 64.5% voted Yes. As such, the referendum and its campaign are often confined to something close to a footnote in our modern history. Yet, there a half-decent argument for saying it was more important than that: less so to the history of Britain and Europe, more so to the history of the Labour party.

The idea of a referendum on Europe came from the anti-marketeers. The real reason for that was obvious, given the majority there was in the House of Commons for the EEC. Wilson adopted the idea in opposition for two reasons. First, it was a stick to beat Heath with: Wilson could claim that Heath had not won the backing of the British people. More importantly, it offered Wilson a way round the divisions over Europe that threatened to tear his party apart. If the anti-marketeers (mostly on the left) liked it, the pro-EEC Jenkinsites were less happy with the idea. However, when it became clear that Wilson was looking to stay in and not get out, and as opinion polls pointed to a Yes vote, they accepted the idea.

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There was still the thorny issue of the divisions within cabinet. Wilson squared that circle by declaring that, when the renegotiations were complete, the government would recommend a Yes or No. Then, however, collective cabinet responsibility on this issue would be suspended for the duration of the campaign. Ministers (like those pictured: Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle) would be free to campaign for No.

The cabinet was split 16-7; the parliamentary party was split pretty much down the middle. The story of the Conservatives was very different: only 8 conservative MPs voted against the EEC in the Commons. All the party’s top brass, including the their recently elected leader Margaret Thatcher, were staunchly for a Yes vote.

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Wilson and Callaghan tried to place themselves above the fray, though both did make late interventions in support of Yes; the government’s pamphlet, Britain’s New Deal in Europe, was strongly for Yes too. Wilson had envisaged that his cabinet colleagues would be similarly sotto voce. He was very much mistaken in that.

The leading voice in the Britain in Europe group was Jenkins; Ted Heath led the Yes campaign for the Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher played an active role too, showing an effectiveness as a campaigner that was a herald of things to come. The moderate centre of British politics was on the Yes side. Yes also had the support of the CBI, almost all of the press and raised over a million in funds. It had a professional campaign.

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All of which was in contrast to the No campaign. For Labour, the leading No campaigner was Tony Benn; Peter Shore was another heavyweight. The unions were overwhelmingly opposed to the EEC. Benn, especially, was an attractive but problematic figure, increasingly radical and left wing, a perception not helped by sharing No platforms with the tiny Communist party.

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However, the real problem came on the right. Without the support of any Conservative of any note (unless one counts the National Farmers Union leader, Sir Henry Plumb), the right-wing anti-marketeers came from the wilder shores of the British right. The most important was Enoch Powell, but Powell was no longer a Conservative. In 1974 he had called on voters to support Labour over the European issue; by 1975, he had become an Ulster Unionist.

In truth, the fact that the likes of Benn and Powell, let alone the likes of the Communists or the far right National Front being on the same side (if not on the same podiums), does more than enough to explain the fundamental problem the No campaign had. It came from diametrically opposed extremes. Meetings saw National Front members having to be ejected. Powell’s Official Ulster Unionists were one thing; Ian Paisley opposed the EEC on the grounds that it was a Roman Catholic conspiracy. The No campaign was also pretty chaotic: in contrast to the Yes campaign’s £1.3m, No raised just over £6,000.

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For Wilson, it was something of a triumph. He hoped he had settled the arguments over Europe that had bedevilled British life, and his party. He was wrong on both counts. The next great divide over Europe did not come until towards the end of Mrs Thatcher’s years in office. The divisions in the Labour party never really healed. In 1980, Michael Foot became Labour leader. Foot, a veteran left-wing anti-marketeer, had a withdrawal from the EEC (without a referendum) in a famously left-wing manifesto.

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More dangerously for Labour, it was the political bitterness that did not heal. In their famous referendum debate, Roy Jenkins in effect called into doubt Tony Benn’s honesty and competence: they were members of the same cabinet. By 1981, they were in different parties. For the Bennite left, the 1975 referendum was just one of a long list of betrayals by Labour’s right wing. The lurch to the left they led in the early ‘eighties left Labour unelectable: they would not win power again until Blair won in 1997.

There was a bitter legacy on the right too, but its harvest would have to wait. For now, Britain was in Europe, and the Conservatives were in power for what looked like perpetuity. Not the result Wilson had really wanted.

There is a brilliant Michael Cockerell documentary of the 1975 referendum.

Here is an edited version:

And here is a great clip of Enoch Powell, on results night, refusing to give up the struggle (or, less kindly, refusing to acknowledge reality).

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