Referenda, 1975 and 2016

I’ve been looking back at the 1975 referendum on British membership of what was then called the ‘Common Market’. (This is for those who weren’t around then.) The circumstances of its being held at all are interesting. The main motive behind it was domestic politics: to staunch the wound that adhesion to the Common Market had opened up in Harold Wilson’s Labour Party – Britain had joined at the beginning of 1973 – in particular in view of the pledge that Edward Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister who had negotiated the treaty, had made at the time, that Britain would only join ‘with the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people’. That had been taken to imply – quite reasonably – that the ‘people’ would be given a chance to vote on it quite separately from the House of Commons.

So, in order to fulfil that pledge, albeit tardily, the referendum was held in June, after a pretence at ‘renegotiation’ by Wilson. The pro-Europe camp won it by roughly two to one. This laid the matter to rest, for a while at least. Thereafter Euroscepticism continued to rumble, but only beneath the surface, and on the far Left and far Right of the political spectrum, each of course for entirely different reasons: the Left because the Common Market seemed too ‘market’-driven; the Right because it meant betraying their beloved Empire, and probably also because they disliked foreigners.

There are similarities there with the present situation; but it may be worthwhile also listing some of the contrasts. The first, of course, is that the ‘Common Market’ then was a very different creature from today’s EU: much smaller, and with lesser powers, mainly confined to trade. That makes a vast difference. Just think of – or look back on – a European Community without Poland. And of course in 1975 the Common Market had not yet made the dreadful cock-ups that came with the Euro in particular (poor Greece!), and with the unexpected scale of internal migration that followed its enlargement. It had very little ‘history’ to judge it on.

A second difference is that most of the Euroscepticism expressed then came from the political Left. (Tony Benn was a leading spokesperson.) That situation is more or less reversed today.

A third is that in 1975 there still lingered some of the idealistic feeling that had fuelled the European movement from its beginnings at the end of the Second World War, and which can be seen in many pro-Common Market speeches at the time. How much of this real optimism  survives on the ‘Remain’ side today? Maybe amongst a few young people. But ‘Remain’s’ most powerful arguments centre around the dangers – mainly economic, but also relating to ‘security’ – that ‘Brexit’ is supposed to threaten us with: the ‘politics of fear’. There’s very little positive there, no promise of anything getting better, only of its not getting worse. But then, we are living in more pessimistic times.

In 1975 the Common Market could also be presented as a ‘progressive’ cause: firstly because it seemed to be an expression of ‘internationalism’ – and who on the Left could object to that? – and secondly because the alternative to it, and a main source of resistance to it, was presented as loyalty to an ‘Empire-Commonwealth’ which was widely regarded as out-dated, and which the large anti-imperialist minority in Britain had come to see as a historical mistake. The situation was complicated by Heath’s  obvious non-imperialism; but still Conservative Eurosceptics were  commonly painted as old Blimpish ex-colonial fuddy-duddies, still smarting over the loss of Britain’s Great Power status, and therefore definitely not to be snuggled up to by radical moderns. (In fact this may have been unfair even to the old ‘imperialists’: see below: Some of those reactionaries still survive on the ‘Brexit’ side – Nigel, obviously – with very likely the same counter-productive effect on their cause. Many Brexiters acknowledge this, which is why Farage hasn’t been allowed to represent the anti-EU side officially.

Which brings us to our last difference. In 1975 there were alternative groupings of nations – alternative that is to the Continental European one – that Britain could have joined. Everyone then accepted (rightly or wrongly) that in an age of ‘superpowers’, only large confederations could hope to compete or even exist beside them. This had been one of the strongest arguments in favour of the old British Empire, too. So ‘Go It Alone’, as it was called then (or ‘GITA’), was not an option. The most suitable remaining choices for Britain were, firstly, the old Commonwealth, shorn of its ‘imperialist’ baggage – which would be difficult, but that’s the way the self-governing dominions wanted her to go: Australia felt ‘betrayed’ by her adhesion to Europe; and secondly, the European Free Trade Association, or ‘EFTA’: a kind of salon des refusés made up of the marginal states of Europe, which were believed to be important enough (they included Scandinavia) to compete with the Common Market, without the latter’s irksome bureaucracy. We don’t have that option today; unless EFTA could somehow be resurrected. (After ‘Swexit’, for example: see below, Norway’s already there.) Which leaves us, in 2016, only with GITA, which was thought to be out of the question in 1975.

It’s undoubtedly a big decision we have to take on June 23 – forty-one years almost to the day since that first referendum – but it is not an easy one, or one that can be made enthusiastically. If you are passionately either pro or anti, you probably haven’t thought sufficiently about it. A while ago I commended Jeremy Corbyn for his lack of zeal on this issue, which struck me as reasonable. (Below, Personally, I still intend voting ‘Remain’, but it will stick in my craw, especially if TTIP is still on the menu. And I could change my mind.

In fact, five minutes ago a public opinion pollster phoned me to ask which way I was voting. (This has never happened to me before!) I told her I was an ‘undecided’ – almost for the first time in my life. I’m usually more decisive. Well, we’ll see.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to Referenda, 1975 and 2016

  1. Tony Judge says:

    But old lefties like Jeremy (and maybe you, Bernard) know in their hearts that the EU has become a capitalist project that can ruthlessly mobilise to defeat any challenge to corporate finance, witness the effective defeat of Syriza, and provides a vast bureaucratic and parliamentary gravy train to ensure opposition to ‘business interests’ are always muted and ‘market friendly’ policies prevail.


    • Yup. But we old lefties have allies there; and I can’t see the alternative – out of the European frying pan into the Globalisation fire – being much more hopeful, especially with Scotland hiving off, a perpetual neo-liberal Conservative majority in England, and Boris in charge. A case of the lesser evil.


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