The second campaign – the renegotiation referendum of 1975

In February 1974, the new Labour Government was still faced with hostile public opinion on the EU and was itself split on the issue. Towards the end of February, NOP polls establish, for the first time, that there was a public appetite for renegotiation. (This is fifteen months before the referendum actually happens and almost a year before is finally announced).  Two months later the Government asks its EU partners to renegotiate the terms of entry. By August, Gallup has repeated the NOP result with a majority for staying in – if renegotiated.

A second General election in October returned the Labour Government. Negotiations opened in Paris. Towards the end of 1974 the referendum was an open secret though no firm commitment had been made. The campaign experience and alliances of three years earlier are dusted off to the advantage of the YES side. In January, both sides set up campaigns while Gallup show 71% will vote to stay-in if renegotiation successful. In early March, the perfectly timed negotiations are completed in Dublin and the vote to hold a referendum is carried in the Commons.

For the next three months until the referendum, polls always produce thumping majorities for staying-in on the renegotiated terms. Take note – public opinion did not move in favour of staying-in during the campaign. In fact the YES side lost a few points from 71% (January) down to 67% (June vote) giving rise to the idea among the YES side that they had ‘lost’ the campaign.

This decline in support occurred despite YES spending ten times more than NO, having the most trusted politicians and a massive, general superiority in assets and organization. One example being – it recruited and trained 800 speakers who spoke at 10,000 meetings.

The key to the result was the token renegotiation combined with the failure and unwillingness of the media including the BBC to expose the tokenism or the material fact that there could be no substantial renegotiation ‘without amending the treaty of Rome’.

Public opinion was repositioned by the renegotiation idea nine months before the referendum then solidified by the token negotiations and voters’ own sense of vulnerability caught in Chris Soames’s remark “this is no time to be leaving a Xmas Club let alone the Common Market”.

The proper title of the EU at the time was the European Community (EC) but it was widely known in the UK as the Common market. Both names appeared in the referendum question. – Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (The Common Market)?

Many voters thought they were voting to stay-in a common market which must be a source of much later misunderstanding. And how would the Electoral Commission, had it existed, judged the Question?

Twenty years after the referendum some of the elite participants on both sides met for a retrospective discussion about it. Here is the transcript and it is well worth reading. And this book The 1975 Referendum : by Butler & Kitzinger is the outstanding account of the referendum.

1975 polls