Stay or Leave? The 1975 EU referendum

Britain joined the EU on January the 1st,1973. The referendum, not to join but to stay-in after a successful renegotiation of the terms of entry, was held 30 months later on June the 5th, 1975 . The result, a 67% YES vote in support of the renegotiated treaty, was decisive. But ‘renegotiation’ was a charade – no more than a token trip round six European capitals by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

The question is – can that tokenism be repeated? It is important to understand what actually happened before coming to a view.

Public and parliamentary opinion was generally hostile to the European idea from 1970 onwards so two campaigns were needed to bring opinion round – the second was the referendum campaign.

The first, a largely covert Government campaign, ran for nearly two years up to the Commons vote ‘in principle’ of entry on October 28th 1971. The campaign was successful but as soon as it ended, public opinion drifted back against joining whilst in Parliament the EC Bill was passed with majorities in low single figures throughout 1972. The adverse opinion ultimately created the political climate for adoption of the referendum and the device of renegotiation in 1974 and 1975.

Most academics consider the 1975 referendum as the first modern referendum largely because it was first UK wide use. I do not share this view considering it almost the last of the old school referendums that started in 1910 and ended with the devolution referendums of 1979. With politics and society now much less deferential than 1975, with voters less wedded to party and better educated and informed by far more plural media, we can be close to certain that 1975 cannot be exactly repeated.

The economic context also played its part in the result. Britain in the early ’70s was known as the ‘sick man of Europe‘ considered at times ungovernable and its factories unmanageable.

The first campaign – supports 1971 Commons vote to join

Faced with adverse opinion in parliament and amongst voters the Government decided that a campaign was necessary to prepare public opinion for entry and through the public to bring pressure to bear on MPs. The campaign lasted nearly two years was timed to peak just as the Commons voted ‘in principle’ to join at the […]

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 […]

Token EU negotiations risk an indecisive Yes even a weak No

The FT published my letter on 17 January 2013 recommending the Government and the EU aim for material negotiations not the tokenism of 1975. The point being that even if substantive negotiations result in little change, they have more chance of being accepted in a referendum as a genuine effort and the end of the […]

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