A tale of two referendums: 41 years apart

A mere two years after having been taken into the European Economic Community (EEC) by Ted Heath’s Government, there were already people clamouring to leave. As outlined in my last blog, the British people were not consulted on whether or not they wanted to enter the EEC. They got their chance, however, to vote on whether or not they wanted to stay in on 2 June 1975.

Party divisions
The reason a vote was held so soon after the UK’s accession was that one of the main political parties was deeply divided over the issue. Care to guess who? In what is arguably one of the most noteworthy exchanging of places on an issue in the history of British politics, it was actually the Labour Party! (Of course, fast forward 41 years and it is the Conservative Party that is riddled with division over the UK’s place in the EU – latest ‘declarations’ from Tory MPs show a 55%-45% split in favour of remain; Labour MPs in 2016 have an almost unanimous 97%-3% view that the UK should remain.) Much of the Labour MPs back in 1975 were in favour of staying in, however it was the majority of the rank-and-file membership that were against it. At the 1975 Labour Conference, a mere two months before polling day, a motion rejecting continued membership of the EEC passed with a majority of almost 2:1.

Sound familiar?
In one of the many parallels that the 1975 referendum has with 2016, the referendum was a major manifesto commitment ahead of a general election. The Labour Party promised ahead of the October 1974 General Election (the second of two that year) a renegotiation of the UK’s membership, which would then be followed by a referendum of the British electorate. The whole idea of holding a referendum on the issue was first mooted by the prominent anti-EEC campaigner, the late Tony Benn (whose son, Hilary, is actually campaigning to stay in, this time). His idea was first snubbed, but the party changed its mind and used it as a key cornerstone of their election strategy. We should remember, of course, that the idea of holding a referendum on the EU this time was only adopted by the Conservative Party in 2013 to counter the rise of UKIP, after being rejected out-of-hand before that.

The campaign: a government (slightly) divided and the role of business
As with 2016, the Government – led by Harold Wilson – took its position that the UK was better off staying in the EEC, but also decided that it would allow members of the government to campaign for whichever side they wanted. A number of senior Cabinet ministers did campaign to leave, including Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. However, Wilson did have the majority of MPs in his party agree with him. Reports of the campaign being conducted back then don’t give the impression of the sort of open hostility we are seeing in today’s campaigning; no reported blue-on-blue inter-party disagreements publicly (or as it would have been, red-on-red – although I wonder how that phraseology would have gone down back then, given the USSR was still in existence and, therefore, the Cold War was still going on!)

One difference that is apparent between the campaigns in 1975 and the one today is that business AND media were, on the whole, largely in favour of staying in. In 2016, however, a number of businesses and sections of the press are playing a prominent role in the campaign to leave. Back in 1975, businesses were certainly emphatically in favour; one poll of 653 chief executives found 95% wanted to stay in, and over 350 businesses made donations to the ‘Yes’ campaign of £100 or more (roughly £940 in today’s money). Indeed, two large businesses made donations worth treble the entire donations made to the ‘No’ campaign. Not only did business provide the money to the campaign, they also exerted influence over their stakeholders in a way that businesses aren’t, at least publicly, being seen to be doing this time around. This influence wasn’t just to their workforces, however, it extended to customers, shareholders and even the families of their employees.

What were the issues at stake?
According to this government pamphlet, the most important issues (particularly during the renegotiations of the year before) were “FOOD”, “MONEY” and “JOBS”. Perhaps most interestingly, the issue of immigration did not feature at all; quite the opposite, in fact! One of Tony Benn’s biggest fears about the UK remaining in the EEC was actually emigration – he said:

“…increasing emigration of our workers and their families to the Continent in search of jobs will be the painful consequence for this country of our continued membership of the European Economic Community.”
How times have changed, eh?

So what happened?
After all the campaigning, the final result of the 1975 Referendum was a very convincing victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign – by 67% to 33%. The turnout was 65% - relatively low when compared with general elections around that time. The count was divided into 68 separate voting areas declare results – of which only two, Shetland and the Western Isles (both in Scotland), voted against staying in.

If polls at the moment are to be believed, the result of this year’s referendum will be a lot, lot closer…

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