It's round two of Britain versus Europe – but what has changed since 1975?

The left is less passionate and the press more divided, but the biggest difference lies in Scotland

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The Independent Online

Somewhere in a drawer at home I still have the pamphlets posted through the door of every household 40 years ago, to prepare us for our first national referendum – on staying in Europe, funnily enough.

The No campaign document was rather drab, in presentation and argument, with lots of depressing predictions about jobs and the price of butter. The Yes campaign’s pamphlet was seemingly infused with the exotic flavours of our new partners’ cuisine, and plenty of reassurance that “it hasn’t made the French eat German food” (admittedly a highly unlikely scenario).

The third document was a (literally) red-white-and-blue official government “guide”, with lots of facts and figures, the national arms on the front and a reassuring foreword by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, which gently steered the reader towards a positive verdict. Despite Wilson’s reputation for duplicity, and for want of better, the voters were prepared to trust him. Will they trust David Cameron too?

There are comparatively few of us who can remember these events; this last plebiscite on membership of what was then the European Economic Community was on 5 June 1975. No one much under the age of 60 has ever been able to vote directly on the issue. I was a precocious schoolboy then, I admit, and I too have never had the chance, despite an avid interest. Now, once again, we will all have that chance (precocious 16 to 18-year-olds possibly excluded). From what can be discerned so far, the arguments and repercussions of this vote will be strikingly similar to those 40 years ago.

This is surprising. Most of the issues littering the political landscape in the mid-1970s, like the personalities concerned, have long since disappeared: hyperinflation (a 26.9 per cent annual rate); strikes and union power (you’ll need to Google those); the Cold War with Russia (mind you…); sectarian violence in Northern Ireland (finger crossed) and the rebel colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, and with a new type of dictatorship). But Europe seems to be the great eternal dilemma, unsettled before the 1975 vote, and, in fact, scarcely less controversial in the decades since.

So that, then, is the first great lesson of the last referendum; the 2016 or 2017 one will not settle very much for very long, let alone a generation. Back then, the referendum campaign, following a fairly swift “renegotiation” of the terms the UK secured on entry in 1973, led the polls gradually switching to a “Pro-Common Market” – as the European Economic Community was colloquially known – stance.

On the day after polling it soon became clear, on the BBC election special (then as now chaired by David Dimbleby, that other constant point of reference in our national life) that there would be something like a two-to-one majority in favour of staying in, on a turnout of about 65 per cent. The “anti-marketeers”, as the phrase went, mostly accepted the verdict with good grace. The pro-marketeers declared that Britain’s place in Europe was secure and inviolate, and now we would play a full and constructive part in the project.

If only. By 1983, the Labour Party had pledged itself once again to leaving Europe (it has swung violently between both policies in the preceding 25 years of anguished argument), and, as we all know, by the 1990s the “debate” over the ratification of the Maastricht treaty split the Conservatives as badly as Labour had once been fractured. Only the advent of the “social chapter” and the EU Commission presidency of Jacques Delors persuaded the unions and the Labour Party of the late 1980s that Europe was not a “bosses’ club” after all. By the same token, Margaret Thatcher spotted the danger of “socialism by the back Delors”, and launched her one-woman campaign to save the nation from the superstate: “No, No, No” as she famously declared in her last days in office in November 1990.

In 1975, the ever resourceful Enoch Powell formulated a quite sophisticated justification for refusing to accept the result. This “abnegation” of the national right to sovereignty would not stand, declared Powell, for two reasons. First, the constitutional point that a referendum result was merely “provisional”, as it could not, legally, be binding on Parliament, and our membership of the community rested on the “continuing assent” of Parliament.

Second, Powell believed that the British people would never give up their right to make their own laws – once they realised what was happening. On television, he explained that if in October 1938 Neville Chamberlain had asked for a national vote on the Munich agreement with Hitler, he might well have won it, because we knew no better. But by September 1939, the British  people had changed their mind about that equally abject event once the threat to their sovereignty crystallised.

Powell, in fact, held much the same sort of position that Nigel Farage holds today – though their other views are rather different. It was Powell who was then the dissident Tory (he left his party to go into self-imposed exile as an Ulster Unionist in protest at Ted Heath’s leadership), just as Farage now leads a more formal grouping of predominantly disenchanted ex-Conservatives of a Thatcherite, indeed Powellite, hue.

The difference in 2015 is on the left, which no longer offers up much in the way of personalities or arguments against Europe as they passionately did in 1975. Back then, Wilson, less than a year away from his own retirement and getting weary of it all, agreed to let his Cabinet ministers campaign on opposite sides of the debate, the so-called “agreement to differ”, as the price of Labour unity. On that basis, his leading left-wing colleagues – Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Peter Shore – found themselves on the same side as Enoch Powell, but arguing, perfectly logically, that a socialist programme could not be implemented for as long as we had lost our ability to control our economy and, especially, trade.

Wilson’s pro-Europeans, notably Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, played a prominent role on the other side, and the nation was treated to a special edition of Panorama, presented by the ubiquitous Dimbleby, which pitted Jenkins and Benn, fellow Labour ministers, against one another, a more unfamiliar sight then than it was later to become. After the referendum Benn was demoted from his powerful job as industry secretary to energy, while by 1977, Jenkins was ensconced in Brussels as the first British president of the European Commission. Benn and Jenkins would soon be at war again. It took the Labour Party another decade or more to get over its shock.

Cameron is unlikely to have the same problem this time; if any of his senior team want to dissent, and he permits them to do so using that Wilsonian device, they will be in a much smaller minority, at least in the Cabinet, than Wilson’s left-wingers were. Still, they will be, as Benn et al were, more in touch with the grassroots of their party. One or two figures with an eye on their later prospects (Boris Johnson? Liam Fox?) might be tempted to combine principle with expediency and use opposition to Europe as a springboard for their future ambitions, just as Benn (tilting for leadership and deputy leadership of Labour in the 1980s) and Jenkins (formation in 1981 of the SDP) both did in their era.

Which brings us to the “great and the good”. In 1975, all the press, apart from the communist Morning Star, backed the EEC. Almost the whole of finance and business, then as now, was behind the pro-Europe campaign. (At least now the Express stable will put some sort of case for getting out.) The “moderate” politicians who the public – much more in those days than now – was prepared to follow were overwhelmingly pro-EEC. This was to have a deciding effect on both main parties’ supporters. The apparent “conversion” of Harold Wilson, his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan and Chancellor Denis Healey from agnosticism to enthusiasm for Europe, on their “improved” terms, convinced many Labour voters to put doubts aside, follow their lead and vote Yes.

Many Conservatives, too, put misgivings aside to stay loyal to Ted Heath, recently leader and prime minister, and the man who took us into Europe, and his successor Margaret Thatcher, who posed in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the flags of our then eight partners, the last time she was to be seen sporting a tricoleur next to her heart.

Other moderates of the day all added to the impressive show of cross-party consensus, to which the public generally warmed. Liberals such as Jeremy Thorpe (then still leader and, just, pre-Scott scandal), Jo Grimond and David Steel plus the non-communist end of the trade unions completed the harmonious alliance. Against them were arranged the aforementioned Benn, Powell, Ian Paisley, Arthur Scargill, the communists and the National Front – accidental allies, and not a photogenic face between them. As Jenkins remarked after: “The people took the advice of people they were used to following.”

Yet, while this establishment appeal, backed by big-business cash and slick advertising, was strong enough to persuade the British people out of their doubts, it will be trickier now. In 1975, Europe was fast growing and dynamic, and Britain was a laggard; the deutschmark was a symbol of the EEC’s potency. Today? Well, we need no reminding about the euro’s problems, and the never-ending Greek crisis symbolises its failures. 

So how did we vote in 1975? Surprisingly uniformly, with only two “administrative areas” – based on the ancient counties – voting No: the Shetland Islands and the Western Isles. Northern Ireland, more receptive to claims about British sovereignty than most, still managed a 52 per cent Yes, the lowest in the four nations of the UK. South-east England was among the most enthusiastic, although at 76 per cent, the biggest Yes vote was in North Yorkshire (farmers knew the Common Agricultural Policy worked for them).

The big difference with today is in Scotland. Back then, “Red Clydeside” and a stronger Unionist (that is Conservative) presence pushed the Scots in a more Eurosceptic direction, and the Yes vote was correspondingly weaker – 58.4 per cent against 68.7 per cent across England. (Wales was on 64.8 per cent.) Strangely, from the perspective of an SNP led by the passionately pro-European Nicola Sturgeon, is that in the 1970s the SNP was split. The official line was stated by the then leader, Donald Stewart: “We shall fight this on the issue of sovereignty, because we are a people who know what it means to have lost our sovereignty.”

In any case, we may be sure this referendum, even if it replicates the clear 1975 result, will not end the arguments, change anybody’s mind or help to make Britain into a cheerful, leading member of the Euro project. The British attitude, regardless of the vote, will be in the words of Powell: “morose antipathy”. When we get to the referendum campaign of circa 2057 – the EU’s centenary – we will rediscover that all over again. I will be saving my pamphlets, just in case.