In the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, prudence, self-interest and the ministrations of Project Fear kept the Scottish electorate from succumbing to the over-optimistic prospectus presented by the SNP. Surely, David Cameron reckoned, the same formula would work again a mere two years later in the UK-wide Brexit referendum. After all, there was also the reassuring story of the UK’s first Euro-referendum in 1975. Then, the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had gone through the motions of a renegotiation of Britain’s place in the European Economic Community and, with that token effort behind him, shepherded the forces of pragmatism to a resounding victory for remaining in the Common Market. The pro-Europeans defeated the antis by a margin of 67 per cent to 33 per cent on the question ‘Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’ History might not take exactly the same course, but it seemed unlikely that the 2016 result would defy both of these historical parallels.
In the event history did not repeat itself. It didn’t even rhyme: 2016 was 1975 through the looking-glass. Most of the surviving protagonists of the 1975 referendum – such as the former Europhiles David Owen and Nigel Lawson; Neil Kinnock, a prominent Labour anti in 1975; or Alex Salmond, then a youthful SNP anti-Marketeer – found themselves on the other side of the debate from their former selves. The exception was Jim Sillars. The outspoken Labour anti of 1975 re-emerged in 2016 as a dissident Scottish Nationalist Brexiter. Not that Sillars’s political trajectory was without its own ironic detours; in the intervening period he had been the principal begetter of the SNP’s successful ‘Scotland in Europe’ formula. The passage of time had wrought some strange reversals, even among those who did not live to see the promised land of UK independence. In 1975 the future standard-bearer of Bruges speech Euroscepticism, Margaret Thatcher, had been the photogenic new leader of a largely Europhile Conservative Party, and the proud owner of a hideous woolly jumper displaying the flags of the EEC nations. Back in the mid-1970s the tycoon James Goldsmith, the future founder of the anti-European Referendum Party, was a prominent supporter of the Common Market. The position of the press also changed. In the earlier campaign the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express enthusiastically made the case for Europe, with the Guardian the most Eurosceptic of the pro-Common Market newspapers.
Political parties too had been twisted inside out. If the 2016 referendum was a mishandled attempt to sort out internal Tory divisions, so the 1975 referendum was Wilson’s way of holding a fractious Labour Party together. The British left anathematised the EEC as a capitalist club. For E.P. Thompson, it was ‘a group of fat, rich nations feeding each other goodies’. Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn led a powerful Labour campaign against the Common Market, in itself a pejorative term on the left. But Roy Jenkins and others on Labour’s centre-right emphasised reconciliation with former enemies, highlighting in particular the community of purpose with the German Social Democrats, and stressed the importance to the ordinary British worker of trade with Europe. As early as 1962, a full decade before the UK joined the EEC, its trade with Europe was larger than with the Commonwealth, and by 1974 it was double the size. Ted Heath’s Conservatives had taken the UK into the EEC in 1973, allowing Labour’s Europhiles and antis the indulgence of fratricidal intransigence in opposition. Labour’s return to power in 1974 made it much more difficult to fudge matters. But Wilson pressed on. The destination was far from enticing, at best a mushy compromise serving no greater or nobler end than to hold the party together. The going was gruelling, and an exasperated Wilson complained that he had ‘waded through shit, so that others could indulge their consciences’.
Wilson was not only more diligent than the chillaxed Cameron, but also a better tactician, much more astute about how the prime minister should situate himself in a contest where his own cabinet and party were divided. While Cameron led the Remain forces in the 2016 campaign, Wilson assumed the role of impartial spectator, an instinctive Commonwealth man who was open to persuasion on Europe, and allergic to what he derisively termed the ‘theology’ of principled Europeanism. In this way, he managed to align himself not with the politically engaged, but with those undecided, largely apolitical voters who were yet to make up their minds. Similarly, Wilson’s foreign secretary, James Callaghan, a wholehearted blue-water patriot whose attitudes had been shaped in good part by service in the navy, was utterly convincing as a reluctant but pragmatic European. Leading Remainers in 2016 lacked the range, timbre and sophisticated understatement of their predecessors.
The Conservative Party’s recently elected leader signalled her commitment to Europe in 1975, but allowed her predecessor, the zealously Europhile Heath, to take a more prominent role in the campaign. It helped that the leading Tory anti, Enoch Powell, was in self-imposed exile as Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. In 1975 anti-EEC sentiment was a minority pursuit on the right. After all, it seemed perverse to oppose something the Labour left demonised. Still, Europe was an issue that produced divisions across the political spectrum. Even in the Liberal Party a contingent of individualist free traders regarded the EEC as a bastion of protectionism. Oliver Smedley, a renegade Liberal who had left the party in 1962 because of its enthusiasm for the EEC, founded Keep Britain Out as a classical liberal alternative to Jeremy Thorpe’s Europhile party.
Nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin and the SNP, which were Remainers in 2016, were uncompromising antis in 1975. What, they had reckoned, was the point of leaving the embrace of England for that of a European super-state? Back in 1975 Salmond told reporters that ‘Scotland knows from bitter experience what treatment is in store for a powerless region of a Common Market.’ While this insight still holds today, at least according to many Greeks and a large minority of the SNP rank and file, it is no longer a view that carries authority within the leadership cadre. Since 2016 the SNP has used Scotland’s pro-EU majority as a stick to beat the British state, which imprisons Scottish Remainers in a Brexit nightmare. Back in 1975 the SNP’s arguments were diametrically opposite. The party’s leading strategist, Stephen Maxwell, argued a few weeks before the 1975 referendum that ‘a No vote here against a Yes vote in England would be ideal … This is our great opportunity to further Scotland’s cause.’ The SNP gloried, then as now, in the possibility of a Scotland out of step with English opinion; the substantive issues were matters of relative indifference.
Theresa May’s political ally, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, maintained a consistently negative policy towards European integration between the two referendums, though there were noticeable changes in tone and register. In 1975 the DUP’s co-founder and leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley, referred to the Virgin Mary as ‘the Madonna of the Common Market’. The DUP has remained robustly opposed to the dangers of a ‘European super-state’, though there is no longer the same obsessive concern with the colour of the pope’s socks. Indeed, by 2016 Ulster hardliners seemed scarcely more antediluvian than their counterparts on the mainland, such as Ukippers or that hard Brexit tendency among Tory MPs associated with Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘the honourable member for the 18th century’.
In 1975 the perceived threat of the EEC to Britain’s Reformation heritage proved a marginal issue outside Ulster, but liberal Protestants worked assiduously to contain any potential problems. Christians for Europe – committed to Christian internationalism, the ecumenical movement, and peace and reconciliation with former enemies – strove to ‘shrink the space’ for those militant Protestants who regarded the European Community as a papist project. The report commissioned by the British Council of Churches, Christians and the Common Market, insisted that ‘English Christianity’ was older than the English state, being ‘a European, not an insular’ phenomenon. Gerald Ellison, the bishop of London, and David Edwards, chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons, denounced as a kind of heresy the obsession with sovereignty found, for example, in the High Tory ecclesiology of Enoch Powell. Outside Ulster, ultra-Protestantism made limited headway, except in the Western Isles, the only area of the UK, apart from Shetland, to return a No vote.
For a brief moment in 1975 collective cabinet responsibility was suspended, and pro and anti-Europeans were reconfigured under the umbrella organisation Britain in Europe, whose director was the diplomat Con O’Neill, or the rudderless National Referendum Campaign, whose tribunes came from the extreme left and extreme right. Cleverly, Britain in Europe enlisted celebrities rather than men in grey suits to get out its message. It used endorsements from the boxer Henry Cooper and the gold medal-winning Olympic pentathlete Mary Peters; from subsidiary groupings such as Actors for Europe, which included Arthur Lowe and Richard Briers, and Writers for Europe, whose membership ranged from Agatha Christie to Tom Stoppard. Ogres such as Benn, Paisley and Powell were no match for these recruits.
The 1975 referendum has attracted the attention of various political scientists, including the psephologist David Butler and his collaborator the German émigré Europhile Uwe Kitzinger, who published a fascinating ‘instant’ study of the campaign in 1976, but Robert Saunders offers something different: a comprehensive historical account, which relates debates about Europe to the wider social and cultural contexts of Britain in the 1970s. The Sex Discrimination Act became law in 1975, and Saunders devotes considerable attention to the part played by women in the campaign. Food prices played an important part in the debate, and the charge that the Common Agricultural Policy kept the cost of food artificially high in the interests of farmers meant that women, often responsible for food shopping, proved immune for a long time to the pragmatic arguments of the pro-Europeans. Britain in Europe established a women’s section, while on the other side of the argument, Caroline Neill, whose husband, Patrick Neill, was the chair of the Bar Council, turned the top floor of their Chelsea home into an anti-EEC think tank. Inside the Labour Party women played a formidable role on both sides of the debate, Castle and Judith Hart for the socialist antis, Shirley Williams and Betty Boothroyd for the more social democratic Marketeers.
In an era of rocketing inflation, the cost of food offered the antis their best hope of victory. But, contrary to today’s Eurosceptic myth that sovereignty played no part in the 1975 debate and that the UK was sold a false prospectus in the referendum, leading voices of the anti-EEC campaign such as Benn and Powell dwelled obsessively on the theme of sovereignty when they should have focused on shopping baskets. The problem was that voters at large were uncertain, as I am now, about what exactly sovereignty meant. Had the UK lost its sovereignty when it joined the UN or Nato or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), or when it allowed the United States to station bombers on British soil? If not, in what ways was EEC membership different? As the Manchester Evening News noted, ‘Sovereignty is not like virginity. You can lose it more than once.’
Pro-Europeans explicitly addressed the question of sovereignty by linking it to memories of the war. Heath declared that he was ‘entirely prepared to make a contribution of national sovereignty to the building of peace in Europe’. The referendum fell almost exactly thirty years after the end of the war, and, as Saunders reminds us, Jeremy Isaacs’s grimly moving 26-part documentary The World at War had been shown weekly on ITV from October 1973 to May 1974. The public was receptive to the idea that European co-operation offered an alternative to the clash of competing sovereignties. Those who had actually fought in the war – such as Heath, a lieutenant-colonel in the artillery – were understandably more diffident in their patriotism than the cosseted Tory jingoists of 2016.
Since the first ever UK-wide referendum was – in lieu of Parliament – Wilson’s vehicle for deciding the European question, issues of sovereignty were never far from the debate. Where did the un-British idea of a national plebiscite come from in the first place? By the strangest of ironies, it was originally aired by the late Victorian jurist A.V. Dicey, famous for his doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, but so horrified by the prospect of Irish Home Rule that he was prepared to insert any obstacle in its way, including what he termed ‘the People’s Veto’. As Saunders notes, the left long afterwards viewed the referendum as ‘a conservative measure that was expressly designed to frustrate radical legislation’. Things changed in 1970 when the Labour anti-Marketeer Douglas Jay argued that since all three main parties notionally favoured admission to the EEC, a general election couldn’t decide the matter, which was of such magnitude there was no alternative but to venture on the experiment of a national referendum. Britain had employed referendums in its overseas territories – one was held in Gibraltar in 1967, and Heath was to hold a border poll in Northern Ireland in 1973. In 1970 the idea of a referendum appealed to Tony Benn, still a pro-Marketeering moderniser, but already a convinced proponent of popular sovereignty. Benn brought the idea to Labour’s National Executive, where it flopped, though a perceptive Callaghan – addicted, as Saunders notes, to nautical terminology – began to wonder about its possible utility: ‘Tony may be launching a little rubber life raft which we will all be glad of in a year’s time.’
The life raft saved the Labour Party, at least in the short run. By 1981 the Europhiles had mutinied, and the Gang of Four – Jenkins, Williams, Owen and Bill Rodgers – went off in their own craft, the Social Democratic Party. Indeed, the experience of centre-right Labour and centre-left Conservative politicians working more harmoniously across the aisle than with the extremists of their own parties planted the seed that would flower briefly as the SDP. In other respects the referendum worked. As Butler and Kitzinger noted in 1976, ‘For one moment on one issue Parliament in a partial way abjured its sovereignty.’ However, they also warned that just because it had worked on this occasion, ‘there was no reason to take the same risks again.’ What would happen if the people took a decision contrary to government and Parliament’s recommendation? This, of course, is exactly what happened in 2016 when there was an overwhelming majority in Parliament for the status quo.
In some ways the loose-limbed versatility of the British constitution is preferable to the more rigid American type. Which is better, a nimble but unpredictable responsiveness to substantive first-order problems, or the gridlock of checks, balances and an obsessive preoccupation with due process? But the British constitution’s strengths are also its vulnerable points. Who decides whether an advisory referendum is more potent than the will of MPs? And what sort of tally enshrines a supermajority for dramatic, irreversible constitutional changes on the scale of Scottish independence or Brexit? The Cunningham Amendment introduced a controversial legitimacy threshold – 40 per cent of the entire electorate in Scotland – into the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979: non-voters were counted, in effect, as passive opponents of change. Worryingly, since then politicians have assumed that a first past the post result provides sufficient ballast for major constitutional change.
The experience of recent referendums compels a re-examination of the capricious terms on which these polls are conducted. In 2017 the Independent Commission on Referendums was set up under the auspices of the Constitution Unit at University College London to consider whether the principles and practices of British referendums were appropriate for the internet age. Its Report, published in July, is a cautious response to the deep disquiet now associated with referendums. It acknowledges calls for ‘supplementary thresholds’, supermajorities and veto powers in the constituent territories of the UK, but shies away from any course of action inconsistent with simple majorities. The introduction of new safeguards, the commission concludes, would in itself pose a threat to ‘legitimacy’. On the other hand, it is open to the possibility of multi-option referendums. The commission also warns, in coded language, that referendums ‘work best when they are held at the end of a decision-making process to choose between developed alternatives’. Indeed, ‘precise plans for what will be done in the event of a vote for change’ should precede any proposed referendum for initiating ‘inter-governmental negotiations’; and here the commission recommends a ‘two-referendum process, for use in the event that the settlement does not deliver what was promised’.