When stay­ing in was in

Ver­non Bog­danor on the UK ref­er­en­dum that backed Europe

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Ver­non Bog­danor is pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment, King’s Col­lege Lon­don. His pam­phlet, Brexit and Our Un­pro­tected Con­sti­tu­tion, was re­cently pub­lished by the Con­sti­tu­tion So­ci­ety. Matthew Reisz

Yes to Europe! The 1975 Ref­er­en­dum and Sev­en­ties Bri­tain

By Robert Saun­ders Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press 422pp, £24.99

ISBN 9781108425353 Pub­lished 31 March 2018

In 1975, Bri­tain held its first na­tional ref­er­en­dum on whether to re­main in the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ties (as the Euro­pean Union then was), which we had joined in 1973. The out­come was a re­sound­ing vic­tory by a two-to-one ma­jor­ity for the pro-Euro­peans. “The ver­dict”, prime min­is­ter Harold Wil­son de­clared, had “been given by a big­ger vote, by a big­ger ma­jor­ity than has been re­ceived by any gov­ern­ment in any gen­eral elec­tion”. He then went on to de­clare, some­what over-op­ti­misti­cally: “It means that 14 years of na­tional ar­gu­ment are over.”

There is al­ready a mas­sive lit­er­a­ture on this sub­ject. The best source is prob­a­bly The 1975 Ref­er­en­dum, a book pub­lished very shortly af­ter that vote by David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger that is based heav­ily on in­ter­views with those in­volved. Does Robert Saun­ders, a lec­turer at Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don, have any­thing to add? He has been able to con­sult the pri­vate pa­pers of politi­cians and cam­paign groups that were not avail­able in 1975, and claims orig­i­nal­ity of ap­proach in that he is con­cerned less “with high pol­i­tics than with pub­lic at­ti­tudes”. In­deed he be­lieves that the ref­er­en­dum of­fers “a win­dow into the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial his­tory of the 1970s”.

But Yes to Europe! is in fact less unortho­dox than Saun­ders sug­gests. It is beau­ti­fully writ­ten, and pro­vides a thor­oughly re­li­able and stim­u­lat­ing ac­count of one of the most im­por­tant events in Bri­tain’s post-war his­tory. But Saun­ders’ re­searches tend to con­firm rather than over­turn the con­clu­sions of pre­vi­ous writ­ers.

Any­one who be­lieves that the 2016 ref­er­en­dum was uniquely dem­a­gogic would do well to read Yes to Europe! In 1975, Ed­ward Heath de­clared that “a vote against the Mar­ket could lead to a Soviet in­va­sion of Europe” and pre­dicted a re­turn to ra­tion books and food short­ages. He went on to sug­gest that Tony Benn would have wel­comed a Nazi in­va­sion in 1940. Enoch Pow­ell com­pared the pro-mar­ke­teers to the men of Mu­nich, while Ian Pais­ley’s Free Pres­by­te­rian Church de­clared that a vote for Europe, as well as be­ing a vote for “Rome”, was also a vote for “Dic­ta­tor­ship” and “Anti-Christ”. Pais­ley him­self in­sisted that the Euro­pean Com­mu­nity owed “its first al­le­giance to the Pope and recog­nises the ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity of the Vat­i­can”. These cries make the prom­ise of £350 mil­lion a week ex­tra for the health ser­vice seem pos­i­tively states­man­like. But the truth is that ref­er­en­dums and elec­tions never have borne and never will bear the least re­sem­blance to aca­demic sem­i­nars.

The 1975 ref­er­en­dum was held in a quite dif­fer­ent cli­mate from that of 2016, a cli­mate of fear. While the Con­ti­nent seemed to be thriv­ing, Bri­tain was the sick man of Europe. In­fla­tion was near­ing 25 per cent, the high­est ever recorded, un­em­ploy­ment was ris­ing and there was ap­pre­hen­sion of the grow­ing power of the trade unions, which had brought down the Heath gov­ern­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1974. The post-war po­lit­i­cal or­der seemed to be dis­in­te­grat­ing. In Novem­ber 1974, the Cabi­net held an all-day ses­sion at Che­quers, and, ac­cord­ing to Benn, “Jim Callaghan [the for­eign sec­re­tary] pes­simisti­cally said that ev­ery morn­ing when he shaved he thought that he should em­i­grate but by the time he had eaten break­fast, he re­alised there was nowhere else to go.” One of Bri­tain’s Euro­pean Com­mis­sion­ers, Sir Christopher Soames, de­clared: “This is no time for Bri­tain to be con­sid­er­ing leav­ing a Christ­mas club, let alone the Com­mon Mar­ket.”

Po­lit­i­cal align­ments in 1975 were, cu­ri­ously, al­most di­rectly con­trary to what they were to be in 2016. Most Con­ser­va­tives were pro-Euro­pean, and their new leader, Mar­garet Thatcher, sought to outdo her sup­planted pre­de­ces­sor, Heath, in fer­vour for the cause. Labour was di­vided, but the mem­ber­ship was Euroscep­tic, and the Labour Con­fer­ence re­jected con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship by two to one. The pro-Euro­peans, led by Roy Jenk­ins, felt be­lea­guered. The prime po­lit­i­cal purpose of the ref­er­en­dum, how­ever, had been to hold Labour to­gether, just as the prime purpose in 2016 was to hold the Con­ser­va­tives to­gether. Per­haps nei­ther suc­ceeded. The Scot­tish and Welsh na­tion­al­ists

were the only par­ties in their re­spec­tive coun­tries to cam­paign for a “no” vote. The fear then, in con­trast with 2016, was that, while the rest of the United King­dom might vote “yes”, Scot­land would vote “no” and so ig­nite a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis. Only the Lib­er­als, now the Lib­eral Democrats, re­mained con­sis­tent in their sup­port for Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion.

Europe has been a toxic is­sue

De­spite the large ‘re­main’ ma­jor­ity in 1975, Saun­ders ar­gues that it was the ‘leavers’ in the Labour Party who won the in­ter­nal party bat­tle and whose ca­reers ad­vanced, while the re­main­ers were side­lined and broke to form the So­cial Demo­cratic Party

in Bri­tish pol­i­tics. It has ar­guably de­stroyed five Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ters – Harold Macmil­lan, Heath, Thatcher, John Ma­jor and David Cameron – and might well de­stroy a sixth, Theresa May. Wil­son re­mains the only prime min­is­ter to have tri­umphed over Europe. “Peo­ple say I have no sense of strat­egy, can­not think strate­gi­cally,” he told his pri­vate sec­re­tary the day af­ter the ref­er­en­dum. “Only an id­iot”, de­clared Neil Kin­nock, then a Euroscep­tic, “would ig­nore or re­sent a ma­jor­ity like this. We’re in for ever.” But, as Butler and Kitzinger demon­strated, the ref­er­en­dum did not show that the Bri­tish had be­come en­thu­si­as­tic Euro­peans. Sup­port for Europe was wide but not deep.

The most orig­i­nal part of Yes to Europe! is its con­clu­sion. Most ob­servers in­ter­preted the 1975 ref­er­en­dum as a crush­ing blow to the left be­cause it had shown that nei­ther Michael Foot, Benn nor the Euroscep­tic trade unions were in touch with pub­lic opin­ion. It also seemed to have re­solved the con­flict within the Labour Party. In­deed, the 1975 party con­fer­ence did not dis­cuss the is­sue at all. But, as Saun­ders points out, “this was a truce, not a set­tle­ment”. The left did not ac­cept the re­sult as fi­nal; and by 1983, un­der the lead­er­ship of Foot, Labour’s elec­tion man­i­festo com­mit­ted the party to leav­ing Europe with­out a fur­ther ref­er­en­dum.

De­spite the large “re­main” ma­jor­ity in 1975, Saun­ders ar­gues that it was the “leavers” in the Labour Party – Foot, Benn and Kin­nock – who won the in­ter­nal party bat­tle and whose ca­reers ad­vanced, while the re­main­ers – Jenk­ins, David Owen and Shirley Wil­liams – were side­lined and broke with the party in 1981 to form the So­cial Demo­cratic Party.

But per­haps Saun­ders ex­ag­ger­ates. The left had been ad­vanc­ing well be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, a con­se­quence less of Europe than of the per­ceived fail­ures of the 1964-70 Wil­son gov­ern­ment, which seemed to many a sign of the fail­ure of so­cial democ­racy it­self. The Euro­pean is­sue gave the left mo­men­tum, but was not the fun­da­men­tal rea­son for its suc­cess.

The year 1950, when Bri­tain had been in­vited to join the Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­nity, pre­cur­sor of the EU, saw the begin­ning of Bri­tain’s en­gage­ment with Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. But Labour’s for­eign sec­re­tary, Ernest Bevin, de­clined the in­vi­ta­tion, say­ing that once one opened that Pan­dora’s box, one never knew what Tro­jan horses would fly out. The box is now be­ing closed, but the Tro­jan horses do not seem to have dis­ap­peared.

At the fi­nal rally of “Bri­tain in Europe” in 1975, Jenk­ins warned that for Bri­tain to leave Europe would be to en­ter “an old peo­ple’s home for fad­ing na­tions”. He doubted whether it would be “a very com­fort­able old peo­ple’s home. I do not like the look of some of the prospec­tive war­dens.” The war­dens then would have been Pow­ell and Benn. Who, one won­ders, will be our war­dens if and when the Pan­dora’s box is fi­nally locked and sealed?

Con­ti­nen­tal shifts Europe has been a toxic is­sue in Bri­tish pol­i­tics, ar­guably de­stroy­ing

five prime min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Mar­garet Thatcher (pic­tured above and left)

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