1975 Referendum

On the 6th June 1975 the results of the first European referendum was announced. The British public had voted and 67% of the electorate voted to remain part of the Common Market. The result was a ‘historic decision’ according to Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister at the time.

Wilson throughout the referendum period stayed confident in Britain remaining. Even on the night of the referendum he continued to be aloof and disinterested by developments believing it was clear that Britain would remain part of the Common Market. The Cabinet Secretary John Hunt was not so confident throughout the campaign. His views were best summed up in a Cabinet meeting where Barbara Castle proposed that a ‘referendum kit’ should be created to simplify matters for ministers. Hunt immediately passed Castle the following note:

Referendum Kit?

Outcome of renegotiation

Government recommendation

Case for

Case against

Map to polling station

Polling Card

Opinion Poll response cards

1 bottle champagne         To be taken at choice according to result

1 bottle arsenic[1]    

Thus the referendum was not a forgone conclusion. Wilson had pledged a referendum on Europe through the Labour Party’s manifesto published in February 1974. Similar to Cameron, he stated that he would renegotiate Britain’s position in the Community before holding a referendum. Wilson was able to gain concessions from the Community as it was agreed a regional policy would be created, and a budgetary correction mechanism put in place. He had also secure British access to New Zealand dairy products which was vital to British interest at the time. Yet despite this many still believed that the referendum could result in Britain’s exit. A Gallup poll in 1975 had concluded that 55% would vote to leave. Yet Hunt and other Civil Servants at the time found creating a contingency plan for exiting a lot easier than it is currently, as in 1975 Britain had only been a member of the Community for two years and repealing the Accession Bill of 1972 would have been easier in 1975 than in 2016.

The Labour government had broadly had supported Britain’s continued membership of the Community, despite several cabinet ministers campaigning to leave. Ministers such as Tony Benn, Peter Shore, Eric Valey and Michael Foot – the majority of the far left-wing of the party. Campaigning to remain in the Labour cabinet there was James Callaghan, Dennis Healy and Roy Jenkins. This did demonstrate how divided the Labour Party had become over Europe. It can be argued that to prevent a further division Wilson had called the referendum. This again demonstrates the referendum as being a tool for party management. Unlike Cameron in 2016 Wilson did not play an active role in the ‘remain’ campaign though supported membership. This was because contrastingly Wilson had prominent political figures such as Callaghan, and Jenkins that were able to lead the campaign. Moreover he was supported greatly by the fact that he also had the support of Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister Edward Heath (who had taken Britain into the Community in 1973) and Liberal leader David Owen. Moreover, the ‘remain’ campaign also had the full support of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). The biggest contrast between 2016 and 1975 was that the media was very supportive of the Community in 1975 unlike in 2016. Thus due to this alignment of political actors Wilson was able to secure a vote for continued membership.

Overall the 1975 was a historic moment for Europe as a whole. From that point onwards Britain had contributed greatly to the development of the Community as it stands today. 1975 was also extremely different to the 2016 referendum. At the time Britain had only been a member of the Community for two years, and the effects of membership were difficult to quantify. A united Europe was also essential in an ongoing Cold War World. Wilson was able to secure membership continued membership because of the vast support behind the remain campaign. This included the support of all three major parties leaders, the CBI and the British media. Thus in many ways the environment in the 1975 referendum differed from that of 2016.

[1] B, Castle, The Castle Diaries, p.314, (London 1984)