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Cabinet splits, a crisis in Labour, and warnings over dodgy figures - the similarities between the 1975 and 2016 Europe referenda

PUBLISHED: 12:00 17 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:29 17 March 2019

Counting the votes at St Andrews Hall, Norwich on June 7, 1975. Photo: Archant

Counting the votes at St Andrews Hall, Norwich on June 7, 1975. Photo: Archant

A divided cabinet, a “mounting feud” in the Labour Party, and a public unclear about the arguments on both sides.

It may sound like the EU referendum held three years ago, and the enduring fallout, but instead that was the last time the country went to the polls on Europe - 44 years ago, in 1975.

Plenty has changed in those four decades but there are striking parallels between the two votes, and the climate surrounding them - not least that they were both held in June.

The only thing swapped is the party in power - and the result.

While today the Conservative government is deeply divided over Brexit, in 1975 it was a Labour government where colleagues were at each others’ throats.

Before he was elected Harold Wilson promised in his manifesto to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s European Economic Community (EEC) membership and put it to a referendum, like David Cameron in 2015.

Mrs Thatcher said in the Commons in 1975 “the referendum is a tactical device to get over a split in their own party” - sound familiar?

Mr Wilson won the election in 1974, became prime minister, came up with a deal with Brussels, held a referendum, and campaigned to stay in - all on the backdrop of a divided cabinet.

On the left of his party Tony Benn, and the then unknown Jeremy Corbyn, were opposed to the Common Market, branding it a “capitalist club”.

The suspending of cabinet responsibility allowed senior figures to campaign against the government position, which we’ve seen in recent years too.

Meanwhile the Tories, including Mrs Thatcher, wanted to stay in. As, like in 2016, did big businesses.

Mr Corbyn is no doubt still a Eurosceptic, former chancellor Ken Clarke said: “Jeremy Corbyn is a very hardline Brexiteer. He’s always been in favour of leaving the European Union.”

As in 2016, one of the big issues facing voters in 1975 what sovereignty.

A leaflet distributed by the Vote No team saidL “The real aim of the Market is, of course, to become one signle country in which Britain would be reduced to a mere province.”The paln is to have a Common Market Parliament by 1978 or shortly thereafter. Laws would be passed by that Parliament which would be binding on our country. No Parliament elected by British people could change those laws.”

In the same leaflet “faceless bureaucrats sitting in their headquarters in Brussels” were mentioned, a phrase often heard in the run up to the 2016, and since.

Sovereignty and a want to “take back control” was central to 2016’s Leave campaign too.

In April 2016 Michael Gove, then justice secretary, said: “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”

In February of that year, Boris Johnson had said: “I will be advocating Vote Leave because I want a better deal for the people of this country, to save them money and to take control.”

Industry was also an issue, as a June 1975 headline said: “Port of Lynn ‘will flourish if we stay in’ and in March Norfolk’s farmers had said it would be “disastrous” to leave Europe.

There was even a fight over Brits who lived and worked in the EEC having a vote.

But on the other side low wage earners in the east were warned they would “suffer more than workers in any other part of the country, if Britain remained in the Common Market” according to a May 1975 report.

In recent years farmers have expressed concerns over seasonal workers, this month Andy Allen, from Portwood Farm, Attleborough, said: “It is critical we have a supply of labour, but it all depends on the outcome of Brexit and the movement of people from the EU. If they close borders, that is the worst case scenario but my business would completely be in jeopardy, along with many, many others.”

Then, like now, the public found themselves confused.

A letter written to this newspaper by Brian Dew, in February 1975, said: “The pros and cons of remaining within the EEC are gathering momentum and the entire future of our country and people rests on the forthcoming referendum of uninformed people, myself included. Once again we are being told what those in authority wish to tell us, whether for or against, and the result could well depend on which side shouts the loudest.”

Another, from W.B. Catmur, in March, said: “Most contributions to your “Referendum debate” have been superfluous and beside the point.”

But it was not just the public who could not agree.

In March 1975, this newspaper reported: “The mounting feud in the Labour Party over the Common Market looks like growing into a leadership crisis if Mr Wilson is unable to control it.”

Swap out some names and that headline could be written today.

In June 1975 Roy Jenkins, then home secretary, branded anti-Marketeers’ claims as “bogus” and their figures “meaningless”, similar claims to those made by both sides in 2016 and since.

Polling station in King's Lynn on the ECC Referendum day, 5 June 1975. Photo: Archant LibraryPolling station in King's Lynn on the ECC Referendum day, 5 June 1975. Photo: Archant Library

An MP at the time, Christopher Fowler, even wrote to say: “Despite, or even because of, the public debate on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Economic Community, a large number of my constituents have declared themselves to be insufficiently familiar with the arguments for and against.”

How did the two differ?

One major difference between the referenda in 1975 and 2016 was the press.

In 1975 the papers mostly supported staying in the EEC, with the Daily Mail’s front page on voting day screaming: “A day in the life of Siege Britain: NO COFFEE, WINE, BEANS OR BANANAS, TILL FURTHER NOTICE”.

Eldon Griffiths MP campaigning for 'West Norfolk for Europe' in King's Lynn, 4 June 1975. Photo: Archant LibraryEldon Griffiths MP campaigning for 'West Norfolk for Europe' in King's Lynn, 4 June 1975. Photo: Archant Library

The Sun’s centre page said: “Yes for a future together, No for a future alone”.

In contrast the Daily Mail in 2016 told it’s readers to “Take a bow, Britain” in an “historic edition” the day after the referendum.

And the Sun had urged people to “BeLeave in Britain” and vote out on June 23.

Immigration also did not play such a large part in the referendum of 1975.

Eldon Griffiths MP campaigning for 'West Norfolk for Europe' in King's Lynn, 4 June 1975.Photo: Archant LibraryEldon Griffiths MP campaigning for 'West Norfolk for Europe' in King's Lynn, 4 June 1975.Photo: Archant Library

Free movement was not introduced until 1992 but the economy in the UK meant it was difficult to see why anyone would want to come to Britain in large numbers anyway.

Emigration, on the other hand, was much more of a concern.

Tony Benn 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”.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the former Communist states such as Poland and the Czech Republic joining the EU was also not anticipated.

ECC Referendum campaigning in King's Lynn, 28 May 1975. Photo: Archant LibraryECC Referendum campaigning in King's Lynn, 28 May 1975. Photo: Archant Library

The day after the vote, the headline in this newspaper read: “Argument is over, says triumphant Wilson after two-to-one endorsement.”

How wrong he was, the fight was only just beginning.

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