Do You Think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?
Voters were required to answer either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. In total 17,378,581 (67.2 per cent of those voting) voted ‘Yes’ to staying in the Community, a number uncannily close to the 17,410,742 who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 EU referendum. The turnout in 1975 was 64.5 per cent, considerably lower than the 2016 turnout of 72.2 per cent.1
A majority in all four countries voted in 1975 to stay in the European Community, and a comparison with 2016 reveals divergent changes across different parts of the UK. While the majority to stay in 1975 became a minority in both England and Wales in 2016, the majority to remain slightly increased in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The referendum in June 1975 was the culmination of a fourteen-year process through which the UK joined the EEC. It had sprawled across five governments, two Conservative and three Labour. The process was also intermittent. It had begun in 1961 when Conservative Prime Minster Harold Macmillan sought Parliament’s approval to apply for negotiations with the EEC. Negotiations ended in 1963. In May 1967, the UK’s application was renewed under Labour, but the process ended unsuccessfully in the same year. In the words of a July 1971 Command Paper, “Both Governments were baulked in their objective.”2 A third round was initiated in 1970 and, under Edward Heath’s Conservative government, the UK became a member of the Community on 1 January 1973.
Inauspiciously, within a mere 15 months of the UK’s accession, a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership of the Community began, at the UK’s request. This followed Labour’s victory in the February 1974 General Election, during which Labour had promised in its manifesto to renegotiate Britain’s entry terms, stating that “The Labour Party opposes British membership of the European Communities on the terms negotiated by the Conservative Government.” The areas they wished to renegotiate were the Common Agricultural Policy, the Community budget, economic and monetary union, sovereignty, and VAT. They also stated that “If re-negotiations are successful, it is the policy of the Labour Party that, in view of the unique importance of the decision, the people should have the right to decide the issue through a General Election or a Consultative Referendum.”3 Labour won the election by a wafer-thin margin (winning 301 seats), but had no overall majority: the Conservatives won 297 seats, and other parties 37. In April 1974, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, James Callaghan, began the renegotiation.
This sequence of events has some parallels with 2015 and 2016. In their manifesto for the May 2015 General Election, the Conservatives had made a promise that “after the election, we will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe, and then ask the British people whether they want to stay in the EU on this reformed basis or leave.”4 The Conservatives won the election with an overall majority of 12 seats. Between May 2015 and February 2016, a “new settlement” was negotiated with the EU. The government argued that they had successfully achieved a new settlement in the areas of economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and welfare. The referendum took place on 23 June 2016 and, to widespread astonishment, 51.9 per cent voted to leave the European Union. Further amazement followed when, at the ‘snap’ General Election in June 2017, Theresa May’s Conservatives lost their overall majority. Consequently, on 26 June 2017, they entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. It was from this fragile position that the government negotiated the UK’s withdrawal from the EU between June 2017 and late 2018.
Returning to the earlier period, on 9 April 1975, following the renegotiation, MPs were asked to approve UK membership on renegotiated terms. The House of Commons supported the motion “That this House approves the recommendation of Her Majesty’s Government to continue Britain’s Membership of the Community.”5 While less than half of Labour MPs supported the motion, most Conservative MPs did so. Moreover, on 26 April, a Labour Party Special Conference voted to support a National Executive Committee statement opposing continued membership. This suggests that while the tradition of Conservative euroscepticism had not yet taken root, there was a strong strand of Labour euroscepticism. In the 2016 referendum, the term “Lexit” was coined to refer to opposition to remaining in the EU from a left political perspective, perhaps showing some continuity across the four decades.
The domestic and international economic context within which the 1975 referendum took place was immensely turbulent. In the four years preceding the referendum, there was the ‘Nixon Shock’ in August 1971, inaugurating the demise of the Bretton Woods system of fixed-but-adjustable exchange rates; the floating of the pound sterling in June 1972; the quadrupling of oil prices between October 1973 and January 1974; the UK’s secondary banking crisis from December 1973; the proclamation of several States of Emergency in late 1973 and early 1974; the ‘Three-Day Week’; and the miners’ strike in February 1974. In the month of the referendum, June 1975, the annual inflation as measured by the RPI stood at 26.1 per cent – not 2.61 per cent: 26.1 per cent.
The UK balance of payments (then a much more influential indicator of economic health than it is today) plunged from a surplus of £191 million in 1972 to a deficit of £1,018 million in 1973, the year of accession. This was followed by enormous deficits in 1974 and 1975 of £3,317 million and £1,582 million respectively. In its February 1971 economic assessment of the impact of joining the Common Market, the government had correctly estimated that joining would have an adverse impact on the balance of payments, but its assessment of a negative impact of between £125 million and £275 million was an underestimation.
Finally, sandwiched between the UK’s accession and the year of the referendum, there were two General Elections within eight months, one in February 1974 and the second in October. Led by Harold Wilson, Labour won both elections. Wilson survived the tumultuous events of 1974 and 1975 but then “stunned the nation” in March 1976 by resigning.6 The tumult did not abate. Labour lost its overall majority in 1977 and its period in office came to an end in 1979 following the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
Meanwhile, though the two and half years since June 2016 have witnessed political and economic disruption, Prime Minister May has survived the maelstrom, including an internal Conservative Parliamentary Party vote of confidence in her in December 2018. The proposed agreement for exiting the EU was voted down in January 2019, in the greatest parliamentary defeat of any sitting government, but her government survived a vote of confidence immediately afterwards. Yet in hinting that she would not lead the party into the 2022 general election, it may be the beginning of the end for May. On the other hand, as the spectre of a further referendum begins to take form, it may no longer be the beginning of the end of the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Dr Linda Arch is a lecturer in the ICMA Centre who focuses on the history of bank regulation.
1. Elise Uberoi, European Union Referendum 2016: Briefing Paper Number CBP 7639, 29 June 2016, accessed 9 December 2018, https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7639#fullreport. Data about the 1975 referendum is taken from David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger, The 1975 Referendum (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1976).
2. “The United Kingdom and the European Communities,” Cmnd. 4715, para. 21, UK Parliamentary Papers, accessed 9 December 2018, https://parlipapers.proquest.com/parlipapers/search/basic/hcppbasicsearch.
3. Labour’s manifesto for the February 1974 General Election was titled, Let Us Work Together – Labour’s Way Out of the Crisis, accessed 9 December 2018, http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab74feb.htm.
5. “European Community (Membership)”, Hansard 1803-2005, HC Deb 09 April 1975 vol 889 cc1243-371, accessed 9 December 2018, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1975/apr/09/european-community-membership.
6. “Past Prime Ministers,” gov.uk, accessed 12 December 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/history/past-prime-ministers/harold-wilson.