In terms of UK domestic policy last year’s EU referendum has come, predictably enough, to dominate political debate, comment and concern. The fact that the result overturned nearly forty-four years of British economic and political ties to Europe has caused a political earthquake, not least because it was a kick in the teeth for the political establishment, and is a further stage in the decades long history of British ambivalence, if not downright hostility to, what is often referred to as the ‘European project’.
Throughout the 2016 campaign there were a few references to the previous European UK wide referendum held in June 1975, but without much detail. This media focus mostly consisted of finding people who had participated last time to find out if they had changed their mind about what was then the European Economic Community or EEC, in the intervening forty-one years.
Clearly there has been a change of mind amongst the British public in that time. Not only was the result radically different in 1975 – it was 67 % in favour for staying in – but investigating a little further it turns out that back then practically every print news outlet of the mainstream media backed Britain’s EEC membership. This also is in stark contrast to 2016, and indeed the media ‘mood-music’ has been pretty hostile the EU for at least two decades. Even more intriguing was that all three nationalist parties, the Scottish Nationalists, the Welsh Plaid Cymru and the Irish Sinn Fein (We Ourselves), were all for withdrawal last time around but were ‘Remain-ers’ in 2016. Furthermore, the Conservatives were united on Europe (in favour) and it was Labour that was irrevocably split on the issue. This all piqued my interest, particularly as one of the narratives that emerged from the referendum was that Britain is an endemically Eurosceptic nation, England in particular. However, 1975 was an example of an overwhelming vote in favour of inter-continental co-operation.
However, before thinking about this, a bit of history: co-operation between European countries really got going in the early 1950s. Formal agreement began with the ‘European Coal and Steel Community’, a compact of six nations initially, essentially designed to make conflict between European nations impossible again. The main beneficiaries and leading nations of this treaty, France and Germany, had been at war with each other three times since 1870. The UK was not initially a member. By the time the UK did join, on the 1st January 1973, alongside Denmark and Ireland, it was now the European Economic Community (EEC). It joined as a result of Parliamentary decision under the leadership of the enthusiastic Europhile, Prime Minister Ted Heath. However, Heath lost the 1974 election and within a year the new (also pro-European) Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had called an in/out referendum. In an echo of the 2016 referendum, he too, like David Cameron, went to Brussels in the run up to the poll, to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership.
The fact that the incumbent Prime Ministers both undertook negotiations prior to the vote is not the only similarity between the two campaigns, separated by 41 years. There are however striking differences too, which are worth examining in some detail.
If it was the media that contributed to the win for ‘Leave’ in June 2016, it could be said that it was the media that contributed to the win it in 1975 too. Only that the vast majority of the media in the mid-nineteen seventies was on a different side. In an article for the Guardian, from February 2016, Roy Greenslade mused on the impact of the media during the 1975 referendum campaign in securing a Yes vote. It may come as a surprise that back then all the daily tabloid newspapers, (apart that is from the Communist Morning Star), supported continued membership of the EEC: the Daily Mail, Daily Express, the Sun, including the broadsheets, the Daily Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, the Guardian and the Mirror. Apart from the last four in the list it is a stark reminder of how times have changed. Greenslade doesn’t go into any detailed speculation about the reason for the sea change, but at the end asks the rhetorical question as to whether the reason people changed their mind was because of the press. It is always possible that the press changed their mind because most of the people did – but whichever way around it was this is some evidence that the British public/political leaders/media were not always dyed-in-the-wool Euro naysayers.
All change at the top
The Conservative Party at that time was pro-European and largely united on the issue. It is remarkable to be reminded now of Margaret Thatcher proudly sporting her sweater made up of all the flags of the European Community, but also to see her sharing a stage with Edward Heath, not only extolling the virtues of Europe but the leadership of Heath himself. (Just remember the Thatcher/Heath relationship was as rancorous in the 1970s as the Blair/Brown relationship was in the 1990s/2000s). Even more remarkable is that this event took place only a few months after Thatcher had won the leadership of the Tory party from Heath – possibly this clip shows an example of Thatcher’s ‘magnanimity in victory’.
In 1975 it was within the ranks of the Labour Party that the EEC was a kind of blood sport. The kind if splits, rancor and discord that we associate with the ‘European question’ within the ranks of the Conservative party was rife within Labour at that time. It is said that this is the reason Harold Wilson called that referendum – in an echo of Cameron calling one to settle the question within his own party, rather than the country itself. However, in another mirror image of our time it was Labour’s left wing that were the dissenters then, much like it is the Conservative right who are the insurgent Eurosceptics.
A Disunited Kingdom (the nationalist parties take a different view)
It is interesting too to view the issue of British and UK membership of the European Union through the lens of the various nationalist fractures that impinge on the wider polity of the ‘United’ Kingdom. Here I am referring to the issue of Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser but important extent, Wales.
In 1975, all the nationalist parties were against the EEC. The Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru all campaigned for a no vote in 1975. They did so partly out of fear that a large European trans-national body would ‘swamp’ the identity of smaller nations, not to mention the thinking then was that the EEC made independence less likely, not more. In the intervening years, each one of these parties have transformed into pro-European parties.
The particular case of the why the Scottish National Party (SNP) transformed from an anti-EU party to pro is closely examined in a paper from 2010 by Valeria Tarditi, writing for the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network in 2010.
This paper charts four distinct phases in the relationship between the SNP and Europe, since the 1950s. Tarditi argues that it is possible to examine the SNPs attitude to Europe through the frame of the ‘structure of political opportunities’. In other words, what this viewpoint brings into focus is that the issue of the European Union is always viewed through a national perspective, in terms of national interest, be that from London or Glasgow.
It started out, in the 1950s, positive about the development of the moves to closer economic co-operation across Europe, mainly, as Tarditi argues, to differentiate it from a lukewarm skeptical British government. During the 1960s and 1970s it was Eurosceptic and in the 1980s/1990s it was enthusiastic about Europe. From 2000 it has been supportive of the EU, but this paper argues it has been Euro-tepid. This is however prior to Brexit which has made the party re-evaluate its relationship to Europe one again – and again it finds itself diametrically opposed to the ‘English’ position. This paper argues that the view that the SNP takes on Europe is not influenced by objective factors of whether European integration is positive per se, but whether it is good for the SNP. The self-interest that is implied in this analysis runs through the European debate like a black line through a lobster, which explains why it is possible for not only individuals to take a different view over time but also parties and interest groups. If more space allowed a deeper look into the trajectory of nationalist parties on the issue of Europe would shed a great deal of light on the broader history of this issue, but the wider motivations that are brought to bear in the process of coming to a view on the EU.
Crisis, disruption and dissolution
I would argue that much of what this shows is that the European Union is a ‘zero institution’, to borrow the phrase of the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss. What I mean by this is that people see in it what they want to see: for the political left the EU is an irreformable neo-liberal, pro-business institution and for the political right it is too social democratic and pro workers rights. The language and the specifics of the arguments may have changed since 1975, but the substantive issues that people were arguing about haven’t. These centred on economic and political debates about what was best for Britain.
What has changed in the intervening years is the commencement of the era of globalisation, a fracturing of the Nations of the United Kingdom, the economic crash of 2007, a catastrophic collapse in trust in Government and the establishment (a process well underway in 1975) and a concomitant crisis in political communication. I would argue that from the earliest days of globalisation there was return of the national question as nation states attempted to define themselves in the new global dispensation. In many cases this has taken a benign form, particularly in Britain, but disorientating nonetheless. The case of Northern Ireland has been more torturous but it could be argued that globalisation has facilitated a peaceful path, as the Republic of Ireland can no longer be viewed as a ‘priest-ridden backwater’ (as the pro-Unionist saying went, back in the day) and northern Republicans chose a path of social democracy. Talking of political journeys both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party has transformed themselves from pro-Mussolini parties to modern, left leaning, social democratic organisations, which see their future as more secure under the ‘umbrella’ of the European Union.
Not only is the union under great strain. The two-party system that used to be the order of the day is now looking worn at the edges. The rise of UKIP as a political force has altered the landscape, and in many ways it forced David Cameron’s hand in calling the referendum in the first place. Despite UKIP being an unstable element, unprofessional, prone to in-fighting (literally in the case of the MEPs Stephen Woolfe and Mike Hookem) and political missteps it has managed to be a disrupting influence on the body politic.
It could be said that this very break up of the two-party system began with the appearance of the SDP in 1979, an event that, it has been argued, has its roots in the 1975 referendum and the arguments and splits inside Labour that the European issue generated.
Then add the banking crisis of 2007 into this mix. As with all economic downturns this has fostered a toxic political atmosphere, which has only helped to fuel Euroscepticism.
All of these processes are interconnected in a way that is impossible to unravel precisely, however it has created a perfect storm into which the notion of Euroscepticism has been able to grow and hold sway over the United Kingdom. This has ultimately led to Article 50 and divorce (for the moment) from the European Union, which was a result that the political establishment, in both 1975 and 2016, tried to hold at bay. They succeeded forty-one years ago but failed spectacularly last summer. This represents a huge challenge to and for that establishment, but also for the leaders of the European Union. Is it possible to create a European public sphere strong enough to mitigate each nation viewing the EU through its own narrow national narratives? The answer to this question will determine the very future of the European Union as a viable institution.
Boyle, N (2017) The problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team. The New European, 17 January. Available at:
(Accessed: 16 March 2017)
Butler, D., Kitzinger, U. (1996) The 1975 Referendum London, Macmillan Press Ltd
Fotley (2009), Britain in Europe.mp4 Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZxzw41HpiE (Accessed 20 March 2017)
Greenslade, R. (2016) Did national papers’ pro-European bias in 1975 affect the referendum? The Guardian, 4 February.
(Accessed: 08 March 2017)
Gresham College (2014) The Referendum on Europe, 1975 Available at: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-referendum-on-europe-1975 (Accessed: 08 March 2017)
Tarditi, V. (2010) ‘The Scottish National Party’s changing attitude towards the European Union’, EPERN Working Paper No.22 Available at:
(Accessed 20 March 2017)
 For the purposes of this piece the term ‘Europe’ refers to the political and economic construct of European institutions rather than as a geographic space.
 West Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg