United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975
The United Kingdom referendum of 1975 was a post-legislative referendum held on 5 June 1975 in the United Kingdom to gauge support for the country's continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), often known as the Common Market at the time, which it had entered in 1973 under the Conservative government of Edward Heath. Labour's manifesto for the October 1974 general election promised that the people would decide "through the ballot box" whether to remain in the EEC. The electorate expressed significant support for EEC membership, with 67% in favour on a 65% turnout. This was the first referendum that was held throughout the entire United Kingdom; previously, other referendums had been arranged only in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Greater London and individual towns. It remained the only UK-wide referendum until the United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011.
The February 1974 general election yielded a Labour minority government, which then won a majority in the October 1974 general election. Labour pledged in its February 1974 manifesto to renegotiate the terms of British accession to the EEC, and to then consult the public on whether Britain should stay in the EEC on the new terms if they were acceptable to the government. The Labour Party had traditionally feared the consequences of EEC membership, such as the large differentials between the high price of food under the Common Agricultural Policy and the low prices prevalent in Commonwealth markets, as well as the loss of economic sovereignty and the freedom of governments to engage in socialist industrial policies, and party leaders stated their opinion that the Conservatives had negotiated unfavourable terms for Britain. The EEC heads of government agreed to a deal in Dublin by 11 March 1975; Wilson declared "I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved", and that the government would recommend a vote in favour of continued membership. On 9 April, the House of Commons voted 396 to 170 to continue within the Common Market on the new terms. In tandem with these developments, the government drafted a Referendum Bill, to be moved in case of a successful renegotiation.
The referendum debate was an unusual time for British politics. During the campaign, the Labour Cabinet was split and its members campaigned on each side of the question, a rare breach of Cabinet collective responsibility. Most votes in the House of Commons in preparation for the referendum were only carried thanks to opposition support, and the government faced several defeats on technical issues such as election counts. Finally, although the government declared in advance that it would adhere to the result, the referendum itself was not binding upon the government in the strict legal sense, due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. This principle would itself come into question as a consequence of EEC membership in the Factortame litigation.
In April 1970, during the 1970 general election, Edward Heath said that further European integration would not happen “except with the full-hearted consent of the Parliaments and peoples of the new member countries.” However, no referendum was held when the UK agreed to an accession treaty on 22 January 1972 with the EEC states, Denmark, Ireland and Norway, or when the European Communities Act 1972 went through the legislative process. The UK joined what would become the European Union with Denmark and Ireland on 1 January 1973.
Throughout this period, the Labour Party was divided, both on the substantive issue of EEC accession and on the question of whether accession ought to be approved by referendum. In 1971, pro-Market figures like Roy Jenkins, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, said a Labour government would have agreed to the terms of accession secured by the Conservatives. However, the National Executive Committee and the Labour Party Conference disapproved of the terms. In April 1972, the anti-Market Conservative MP Neil Marten tabled an amendment to the European Communities Bill which called for a consultative referendum on entry. Labour had previously opposed a referendum, but the Shadow Cabinet decided to support Marten's amendment. Jenkins resigned as Deputy Leader in opposition to the decision, and many Labour MPs abstained on the division.
At the February 1974 general election, Labour's manifesto promised renegotiation of the United Kingdom's terms of membership, to be followed by a consultative referendum on continued membership under the new terms if they were acceptable. In the October 1974 manifesto, this was changed to the promise that Labour would "give the British people the final say, which will be binding on the Government – through the ballot box – on whether we accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and come out." This could be interpreted as including the option of an election in 1975; however, Labour won a working majority, and a third election would be unusual after two in quick succession.
The government introduced a Referendum Bill in 1975. The question asked to the British people would be: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market)?" The referendum, the first nationwide plebiscite to be held in the UK during the 20th century, was of constitutional significance. Referendums had been widely opposed in the past on the grounds that they violated the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The first in the UK was the Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973. The government favoured a single national count of votes; the Liberal Party favoured individual counts in each constituency; however, the majority in the House of Commons voted for counts by administrative regions. The government did not set down any special threshold of "Yes" votes for approval of the referendum; a simple majority would suffice to win the vote.
The referendum was called in April 1975. Since Prime Minister Harold Wilson's cabinet was split between supporters and opponents of the Common Market, and since members of each side held their views strongly, he made the decision, unprecedented outside coalition government, to suspend the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility. Cabinet members would be allowed to publicly campaign against each other. In total, seven of the twenty-three members of the cabinet opposed EEC membership. Wilson's solution was that ministers speaking from the despatch box would reflect government policy, i.e. support for EEC membership, but that they would be allowed to speak freely otherwise. This compromise avoided mass dismissals of Cabinet ministers, with only Eric Heffer among all government ministers being obliged to resign, due to his speaking against EEC membership in the House of Commons.
The "Yes" campaign was officially supported by Wilson's Government and the majority of his cabinet, including the holders of three other Great Offices of State: Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary; and Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary. It was also supported by the majority of the Conservative Party including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher, the Liberal Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.
The "No" campaign included the left wing of the Labour Party, including the cabinet ministers Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore, Eric Varley, and Barbara Castle. Some Labour "No" supporters, including Varley, were on the right wing of the party, but most were from the left. The No campaign also included a large number of Labour backbenchers; upon the division on a pro-EEC White Paper about the renegotiation, 148 Labour MPs opposed their own government's measure, whereas only 138 supported it and 32 abstained. Some members of the Conservative Party also supported the "No" campaign, although there were far fewer Eurosceptic figures in the Parliamentary Conservative Party in 1975 than there would be during later debates on Europe, such as the accession to the Maastricht Treaty. Most of the Ulster Unionist Party were for No in the referendum, most prominently the former Conservative minister Enoch Powell, who after Foot was the second most prominent anti-Marketeer in the campaign. Other parties supporting the "No" campaign included the Democratic Unionist Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and parties outside Parliament including the National Front and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Official party positions
Conservative and Liberal Party conferences consistently supported EEC membership for several years up to 1975. At a Labour Party conference on 26 April 1975, the Labour membership rejected continuing EEC membership by almost a 2:1 margin. Tony Benn said "We have had a conference and the decision is clear ... It is very clear that there now must be a move for the Labour Party to campaign." The majority of the Labour Party leadership was strongly for continuing membership, and the margin of the party vote was not a surprise, since only seven of forty-six trade unions present at the conference supported EEC membership. Prior to the conference, the party had decided that if the conference voted by a margin of 2:1 or more in favour of a particular option, it would then support that position in the referendum campaign. Otherwise, the "party machine" would remain neutral. Therefore, the Labour Party itself did not campaign on either side.
The campaign, funding and media support
The government distributed pamphlets to every household in Britain written by the official Yes and No campaigns, together with its own pamphlet which argued in support of EEC membership. According to this pamphlet, "the most important (issues in the renegotiation) were FOOD and MONEY and JOBS".
During the campaign, almost the entirety of the mainstream national British press supported the "Yes" campaign. The communist Morning Star was the only notable national daily to back the "No" campaign. Television broadcasts was used by both campaigns, like party political broadcasts during general elections. They were broadcast simultaneously on all three terrestrial channels: BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV. They attracted audiences of up to 20 million viewers. The "Yes" campaign advertisements were thought to be much more effective, showing their speakers listening to and answering people's concerns, while the "No" campaign's broadcasts featured speakers reading from an autocue.
The "Yes" campaign enjoyed much more funding, thanks to the support of many British businesses and the Confederation of British Industry. According to the treasurer of the "Yes" campaign, Alastair McAlpine, "The banks and big industrial companies put in very large sums of money". At the time, business was "overwhelmingly pro-European", and Harold Wilson met several prominent industrialists to elicit support. It was common for pro-Europeans to convene across party and ideological lines with businessmen. John Mills, the national agent of the "No" campaign recalled "We were operating on a shoe-string compared to the Rolls Royce operation on the other side,". However, it was also the case that many civil society groups supported the "Yes" campaign, including the National Farmers Union and some trade unions.
Much of the "Yes" campaign focussed on the credentials of its opponents. According to Alastair McAlpine, "The whole thrust of our campaign was to depict the anti-Marketeers as unreliable people – dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path ... It wasn't so much that it was sensible to stay in, but that anybody who proposed that we came out was off their rocker or virtually Marxist.". Tony Benn controversially claimed "Half a million jobs lost in Britain and a huge increase in food prices as a direct result of our entry into the Common market", using his position as Industry Minister as an authority. His claims were ridiculed by the "Yes" campaign and ministers; the Daily Mirror labelled Benn the "Minister of Fear" and other newspapers were similarly derisive. Ultimately, the "No" campaign lacked a popular, moderate figure to play the public leadership role for their campaign that Jenkins and Wilson fulfilled in the "Yes" campaign.
National & regional results
The referendum asked voters:
- Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?
In total, over two-thirds of voters supported continued EEC membership. 67.2 percent voted Yes and 32.8 percent voted No. At council level, support for EEC membership was positively correlated with support for the Conservative Party and with average income. In contrast, poorer areas that supported Labour gave less support to the question. Approval was well above 60% in almost every council area in England and Wales, with the strongly Labour-supporting Mid Glamorgan being the exception. Scotland and Northern Ireland gave less support to the question than the UK average.
|County||Yes||No||Yes %||No %||Turnout %|
|Hereford and Worcester||203,128||75,779||72.8||27.2||66.4|
|Isle of Wight||40,837||17,375||71.2||29.8||67.5|
|Isles of Scilly||802||275||74.5||25.5||75.0|
|Tyne and Wear||344,069||202,511||62.9||37.1||62.7|
|Dumfries and Galloway||42,608||19,856||68.2||31.8||61.5|
|United Kingdom total||17,378,581||8,470,073||67.2||32.8||64.5|
Reactions and consequences
Prime Minister Harold Wilson called the vote a "historic decision". Roy Jenkins said "It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it." Tony Benn said "When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that's certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum."
The result strengthened Harold Wilson's tactical position, by securing a further post-election public expression of support for his policies. According to Cook and Francis (1979), "The left of his party had been appeased by the holding of a referendum, the right by its result". Following the result, the Labour Party and British trade unions themselves joined European institutions, such as the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, to which they had been reluctant to commit before public approval of EEC membership.
In the House of Commons, the issue of Europe had been effectively settled for two years, until the debate about direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1977.
- Referendums in the United Kingdom
- United Kingdom general election, February 1974
- United Kingdom general election, October 1974
- Withdrawal from the European Union
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- Full text of the accession act
- Transcript of government pamphlet advocating to vote to stay in the EEC
- Results for each county of Scotland
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- BBC coverage of the Referendum
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- Article "Andrew Glencross (2015), Looking Back to Look Forward: 40 Years of Referendum Debate in Britain"