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The EU Referendum in 1975, how Brexit started and the UK's relationship with EU


With just days to go until the UK begins life alone we'll be bringing you a series of features looking back at our strained relationship with Europe and exploring how we reached this point. In the first part political editor Paul Francis transports you back to where it all began.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sporting a sweater bearing the flags of European nations, in Parliament Square during her 'Yes to Europe' campaign Picture: PA
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sporting a sweater bearing the flags of European nations, in Parliament Square during her 'Yes to Europe' campaign Picture: PA

It was the year that the UK entry in the Eurovision Song contest - Let Me Be The One by The Shadows - got pipped to the post by oddly-named Dutch winners Tech-In with the unmemorable Ding-a-Dong.

A far more significant vote took place a few months later in 1975, when musical pride was not at stake but Britain's place in Europe was.

The government held a national referendum on whether the UK should continue to remain in what was then known as European Common Market or leave. It was the first national referendum to be in held in the UK and proved to be one with profound political consequences for the following 40 years.

Then, as now, there were deep divisions among the political parties over whether to stay or leave; but unlike the Brexit referendum in 2016, public opinion was firmly behind remaining.

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” asked the ballot paper. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.


The result was decisive: close to 70% of those who voted backed staying. In Kent, the result was emphatic, with 493,407 (68%) saying the UK should stay; compared to 207,358 (29%) saying we should leave.

That margin of victory was mirrored nationally, with 17,378,581(69%) saying yes compared to 8,470,073 (31%) saying no. Voters in Kent, the Gateway to Europe, had firmly rooted themselves as pro-European and it was to be decades later before the tide of popular opinion turned against Brussels.

So, why was the country solidly behind remaining in the European Community in 1975?

One explanation is that the campaign was framed by the question of whether the UK would be better off in than out in terms of the economy.

There were other issues, such as membership being central to peace and security, but the electorate was concerned about the cost of living above most other issues.

It is true that the official ‘out’ campaign group warned that the long term ambition was for the EU to become some kind of pan-European superstate but those siren voices were largely unheard with voters more concerned about the cost of living and rising prices.

EU leaflets 1975. Archive picture
EU leaflets 1975. Archive picture

This focus on trade and the economy was reflected by the description of opponents as “anti-marketeers,” long before being dubbed as “Eurosceptics”.

It made for some curious bedfellows, with the left-wing Labour minister Tony Benn and outspoken Conservative figure Enoch Powell both in the ‘no’ camp.

Even more extraordinary in 1975 was how the battle saw the political leaders of the main parties campaign from diametrically opposing positions: the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, who had earlier in the year become the first woman to lead a mainstream party, energetically championed remaining in the Common Market, warning the UK risked being isolated.

Some 15 years before making her farewell speech as Prime Minister in the Commons, declaring “no, no, no” to further integration, there was nothing ambiguous about her position.

In campaign speeches, she attacked the 'anti-Marketeers', saying “they would like us to insulate ourselves from the rest of Europe and isolate ourselves from the remainder of the world.”

Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on a visit to Ashford
Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on a visit to Ashford

The economic arguments were powerful, she said: “Membership of the community protects us from abnormally high prices and ensures us access to sufficient supplies at reasonable cost. To take a gamble of leaving Europe would be reckless in the extreme.”

While the Conservative party was broadly united in 1975 - unlike in 2016 - Labour was riven by splits with members of Harold Wilson’s cabinet bitterly divided.

Labour antipathy was summed up by Tony Benn, the minister who, during the campaign, warned that unless Britain voted to leave, "half a million jobs lost in Britain and a huge increase in food prices [would be] a direct result of our entry into the Common Market."

But unlike the Conservatives, Labour remained neutral on the issue. It did so after the party said it would back whatever members wanted so long as it was by a margin by 2:1. At a conference, that margin was not reached so the party did not campaign on either side.

It left Harold Wilson to declare that whatever people voted for, the government would respect - which 40 years later was the message from the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who also presided over a deeply divided cabinet.

Veteran left-winger Tony Benn opposed staying in the EEC in 1975 referendum Picture: Mark Bullimore
Veteran left-winger Tony Benn opposed staying in the EEC in 1975 referendum Picture: Mark Bullimore

Other factors that contributed to the result was that at the time of the referendum, the UK had only been part of the Common Market for two years and the first elections to the European Parliament were four years away, marking the point at which the debate about a political union really started.

Spending on the campaign was relatively modest, with both sides allocated £125,000 of public money to present their case - although there was no restriction on either side accepting private donations.

Popular support for remaining was reflected in the national press, which was altogether more positive about staying in the EEC. In the run-up to polling day, many newspapers carried scare stories about the impact of saying ‘no’. Typical was the Daily Mail, which carried an article headlined: 'A day in the life of Siege Britain: No coffee,wine, beans or bananas until further notice'.

Whether or not voters took much notice is a moot point, but the eventual verdict was seen by the press as the right one. The Guardian hailed it as a tonic for the UK and a tonic for Europe and concluded: “In Europe, Britain's future will be more prosperous and more secure... the result is a watershed successfully crossed.”

The positive view was echoed by The Daily Mirror, with a front page declaring: 'A Day In History: Great Britain goes into Greater Europe' while the Daily Express echoed: 'Super-Market: It's a three to one poll for Europe Yes'.

Headline news: How the national newspapers reported the result of 1975 referendum. Archive picture
Headline news: How the national newspapers reported the result of 1975 referendum. Archive picture

Some four decades later, there was a lot less enthusiasm in the media for what by then had burgeoned into the European Union.

An historic referendum in 2016 produced a political earthquake as voters turned their back on the EU. In Kent, the results in all but one area - Tunbridge Wells - showed the county known as Gateway to Europe had become underwhelmed by the concept of ever closer union.

Some four decades on and there was a lot less love for the EU. What had to some always been a marriage of convenience had soured and the optimism of 1975 replaced by growing antipathy.

Four decades on, the voters' verdict has led to a messy and painful political divorce with no prospect of a reconciliation.


Thatcher style

While she was later to become a byword for political power dressing, Margaret Thatcher was, in 1975, prevailed upon to wear a novelty sweater during the campaign.

She gamely appeared on the campaign trail with a jumper featuring the flags of the nine countries that made up the Common Market and was designed as a one-off for the newly appointed Conservative leader by a woollen mill in Scotland.

While no one knows what happened to the original garment, in 2016 it had a renaissance of sorts when reproduction of the jumper went on sale online during the campaign - at a cost of £45.

The Gateway to Europe

The 1975 referendum prompted the Kent Messenger to exhort voters to take part in the poll - and in an editorial ahead of the ballot, came close to endorsing the 'yes' campaign.

Headlined 'Why You Ought To Vote' it said the county had a "special interest" in the outcome and had "consistently and from the beginning supported the Britain In Europe role and still does. We hope and believe the people of Kent will vote yes."

KM urges people to vote in the 1975 poll
KM urges people to vote in the 1975 poll

It went on to emphasise to pro-marketeers that "every 'yes' vote was vital to counter every no-vote."

The outcome suggested that the remain supporters had heeded the warning.

How is Brexit going to affect Kent? For all the latest news, views and analysis visit our dedicated page here.

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