Joining the Common Market – An overview of the referendum in 1975
The Referendum Saga: A look at the parallels from nearly fifty years ago
Four decades ago, a pivotal decision shaped the course of a nation’s history. The choice was whether to remain a part of what was then called the Common Market or to make a daring exit. The story of the referendum campaign was nothing short of a tragicomic tale, featuring an unlikely alliance of bedfellows. Today, as history repeats itself in a new referendum, let’s journey back to those times and draw parallels to the present day.
**Tiptoeing into a Brothel: A Bold Move**
Embarking on a decision as significant as a referendum felt like tiptoeing into the unknown, much like entering a brothel. The sense of daring, uncertainty, and the potential for pleasure or pain created an atmosphere of tension and curiosity. During that era, I produced several films documenting the referendum, each echoing themes that resonate even today. Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how perspectives have shifted while some stark differences remain.
**The Labour Cabinet’s Dilemma**
At the heart of the campaign was the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, seeking to keep his party united in the face of growing Euroscepticism. His strategy was to promise renegotiations followed by a referendum, an audacious move that allowed his ministers to openly campaign against each other. The Labour cabinet, divided into pro-market centrists led by Roy Jenkins and Eurosceptic left-wingers led by Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, exemplified the complex dynamics at play.
**Behind Closed Doors: Secret Strategies**
While public debates raged, the behind-the-scenes actions were equally intriguing. Secret meetings convened at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel, where politicians from rival camps discreetly gathered. This eclectic mix of individuals, who would never have shared a public space, engaged in confidential discussions that shaped the course of the campaign. The veil of secrecy added allure to the process, much like the exclusive rooms and soft biscuits that adorned these gatherings.
**The Yes and No Campaigns: A Clash of Narratives**
The campaign to remain within the Common Market, led by figures like Roy Jenkins, embodied the narrative that staying was not just sensible but vital for stability and peace in Europe. On the other side, the no campaign, spearheaded by Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, and other anti-market forces, positioned leaving as an act of sovereignty, challenging the very fabric of British identity. The media’s portrayal of Benn as a bogeyman and the diverse mix of anti-market leaders worked to the advantage of the pro-European strategy.
**Media Influence and Political Motivations**
Media played a significant role in shaping public opinion, with the vast majority of newspapers endorsing the stay campaign. The media’s stance fueled a perception that those advocating for exit were unreliable or even dangerous, thus reinforcing the narrative that staying was the only logical choice. The clash between Benn’s anti-market stance and Margaret Thatcher’s strong pro-European stance also highlighted their personal ambitions and motivations within the campaign.
**The Power of Numbers and Claims**
Tony Benn’s claim of half a million job losses and skyrocketing food prices due to Common Market membership demonstrated the power of bold statements. This technique of doubling down on claims when challenged showed the extent to which numbers and assertions could influence public perception. However, such tactics also painted Benn as an unreliable source, as critics argued that his economic predictions lacked credibility.
**The Outcome and Aftermath**
When the votes were counted, the outcome revealed a resounding victory for the “yes” camp, with a two-to-one margin in favor of remaining in the Common Market. This result marked a near-triumph for Roy Jenkins and his like-minded allies, setting the stage for future political developments, including the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
**A Deja Vu in Today’s Referendum**
Fast-forward four decades, and history appears to be repeating itself. As the nation faces another pivotal referendum, the echoes of the past are striking. A fresh wave of Euroscepticism and a new campaign have emerged, mirroring some of the debates and divisions of the past. The resurgence of arguments over sovereignty, economic impact, and national identity feels like a déjà vu moment, transporting us back to the intricate web of narratives and motivations that characterized the first referendum.
The referendum of 40 years ago remains a defining moment in the UK’s history, offering valuable insights into the dynamics of decision-making, the power of media, and the complexities of political motivations. As we witness a new chapter unfold, the parallels between then and now serve as a reminder that history not only shapes the present but also has a remarkable way of repeating itself, bringing both nostalgia and lessons for the future.
A fact that I have found very interesting in my research in to the course of events in 1975, were as follows:
- Nearly all the newspapers, with the exception of two or three obscure publications, were in favour of remaining in the Common Market
- The Labour administration at the time, led by Harold Wilson, were strongly in favour of remaining.
- Margaret Thatcher, who had recently been elected as leader of the Conservatives, was PASSIONATELY in favour of the remaining.
- It is on the record, that Margaret Thatcher, later admitted hiding the agenda for ‘ever closer union’ from the public, because ‘they were not ready for that yet’
- Tony Benn (Labour) was passionately against remaining and his position, and that of all ‘leavers’ was labelled ‘Marxist’
- Alistair McAlpine, who’s family owned the Dorchester, was very influential within the yes campaign, is on the record, stating that there was massive contribution from the banks. He had even arranged a secret meeting at the Dorchester, in order to form a ‘strategy of influence’
Whichever side of the fence you may be, it seems that one fact is certain, the question of Europe has been and remains, one of the most toxic issues in British politics. it matters not what people support, provided that they are freely permitted to express their opinion and more importantly, that we all respect the fundamental basis of Democracy and welcome different points of view and then respect a fair ballot.
However, the media and those who influence them behind the scenes, have successfully impregnated the British electorate with so much hate and anger, that any vote, any opinion and any position will invariably be the cause for hostility.
Sadly, I see no solution to this. Even now, I am seeing the following narrative in the media quite frequently:
“Most of those who voted to leave in 2016 are now dead, so we have been taken out of the EU by dead people”
I am not certain how I should react to this position, but in response, I would say, that many of the people who voted to remain in 1975, were the very same people who began to support leaving by the mid 1980s, what do we say about them?
When manipulation of the masses by the media, the government and those in a position of power, reaches the levels that it has in this debate, society as a whole suffers and whatever happens in the future, this issue is sadly tearing our country apart.