The EU Referendum: 1975 and Now

Dr Helen Parr
Senior Lecturer in International Relations – SPIRE

How does the 2016 referendum on staying in the EU compare to Britain’s 1975 referendum on remaining in the EEC?

The simple fact is, it doesn’t.

The circumstances of the 1975 referendum and this year’s referendum are completely different. Perhaps the only similarity is that both Harold Wilson and David Cameron were moved to call referenda to help to keep their political parties together.

In 1975, Britain had only just joined the European Community. Now, Britain has been a member for 40 years. The stakes are higher now: pulling out would be a much greater change in Britain’s political life than it would have been in 1975. We take the EU for granted – the free movement of people, and the free movement of goods – in a way that wasn’t possible then. The irony is, that if Britain votes out of the EU, but if, in Scotland, there was a majority for staying in, it could trigger another referendum on Scottish independence. If that voted to leave, then Britain – or rather, England – would be a very different country to the one we live in now. In 1975, the whole of the political mainstream wanted to stay inside the EEC. Margaret Thatcher campaigned alongside Harold Wilson to remain inside the EEC. The most prominent figures who campaigned vigorously to leave were Tony Benn and Michael Foot, on Labour’s left, and Enoch Powell, on the Conservative right. Business almost uniformly supported Britain staying in. Supermarkets issued carrier bags with ‘vote yes’ written on them. And importantly, the British press, except the Morning Star, thought that Britain should stay in the European Community. Now, one key political figure with leadership aspirations is campaigning to leave, and, while Labour seems fairly firm behind staying in, the Conservative Party is divided at all levels on the question. Business is mainly in favour of remaining in, but important parts of the British press want to go.


Yes and No pamphlets from the 1975 referendum (BBC Online, 2016)

In 1975, 67% of the British people voted to stay in. The only areas that voted against were Shetland and the Western Isles. It was an emphatic victory for the ‘staying in’ camp. Now, opinion seems more finely balanced. People in Britain have forgotten about the devastation of the Second World War and the reasons why it was a good idea for Europe to unite in the first place. People are less prone to trust politicians than they were in 1975, and this might be one reason why a vote of ‘leave’could also sometimes be a vote of dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians.

Cameron will campaign hard to stay in, as Wilson did, but he has, if anything, a bigger mountain to climb. This is the case even though the considerations that led Britain to join – that the alternatives are worse – have not changed.


Dr Helen Parr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on contemporary British history and British foreign policy, particularly towards the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. She has published widely in these areas, and is currently working on a history of the Falklands War. More on Helen’s research can be found here


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