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Debates

The UK and Europe

Lessons from the 1975 EU referendum

Dick Leonard / May 2016

Image: Shutterstock


The result was clear-cut: 67.23%- 32.77%. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all voted to keep the UK in the European Economic Community, as it was then called, and of 68 different voting areas, only two, the Western Isles and the Shetlands, voted to leave.

I was heavily involved, and strongly committed, during the campaign. Three years earlier I was one of the 69 Labour MPs who had voted against a three-line whip to approve the entry conditions negotiated by Ted Heath's government. This virtually signified the end of my brief parliamentary career, as my seat was due to be redistributed, and other constituencies looking for a new candidate were not interested in somebody who had "voted with the Tories".

I never regretted my vote, as - given my views - I would have lost all self-respect if I had done anything different. And, egotistically, I must confess to drawing particular satisfaction from the referendum result as justifying my earlier stand.

Looking back at 1975, it is possible to discern a number both of similarities and differences to the present situation. On the whole I find the comparison encouraging. On both occasions it was the anti-Europeans who pressed most strongly for a referendum to be called, convinced that it's result would be in their favour. Indeed, six months before the 1975 poll the opinion polls gave them an almost 2-1 advantage.

This time it has been different, with most polls showing a fairly small lead for the Remain side. There were a number of factors leading to the collapse of the antis' lead last time, not all of which are present today. One was the almost total commitment by the press to the pro-European side, only the ​Morning Star​, with its tiny circulation, backed the anti's.

This time, the mass of the press, is vehemently anti, not only all the tabloids, except the ​Daily Mirror​, but supposedly 'quality' papers like ​The Times​ and the Daily Telegraph.​ In terms of circulation, the antis' lead is massive, with only the ​Mirror, Guardian, FT ​and, ironically, the ​ Morning Star, ​on the Remain side.

In 1975 the 'yes' side was massively supported by trade and industry. Not only the CBI, but virtually every business, large or small was pro, and generously supported the yes campaign, which outspent its rivals by ten-to-one. This time business is predominantly on the Remain side, but not so monolithically. A significant number of firms, including some predominant hedgefunds, are financing Vote Leave, which seems to have ample funds at its disposal, while smaller firms are more evenly split, though probably only a minority of them are on the Leave side.

Balancing the loss of some business support, the trade unions have mostly rallied to the Remain side, while most of them were hostile in 1975. Much will depend on how active they are in urging their members to register and to vote.

In 1975 the evidence suggests that most voters followed the advice of their party leaders, and a large majority of both Liberals and Tories undoubtedly voted 'yes'. The Labour Party was badly split, with the Government and most party leaders being in favour, while the Labour Party conference was against. The opinion polls reported that Labour voters were almost equally split, with 52% voting in favour and 48% against.

This time it is the Tories who are split, and whose votes are likely to be divided, quite possibly with a majority voting Leave. Most Labour, Liberal and Ukip voters can be expected to follow the party line, but not overwhelmingly.

Much has been written about the likelihood of differential turnout, with elderly Tory and Ukip voters being much more likely to vote than younger Labour ones.

I've heard the view expressed that the tipping point will be a turn out of 60 percent. Above that the Remain side should be safe. Below it, they may be in trouble. Last time the turnout was 64.5%.

There is no doubt in my mind that an important element in the collapse of the 'no' vote last time was the 'urge to keep close to nurse, for fear of something worse'. What was true of 1975 may also apply to 2016.

Balancing all these factors together, I am optimistic about the result. Sticking my neck out, I predict that Remain will win by more than 55 per cent. 


Dick Leonard, together with Robert Taylor, is author of The Routledge Guide totheEuropeanUnion,publishedon31May. ReadersofE!Sharp! may buy it online at a discount of 20% at www.routledge.com/9781138670396, citing the code FLR40 at checkout. The price is£18.33 instead of£22.99.

Dick Leonard

Dick Leonard

May 2016

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