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The way we were: the 1975 Referendum

Extracts from memoirs and diaries

By Ian Irvine   March 2016

Barbara Castle supported the "no" campaign at an Oxford Union debate ©Ray Roberts/Rex Shutterstock

Read more: The way we were—Britain and refugees

On 5th June 1975, the first UK referendum took place on the question “Do you think the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market)?”. The country had joined in 1973. The UK’s terms were renegotiated by Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, and James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary in 1974. Ian Mikardo, a longstanding left-wing MP and chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, observes:

I never believed at any time that [Wilson’s] position was genuinely agnostic… All those people with whom he was negotiating knew that in the final issue whatever he got or didn’t get he was going to say yes. That being so there was no great occasion for him to be given much, and he knew he wasn’t going to get much.”

In December 1974, Hugo Young, Political Editor of the Sunday Times, notes in his diary after lunch with Tony Benn:

“Benn now takes great personal credit for his referendum idea. When he first uttered it, in 1968, he claims he was almost run out of Cabinet. In December 1970, only James Callaghan in the Shadow Cabinet admitted that ‘Tony has launched a dinghy into which we may one day be very happy to climb, to escape from the storm.’”

On 2nd June 1975, Michael Palin writes in his diary:

“Referendum Day is Thursday… I am still undecided… Either to stay in Europe and keep up with the fast pace of material progress which undoubtedly has made France and Germany quite attractive places to live in, or to have the confidence to break from the incentive and the protection of Europe and become a one country independent free trader as in the good old days.

“For once a major politico-economic issue in Britain has not been debated on purely class lines… Only the implacable revolutionaries, who see the Common Market as a purely and quite reprehensibly capitalist device, seem to have unity in the ranks. I will probably vote ‘no’ as a vote against the smugness and complacency of the over-subscribed ‘yes’ campaign.”

Alistair McAlpine, the Treasurer of the “yes” campaign, later observed:

“The whole thrust of our campaign was to depict the anti-marketeers as unreliable people… Anybody who proposed that we came out was off their rocker or virtually Marxist.”

On 3rd June 1975, Barbara Castle, Health and Social Services Secretary in the Labour government, supported the “no” campaign at a debate at the Oxford Union. She writes in her diary:

“I sat down to the thinnest applause of the evening… I knew I had been a flop, but my only feeling was one of relief that I had survived at all. The most remarkable phenomenon of the evening was [Edward] Heath… They gave him a standing ovation at the end… Peter [Shore] and I drove back to London and I just wanted to die. I don’t mind being beaten—except by myself.”

During the debate she had been asked by Jeremy Thorpe if she would stay on as a minister if the vote was yes. She replied; “If the vote is yes, the country will need me to save it.” (In 1979, she was elected as a Member of the European Parliament where she remained for ten years.)

On 5th June 1975, Tony Benn, Industry Secretary, writes in his diary:

“Melissa [his daughter] and I walked to St Peter’s church hall, Portobello Road, where we cast our votes… Back to Bristol [his constituency] where Caroline [his wife] met me and we drove around in a lorry for four hours with the loudspeaker simply shouting ‘No to the Common Market.’

“I rang Frances [his political adviser]… ‘Oh well, people are sick of elections, they are glad it is settled. Harold has scored a tremendous triumph.’”

On 6th June 1975, Kenneth Tynan, critic and impresario, notes in his diary:

“The Common Market referendum has locked us into the crumbling fortress of western capitalism. Roy Jenkins, interviewed on television after the result was announced, made an unguarded remark…Asked to explain why the public had voted as it had. Jenkins… smugly replied: ‘They took the advice of the people they are used to following.’”

On 15th June 1975, Nicholas Henderson, the British ambassador in Bonn, Switzerland, observes in his diary:

“We are still in a state of post-referendum euphoria attenuated only by disappointment with the limited nature of Wilson’s Cabinet reshuffle… The day after the referendum result was known I went to Brussels to talk things over with Michael Palliser [Ambassador to the European Communities] and Eddy Tomkins [Ambassador in Paris]… Eddy said that the Quai d’Orsay were pleased with the referendum… I asked him how Margaret Thatcher had gone down in Paris on her recent visit. He said, ‘Surprisingly well, particularly with Chirac.’”

Now read: The way we were: Attitudes to the BBC

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