Voters weren’t conned in 1975 referendum

by Jack Schickler | 07.04.2016

Myth: Voters were conned in 1975 referendum

InFact: The last referendum debate was about politics as well as the Common Market. It was also clear that Europe was likely to change.

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When we last had a European referendum, in 1975, people voted two-to-one in favour of membership. Eurosceptics often claim the British people were conned: they were supposed to have voted for a “common market”, but Europe has since grown into something much larger. Yet the broader aims and aspirations of the European Community – as it was then known – were plain for all to see at the time.

The Community we joined “was supposed to be all about free trade”, says Daniel Hannan. Nigel Farage says voters were tricked at the time, but voters “were not getting – and have never got” what they were led to believe. Think tank Open Europe says voters felt “cheated”when political aspects, rather than a mere common market, came to the fore. Boris Johnson says that the project has “morphed and grown… to be unrecognisable”. MP Rebecca Harris says that, in contrast to the early days, the EU now “encroaches on almost every aspect of our lives”.

1975 debate was not just about a “common market”

These claims don’t stand up. Voters in 1975 were asked if they wanted to “stay in the European Community (the common market)”. But the debate was not simply about economics. The Yes campaign refer to the benefits for safety and security. The “political case” was “paramount”, said Margaret Thatcher. A few years before, Prime Minister Edward Heath had spoken of a “united Europe” and a “European destiny” – and in 1973 he stated in the Illustrated London News that “the Community we are joining is far more than a common market. It is a community in the full sense of that term”, citing the bloc’s ambitions in the field of environmental, social and vocational training policy. The Times editorial on referendum day referred in glowing terms to campaign speeches that had given a “sense of European development as an ideal”, and agreed we were part of a “European family”.

Eurosceptics imply the phrase “Common Market” was used by pro-Europeans to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. But, while the phrase appears extensively in the No campaign leaflet, their europhile counterparts use it hardly at all. Neither the Heath speeches nor the Times editorial cited above mention the phrase.

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    Always clear Europe would evolve

    Another Brexiteer complaint is that, whatever the project once was, it has grown, and evolved in the wrong direction. It’s true Europe has changed. There are now fewer areas where we have a veto, and more power for the European Parliament. While the UK is out of the euro and the Schengen free-travel zone, they change the EU’s dynamics. New members from the east have increased the impact of the free movement of people.

    But many of the changes Brexiteers dislike and claim they were misled about – free movement, harmonised taxation, social and labour provisions, the supremacy of European law – were spelled out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, whose preamble also referred to an “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

    In 1970, Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home acknowledged – and seemed to welcome – that the institutions would evolve. The UK government’s 1971 White Paper said it was “inevitable” Europe’s external policies would broaden as interests harmonised, arguing the UK should be on the inside when that happened. Further new ideas were being sketched out even before the referendum: in 1972, EU leaders, including Heath, called for for an EU environment policy, economic and monetary union, and transformation into a “European Union”.

    It is right to say the European Community has changed since the seventies, and not just in name. It is wrong to say that the nature of the project, and how it might evolve, were hidden from voters in the last referendum.

    This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared on InFacts. It was amended on 23 May to include a reference to the Illustrated London News article by Heath. 

    Edited by Michael Prest

    Tags: , , , Categories: Articles

    8 Responses to “Voters weren’t conned in 1975 referendum”

    • I think that more could be done for the ‘remainers’ by publicity along the lines of a letter published in 2014 by The western Morning News,. 18 November 2014, headed – Whats the EU Ever Done For Us? Read it and update if necessary. Excellent arguments at local level.


    • This article assumes that the vast majority of voters were deeply engaged with political debate at the time. But it is highly unlikely they ever paid any attention to Edward Heath’s more far-fetched and ambitious plans (cited above).
      If you read the Yes leaflet, it is optimistic in the extreme to think that it was making a case for ever-closer union.
      In 2016, the remnant of that very same two thirds majority (people like my parents) rejected the EU. How could they be so disappointed in the EU if what the above article claims is true?

    • The claims made in the YES leaflet from “Britain In Europe” were either obviously misleading at the time or subsequently invalidated.

      The leaflet said that the members of the EEC had done “better than we have over the past 15 years.” This was true of Switzerland which had stayed out. “All decisions of any importance must be agreed by every member”. The concept of a veto was not known to the Treaty Of Rome. The “veto” based on the Luxembourg Compromise had no existence in law. This was shown when Britain attempted to invoke the veto over farm prices in May 1982 and failed to make it stick. “[W]e shall continue to receive aid from the Community’s Regional Fund”. The UK has been a net contributor over the years to the EU/EEC budget. The leaflet also contains what may have been a joke. It says: “Britain, as a country which cannot feed itself, will be safer in the Community which is almost self sufficient in food. Otherwise we may find ourselves standing at the end of a world food queue.” How many countries have joined in order to avoid starvation?

    • As usual a biased view from yet anothet so called fact finder when in fact this website is giving an opinion. Did the people know about the four freedoms? People in 2006 didn’t even know about free movement. They were horrified when they found out. People in the 70s followed mainstream media and radio more often than now. There was no internet back then, no social media, no high percentage of those in higher education and definitely no Nigel Farage.

    • The words by Edward Heath in 1971 were in a letter to the Illustrated London News. This rag had such a small readership that it had gone from weekly to monthly publication. The letter he wrote was not publicised widely and was not part of the debate.

      It is interesting to note that this reference was only added later by the author, presumably because he stumbled across it.

      I was alive and politically aware at the time of the debate and cannot recall any such declaration being made widely by Heath. Indeed, he later sought to stop this getting out via the EEC.

      The article above distorts the reality of the actual campaign by using the equivalent of a whispered aside.

    • All anybody who wants to know the truth needs to do is to look at the pamphlet which was sent to voters by the prime minister at the time Harold Wilson. The document repeatedly mentions the common market and the consequences of not being in it and has no mention of future political union. This whole article is complete garbage.

    • Great article, and one that reflects my recollection of the 1975 debate. However…

      Second-to-last paragraph opens with “In 1970, Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home acknowledged – and seemed to welcome – that the institutions would evolve” and links to a speech given by the Foreign Secretary to the IPC Dinner on 12 January 1970.

      But the For Sec in January 1970 was still Labour’s Michael Stewart. Heath’s Conservative government (and Sir Alec as For Sec) didn’t come in to power until June.

      (Thinking about it, the speaker’s praise for the Daily Mirror in the first paragraph does seem very out of character for Douglas-Home…)

      Clarification or rectification, please?

    • I’ve checked out the rag and it had 300,000 readers at its best, so no it’s highly unliKely that anyone spotted it. As for all of the leaflets that eyou’ve shown I find them highly suspicious as we got just one on the Common Market and nothing more. There was n mention of anything else.