The EU and the EEC referendum: how much has changed?

With political landscapes always changing it is easy to believe that the decisions we make are fresh and new. With the referendum today (the 23rd of June), Britain has an opportunity to reflect on its position in Europe. This decision is vastly important, but it is a decision that Britons have made before. The 1975 referendum on UK’s role in the European Economic Community has striking similarities to the debates and factors at play today. This article will consider the economic, political and public factors at play that chimed between the two referendums, just a few decades apart. Differences in terminology should be first addressed: the Remain campaign now was the Yes campaign in 1975, the Leave of today was once the No; Brexit is a term which is reserved for the current debate. The European Union was previously the European Economic Community, which was also referred to as the Common Market.

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The cynical interpretation of both the current and the previous referendum is to view it in the context of political turmoil and party disunity. As Nicholas Crowson notes, Harold Wilson’s decision to call a referendum was provoked by “very real splits within the Labour leadership”. Wilson was able to diffuse these party tensions further by breaching Cabinet collective responsibility – an arrangement in which Cabinet ministers publicly agree on their Government policy. Allowing the Labour Cabinet to campaign on opposite sides put to bed frustrations over party allegiances and direction after the decision came through to stay. Ultimately, the divisions within Labour would build momentum until the split with Roy Jenkins leading the Social Democratic Party six years later. James Callaghan saw the EEC as a “life-raft we would all have to climb aboard”; it was perhaps the only solution to mend divided party. David Cameron also leads a party rife with Euroscepticism and this referendum was a chance to move beyond the inner party turmoil over Europe, to be more united on policy aims. Like Wilson, Cameron leveraged the referendum in an attempt to renegotiate Britain’s membership in the EU (or then the EEC). Like Wilson, Cameron did not achieve the fundamental shifts in Britain’s membership that were sought after.

Economic conditions

The economic climate of Britain now looks very different to its form in 1975. With a persistent balance of payment crisis gripping the country, partly a result of the quadrupling of the world oil prices in 1973-74, Britain seemed vulnerable. Britain was not just weaker; it was weaker relative to its European counterparts. During the Golden Age of growth from 1950 to 1973, Britain’s growth in productivity, (GDP per capita), was at 2.5% whilst an average of several Western European countries sat at 3.8%. The prices of food were also briefly lower within the Common Market – a result of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – than at the world market prices. Access to cheaper foodstuffs was certainly appealing, but generally the stronger and more prosperous period of the Golden Age of Europe meant that Britons were far happier to look outwards. In contrast to the current period where prospects for the EU are bleak, public opinion throughout Europe was optimistic in 1975. An irresponsible conflation of arguments combined with the weaknesses and recent turmoil of the Eurozone have given credence to the current Leave campaign in a way that was not possible to the 1975 No campaign. In recent years Britain has also performed reasonably well relative to other member states – giving more of an incentive to turn and look inwardly.

Economic arguments

The economic arguments for remaining are strikingly similar between the two referendums. In a campaign leaflet for the 1975 referendum, remaining was sold as “the best framework for success, the best protection for our standard of living, the best foundation for greater prosperity”. One major difference here is the optimism present in the Yes campaign, perhaps because Europe was faring better or simply because Britain had not been a member for very long, but there was greater potential for Britons to be more excited and enthused by the prospect of integration with Europe. Monetary union and ever-closer integration were seen as positive and almost inevitable. Whilst the Remain campaign has adopted a more fearful and negative tone, the arguments between the two run parallel; Roy Jenkins warned in 1975 that “to come out would be an altogether greater scale of self-inflicted injury. It would be a catastrophe. It would leave us weak and unregarded”. Bleak forecasts of economic turmoil are as ubiquitous now as they were then. The IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) have predicted another two years of austerity if Britain leaves; economists warn of economic turmoil, so much so that Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has become impartial. In 1975 Jo Grimmond, leader of the Liberal Party, noted how leaving the Common Market could only cause “fiercer inflation and even higher unemployment”. Now, slightly more refined, economists highlight the risks of leaving with more than providing staunch predictions. The concerns over agricultural policy ring between both referendums. The CAP, in a pamphlet for the No campaign, “propped up inefficient farmers on the Continent by keeping food prices high”. Britain was “paying many hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the Brussels budget, largely to subsidise Continental farmers.” The former point has lingered on into the Brexit debate: poor agricultural policy has come at odds with Britain’s push for liberalism, trade expansion and efficiency. The pervasiveness of poor agricultural policies has served, both then and now, to bolster the concerns over supranational legislation. Finally, there is an identical back-and-forth argument over what would happen to trade in the event of leaving. A vote No pamphlet argues, similarly to the current debate, that leaving Europe would mean that “tariffs on British exports would be very low. It is scare-mongering to pretend that withdrawal from the Common Market would mean heavy unemployment or loss of trade”. The rebuttal, also identical to now, highlights that beyond the uncertainty and risk involved with such assumptions, negotiating a new free-trade treaty with Europe would not be easy and its conditions would likely be harsh. Arguments now highlight the added incentive of Europe to deter other member states from leaving by punishing Britain if it votes to leave.


The most noteworthy difference between the two referendums is the international context within which they took place. Where the threat of the Cold War loomed and whilst peace in Europe seemed likely – particularly after the Golden Age of growth – it was not guaranteed. The EEC was less explicit than the EU about fostering political unity and peace, but it served to do just that. That pressure is less present in the current debate, and there are not the same external fears nor are there similar internal tensions to those that troubled the continent in the last century. Leave campaigners have, in some cases, played on this fear of conflict: Boris Johnson argued that “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”.


An argument made in favour of having the previous referendum was that a change had been made to the British constitution without any mandate from the people. The strongest push for both the Leave campaign today and the No campaign in 1975 has been one for democracy, the right to self-govern and national sovereignty.  As Tony Benn, leader of the No campaign, wrote: “Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation and the end of our democratically elected Parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom”. An unelected authority without proper lines of accountability making decisions that affected Britons worried both No and Leave campaigners most of all. This desire for a more honest democracy gives those who fight and fought to leave the chance to sculpt more positive campaigns based on self-determination. A leaflet entitled ‘Why you should vote no’ European-referendum-1975-1argued that “those who want Britain in the Common Market are defeatists; they see no independent future for our country. Your vote will affect the future of your country for generations to come. We say: Let’s rule ourselves, while trading and remaining friendly with other nations. We say: No rule from Brussels. We say: Vote No.” The argument against national sovereignty remains unchanged. The case against is a pragmatic one, that avoids the idealism of self-governance. As the ‘Why you should vote Yes’ leaflet elaborated, “In the modern world it just is not practicable. […] The world’s troubles, the world’s wars inevitably dragged us in. Much better to work together to prevent them happening. Today we are even more dependent on what happens outside. Our trade, our jobs, our food, our defence cannot be wholly within our own control. That is why so much of the argument about sovereignty is a false one”. With the recent shock of the 1973 oil crisis, the argument that globalisation necessitated closer integration and a departure from isolation would have seemed compelling. Another argument made then, as well as today, is simply whether the price of the described ideal is worth it. As the same pamphlet explained: “We would be clinging to the shadow of British sovereignty while its substance flies out the window”. The arguments could not converse then, and similarly fail to now, as idealism and pragmatism do not sit comfortably together. The strongest refutation of the sovereignty argument focuses on the limits to national laws if we leave. Currently if Britain desires access to the Single Market it will have to agree to EU legislation; the argument made by the Remain campaign is that at least Britain will be able to influence this legislation from within the EU. If Britain chooses to leave, supranational law will still be adhered to if trade with Europe is desired, but no input from Britain will be given. In another 1975 government-produced pamphlet, this pragmatism is highlighted: “decisions taken in Brussels – in which Britain would have no voice – would affect British trade and therefore British jobs. Britain would no longer have any say in the future economic and political development of the Common Market. Nor on its relations with the rest of the world – particularly on the help to be given to the poorer nations of the world. We would just be outsiders looking in.”

Public understanding and trends

The referendum has reached a far higher profile in the current debate, while Europe had been something of a secondary concern for Britons in 1975. Wider public access through social media and other technological resources allows for this higher level of engagement in the present day. Public understanding of the issues at hand was also once weaker, economic concepts were less understood – in a poll a decade prior to the 1975 referendum only a third of people asked understood what inflation meant. The composition of those who make up the leave and remain camps has shifted between each referendum. John Campbell notes of how the 1975 Yes campaign was led by “the mavericks, romantics and extremists from all parties”. It seems that for the current debate the reverse is true, with the extremists across parties uniting behind Leave. The two referendums also demonstrate a shift in political governance; in 1975 calling a referendum was experimental, undermining parliamentary sovereignty, whilst now there is a European trend towards referendums. The younger demographic in particular are more easily swayed by micro-politics – the politics of events and movements – as opposed to the traditional big-value or party style of politics.


The result is not likely to be as clear cut as it was in 1975 – with a two-to-one decision for remaining. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Britain has experimented yet again with another form of governance. If Britons decide to remain, then the debate over European integration will be likely put to bed for another few decades, as it was before. It is most surprising, when comparing the two referendums, how little has changed in terms of the fundamentals of the arguments. Political and national sovereignty is still the bed-rock to the leave campaign, whilst economic concerns of hardship and international decline are still core to the Remain campaign. The contexts and climates have shifted substantially post-1970s, but it seems Britain’s confusion over its role in Europe lingers on.

Written by Will Lloyd-Regan


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