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The 1975 referendum and what the government told every household

The question asked in the referendum, held on June 6th, 1975 was:

Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (The Common Market)?

The government produced a pamphlet that was sent to every household in Britain, accompanied by statements by the Yes and No campaigns.   Copies of these documents are available on the Civitas website at < http://www.civitas.org.uk/eu-facts/the-1975-referendum >.

The government pamphlet explained that after long, hard negotiations ‘we are recommending to the British people that we should remain a member of the European Community.’  It claimed Harold Wilson had won ‘significant improvements’ in the terms of membership which ‘can give Britain a New Deal in Europe.’

Specifically, it claimed that

  • the Common Agricultural policy (known as CAP) would work more flexibly to the benefit of both housewives and farmers in Britain.
  • Britain’s contribution to the Community has been reduced (but it declined to say what it would be) and Britain stood to get back from the Community up to £125m a year
  • the threat of economic and monetary union had been removed
  • Commonwealth countries wanted us to remain a member
  • Parliamentary sovereignty was not threatened and ministers representing Britain in the European Communities could veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax

If we say no, the pamphlet argued,  there would be:

 ‘a period of uncertainty… a risk of making unemployment and inflation worse… Britain would no longer have any say in the future political and economic development of the Common Market… We  would just be outsiders looking in.’

Judging by the number of references to the subject, the most important consideration was that the UK would be a net recipient of various EC funds:

‘Inside the Market we can work to get more European Community money spent inside Britain…

More from the Social Fund for retraining workers in new jobs. Since we joined we have benefited from this Fund to the tune of over £20 million a year…

More from the Community’s new Regional Fund, which already stands to bring us £60 million in the next three years…

More from the Farm Fund when world prices are high. For instance, up to now we have obtained £40 million from this Fund to bring down the price of sugar in the shops…

More from the Coal & Steel funds and the European Investment Bank. Since we joined, arrangements have already been made for loans and grants of over £250 million…’

The pamphlet said nothing about where these EC funds which were to be distributed to the UK came from, and not a word about the UK contribution to the EC budget, nor about how much that sum had been reduced.

‘Not only was it wrong for us to deal superficially with what Europe involved, but we’ve paid the price for it ever since…  Joining the European Community did involve significant loss of sovereignty but by telling the British people that was not involved, I think the rest of the argument was prejudiced for the next 20 or 30 years.’

-Roy Hattersley, Minister of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs at the time of the referendum

Quoted by David Charter in his book ‘Au Revoir Europe’ (pp.21-22), quotes Roy Hattersley in ‘ A Letter to The Times’, BBC Radio 4, 3rd Feb 2000

It is difficult to imagine a more one-sided referendum campaign. The Yes campaign had the support of all three major parties. It used their resources as well as those of the civil service. It had the support of all the ex-prime ministers and innumerable members of the political, economic and cultural establishments, of the CBI, and even a good section of the Church of England. The European Commission helped out by providing free flights to Brussels for nearly 1,000 pro-European speakers.  All national newspapers were on their side. The only national publications which opposed entry were the communist daily Morning Star and The Spectator. The BBC claimed to be neutral, a claim which the No campaign strongly contested.

The Yes campaign also had ample funds. Its treasurers later recalled ‘when the campaign started, money just rolled in’, mainly from business. The umbrella organization of the Yes campaign declared it had spent £1.85m, while the No campaign had less than a tenth as much, just £133,000. The Yes campaign was also helped by the fact that the referendum coincided with just about the worst economic crisis in the UK since the war, with a record rate of inflation- which hit 27% in June, together with a record trade deficit.

The result of the referendum was that 67.5 % of votes were in favour of staying in.

When asked in a TV interview after the result of referendum was announced, why the public had voted as it had,  Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary and later president of the European Commission replied:

‘They took the advice of people they were used to following.’

– Lahr. J (ed.), The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (2001) p.248, entry for 6th June

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