On June 4, 1975, I sat down at my clattering typewriter in the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street and embarked on a melancholy task. As one of the leader-writers opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (as it was then called), I had been asked by editor Bill Deedes to write a fairly light account of the referendum campaign that would appear on morning of the vote. Bill said he wanted my squib to offset the solemnity of the editorial, but my suspicion was that he was a secret No voter who wanted it to offset the Telegraph’s admonition to vote Yes.
In principle Bill could have ordered a “No” editorial, but pressure from the establishment for an endorsement of Britain’s EU membership was so overwhelming in 1975 that it would have seemed eccentric, unpatriotic, even treasonous. So I read through “the files” of the previous month and started bashing it out:
From the Establishment and the respectable anti-Establishment, from the Economist and the New Statesman, from the Lord Feather [of the TUC] and Mr Campbell Adamson [of the CBI], from Mr Wilson and Mr Heath, from the Royal Commission Volunteers to “Actors and Actresses for Europe”, from the farthest reaches of the civilized West End, the same advice, the same dire predictions of life outside the Market (“God, it was hell out there in 1972”), the same comforting assurances of a bright future inside, less ecstatic admittedly than similar forecasts before we had entered (“Come in, come in, the water’s lukewarm”) have been proclaimed with an almost religious fervour.
Religion itself had been conscripted for the European cause. The Bishop of London, preaching in St Paul’s, had said that those concerned about sovereignty were guilty of the heresy “My Country Right or Wrong” which was “essentially selfish and inward-looking”. As for Big Business, that spoke with one voice: the CBI’s Ralph Bateman declared that it would be “madness” to leave the EEC, and Mr Barrie Heath told the workers at Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds that membership of the EEC was not a political issue at all.
“Is he Sir Barrie?” asked Mr Enoch Powell, the leading right-wing campaigner for a No vote. “No? Well, he soon will be.” He was too—given a knighthood three years later “for services to exporting”.
Australia played a discreet part too:
There was a commendable reluctance on the part of overseas dignitaries to interfere in Britain’s internal political arguments. Mr Gough Whitlam, for instance, revealed how he had virtuously resisted the blandishments of certain anti-Marketeers to call for Britain’s withdrawal. Why had he refused? Because he did not wish Britain to lapse into the sad decline of Spain, he declared in neutral Australian tones.
But that, of course, might have been delivered in the spirit of “Let them have what they want—good and hard” in revenge for Heath’s betrayal of the Antipodes and the Commonwealth in the European negotiations. At least I sort of hope so.
Never has politics made stranger bedfellows:
To speak for our hereditary aristocracy Lord Bessborough declared that anti-Marketeers were allied to “the most extreme Marxists”. Confirmation of this view came from another pro-Market quarter which detected “sinister Soviet propaganda” in the anti-Market campaign, asserted that the British economy could stand no test outside the EEC, was scornfully dismissive of Britain exercising influence through either the Commonwealth or the special relationship with America, and thoughtfully warned that withdrawal would seriously aggravate Britain’s problems. Lord Bessborough’s supporter was Hsin Hua, the official communist Chinese news agency.
Among the strange bedfellows, it must be admitted, were the leading campaigners for the Outs:
If the pro-Europe campaigners generally gave the impression of having just enjoyed a good lunch at the Savoy, the Antis might have emerged directly from a lecture on Theosophy at the Conway Hall [a noted venue for radical occasions]. For … though Mr Enoch Powell drew massive audiences and delivered speeches that soared far above the general swapping of statistical insults, the anti-Market campaign as it emerged on television was dominated by the Left … Above all there we could see Mr Tony Benn.
By the time he died a few years ago, Mr Benn had morphed into a harmless, charming British “character” much loved by all including his enemies. In 1975, however, he was still regarded by Middle England as the man with a knife between his teeth, bent on their destruction. Thus, I wrote, “Mr. Benn often complains that the press and television are biased against the anti-Marketeers. And he is absolutely right. They keep on reporting him.”
As a result of this overwhelmingly unbalanced campaign, I concluded that the British people were about to decide to stay in this New Europe in the resigned spirit of “If you know of a better airport lounge, go to it.” But there was a final consideration: “In supporting Europe, the entire British establishment has put all its money on one horse—admittedly the favourite. But what if, like most of the establishment’s fancied runners in the last twenty years, it comes in fourth?”
And that, of course, is exactly what happened. They had told themselves a number of defeatist and masochistic stories to justify breaking all their previous loyalties and commitments and surrendering an ever-growing share of their own freedom of action: Suez had demonstrated the shrinkage of Britain’s independent role as a world power; the country needed the access to the European market that had enabled EEC members to grow at a more rapid rate than Britain in the previous two decades; the Commonwealth was a declining factor in world affairs; and in general Britain, living on past glories, needed the cold bath of competition to wake itself up. Underneath these soliloquies was a feeling that the country was in inevitable decline and that ultimately it could only overcome that decline by merging itself into a larger world power.
As a critic of that attitude, Enoch Powell, said in the late sixties when Britain was still hesitating: “Their message is: We were big once. We want to be big again.”
Yet, when it came to it, none of these arguments really withstood sceptical examination even at the time. Consider: 1. If the country needed a cold bath of competition, it could have obtained that more thoroughly by adopting free trade with the world rather than with a Europe cosseted by a common external tariff. 2. No country, even the United States, enjoyed untrammelled power in 1962, as the Vietnam war was to establish a decade later. But the British in that year had just defeated the Malayan communists and were about to see off the Indonesians in the largely unreported Borneo emergency. So they had no real reason to reproach themselves, as they in fact did, for lacking substantial influence internationally. 3. Furthermore, the real source of British decline lay in the inefficiency of British industry and the excessive power of the trade unions. Membership of the European Economic Community did nothing about that. Indeed, for both Labour and pre-Thatcher Tories, “Europe” was a way of evading that truth rather than tackling it. Europe would do what we feared to do ourselves, but no one could ever explain how. 4. The British Commonwealth had its limitations—and it would be an irritant to successive London governments until Rhodesia and South Africa achieved majority rule—but it proved its diplomatic worth in the Falklands War. As for its trading patterns, Britain was Australia’s largest single trading and investment partner in the early 1960s, until EEC membership explicitly set out to reduce that trade with quotas. 5. Finally, though full access to the larger European market would indeed be a benefit to Britain, ceteris paribus, this was overstated as a factor in Europe’s faster post-war growth. At least as important was the move from low-productivity jobs in agriculture to high-productivity jobs in industry. But that had already occurred in Britain between 1870 and 1945. We couldn’t get the same benefit twice.
All these factors soon became academic, however. No sooner had Britain joined Europe in 1972 than Europe stopped growing. The benefits of an expanded market that were supposed to follow British entry failed to arrive on schedule or at all. Europe itself went into a long sleep of stagflation. And the Brits fell deeper into the Slough of Despond which four years after the 1975 referendum climaxed in the Winter of Discontent when strikes spread over Britain like measles. It took the arrival of Margaret Thatcher to restore strength and prosperity to Britain by the only method that works—creating the framework of stability which enables people and industries to save themselves by their own efforts.
Reading my own account of the 1975 campaign while witnessing the 2016 referendum campaign, I am struck by how little the post-Thatcher establishment has learned, both from the failure of their predecessors’ policies and the success of the Lady’s. My hope—and my nervous half-belief—is that the British people have learned these lessons.
Within the next 24-or-so hours, however, we will know.
John O’Sullivan is Quadrant‘s editor. This essay will appear in our upcoming July edition