In a four part series, The Huffington Post UK looks back on the UK’s first ever referendum, and what lessons can be learned by those in the two sides of the upcoming campaign.
Referendum Revisited Part 1: The French Keep Saying ‘Non'
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If you think the 2015 election result was a surprise, the 1970 election result was even more unexpected.
Labour, led by the popular Harold Wilson, seemed to have got the UK economy back on track. Chancellor Roy Jenkins had steered the country through the devaluation debacle and even managed to run a budget surplus.
Opinion polls leading up to the vote gave Labour a sizeable lead, but poor economic news on the eve of poll saw a late swing to the Tories.
Wilson lost 76 seats, and Conservative leader Edward Heath was swept to power with a majority of 30.
Ted Heath, an accomplished musician, prize-winning sailor and the first bachelor in 10 Downing Street since 1905, was even more pro-European than Wilson.
Whereas Wilson’s attempts to take Britain into the EEC were motivated by a desire to get the economy moving, Heath took a more internationalist view.
While an undergraduate at Oxford University, Heath travelled around Europe and visited Nazi Germany in 1937 – attending one of Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg.
Heath recognised the danger from this highly-organised German-supremacist movement, and returned to Britain an avid anti-appeasement activist.
When he became Prime Minister, Heath was determined to get Britain into the EEC, not just for the economic benefits, but to create a inter-country body which would help stop a repeat of the rise of nationalism on the continent.
He wooed the new President of France Georges Pompidou, even addressing press conferences in French.
After one on one negotiations between the two leaders, Britain was given the all clear to join the EEC in 1971.
Heath came back to the UK to get Parliament’s approval for Britain to officially join, knowing he faced a rebellion from many in his own party.
Enoch Powell, who had stood against Heath for the Tory leadership in 1965, was one of the most vehement opponents to joining the EEC.
He and Heath had been friends until the Tory leader sacked him from the party frontbench in 1968 after the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Addressing the Conservative conference in October 1971, two weeks before the vote, Powell predicted Parliament would reject membership.
In his book Still to Decide, written around the time of the vote but published a year later, Powell said: “To join the Common Market is to accept that the people of the United Kingdom would be able so far to identify themselves with the inhabitants of the rest of the expanded Community, embracing incidentally the Irish Republic itself, that we would be prepared to accept, on matters of economic and indeed political life and death, the decisions of an executive responsible to an electorate of which we represented a relatively small fraction.
“The advocacy of British entry is openly and avowedly based upon the progressive political unification of the participating countries. Not only freedom of movement and settlement but full-scale political unity is the acknowledged goal and indeed, for many, the justification.”
Heath decided to take the sting out of any potential rebellion by making it a free vote, meaning even if he lost it would not count as a defeat.
But even if the Eurosceptic Tories voted against joining, Heath could count on the pro-European Labour Party to get the measure through the Commons, right?
Harold Wilson smelt blood, and realised he could defeat the Tories and probably force them out of office if Labour voted against membership.
But how to perform this u-turn without being accused of opportunism? After all, just four years earlier Wilson had gone round Europe with his “begging bowl” trying to get Britain into the Common Market.
The first sign of the change came from Shadow Home Secretary James Callaghan, who took umbrage with President Pomidou’s claim that French, not English, should be the dominant language of the EEC.
Speaking in Manchester in May 1971, Callaghan delivered a speech which Nigel Farage would be proud of: “Millions of people have been surprised to hear that the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton must in future be regarded as an American import from which we must protect ourselves if we are to build a new Europe. We can agree that the French own the supreme prose literature in Europe, but if we are to prove our Europeanism by accepting that French is the dominant language in the Community, then my answer is quite clear, and I will say it in French to prevent any misunderstanding: Non, merci beaucoup!”
There were increasing calls from Labour members to vote against joining the EEC. Some came from those fundamentally opposed to Britain joining the Common Market while others saw it as an opportunity to bring down the Heath Government.
But how to counteract claims of opportunism?
A compromise was made: Labour would vote against Heath’s terms of entry into the EEC, and when re-elected to power would hold its own negotiation which would be put to the electorate in a referendum.
This was the decision, and Wilson issued a three-line whip on all of his MPs to vote against the Tories on October 28 1971.
However, 69 Labour MPs voted against the whip, including Deputy Leader Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. A further 20 abstained. Heath won the vote by a majority of 112, meaning if the 89 Labour MPs had voted the way they were told he would have lost and a General Election would most likely have been called.
Shirley Williams: “Heath knew there was a section of the Labour Party, probably about a third of the MPs, who he colossally depended upon and they were the people that voted, as I did, against the three line whip in 1971. We all had just come into opposition, we had been in Government, we thought fairly successfully, under Wilson but there was this absolute driving passion with us too that we were not going to buckle to three-line whips and so on. It was a three-line whip but we made it quite clear it was going to make no difference to us. So I think 69 of us, which I think was about a third of the parliamentary party, voted to stay in the European Community in the 71, and that had the implicit danger in it that there might be a split in the party. Oddly enough it didn’t feel like that at the time, because we felt that the key thing was to stay in and after that we can argue about the detail. Harold Wilson, he unlike Heath was not driven by the policy objective, he was passionately driven by above all things, keeping the party united. Never easy in the Labour Party.”
One of those charged with trying to get the Bill through Parliament was a young Ken Clarke, who had been elected as an MP just a year before.
Despite his fresh-faced status in the Commons, the 31-year-old was already a Government whip – a job which involves making sure MPs vote the way they are supposed to.
On this occasion, with the Tories operating a free vote policy, Clarke focused on doing deals with potential Labour rebels to get the Bill through the Commons.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK he said: “There were Jenkinites in the Labour Party who supported us in Second Reading, and I had to negotiate to get numbers of them to stay away for the division during the Bill.
“The opposition to EEC membership was from the hard right of our party and the hard left of Labour - they were much more divided than we were.
“It was the centre ground in both parties that was overwhelmingly in favour.”
As for those Tories prepared to vote against joining the EEC, Clarke described them as “the Commonwealth wing of the party.”
Reflecting on why he felt it was Britain needed to be in the EEC for political as well as economic reasons, Clarke added: “We were humiliated in Suez, and we couldn’t continue to believe that we were a world wide political power in our own right.
“We did talk about a loss of sovereignty, but it was a pooling of sovereignty, as we did when we joined Nato or the United Nations”.
Heath had got his way, and Britain officially joined the European Economic Community on January 1st 1973.
In a television broadcast to mark the event, Heath told the nation: “Many of you have fought in Europe, as I did, or have lost a father or brothers or husbands who fell fighting in Europe. I say to you now, with that experience in my memory, that joining the Community, working together with them for our joint security and prosperity, is the best guarantee we can give ourselves of a lasting peace in Europe.”
He added: "There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified."
Jenkins, who had lead the Labour rebellion, stood down as Deputy Leader six months after the vote in opposition at his party’s new position – to hold a referendum on Britain’s EEC membership.