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.
Asplit party, a charismatic right-wing hero, ‘Little Englanders’ vs ‘European Super Staters’ – all coming to a head with a vote on the UK’s relationship with Europe.
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In 1975, as in 2015, this was the backdrop to a referendum on whether the UK should stay part of Europe’s political project – then the European Economic Community, now the European Union.
Like now, the European issue divided the party in Government, but whereas today it is the Tories most likely to split, in 1975 it was Harold Wilson’s Labour Party which threatened to tear itself apart.
But before we get into the pure political theatre of it all, here is a brief background of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
From War to Peace
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
It is the kind of sentiment which would make Nigel Farage choke on his ale, but the idea of a “United States of Europe” was very popular after the Second World War. One of its keenest supporters was none other than Winston Churchill, who used the phrase in a speech at Zurich University on September 19th 1946.
Having been booted out of office by the British electorate in 1945 after the war ended, Churchill had time on his hands to consider how best to prevent another atrocity.
From 1946 to 1949, Churchill used his position as an international statesman to call for European nations to come together, urging France and Germany to lead the way.
However, he did not see Britain being a part of this US of E.
Instead – along with the USA, the Commonwealth and Russia – Britain “must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.”
The first seeds of European integration came with the creation of the Council of Europe in London in 1949. Ten countries - Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK – signed up to the Council, which focused on protecting human rights. It was from this Council that the European Convention on Human Rights emerged in 1953.
Despite the blurring of lines between the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and the modern-day European Union, the actions of the Council had little to do with the creation of the EU.
Far more important is the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in Paris in 1951. The idea was to create a common market for natural resources in Europe, meaning that no nation could build up vast supplies of coal and steel. This would have two effects. Firstly, no country would be able to accrue enough raw materials to create a disproportionally large army. Secondly, it would see such economic cooperation between countries that war would be damaging. War would be “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible,” according to the then-French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman.
Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were all founder members of the ECSC.
In 1957, the ECSC evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC) thanks to the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The first line of the treaty is the now-highly contentious claim that the signatories are “determined to lay the foundation of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.”
The EEC was focused on the free movement of goods around Europe, with tariff barriers between the countries abolished. It also meant goods coming in from outside the EEC were subject to the same tariffs across the community.
The same six countries who signed up for the ECSC now signed up for this Common Market.
Where was the United Kingdom?
Britain declined an invitation to sign the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Strong ties to the Commonwealth, a ‘special relationship’ with the United States and a desire to keep control of the ability to set its own tariffs for goods from non-EEC members were the key reasons.
Yet by 1961 it was clear EEC countries were experiencing economic growth far greater than that enjoyed by Britain. Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan began talks to get Britain into the EEC, but French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed the negotiations.
De Gaulle was concerned that Britain’s close relationship with Washington would undermine the independence of the EEC, which was trying to flourish in between the superpowers of America and the USSR.
Nov 27 1967 – An Empty Begging Bowl
For those of us who weren’t there, Britain in the Swinging Sixties sounds like an amazing place to be.
The world’s best music, fashion and films were coming from these islands, and England were even football world champions.
In 1967, Britain was perhaps at the height of its cultural power; The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Sean Connery was dominating cinema screens for the fifth time as James Bond in You Only Live Twice, and the UK even won the Eurovision Song Contest thanks to Sandy Shaw’s Puppet on a String.
Sitting in Downing Street was the pipe-smoking Harold Wilson, three years into what would be a six-year Labour premiership.
A year before, Wilson saw his Commons majority of four won in 1964 increase to 96 in the General Election – signs of not only Labour’s success but his own popularity.
Yet while Britain was leading the world in entertainment, in economics it was floundering. By November 19th 1967, Wilson had to take the unpopular decision to devalue the pound, making it cheaper than other currencies.
Although Britain was struggling, its European neighbours inside the EEC were soaring. After convincing his Cabinet colleagues Britain needed to be in the European club to help boost its economy, Wilson and his Foreign Secretary George Brown set out to woo those on the continent who had blocked entry in 1961 – namely French President Charles De Gaulle.
Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany all supported Britain’s entry, but from France it was still a ‘non’.
Shirley Williams, then a junior Education Minister, remembers well the veto.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, she said: “Not entirely wrongly he [De Gaulle] saw us as a Trojan horse for the Americans essentially. For him the key thing was our membership of Nato and the so-called special relationship. And he said with some justice that the special relationship was in conflict with the idea of the European Community being the special relationship, the most important one. De Gaulle’s veto was humiliating to the United Kingdom, which still felt itself to be the major power in Europe and felt itself to have been the victor of the First and Second World War and so forth, and didn’t consider France to have fallen into that category at all. But De Gaulle as a personality was so powerful and he had so much history behind him he couldn’t be dismissed easily.”
In his biography of Wilson published in 1992, Ben Pimlott generously described the veto as merely “a set-back”, although he did also admit “the spectacle of the British Prime Minister trailing around Europe with a begging bowl…was not an elevating one, especially as he had nothing concrete to show for it.”
The EEC was booming, but Britain was on the outside with its nose pressed up against the glass unable to get pass the French bouncer.