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Brexit in 2016 and 1975: Two historical EU referendums speak of two different ideas of Britain

It was not called Brexit back then. Neither did it trend on Twitter. But words that were used by most to describe the 'rocky' relationship between United Kingdom and European Union, even in 1975, were — long, complicated and often bitter.

Thursday's landmark EU referendum, where people of Britain decided that they were better off without the EU and voted to leave the council, was not the first time for the nation.

Britain's testy relationship with a united Europe goes back further, to the early 1970s when Ted Heath’s government took Britain into the European Economic Community without a vote on 1 January 1973. Ireland and Denmark also joined Britain in becoming the newest members of the community, bringing the total number of member states to nine.

The idea of European Union first came into being in 1957, then referred to as the European Economic Community, when West Germany, France and four other nations were determined to banish the bloodshed of two world wars forever. The grouping became the EU in 1993 which has grown into a 28-nation bloc of more than 500 million people stretching from Ireland to the Aegean Sea, with substantial powers over member states' laws, economies and social policies. It has its own Parliament, central bank and 19 EU members use a common currency, the euro.

In 1957, when the six founding members of the EEC (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) signed the Treaty of Rome, Britain did not join in. Heartened by immense confidence "by memories of a great empire and a glorious war" and the fact that Britain was a major world power, it sent a message to the Council by sending a mid-ranking trade official, Russell Bretherton, as an observer to the treaty-signing. But the Great Britain still needed Europe for trade and realising that started making amends.

 Brexit in 2016 and 1975: Two historical EU referendums speak of two different ideas of Britain

Britain tried to get the EEC membership twice but was refused  — first in 1963 and then in 1967. Nothing was enough to mend the relationship, especially, with the French, when the then French President Charles de Gaulle rejected Britain's overtures by saying that "Britain had very special, very original habits and traditions," and as far as de Gaulle was concerned, to allow Britain in the EEC would be allowing a country that he came to view as America's Trojan horse.

He also feared that English would become the common language of the Community. But that was short-lived. Charles de Gaulle departed and Britain made its place in the EEC in 1973.

Gallup polls initially found the public almost evenly divided on the decision, but by the start of the following year, there was a two-to-one majority believing the country had been wrong to join.

What led to the 1975 referendum?

After joining the Bloc in 1973, many Britons felt their island nation — a former imperial power with strong ties to the United States — was fundamentally different from its European neighbours.


Barely a year after joining, Britain was calling for a wholesale reform to the common agricultural policy (CAP) and in 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government called a referendum. In its first nation-wide referendum on whether to stay within the EEC or leave, Britain chose to remain in the Community. Seven Labour cabinet ministers rallied for Brexit (not dubbed so then). Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher was a supporter for EEC membership, seeing it as a pragmatic decision to join a tariff-free trading bloc and two-third of the United Kingdom voted to stay.

Anti-EU Britons resent everything from fishing quotas to fruit sizes being decided in Brussels, say reports. This, again, was a past hangover.

Britain's break-up with Europe would be the culmination of decades of half-hearted and often hostile relations with neighbouring countries. The nation's rocky ties with the European Union (EU) are rooted in its island history and defiant sense of independence. Some Britons still recall with pride that they were last successfully invaded in 1066.

The nation's resistance to the Nazis in World War II is also central to British identity, particularly for older voters. "Britain has never really internalised the European project because of its very different history during the 20th century — it is less frightened of the consequences of leaving," Robert Tombs, a history professor at Cambridge University, said.

Politicians at Westminster have also pursued an often two-faced approach to the EU, complicating the relationship even further. "One face is a hostile, sceptical and largely domestic one that has helped drive euroscepticism in Britain," Tim Oliver of the London School of Economics told AFP.

"The other face, largely seen in Brussels, is a constructive, engaging one that has seen the UK shape the EU in a large number of ways."

How was 1975 different from 2016?

In various ways.

In 1975, immigration barely surfaced as an issue. In fact, according to BBC, 41,000 people left Britain, let alone come into the country. The economy was disastrous back then and Europe was far richer and way more successful than Britain. Comparing the referendums of 1975 and 2016 also goes on to show just how fundamentally British politics has changed.

Britons in 1975 were most worried about prices, though jobs came a close second. Interestingly, inflation recently nudged 30 percent. EEC was powerful and a safe haven for the "fearful" middle-class. It was easy for the remain campaign to make a convinvcing "sales" pitch. "Today, the EU has four decades of form."

Also, it is vital to remember that just two years after joining, the Britons were told to chose whether to stay or leave. Both the sides (Britain and EEC) were wary of leaving each other's side.

In 1975, it was the Conservative Party that was most enthusiastically supportive of membership. Its new leader, Margaret Thatcher, called for "a massive Yes" to Europe, and stumped the country in a woolly jumper made up of the flags of the member states. Compared to 1975, politics has become more rough and boundaries of etiquette haven't just blurred, they are absent.

Back then, people still trusted politics and politicians were still a hopeful bunch of people. As Nick Comfort argues in this op-ed in The Telegraph, the mood and the way with which politicians attack each other has undergone a sea of change.

"...our national mood has gone in those 41 years from being worried about the future to being angry about the present, with the EU taking the heat. Back then I heard Labour’s Peter Shore make the speech of his life in praise of 'British farms in Canada.' This time, much of the campaign rhetoric has, in Yvette Cooper’s words, been toxic.

Almost forty years ago, the main parties of England were united on the common ground that UK should not leave the Community. And media was not as diluted back then. As BBC's John Simpson observes, back then, the two main newspapers of Britain — The Spectator and The Morning Star — backed a vote to stay in. Today, that coherence and the ability to drive a nation is missing drastically, both among the politicians and in the media.

The campaigning — then and now


Since 1975, EU has grown from a nine-country member to a 28-nation mammoth. It has become a very different beast but according to political analysts, Prime Minister David Cameron's pitch to his countrymen about staying within the EU was not half as intelligent as his predecessor Harold Wilson, the British PM who convinced UK that it was in their best interest to remain within the Union.

In fact, when in 2013, Cameron announced the referendum, many old hands believed and encouraged him as well, to repeat the Wilson strategy. According to internal Government documents obtained by Business for Britain, those involved in 1975 renegotiation "intentionally" kept the objectives vague and the language deliberately “loose.” Eventually, Wilson and his government were able to dress up cosmetic changes as a significant deal for Britain, which were then sold to the public as a reason to vote 'Yes'.

Most political scientists agree that the referendum held in 1975 was held in "the age of innocence" as compared to the campaigning today. One of the major reasons why Britain voted to stay in the EU back in 1975 was because three major political parties stuck together. Be bipartisan, analysts had warned David Cameron ahead of the 2016 referendum. Analysts had cautioned the Cameron government that even though business and non-political voices would be far more important in the forthcoming referendum, it is vital to keep broad, cross-party political support intact.

The rhetoric and vitriolic campaigning pursued by politicians in 2016 was another sore point. The arch-Eurosceptic UK Independence Party chief Nigel Farage, who is being touted as the architect of Brexit and who dubbed 2016 referendum results as Independence Day for UK, was bullish and even 'blokey' at most times with his speeches. He once revealed that he feels "awkward" on London trains because he only hears foreign languages being spoken. "The fact that in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognizable," he was quoted by London's Evening Standard as saying.

"Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don't hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren."

But critics look past his buoyant demeanour, accusing him of peddling racist and xenophobic views, especially when it comes to his "pet project," immigration. Farage believes Britain's open immigration policy with the EU has led to an influx of people that have damaged cohesion and created divisions within society. "We find ourselves, for the benefit of tariff-free trade, having to accept unlimited free movement of people," he said earlier this month.

Such caustic campaigning was not the style of 1975.

Political pundits, who lived to see both the referendums of 1975 and 2016, have said that "the EU referendum makes the campaign we had in 1975 look as mild as a vicar's tea party." The fact that Cameron was unable to find a common binding chord within his own party, remains the single most largest difference with the 1975 referendum. Apart from the split in ruling party, there is nothing similar about the two referendums. Harold Wilson's government was deeply divided over Europe, but it was not the issue that could destroy the party. Whatever be the outcome, the likes of Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn worked together. The fact that Cameron thought that Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd would work together after her magisterial put-down that he was "the life and soul of the party, but not the man you would want to drive you home at the end of the evening" was British PM's foolishness.

In the end though... 

During the referendum campaign, Cameron sold Britain's place in the EU as a pragmatic marriage of convenience rather than a place where Britain's heart lies. In TV debates, he repeatedly insisted that he was frustrated by the EU and wanted to reform it but stressed that membership was good for Britain's economy. Voters disagreed -- with 333 out of 382 regions counted, "Leave" was in the lead with 52 percent to "Remain" on 48 percent.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2016 14:35:13 IST