Absolutely fascinating, and well researched, account of the first referendum on the UK's relationship with Europe in 1975. It doesn't stick solely to the campaign itself but also takes a look at British foreign and domestic politics in the post-war period to show how these motivated different sections of the population. Whatever your leanings on the EU this book helps you understand Britain's motivation in joining the 'club' and of those who were bitterly opposed. Worth reading.
Having lived through this referendum and the 2016 one it is fascinating to read in this book how many politicians who where anti EU in 1975 changed their spots when offered jobs in the EU ie Kinnock, his wife and his children. Also interesting to read how anti EU the SNP where in 1975 compared with their current pro EU stance. D
This is a splendid book which deserves all the publicity and acclaim it has received. It is the best possible contribution to the thorny and sensitive subject of "Europe", since the author's sole concern is to research and expound his subject as faithfully and affectionately as possible. He writes very well, with (as Rik Mayall would say) "the legendary English sense of humour", but he does not preach. Readers can make up their own minds about what he says. His subject is "Britain and Europe" in 1975. One part of the book is on the specific question of Britain and Europe, and it is then followed by a set of salami slices, that lay bare various aspects of 1970s British life as they were conceived by the contestants in the referendum debate: employers, workers, women, the churches, the various nations of the UK and so on. Of course politicos will read it, but this is not a book for people who like their history dished up in stereotypes. Its real audience is everyone who has a serious interest in the history of later twentieth century Britain: not only students and academics but all inquisitive general readers.
I remember it well. In 1975 I was 12 and very interested in politics. There had been two elections the previous year and I was allowed (reluctantly) by my father to help the Liberals, no doubt I made a huge difference to the result in Hemel Hempstead! Hemel was a marginal seat and swung by a narrow margin to Labour in the second election of 1974, due mainly to the Labour candidate, Robin Corbett, successfully squeezing the Liberal vote
The next year to my great joy (much more interesting than school) there was a referendum on our membership of the Common Market (as it was then called). As now I was keen on europe. So, there I was, plastered with yes stickers, busy campaigning by handing out leaflets urging Voters to back 'Yes' in the Marlowes, the main shopping street of Hemel. Suddenly, who should hove into view, like some mighty battleship ploughing through the waves, than my late father who regarded with me, his only son, with consternation. He was a local minister of religion, who absolutely detested the EU (24th June 2016 would have been one of his happiest days had he been alive) and in short order made it clear that he would reluctantly tolerate me campaigning for the Liberals but certainly drew the line at fighting for the Common Market. Sadly and mournfully I slunk home, only of course to take great glee in getting my filial revenge with the result when it came out a few days later.
For the outcome of the referendum on Europe were (even despite the no doubt crucial loss of my campaigning contribution) a landslide vote for Europe by 67% to 33%, more than 2:1
This new and comprehensive book covers the critical events. "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently then" was never more true than in my own lifetime. The UK 43 years ago was an economic basket case, the 'sick man of Europe'. Ulster was convulsed by terrorism, bombs were exploding regularly in London. The book opens with an apposite quote from a John le Carré novel of the time "At the bar a florid man in a black suit was predicting the imminent collapse of the nation. He gave us three months, then curtains".
Against this background and political parties as now deeply split on Europe, Robert Saunders point out that the decision to hold a referendum was far more revolutionary than 2016. For this was the first national referendum in British history.
Saunders brings out above all the effectiveness of the 'Yes' campaign compared with the ineffectiveness of the 'No' effort. 'Yes' had a well oiled and well funded machine with what we would now call careful market segmentation of different interest groups, classes and racial groups. Some of this seems not only quaint but laughable 43 years later — for example that women voters were almost exclusively viewed as canny housewives tracking the price of foodstuffs but with no interest in political concepts that were reserved for men. But quaint as this seems it was very effective! Every conceivable group was covered, there was even a "Christians for Europe" group I am sure to my dear father's great displeasure. Readers of all of the main newspapers were told to vote 'Yes' and the leaders of the 'No' campaign were an ill matched set of bedfellows - Michael Foot and Tony Benn refusing to share a platform with Enoch Powell.
The party that was deeply split was Labour and Wilson called the election to try and patch up his parties deep divisions. The comparison here and in many places in the book between Wilson and Cameron is well made. Wilson succeeded where Cameron failed I suggest, based on Saunders research, firstly because he secured genuine concessions from Brussels (when he set them out the polls moved sharply and decisively towards Yes) and secondly because he marshalled a heavyweight team of 'Yes' leaders. These included Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary and most of the big union leaders as well as the whole massed ranks of British industry (interesting that the barons of industry were notable in the main by their absence in 2016) The Tories were virtually united in being pro Europe including their new leader one Margaret Thatcher most famously in the wonderful photo of her in a jumper composed of European flags..
Saunders book ranges far and wide covering for example the campaign across the UK. As in 2016 the fear was that the UK would split — but that England would vote in while Scotland voted out. One of the main “No” campaigners was none other than our old 'friend' the then young Alex Salmond who said memorably as he campaigned hard against Europe “Scotland knows from bitter experience what treatment is in store for a powerless region of the Common Market”. There are many surprising nuggets of research and analysis like that, delivered in an even handed fashion. For example Saunders argues that that the ‘No’ campaign far from being “Little Englanders’ were in many ways more forward looking than their counterparts in 2106. Powell was very far from being nostalgic for the Empire and regarded the Commonwealth as a joke. Some of the 'No campaigners saw much more clearly than their opponents the rise of the rest of the world and the long slow decline of Europe.
This is generally a thorough objective and very detailed account of a strangely forgotten campaign. In fact if I have one criticism of the book is that the attention to detail on the finer points of some of the campaign issues and personalities may tax the interest of all but the keenest student of recent UK historical politics.
So, given that the Daily Express (of all papers!) said "Britain's 'Yes to Europe' had rung louder clearer and more unanimous than any decision in peacetime history..that 'decisively' and 'irrevocably' Britain belonged to Europe " how on earth did we end up in 2016 changing our mind? Saunders maintains a pretty even handed approach here. Two major things had changed he points out: the Cold war was over and Britain had regained its mojo. Ironically, the very peace and prosperity (that I believe at least in part) the EU brought emboldened Britain to leave what had been a safe port in a storm in 1975
But by far the biggest impact I would suggest was that Wilson was a much more effective campaigner and politician than Cameron and especially that whereas in 1975 the pro Europe team ran rings round the 'No" campaign, in 2016 it was rather the other way round. Any reader of for example "All Out War" which I consider the best account of the 2016 campaign cannot be struck by the energy and drive of the Brexiteers compared with the complacency of the Remainers. Such are the decisive battles of the UK's future one and lost. I cannot but finish by wondering if some future date (such as 2057) will bring a third such battle. Remoaners must learn from the losers in 1975 who far from giving up, were galvanised and gathered their forces and set to work to change the decision. What happened once can happen again.