Think of this as a trilogy. Providing a running commentary on something in the air means it’s hard to pick up much else on the old antennae this week other than the story that has comprised the last couple of posts, so bear with me one more time. But let’s take a different route with this ‘un and remind ourselves of where we were on the last occasion in which the people had a say in the Great European Experiment that went from economic cooperation to gravy train in the space of a generation. Thinking about it, nationwide exposure to the continent was pretty prevalent in the first half of the 1970s, thanks in the main to improvements in satellite technology and Britain’s membership of the European Broadcasting Union – even if technological improvements hadn’t progressed to preventing British TV commentators on European events still sounding as though they had socks stuffed in their mouths. In a way, however, that distinctive sonic effect was all part of the exotic alternative that Europe represented then.
Stuart Hall wetting himself at the sight of oversized figures banging into each other on ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’; Terry Wogan’s wry commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest; European football featuring English clubs up against bent and bribed match officials (Salonica 1973 and Paris 1975 are dates to avoid if confronting a long-term Leeds United supporter); and, of course, BBC1’s school holiday dubbed mainstays of ‘The White Horses’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘The Flashing Blade’, and ‘Belle and Sebastiane’. The 1972 Olympics and the 1974 World Cup Final were both held in Munich – with European athletes and footballers claiming the cream of the headlines and the accumulated memories, whether Olga Korbut, Franz Beckenbauer or Johan Cruyff. Even the charts were infiltrated by a distinct Euro take on the British and American pop template – everyone from Focus and Golden Earring to Abba and Kraftwerk.
It seems only fitting that the UK was welcomed into the European economic club on New Year’s Day 1973; after the US-dominated pop culture of the 50s and the switch to Swinging England in the 60s, eyes turned to Europe in the 70s. Even before David Bowie relocated to West Berlin with Iggy Pop, the continent separated from British shores by the slim body of water that is the Channel was very much on the tip of Albion’s tongue. It’s always worth remembering that the initial admirable motivation of greater European integration emanated from the generation that had fought the Second World War (and, in some cases, the one that had also fought the First). If economics could prevent Europe from degenerating into a third conflict in the space of fifty years, so be it; yes, there was the not-insignificant factor of a certain wall dividing east and west, but perhaps the symbolic impact of that construction served to persuade the Western European powers a union was in everyone’s interests. After all, there was already a military link between them in the shape of NATO, so why not take the pact one step further?
The protracted withdrawal from Empire was something many European nations experienced in the 50s and 60s, and though France had a particular problem with Algeria, even they didn’t have the sheer number of humbling adjustments Britain had to make as one-by-one, the Union Flag was lowered throughout Africa, the Far East, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. We needed time to come to terms with our diminishing role on the world stage, and de Gaulle was especially attuned to our half-hearted commitment to Europe, vetoing our efforts to join the fledgling European Economic Community in the early 60s. Future PM Edward Heath’s place at the negotiating table during Macmillan’s tenure at No.10 remained paramount in his thoughts, so much so that when he eventually ascended to the pinnacle of power, Heath was determined to sign on the dotted line. That he did so without offering Parliament a debate on the issues involved, however, served to sow the seeds of mistrust and suspicion over precisely what he had achieved.
The Labour Party was particularly aggrieved that it hadn’t been able to pre-empt Heath’s success during the 1964-70 Government, and opposition between 1970 and 1974 presented Harold Wilson with a problem in that he instinctively had to challenge the Tories even if he secretly applauded what his nemesis had achieved. The solution to this dilemma came with the two General Elections of 1974, when Labour first promised a renegotiation of the 1972 terms of entry and then an unprecedented in/out referendum. To Wilson’s credit (albeit under pressure from his Industry Secretary, Tony Benn), the October 1974 Election promise was delivered and the first-ever national plebiscite was scheduled for the following June.
By this time, Heath had been toppled from his position as Tory leader by Margaret Thatcher, though the pair managed a rare moment of harmony when sharing a platform in the early days of the campaign as both advocated the ‘yes’ vote. At the time, the Conservative Party was largely united on its commitment to Europe, whereas it was Labour that possessed the most visible divisions. Although Wilson himself kept a discreet distance from the frontline, his highest-ranking Ministers, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, were prominent in persuading the people it was in their best interests to remain part of Europe. The latter even went so far as to stand alongside Heath and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, an experience he found liberating from Labour in-fighting and perhaps played a part in his eventual decision to breakaway and form the SDP a little over five years later.
In contrast to today, Fleet Street was more or less unanimous in its support of the ‘yes’ campaign and in an era when the dailies held a greater sway over public opinion than they could dream of in 2016, painting the ‘no’ group as a collection of untrustworthy misfits and renegades – everyone from Labour firebrands Foot, Benn and Barbara Castle to Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley – planted immense seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate. When the vote finally took place, a unique departure from General Election traditions saw England and Scotland represented by their various counties rather than Parliamentary seats. As the overwhelming thumbs-up to continued membership of the Common Market emerged into the spotlight, only Shetland and the Western Isles rejected the proposition.
In retrospect, the 1975 EEC Referendum was the last hurrah for many of the political titans who had dominated British public life for the previous couple of decades. Politics was an impassioned playground in the 1970s, and the battle over Europe gave MPs confronted by a myriad of present problems the opportunity to point towards a brighter future, offering hope rather than the usual blood, sweat and toil. Heath never enjoyed such a high profile ever again (not in life, anyway), and neither did Powell or Castle; Wilson and Thorpe were both gone within a year (one went voluntarily; the other was forced to jump), and Jenkins’ failure to capture the Labour leadership in 1976 saw him scurry off to Brussels. It was the full stop on a tumultuous and turbulent period in not just the political but the social life of this country. What the fate will be of numerous public servants in the wake of this year’s referendum remains to be seen; but history does occasionally have a habit of repeating itself.
© The Editor