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Europe or Bust? My recollections of the 1975 referendum

    In 1975 I was involved in a non-political campaign to underline the “exciting advantages of the Britain’s continuing EEC membership”.  People for Europe appealed to those “unlikely to be inspired or impressed by politicians”.  “It will involve all kinds of other people – many of them famous, lots of them young and its object was to present an exciting and credible picture of the advantages of Britain’s continuing membership of the EEC” said Gyles Brandreth who was in charge of the People for Europe campaign.

    Well known diverse personalities such as actors Kenneth More, Richard Briers, and Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army), actress Janet Suzman, the playwright J B Priestly, the sculptor Henry Moore and the photographer David Bailey appeared on campaign posters and were interviewed on television and radio.  A similar campaign to ours was Sportsmen for Europe which was organised by David Coleman and included Henry Cooper, Colin Cowdrey and Jackie Stewart. 

    In 1975 it was Harold Wilson leader of a split Labour Party who called the referendum. The alignments of the parties were very different to what they are today. The Conservatives were the pro-European party, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists were against and the Liberals as the Liberal Democrats are today were in favour of remaining in the EEC.

    Harold Wilson promised substantial renegotiations but the British Government had to accept the main principles of the Treaty of Rome including the Common Agricultural Policy which wasn’t up for negotiation. Changes were made which helped New Zealand dairy farmers and Commonwealth sugar. There was an improvement to the budget settlement but it had to be renegotiated again by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. David Cameron also promised substantial renegotiations in his Bloomberg speech of 2013 but like Harold Wilson his subsequent renegotiations fell short of what he set out to achieve. 

    Harold Wilson didn’t play a prominent role in the 1975 campaign but kept Britain in Europe and avoided a split in the Labour party. At a lecture I attended given by Tristram Hunt on the life of Harold Wilson, Bernard Donague told the audience that one of the main reasons Harold Wilson voted to stay in was that he couldn’t bear the idea of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell gaining power if the out campaign won the referendum. Mary Wilson apparently voted to stay out. In the end 67 percent voted to stay in and 33 percent out.

    Why aren’t there more young female politicians giving reasons why they are voting in/out and telling us what the EU can do for future generations or why it is better for future generations that we leave? I remember that the 1975 campaign was positive, we were all young and enthusiastic and it was great fun. We wore T-shirts with Yes to Europe and Europe or bust. That would cause a storm on social media now.


    Jenny Nicholson is former Deputy Chairman of the CPS.

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    KEITH BOYFIELD - About 1576 days ago

    Fascinating to read about Mary Wilson.

    Do you still have your T shirt?

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