5 June 1975, the first referendum was held in Britain on whether the UK should stay or leave the European Community (Common Market). The majority voted Yes – 17,378,581 people (67.2 per cent) – to remain in Europe.
Throughout the last negotiation for British entry to the EC, following the De Gaulle’s death, determined pro-European British PM Ted Heath faced ambiguity of former pro-European British politicians, senior Labour figures, such as Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Denis Healey, and Tony Crosland on the terms of entry. None of them was enthusiastic pro-European, Wilson and Callaghan, with the Labour Party vote put down the three-line whip against the terms of entry negotiated by Heath. This action prompted sixty-nine pro-European Labour members to vote with the government for defying the whip. These tensions gave rise to the idea of a referendum on membership of the Common Market. Soon later, the idea of a referendum became the policy of the Labour government. However, having passed the Bill successfully in 1972 and entered the Union a year later, the Labour Party shifted its policy from opposing the entry to the renegotiation of the terms of entry and then be put it in a public vote either by referendum or general election.
The beginning of the first year of the membership had positive effects on the British economy. In fact, the growth rate of the British economy increased from 2.5% in 1972 to 6.8% in 1973. However, the disaster did not come with Community membership, but the changes happened in the world in late 1973. Arab oil producers imposed an embargo on the shipment of oil to the Netherlands, accusing the Dutch government of moral support for Israel in the Middle East conflict, which caused a sharp increase in oil prices. Lack of Community solidarity was immediately apparent in the face of Arab oil producers to the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Community left multinational oil companies to cope with the trouble separately while France and Britain were in a rush to find a bilateral agreement for their own future oil supplies in the rally with other member states. It demonstrated the lack of cohesion and courage in the Community during the real trouble.
One of the difficulties had begun decades before the membership when Britain was seeing itself as the strongest European power by standing away from the creation of EEC, and its forebear, the ECSC. Britain joined the Union, whose terms had been set down long before the UK’s accession without any involvement of it, even not necessarily in favour of it. Britain was one of the less prosperous members initially, being the second biggest net contributor to the EC budget after far richer Germany. However, the dramatic rise in oil price caused a boost the coal miners’ bargaining power and forced the government to pay more attention to the balance of payments. This is considered as a real turning point.
Challenges began emerging from the very beginning of membership. Out campaigner Tony Benn claimed Britain’s membership of the EEC had a cost of 500,000 British jobs in just two years. He also blamed rising unemployment on the growing trade deficit between Britain and the other eight members by claiming that Britain was importing far more from European countries than exporting to them. In general, anti-membership claims outnumbered pro-membership claims that have risen throughout the referendum debates. For instance, food prices were one of the main concerns. Out campaigners were claiming that the membership would cause high food prices due to agricultural protectionism through the CAP, which would lead to high inflation. Out campaigners blamed Common Market for inflation, arguing that the Common Market forced Britain to buy EC members’ products and ban the import of cheap products from non-member states.
Moreover, some specific claims made by out campaigners caused concerns in the British public, among others:
- The membership would undermine British parliamentary democracy;
- The Community precludes an interventionist economic policy which would limit the freedom of action of the government in power;
- The objective of the EC was a political union which would be a barrier to the creation of socialism;
- The membership would damage trade links with non-member states, namely the Commonwealth members, which was one of the main concerns as it was claimed that Britain would lose its leadership.
Controversially, Remain campaigners were arguing that as Britain had losses, it had gains as well by mentioning the following claims:
- Entry would raise the British standard of living and create jobs;
- The community was a means of controlling multinational capital;
- Rejecting the membership would be an isolationist policy and betray internationalism;
- “Socialism in one country” was no longer possible;
- Membership would benefit the British economy and enlarge the home market.
The two manifestos of Labour Party held a pledge of a referendum on renegotiated terms in the 1974 general election, and Labour leader, Harold Wilson was elected as a prime minister for the second time. For keeping his promise, having established the Labour government, the renegotiations started under the direction of the new Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, for concessions from the European governments. UK’s concerns involved four main areas: The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the UK contribution to the EEC budget, the goal of the Economic and Monetary Union, the harmonisation of value-added taxes (VAT), and parliamentary sovereignty in pursuing regional, industrial, and fiscal policies. Two critical rounds of discussions took place, the first one in Paris in December 1974 and the second one, the European Council meeting in Dublin on 10-11 March 1975.
The negotiations were carried out at government level by prime minister Harold Wilson, ministers in the Council of Ministers, and both in bilateral meetings with other EC governments and EU diplomats. The negotiation was handled by the Cabinet committee set up in the UK chaired by the prime minister and included other ministers. Martin Morland, an official of the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), was heading A Referendum Information Unit (RIU) which was to provide the public with the latest news on negotiation and its results.
After two main rounds of renegotiations, Harold Wilson made a statement on 18 March 1975 in the House of Commons introducing seven objectives that the Cabinet committee had achieved. As stated in Labour Manifesto, the first objective was “major changes in the common agricultural policy so that it ceases to be a threat to world trade in food products, and so that low-cost producers outside Europe can continue to have access to the British food market”. As an outcome, he mentioned successful achievements in the supply of food at fair prices, especially beef and sugar, and the access to the third-country foodstuffs, mainly sugar from developing countries and dairy products from New Zealand.
The second objective was about the contribution to the Community budget. The Manifesto commitment demanded the “new and fairer methods of financing the Community budget”. As a result, the British proposal was agreed upon involving a refund of up to £125 million a year. The following objective is stated in Manifesto that “we would reject any kind of international agreement which compelled us to accept increased unemployment for the sake of maintaining a fixed parity”. In his address to the House of Commons, he stressed that the practicability of building the European Monetary Union by 1980 remains a long-term plan, and attitudes of other governments on this plan went through major changes since then. For instance, the second stage, which was supposed to begin on 1 January 1974, fifteen months before this speech, had not been adopted.
Manifesto states the fourth objective: “The retention by Parliament of those powers over the British economy needed to pursue effective regional, industrial and fiscal policies”. Although, with regard to regional policy he assured that the Commission’s hierarchy of assisted areas conforms to the UK’s, it will not interfere with the UK’s existing regional aids. In industrial policy, prime minister Wilson clearly expressed that neither Treaty of Rome nor the Treaty of Paris prevented the UK from extending nationalisation of the present private sector, even total nationalisation of industry. Furthermore, Article 222 of the Treaty of Rome expressly permits nationalisation.
The fifth objective had been stated in the Manifesto as: “equally we need an agreement on capital movements which protects our balance of payments and full employment policies”. The prime minister emphasized reverting the same exchange control regime as applied before entry by using relevant articles of the Treaty of Rome. The next objective concerned the Commonwealth and developing countries as Labour Manifesto said: “The economic interests of the Commonwealth and the developing countries must be better safeguarded”. It involves continuing access to the British market and British access to those markets, mainly Commonwealth sugar and New Zealand dairy products which have been achieved. He demonstrated his consent that Asian developing Commonwealth countries who were seriously affected by the oil price benefited from the EEC emergency aid plan.
The last objective in the Manifesto is about Value Added Tax as it said: “No harmonisation of value added tax which would require us to tax necessities”. “The proposals are being discussed in Community”, he said, and “we will be able to resist any proposals which are unacceptable to us”, the prime minister added.
The prime minister himself was in favour of staying in the EC in renegotiated terms and asked people to vote for it as well. However, having analyzed the UK government’s approach to the 1975 referendum, according to Andrew Glencross, although the government claimed that the majority of objectives given in the February 1974 Manifesto achieved, not long later under Margaret Thatcher government the budget issue came to head. He also argues that Labour’s narrative about a successful renegotiation proved highly persuasive in the referendum campaign.
The Referendum Bill was introduced on 26 March 1975. In the second reading it was approved by the Commons with 312 to 248 votes. The Bill made previously undecided points clear such as campaign budget and referendum question. The budget of not exceeding £125,000 each to the two campaigns on each side of the debate (Britain in Europe and the National Referendum Campaign) had been authorised. The question adopted in the Bill was the one originally included in the Government White Paper, but with “The Common Market” added in brackets after “European Community”:
Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?
The governments brochure, “Britain’s new deal in Europe”, set out the renegotiated terms of entry for Britain, and Wilson government recommended people to vote in favour of staying in the EC. The Conservative Party also published a brochure, “Yes to Europe”, calling for the UK to remain in the EC.
The referendum was held on 5 June 1975 and the majority (67.2%) of voters chose to stay in the EC.
 R. NELSSON, Archive: how the Guardian reported the 1975 EEC referendum, 5 June 2015, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/from-the-archive-blog/2015/jun/05/referendum-eec-europe-1975
 A. EVANS, Planning for Brexit: The Case of the 1975 Referendum, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 1, January–March 2018, pp. 127.
 Ibid, p. 128.
 D. BUTLER and U. KITZINGER, The 1975 Referendum, Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd Edition, 7 May 1996, p. 23.
 Ibid. p. 24.
 A. GILLIGAN, The EU: So where did it all go wrong? 30 December 2012. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/9770633/The-EU-so-where-did-it-all-go-wrong.html
 D. BUTLER and D. KAVANAGH, The British General Election of February 1974, Macmillan, London, 1974, pp. 27-44.
 P. B. WHYMAN, British trade unions, the 1975 European Referendum and its legacy, Labor History, 49:1, p. 25.
 P. B. WHYMAN, British trade unions, p. 26.
 P. B. WHYMAN, British trade unions, p. 26.
 V. MILLER, The 1974-75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum, House of Commons Library, Number 7253, 13 July 2015, p. 4.
 A. EVANS, Planning for Brexit, p. 128.
 V. MILLER, The 1974-75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum, p. 11.
 House of Commons, Deb 18 March 1975 vol 888 cc1456-80, The Prime Minister. For all following objectives, this statement has been referred. Available at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1975/mar/18/european-community
 A. GLENCROSS, Looking Back to Look Forward: 40 Years of Referendum Debate in Britain, Political Insight, Volume 6, Issue 1, 1 April 2015, pp. 25 – 27.
 V. MILLER, The 1974-75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum, p. 21.
 Britain’s new deal in Europe, The Labour Guide for the 1975 Referendum Campaign. Available at : http://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet_valid.html
 Yes to Europe, The Conservative Guide for the 1975 Referendum Campaign. Available at: https://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/1999/1/1/639fb9e5-ca77-4653-8870-6cfd7f0782c6/publishable_en.pdf
 V. MILLER, The 1974-75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum, p. 25.