Britain was utterly wretched in 1975. No wonder Europe seemed a better bet

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

‘I voted to stay in a common market. No one ever mentioned a political union.’ It is the complaint of an entire generation — the generation, by and large, that switched its vote between 1975 and 2016. It is also, as Robert Saunders shows in this eloquent history of the earlier poll, based on a false memory. Anti-Marketeers in 1975, especially Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, constantly talked about ‘our right to rule ourselves’. Supporters of the EEC, for their part, were never happier than when lecturing voters about the benefits of swapping theoretical sovereignty for actual power.

But the voters — empirical, practical, Anglo-Saxon — wanted examples. Abstract nouns like ‘sovereignty’ left them cold. What did sovereignty mean? Both sides found that, in order to connect, they had to talk about day-to-day consequences, such as Commonwealth trade and food prices. This is what voters took away from the whole exercise, and what they remember still.

Forty-one years later, Vote Leave was similarly actuated by the desire to take back national independence and, like its predecessor campaign, found that voters preferred practical instances to academic theories. So it talked about money, laws and borders. Once again, many commentators took away the examples rather than the underlying theme they had been chosen to illustrate. It has become an article of faith among Remainers that the 2016 poll was ‘all about immigration’, even though a mountain of polling data shows that the top issue for Leavers was indeed self-government.

It would be easy to write a book about such parallels. Easy and dull. It would be marginally less dull to write a book about the odd mirror images. In 1975, it was Labour that split while the Tories were largely pro-European — though their new leader was excoriated for keeping too low a profile (the famous photograph of Margaret Thatcher in that hideous jumper made up of the nine EEC flags gives a false impression: she was far more reluctant than we now recall).

In 1975, Welsh and Scottish separatists pushed for a ‘No’ vote partly in the hope that securing a different result from England’s might strengthen the case for secession. ‘Scotland knows from bitter experience what treatment is in store for a powerless region of a Common Market,’ said Alex Salmond. In 1975, Leavers raged at the tabloids for their bias, especially the Daily Express’s insinuation that voting No was pro-Soviet. Oddly, from our perspective, the one newspaper they regarded as more or less fair was the Financial Times. In 1975, the NUS, led by Charles Clarke, threw its weight behind Leave.

A chronicle that recounted only these discrepancies would be worthy, if a little sterile. That was, to be honest, what I was expecting when I picked up Robert Saunders’s book. Here we go, I thought: an extended PhD thesis by some Leftie Remainer academic.

In fact, Yes to Europe turns out to be a captivating read, meticulously researched and exquisitely written. True, the author is indeed a Leftie Remainer, but you wouldn’t guess it from his text, which is by far the most neutral and informative take on the 1975 campaign that you will read. Saunders has a wry and gently amused prose style, with unhurried and uncontrived allusions and a fine eye for detail. His narrative carries you along as if you were reading a novel.

His purpose is not just to tell the story of Britain’s first referendum; it is to use that poll as an instrument to conjure the unique political ambience of the 1970s. Saunders brings to life a decade that is at once half familiar and utterly alien. It may have had the same political parties as now, the same brand names, the same institutions, but everything seems removed from us.

For example, a snap of cold weather just before polling day led to the suspension of play in a county cricket match. ‘When play resumed the next day, conditions were so treacherous that one batsman removed his false teeth, wrapped them in a handkerchief and handed them to the umpire, Dickie Bird, for safekeeping.’ Somehow, everything about that sentence is time specific.

We find ourselves in a world where Women’s Libbers break up beauty pageants; where Ulster is gripped in para-military conflict; a world which is still truly postwar: the 1975 poll was closer in time to the first world war than the 2016 poll was to the second, and both sides reached unselfconsciously back to those conflagrations, whether Fawlty-like or as a warning against national sovereignty.

Gently, but unsettlingly, Saunders brings back the sheer awfulness of the 1970s: the power cuts, the strikes, the inflation, the sense of constant crisis. People understandably saw Europe as a better bet than what was happening at home. That, ultimately, is what changed between the two referendums: the pessimism had evaporated.

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