With the EU referendum dominating minds and headlines, we look at the outcome of the last Europe-focused referendum and its similarities to today’s event.
On the 5th of June 1975 the UK public went to the polls for an unprecedented UK-wide referendum vote. The ballot paper posed the question: ‘Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?’
This vote was the culmination of a Labour manifesto promise made before the October 1974 election, with Harold Wilson having swept to a decisive victory over outbound Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. While Heath had taken the UK into the European Community – which would later become one of the three pillars of the European Union – the Labour party had pushed for the electorate to have a direct say on the matter. The final outcome was a rather decisive majority of 67% for the ‘yes’ vote.
However, some decades later, on the 23rd of June 2016, voters returned to the ballot box once again. On the paper this time, a markedly similar question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
This re-run of the historic referendum was brought about when Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to hold a fresh vote on the UK’s membership of the EU in his election manifesto. As support for the anti-EU UK Independence Party was threatening to draw away traditional Tory voters and Euroscepticism was fermenting within the ranks of his own party Cameron made, and ultimately followed through on, that particular election promise.
In the intervening forty-one years between that first membership referendum and the second, the political landscape has changed markedly and the EU itself has evolved. As a result, in spite of certain similarities, the 2016 campaign has ultimately become a very different creature to its 1975 forerunner.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums lies in the parties that called them. As highlighted above, it was a Labour government that pledged the vote the first time around and a Conservative one the second. Historically the European Community was viewed negatively by the left wing of the Labour party, who were some of the most significant voices for ‘no’ in the campaign. The party was severely split by the issue, in much the same way that the Tories have been seen to suffer something of a fracture in party unity this time around.
Then, as now, the principle of Cabinet collective responsibility was suspended, a move that had been unprecedented for a majority government prior to 1975. However, the number of Cabinet ministers breaking ranks to campaign for an exit from the union proved to be limited in both cases; with 7 ministers out of 23 opposed to remaining in 1975, and just 5 out of 30 in the second referendum.
One of the greater changes has been the role of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has seen a significant expansion in its influence within the last decade. Previously the SNP, as well as Plaid Cymru, had fallen on the side of the Anti-Marketeers and actively campaigned for the UK to vote ‘no’ to continued EC membership. In 2016, with the SNP now the third largest party in the House of Commons, that view has changed significantly. Members of the party, including former leader Alex Salmond, have even pledged that in the event of a vote to leave there would be calls to re-run the Scottish independence referendum. This indicates the depth of the SNP’s support for the EU and the extent to which the party’s view of the European Community has changed over time.
Another notable difference in the debate is the presence of UKIP, which was founded in 1991 as a hard Eurosceptic party and has consistently campaigned for an end to the country’s membership of the EU throughout its existence. In 1975, with only two years of EC membership under its belt, there was rather less in the way of outright frustration with the union and fewer of the anti-establishment undertones found in the 2016 referendum campaign. Galvanising this growing opposition to the EU for many years prior to the date of the vote, this single-issue party brought a far greater level of momentum to the Brexit camp from the outset.
Even before the polls opened in 1975 the strength appeared to be decidedly behind the ‘yes’ campaign, with their opponents lacking a particular, populist leader around whom to rally. Public support proved more difficult for the Anti-Marketeers to tap into, given the greater funding of their rivals and the fact that the UK press largely supported a vote to remain in the EC. The Morning Star was considered to be the only major publication in favour of a ‘no’ vote at the time of the first referendum, as opposed to the greater division amongst the press today. This has allowed the message of the Brexiteers to be broadcast more widely, receiving a particular boost from the public backing of The Sun due to its large readership.
As a result, the campaign certainly appears to be a much closer run thing this time around. With a larger voter turnout forecast than the 64% seen at the first referendum pundits expect the margin of the vote to be decidedly narrower this time around. The greater sense of division amongst the populace suggests that the ultimate result is unlikely to be as strongly conclusive, particularly as opinion polls have generally showed a rather narrow margin between the opposing camps. While in 1975 only two counting areas showed a majority in favour of leaving the union, those being Shetland and the Western Isles, this result is likely to show a rather more mixed outcome.
Another stark difference between the two votes is the number of territories included in the count. Only the four main component nations of the UK were polled in 1975, but in 2016 the British Overseas Territory Gibraltar has been given its own say in the matter. The various other BOTs and crown dependencies will still not be eligible to vote, though, as Gibraltar is the territory which would be most impacted by a vote to leave the EU due to its presence on the European landmass. However, with a population roughly 0.04% the size of the UK itself, the impact of the territory’s inclusion could be considered minimal in terms of the overall result.
At the time of writing it is still unclear whether the 2016 EU referendum will echo its predecessor in the most crucial way or whether history will ultimately not repeat itself in this case. Will the Anti-Markteers finally emerge victorious forty-one years later? Or will all the differences prove to be inconsequential in the end? Only time, and the ballot box itself, will tell.
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