On Thursday 23rd June 2016, citizens of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth will be able to vote whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union (EU). However, this is not the first time that the UK's membership of a European institution has been contested.
In 1975, the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether the UK should be a part of this European community, known at that time as the European Economic Community (EEC).
The media in the run up to the 2016 referendum have given a considerable lack of attention to the fact membership has been contested before, but comparing the coverage of both referendums gives interesting insight into how little has changed in European politics in the last 40 years.
Deciding to join the club
The United Kingdom joined the economic corporation known as the European Economic Community or Common Market in January 1973, which even then was surrounded by scepticism. Newspapers began speculating as early as 1969 that a referendum may be needed on its membership should Britain join. Debate on another referendum has been rife for years; ever since the last one.
What the newspapers say
A common trait of both referendums is the united front of all major political parties to remain in the European Union. This is something that media then and now are keen to emphasize, whichever side they may be on. In 1975, the majority of newspapers were pro-European. Newspapers including the Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail all added to propaganda enticing their readers to remain inside the EEC. The combined circulation of newspapers in favour of the European Community was thought to be around 15 million per day, illustrating the immense power and influence that these ideas could provoke.
By contrast, with the explosion of social media and newspapers not being the primary place for information gathering in the run up to this referendum, the impact of newspaper coverage in 2016 is harder to ascertain. For example, newspaper coverage has been more split in this referendum and papers such as The Daily Mail have run multiple articles on the positive aspects to the Brexit campaign. However, whether this would have been as impactful given the flurry of information available online is impossible to measure.
The Economic Argument
The major similarity between the 1975 referendum and the 2016 EU referendums is the question on how well the United Kingdom will fare economically should they leave the European Union.
Coverage of this topic divides between two camps – those who believe that Britain leaving the EU will positively affect the economy, versus those who state Brexit could have dire consequences. Given the overtly economic nature of the state of the European Union in 1975, this is what the media focused on. The Express, for example, urged its readers to vote in “for the market.” The simplicity of this slogan illustrates that the heart of the referendum was economic.
Today this is similar, but more emphasis has been placed on the political side effects of Britain’s potential withdrawal from Europe. This is most obviously noted by the intense media coverage of David Cameron’s negotiation attempts to reform Britain’s membership terms in February 2016.
A Question of General Ignorance
Scare stories are common amongst newspapers today and during the 1975 referendum. A particular highlight is a Daily Mail story entitled “A day in the life of Siege Britain: NO COFFEE, WINE, BEANS OR BANANAS, TILL FURTHER NOTICE” suggesting the dire consequences Britain could face should it have left the EEC. Similar headlines can be found in today’s newspapers, such as the IMF warning that Brexit could spark another economic crisis in this country. Ultimately, this points to speculation and shows that nobody can conclusively say what will happen should Britain leave Europe. The fear is that this will influence the ignorant voter into believing these scare stories that are often not grounded in reality.
The newspapers following the 1975 referendum also indicate what is likely to happen should the United Kingdom decide to remain inside the European Union; most likely there will be calls for another referendum to be held.
An article from the Economist from 27th February 1977 entitled “We like it less than ever” suggested that another referendum would have elicited a “no” vote from the public, as opinion polls showed that only a third of the public thought the Common Market was a good thing. Multiple newspapers since the referendum published similar stories calling for another referendum to be held. It seems that this could be a likely outcome should the Brexit campaign fail to achieve its aims.
I am a first year undergraduate studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in War Studies and History at Kings College London. I have always been interested in politics, with particular emphasis on international cooperation and conflict resolution, leading me to join the European Youth Parliament and become involved with Model United Nations.