Elections & Voting Explained
Case Study: European Referendum 1975
In 1975 the UK held a referendum on its membership of the European Economic Community (also known as the Common Market).
The referendum, across the UK, was the country’s first nationwide referendum.
Why was it Held?
Britain under Prime Minister Edward Heath had joined the EEC in January 1973 when the Treaty of Rome was signed.
The Labour Party, in their election manifesto, promised the referendum if they won the election in October 1974. They would give people the chance to decide whether Britain should stay in the EEC on renegotiated terms, or leave it entirely.
The Labour Party felt that the people should have been given a say in 1973 but it was also a way of settling a divisive issue within his own party once and for all. The Parliamentary Party was in favour of staying in but the grassroots membership wanted to leave.
The prime minister announced that the government would be recommending a “yes” vote. But it was clear that the British cabinet was split, with seven of its 23 members seeking withdrawal. Those who wanted to leave the EEC included future leader Michael Foot, then Secretary of State of Employment and Tony Benn, Industry Secretary. The Trade Union movement was also opposed.
The Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, also campaigned to stay in the EEC, seeing it as an emerging market.
The business world was in favour of staying in.
What was the Question?
Faced with the referendum question, “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
What was the Result?
Just over 67% of voters backed the UK’s continued membership.
Britons voted “Yes” in most of the 68 administrative counties, regions and Northern Ireland. Only Shetland and the Western Isles voted against the EEC.
Response to the Result
Prime Minister Harold Wilson said it was a “historic decision”.
Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: “It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.”
Former Prime Minister Edward Heath said: “I’ve worked for this for 25 years, I was the prime minister who led Britain into the community and I’m naturally delighted that the referendum is working out as it is.”
Industry Secretary Tony Benn, said: “When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum.”
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