It was thirty years ago today

6 June 2005

The UK’s referendum on 5 June 1975 on future membership of the EEC was the first in its history. Odd perhaps that it was demanded by self-styled defenders of parliamentary sovereignty, but nevertheless the people were given the chance to have their say. By a 2/3 majority, they voted yes. The BBC’s mocked-up report of it is on their website here.

A great moment in British history, but I personally have absolutely no memory of it. I can remember the general elections of the previous year and the election of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in January 1975, but not the referendum campaign in June. Maybe my mind was on the cricket: David Steele was called up that summer to try and defend the Ashes.

Every national poll since 1959 where our relationship with Europe has been stake – 13 general elections and the 1975 referendum – has produced a pro-European majority. (European elections don’t count because MEPs have rather a narrow remit which does not include deciding the role and status of the member states.)

What happens next is a good question. I can’t imagine that the ratification process will carry an as if nothing has happened and I don’t think it should. Referendums and their outcomes should not be taken lightly.

Referendums seem to be used as an equivalent of a parliamentary by-election: an opportunity to bash the political leadership without serious consequences. The media is happy to report them in that light, certainly. I think this is rather misguided.

If the British people should decide that they regret the outcome of a general election, they can change the decision four years later. Regret the outcome of a referendum and they might very well be stuck with it.

A referendum on Europe is the conclusion of a negotiation with the other member states – 8 of them in 1975, 24 of them today. It is not up to the British alone to change the terms of the agreement if they don’t like it, and they can’t be sure to get another chance or a better deal later on.

This blog entry first appeared on The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or of the Yes campaign.

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