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Tony Benn & the 1975 European Referendum

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2016 by kmflett

The 1975 European Referendum

benn75

The EU Referendum on 23rd June is not the first one that has been held on the issue in the UK, although most would probably be hard pressed to recall when the earlier one was.

Tony Benn’s Diary for the period provides a detailed account of events. Mrs Thatcher’s archive at the Thatcher Foundation by contrast disappoints. There are no personal papers from 1975.

Of the left campaign the standard reference book by Butler and Kitzinger does reproduce one poignant cartoon from the Star which shows two ‘no’ voters on Referendum day commenting that it was the first time they had had a chance to vote against all three main parties at the same time.

The two main campaigns were less evenly balanced in terms of finance than they appear to be in 2016.

The ‘remain’ campaign was certainly much better resourced in 1975 than the ‘leave’ National Referendum Campaign

A key part of the NRC was the Labour Common Market Safeguards Campaign a long running organisation which had pushed for reform of the EEC. It had the support of a number of major unions.

A number of union officials and researchers were seconded to the campaign, including a young Hilary Benn who worked out of the Spectator’s Offices in Doughty St.

The official labour movement played a considerable role in the 1975 campaign reflecting the political context of the times. Butler and Kitzinger note for example that the Tribune newspaper was an important part of the campaign.

Tony Benn wrote to Thatcher on 20th April 1975 asking her if the Tories would honour a ‘leave’ vote. The answer was that they would not, as ultimately it was a matter for Parliament.

Benn put forward an economic strategy based on leaving Europe and argued his case in Cabinet meetings. His ideas became a central focus of the 1975 campaign.

He had argued that there was ‘more of a danger’ posed by the European Commission than by ‘Mick McGahey’.

On 26th April Labour held a Special Conference on Europe at the Sobell Centre in Islington. Michael Foot made the concluding speech quoting Nye Bevan and Rainsborough and the ‘leave’ position won by 3.9m to 1.7m.

The following day former Tory leader Heath wrote in the Sunday Express ‘are you voting for a Communist takeover?’

In the final weeks of the campaign Benn became an increasing focus.

His diary for May 10th 1975 records him at Barnsley Civic Hall. A meeting of 1,000 NUM delegates chaired by Arthur Scargill heard Benn put the case against the Common Market.

There were 8 press cars outside of his flat. Benn was no happier with the BBC describing it on 14th May as a ‘hot bed of pro-Market people’. He notes receiving death threats and met with Special Branch about these. They felt that murder was unlikely but ‘there may be a risk of you getting biffed’.

In the final days of the 1975 campaign the focus was on whether leaving or staying in Europe would have more impact on jobs. At the beginning of the week of the poll Benn debated with Roy Jenkins on Panorama. The following day he was at a meeting in Cardiff organised by Neil Kinnock to campaign for a ‘no’ vote. Speakers included Michael Foot and Welsh NUM leader Dai Francis. 2000 people attended.

The vote on 5th June 1975 was 17m in favour of remaining in Europe and 8.5m in favour of leaving. This represented a 67.5% ‘in’ vote on a 65% poll.

Benn records speaking to Enoch Powell at the party after the polls had closed and finding him arguing that the process of disengaging from Europe had only just begun

 This post appears in the Morning Star 15th June

I will be posting a longer research paper on the 1975 Referendum at the weekend

 

 

 

 

 

 

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