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Today in history... Britain votes 'yes' to Europe

12:00am & News

"Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?"

It's a question with a familiar and topical ring to it, but it was actually asked of the British people 41 years ago. On May 6th, 1975, Britain was waking to news that just over two-thirds of voters had backed the new Labour Government's campaign to stay in the EEC, or 'Common Market' as it was then widely known.

Britain had joined the EEC in January 1973 when Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Rome. But in the General Election campaign of the following year, Labour's manifesto promised a public referendum on whether Britain should stay in the Common Market on renegotiated terms, or leave altogether. 

When Labour won it made good on its promise and the public referendum was held on June 5th, 1975. In the run-up to the poll, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced his government would recommend a 'Yes' vote, but then as now the Government was split, with seven of its 23 Cabinet Members backing the leave campaign. Prominent among those seeking withdrawal was Industry Secretary Tony Benn and future Prime Minister Michael Foot.

The Conservative Opposition appeared much more united in backing the Yes campaign, rallying behind newly-elected Party Leader Margaret Thatcher. She was frequently pictured on the campaign trail wearing a colourful knitted jumper bearing all the flags of the EEC member states, with the Union Flag prominent.

When the referendum came, only two of the UK's 68 administrative regions voted against staying in the EEC. They were Shetland and the Western Isles, suggesting that Britain's most remote regions felt least benefit from being in Europe.

In total, just over 67% of voters backed the Yes campaign, hailed as a resounding victory by the pro-Europe camp, including Prime Minister Wilson who called it a "historic decision". But the campaigning had revealed major splits in his new Government, and more importantly with the powerful Trade Union movement, which had campaigned to quit Europe.

While Wilson's Government struggled to recover, the Conservative Opposition capitalised on the vote result, saying it had fought hardest for the Yes vote and won the backing of the British public. At the next General Election, in 1979, the Conservatives swept back into power, Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain's first female Prime Minister.

Forty-one years on, the current European Referendum campaigns share many similarities with those of 1975, although the 'Common Market' of the '70s has evolved into a much more powerful European 'superstate' directly influencing many more areas or our everyday lives.

Whatever the result, the current UK Government would do well to heed the words in 1975 of the late Tony Benn: "When the British people speak everyone, including Members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that is certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum."

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The Arthritis Foundation's Ease-of-Use Commendation

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