The 1975 European Referendum: A Four Nations Reappraisal of the Campaign

The 1975 European Referendum: A Four Nations Reappraisal of the Campaign

This week, Ryan McCullough examines the role of the Four Nations in the 1975 European Referendum Campaign.

The European Referendum of 1975 was the first in British history to be held nationally. The country overwhelmingly decided to remain in the European Community.[i] Nevertheless, while the two to one result was undeniably a British endorsement of Europe, it disguised the nature of the campaign. The narrative of historians has focused on the referendum as a singular national one, often failing to recognise the intricacies of the campaign in the UK’s separate nations. Many historians have suggested that Harold Wilson called a referendum in order to placate those in his party that could have destroyed his tiny majority,[ii] leading commentators since to focus on what Robert Saunders has called, ‘the Westminster, Whitehall and Foreign Office’ narrative.[iii]

In some ways it is easy to understand why. In a Commons debate in 1975, Enoch Powell was told by the Leader of the House, Edward Short, ‘we want to know what the United Kingdom thinks as a whole. We are not concerned solely with Northern Ireland or Scotland.’[iv] Following this narrative fails to recognise the breadth of the campaign. I hope to explore this breadth and show that the 1975 campaign, unlike the result, differed throughout the UK.

The main campaign groups were organised at Westminster and nationally focused. The ‘yes’ camp was Britain in Europe (BIE) and the ‘no’ camp was the National Referendum Campaign. The three main Westminster parties declared their support for BIE. Harold Wilson’s suspension of Cabinet Collective responsibility, saw seven cabinet ministers support a ‘no’ vote. Consequently, Vernon Bogdanor has argued that the European Referendum of 1975 became a ‘left/right issue.’[v] This focus is too narrow. It applies, as he suggests, to the Labour party, where ‘no’ became synonymous with the left. It fails however, to recognise the nature of the campaign outside of SW1. Certainly, the left-leaning nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party (SNP), supported ‘no’, but out of nationalist concern rather than political ideology. In Scotland particularly, The SNP had been bolstered by rising nationalism through the 1970’s. This Bogdanor rightly suggests left Westminster fearing the consequences of Scotland voting ‘no’ with the rest of the UK voting ‘yes.’ David Butler, the prominent psephologist and ‘yes’ advocate recalls speaking to Anthony Benn on the eve of the result who told him, ‘You may win the thing, but you may win at the expense of disuniting the United Kingdom.’[vi] Butler suggests the result the next day eradicated this, but nevertheless, during the campaign, the Scotland question was a very real one.

Furthermore, where the status of Northern Ireland was already uncertain, the left-leaning nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) supported a ‘yes’ vote, unlike their counterparts in Wales and Scotland, proving that nationalism was not universal. Indeed, during the campaign an interesting subplot developed in Northern Ireland. At the height of violence in 1975, both the occasionally Marxist political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin and the Conservative leaning Democratic and Ulster Unionist Parties, (DUP & UUP respectively), both campaigned to leave.[vii] The Republican press backed Sinn Féin and were unusually, in agreement with some of the Unionist newspapers. Even the paramilitary organisations spared pages in their publications for the propaganda of Europe, instead of the propaganda of sectarianism.[viii] The effects of this are little explored by historians, but at the height of the troubles these newspapers were popular and possibly helped influence the campaign in Northern Ireland,[ix] the violent backdrop for which, leaves it a sadly under investigated microcosm. Nevertheless, it helps to dispel the left/right narrative.

Northern Ireland’s situation was different, but not completely adrift from the national campaign. The fragmentation of the Labour Party, allowed focus inevitably to fall on some of the country’s leading figures. Barbara Castle and Anthony Benn prominently defied the government and supported the ‘no’ campaign. They were joined by former Conservative Enoch Powell, by then an Ulster Unionist MP. His prominence has been well documented, with some historians suggesting that his effect on the ‘no’ campaign was a negative one. Despite his popularity, he perhaps did not have the credibility of the national party figures. Where Powell’s role has largely been overlooked was in his ability to garner support from English nationalists.[x] Indeed, given Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ reputation this certainly makes sense. However, with a large number of key English figures in the ‘no’ group, it is something of a paradox that it took and MP from Ulster to affect English nationalism.

This was indicative of the wider ‘no’ group, who campaigned on the potential for nationalist unrest across the UK. Their literature suggested that a ‘yes’ vote would be ‘particularly damaging to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the rest of the North and West of England, which have suffered so much from unemployment already.’[xi] It was a tactic that the BIE campaign and the government were not willing to engage with, and their literature, printed into Welsh and English, focused on UK-wide issues such as trade and national security.[xii] Ultimately their message proved the successful one, but clearly the ‘no’ campaign recognised sub-national issues.

Undeniably the result of the referendum demonstrated overwhelming national uniformity. This fact has however, disguised the complexity of the campaign. The narrative that the split in the Labour party made the campaign a left/right one is misleading and the rise of nationalism was a big worry at Westminster. The campaign in Northern Ireland saw an interesting mix of collective views given the political situation and while history suggests that the campaign was English dominated, it took an Ulster Unionist to stoke English nationalism. So it’s clear that the 1975 campaign was far from universal and with the 2016 version approaching, it would be folly to treat this one as a one-nation campaign.

[i] Robert Worcester, Europe: The State of Public Opinion Available: – visited 15/03/16.

[ii]Vernon Bogdanor, The Referendum on Europe, 1975 (Gresham College Lecture, 15th April 2014) Accessed:– 15/03/16.

[iii]Robert Saunders, What can we learn from the 1975 campaign? (Mile End Institute: 2016) Accessed:– 20/03/16.

[iv]HC Deb, EEC Membership (Referendum), 11th April 1975, vol.888, cc.300-01.

[v]Bogdanor, The Referendum on Europe.

[vi]King’s College London, ‘European Referendum witness seminar, 5th June 1995, Accessed: – 21/03/16, p.34.

[vii]ARK Elections, The Referendums of 1973 and 1975 Accessed:


[ix]Not enough evidence is available, nevertheless, readers of An Phoblacht/Republican News more than doubled throughout 1970’s. See

[x]This is hard to quantify but Bogdanor states that Powell managed to do this. See Gresham College lecture.

[xi]V.Miller, The 1974-5 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum, House of Commons Library Briefing paper, 7253, July 2015, p.23.

[xii]Ibid, p.24.

Ryan McCullough is a former MA student (Politics and Contemporary British History) at Kings College London. His interests include the British constitution and the Northern Ireland Conflict and the Peace Process.


One thought on “The 1975 European Referendum: A Four Nations Reappraisal of the Campaign

  1. Pingback: 1975 and all that

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