We don’t yet know exactly when the referendum on whether the Britain should remain in the EU will be, or indeed what question we will actually be asked, but I’m guessing it will be pretty similar to the one asked on this day in 1975 when the British electorate voted in the first all-UK referendum.
Back then, of course, the EU (or Common Market as it was usually called) was a very different beast. It only had nine members (remember those 50p pieces with the nine hands, one of them slightly smaller to represent the Queen?) and Britain had only joined two years earlier (twelve years after it applied). The tenth member – Greece – didn’t join until 1981, and the single market was seventeen years away.
The result of the 1975 referendum was pretty overwhelming – 67.2% of the electorate was in favour of staying in the Common Market (the only regions against were the Shetland Islands and Western Isles). The Yes campaign was supported by the most of the press, including the Daily Express which reminded its readers of VE Day, only thirty years before:
“The lesson of that war, as of the previous one, was the impossibility of opting out of events across the Channel”
while the Daily Mirror’s front page simply urged the public to
‘Vote Yes for Europe’.
The Times suggested that
‘If there has been any disappointment in the referendum debate, it is that it has concentrated too much on what Europe can do for us and too little on what we can do for Europe’
while the Guardian asked
‘Do we want to go into the twenty first century as a small and separate nation or as part of a greater Western Europe?’
I think we can be fairly confident that there won’t be such unanimity next time.
You can find out what the press said about the 1975 referendum by checking out our online newspaper resources. And for hardcore politics geeks, the government’s Yes campaign manifesto is available online.
There have been plenty of other referendums in the UK, though only two in which Londoners could vote [for those shaking their heads and muttering “referenda”, here’s The Telegraph on the subject]. In 1998 we were asked whether we wanted an elected assembly and a mayor (34% of us voted and of those 72% said yes) and in 2011 the whole country was asked if we wanted to change to electoral system to something called Alternative Vote. The turn-out was only 42% and the answer was an overwhelming ‘No’, though cynics suggested that was because nobody understood the question!
Of course, the referendum that comes to mind most readily both for its high turnout and broad-ranging impact in very recent times happened only a few months ago and not so very far from home. You can read more about it in Alex Salmond’s The dream shall never die, or for a wider range of views take a look at our newspaper archives.
And if you’re struggling to work up enthusiasm for the prospect, be grateful you don’t live in Switzerland where they had no fewer than 12 referendums just last year.