Brexiters often claim that in Britain’s first referendum of 1975, voters were misled into believing that the Common Market – now called the European Union – was just about ‘free trade’. But that’s not correct. (Article continues after the 5-minute video.)
It was clear even before we joined the European Economic Community (as it was called then) that it was much more than just a free trading arrangement.
When we first applied to join in 1961, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the nation:
“One thing is certain. As a member of the Community, Britain would have a strong voice in deciding the nature and the timing of political unity.
“By remaining outside, we could be faced with a political solution in Europe which ran counter but which we could do nothing to influence.”
That’s hardly stating that the European Community was only about ‘free trade’.
When eventually we joined the Community in 1973, Prime Minister Edward Heath wrote for the Illustrated London News:
“The community which we are joining is far more than a common market. It is a community in the true sense of that term.
“It is concerned not only with the establishment of free trade, economic and monetary union and other major economic issues, important though these are — but also as the Paris Summit Meeting has demonstrated, with social issues which affect us all — environmental questions, working conditions in industry, consumer protection, aid to development areas and vocational training.”
Again, that’s hardly stating that the Community was only about free trade.
In 1975, two years after we joined, the new Labour government held a referendum on whether Britain wanted to remain in the European Community – the exact same referendum as we had in 2016.
The government’s pamphlet sent to every UK household for the referendum stated that the first aims of the Common Market were to ‘bring together the peoples of Europe’, to ‘raise living standards’ and ‘to maintain peace’.
The pamphlet made clear that as a member, Britain has a ‘say in the future economic and political development of the Common Market.’ If we left the Common Market, ‘Britain would no longer have any say’.
It could not have missed anyone’s attention at the time that the European Community was about much more than just free trade.
Even the Eurosceptics of the time claimed that membership of the Common Market went beyond ‘free trade’.
Their ‘NO’ campaign referendum literature, also distributed to every household, warned what they considered were the dangers of membership:
- To end a thousand years of British freedom and independent nationhood is an unheard of constitutional change.
- Do you want us to be a self-governing nation, or to be a province of Europe?
- Do we want self-government as a great independent nation, or do we want to be governed as a province of the EEC by Commissioners and a Council of Ministers, predominantly foreign, in Brussels?
- Do we want to lose the whole of our individual influence as a nation, which is still great, in order to enhance the status of Europe, which would then function largely outside our control?
Although in over 40 years of membership the fears and warnings of the 1975 ‘NO’ campaign have not materialised, their arguments haven’t changed. In fact, the 2016 referendum has simply regurgitated the same old arguments that took place in the first referendum.
There is little difference between the European Economic Community of 1975 and the European Union of today. They share the same foundational principles and aspirations.
Of course, in over 60 years since its foundation, the European Community has grown phenomenally, with more countries wanting to join. But that just demonstrates the success of the EU project.
The Conservative government under David Cameron could have saved a fortune by simply re-printing the 1975 referendum pamphlet and distributing it for the 2016 referendum.
Almost all the points and arguments remain the same. Nothing much has changed. Read the Labour government’s 1975 pamphlet and judge for yourself.
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