Margaret Thatcher and the Express were unlikely supporters of the early European projectby Alex Dean / April 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Brexit is generating endless daily headlines, but it can sometimes help us understand the issue if we step back for a moment and consider the history. Robert Saunders’s new book provides us with a perfect opportunity to reflect on the long, turbulent story of Europe in British politics.
Three years after Edward Heath signed us up in 1972, the electorate was asked whether it would like to stay in the European Economic Community (by voting Yes) or get out (by voting No).
As Saunders makes clear there are all sorts of parallels between the 1975 vote and the re-run in 2016. Both were called by prime ministers in a tight spot for reasons of internal party management—Harold Wilson the first time, David Cameron the second. The casting also feels similar, with the 1975 establishment championing Yes and scraggy outliers flocking to the No cause.
But the differences are just as striking. The press makes for some comic relief. Papers that are today rabid in their Euroscepticism—such as the Express—initially lined up to support the continental project. The Sun was against having a vote in the first place, as was opposition leader Margaret Thatcher. The politician championed fervently by Brexiteers today swung her weight behind the Yes campaign, though she was defending the common market rather than the political institution that the European Union has today become.
The biggest difference was of course the result. In 1975 the Yes campaign wiped the floor with No, securing more than 67 per cent of the vote. This thoroughly enjoyable book offers a lesson in how Remainers once managed to win the argument, one which has sown division not just between British political parties but within them for over four decades. As yet it shows no sign of letting up.
Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain
by Robert Saunders (Cambridge University Press, £24.99)