In Part One of his look back at Britain’s journey with the EU, Otto English charts the UK’s pivotal role in its formation, initial British reluctance at the project and the 1975 referendum which seemed to provide hope for a happy future in the bloc

Share this article

In September 2016, three months after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Nigel Farage sat down with journalist Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HardTalk to discuss what would happen next. 

In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, discussion turned to what Brexit actually meant and Farage, sporting an unseasonal remembrance poppy, was happy to clarify.

“To me, Brexit’s easy,” he said. “You know, we get back British passports, we have control of our fishing waters and our companies are not subject to EU law through the single market. Those are my three tests.”

This, then, was the vision as spelled out by the architect of Brexit. Britain’s future course would be built upon the tripartite principles of: nostalgia for old travel documents, the self-interests of our tiny fishing industry, and full control over the permutations of domestically produced root vegetables.

It was, in many ways, the summation of the narrative that Farage and his fellow travellers had been peddling for more than a decade. Great Britain and its impractical passports had no place in ‘the failing EU project’. This was a ‘global nation’. It would be ‘easy’ to leave. Life would go on as before. Britain – prior to 1973 when it joined then European Economic Community (EEC) – had been a thriving country, trading with Commonwealth partners. We could do all that again. The people had been conned into joining a ‘trade organisation’ and, over time, that economic community had been forged into something else. All we had to do was to reset the controls and let our fishermen catch more fish and all would be well.

This narrative is now so embedded that even once sensible politicians trot it out. But how true is it? And if life was so good in the UK before we joined the EU/EEC, why did we sign up in the first place? 

As we prepare to leave the EU on 31 January, I thought I’d try to find out and separate out the truth from the Farrago.

Britain’s Founding Father

To understand Britain’s place in Europe, we need to travel back to the end of the Second World War and to a speech Winston Churchill gave in Zurich in September 1946. 

With the continent still reeling from six years of carnage, he chose that moment to call for the creation of a “United States of Europe”. This union, the former Prime Minister suggested, could ensure that the devastation twice visited on the continent in the 20th Century would not happen again. 

To that end, France and Germany needed to “take the lead together” and work with smaller neighbours in a spirit of cooperation and good will. 

Churchill’s vision explicitly excluded Great Britain. The country may have been bludgeoned by six years of war, but it was still – just – at the head of an extensive Empire and its interests lay beyond Europe. It would, however, assist and partner this new venture and benefit from it and the peace it would secure.

The speech caused a sensation. Churchill went on to be one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Council of Europe and there is little doubt that our most famous 20th Century Prime Minister – beloved of nationalists and self-professed patriots – was one of the founding fathers of the European project.

Five years later, in 1951, Britain looked on as then European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany and the Netherlands. The Treaty of Paris which had formalised the ECSC was a first step in regional integration and sought to create a common market for coal and steel. It was also the first example in history of voluntary supranationalism – a pooling of sovereignty by member states to another authority.

The UK declined an invitation to join. The country still saw its destiny at the head of the Commonwealth and the Labour Government was wary of the technocratic nature of the venture. So, as its European neighbours moved forward together, the UK held the Festival of Britain instead, while feeding rations to its children.

In truth, the early 1950s was a raw moment for Britain. Still pockmarked with bombsites and struggling to find a role as her Empire fell apart, it was becoming increasingly obvious that this once powerful nation’s power had waned. The debacle at Suez in 1956 signalled a final, humiliating end to Britain’s pretentions of being a global superpower.

Slowly, however, the country began to pull itself together. Much needed migration from the West Indies and elsewhere brought new cultures into our previously homogeneous cities. Affordable appliances and cheap plastic products altered the nature of domestic life. Teenagers embraced rock and roll and bubble gum. And the economy choked slowly back to life as Britain enjoyed a mini post-war boom.

In July 1957, the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered his famous “you’ve never had it so good” speech to the Conservative Party conference. It was true that Britain was finally enjoying an economic renaissance, but it was a growth that was lagging behind our European neighbours. 

That same year, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC) out of the ESCS. The EEC was to be a primarily economic partnership, but the preamble to the treaty made clear that the goal of the organisation was to work towards “ever closer union”. Britain declined to take part in negotiations. The EEC states ploughed ahead regardless and soon their populations were benefiting from tariff-free trade and all that came with it.

Back in Britain, “never had it so good” had given way to ‘declinism’.

Third Time Lucky

As Europe boomed, the UK went the other way and, as the 1960s dawned, British politicians began to look at the continent with increasing envy. 

For those of us who grew up in the decades following the 1960s, it is easy to get lulled into the false notion that the era was all Beatlemania, E-type jags, King’s Road, mini coopers, Carnaby Street, mini-skirts and hippies. That Britain was at the centre of the world and that London was swinging every step of the way.

In fact, life remained hard for most people and, economically speaking, Britain had fallen back into a tortuous decline. It was obvious to those venturing abroad that the UK was being outperformed by our neighbours in the EEC. The populations of France and West Germany in particular enjoyed a better standard of living, with higher disposable income and more domestic products per head of population. And the food was much better and cheaper as well.  

British industry by comparison was in the doldrums. The monopoly the country had once enjoyed in consumer markets of the former Empire had gone and British products were deemed inferior to those being produced in other industrialised nations. The country was stagnating.

Margaret Thatcher, sporting a sweater bearing the flags of European nations, as part of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign

By 1961, the British were hammering on the door of the EEC and trying to get in. Unfortunately, having twice rejected an invitation, the Europeans – particularly the French – were suspicious of the UK’s new overtures of friendship and said ‘non’ and, a few years later, ‘non’ once more.

It was only with the fall of the French President Charles De Gaulle, in 1969, that Britain was finally allowed to join the club – on its third attempt.

The UK would have to agree to pool sovereignty and make its currency comprehensible, but the country’s leaders calculated that the gains of membership far outweighed other considerations. Britain could regain lost influence and reinvent itself alongside its European partners. The Treaty of Accession was signed in January 1972 by Edward Heath, the arch Europhile British Prime Minister and, following a transition period, the UK joined the EEC on 1 January 1973.

The Round One Referendum

Despite the oil crisis later that year, Britain’s economic woes began to reverse.

Over the course of the next decade, British business was to energetically embrace harmonised regulations and tariff-free trade and the UK economy not only bounced back after years of stultified decline, but began to overtake its neighbours. 

But, from the start, not everyone was happy. Many in the Labour Party viewed such transformative change as undemocratic. Accession had happened without the consent of the people and there were calls for a national referendum. 

In 1974, Harold Wilson was re-elected Prime Minister promising a “renegotiation of EEC membership”, but under pressure from a sizable segment of his own Cabinet – led by the ambitious Tony Benn – he proposed an ‘in-out’ referendum instead. Margaret Thatcher, the pro-EEC leader of the Opposition, was unimpressed. Referendums, she argued, were a “device of demagogues and dictators” and had no place in British political life. Despite her protestations, a date was earmarked and the vote went ahead.

The Athenian philosopher Thucydides was one of the first writers to note that history has an uncanny knack of repeating itself. And, in the 1975 United Kingdom European Communities Referendum, we see round one in a curiously familiar tale. 

First, there was the ambitious populist politician seeking to use the referendum for his own gains. In this case that role was taken by Tony Benn, who had recently reinvented himself as a left-wing firebrand and saw the plebiscite as an opportunity to demonstrate his credentials in his rise to the top job. Benn argued that staying in the EEC would cost British workers their jobs and, for his efforts, he was labelled the “Minister of Fear” by an unforgiving press.

Then there was the nature of the debate. Sovereignty was a huge issue in 1975 and it is clear watching contemporary debates and current affairs programmes that Britain’s entry into the EEC was not seen merely as the country joining a trading bloc. Far from it. Sovereignty was the de rigueur buzzword of the early 1970s and, despite what revisionist Brexiters might claim, it was at the heart of debate from day one. During the marathon accession debate in 1971, Enoch Powell raised it over and over in a lengthy speech in the House of Commons and it was much discussed in the run-up to the 1975 vote.

The war was also mentioned frequently. A Keep Britain in Europe poster from the time argued that “40 million people died in two European wars this century. Better lose a little sovereignty than a son or daughter”. But, in 1975, this argument was deployed by the ‘Remainers’ not the ‘Leavers’. For back then, people in their late 30s could still remember the war and its consequences. Back then, it was not a sentimentalised issue. The events of the 1940s had yet to be reduced in the minds of adults to Ladybird libertarian notions of Spitfires and Airfix models. Voters knew what World War Two had cost and, even as the Cold War rumbled on, they valued peace over anything else. 

It is fascinating that many of the most ardent Europhiles, who campaigned hardest to stay in the EEC in 1975, had seen frontline action. Edward Heath was at the Normandy landings and was mentioned in dispatches. Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, one of the main left-wing advocates of staying in, had been beach master at Anzio for the British Assault Brigade. Jim Callaghan had seen active service in the Royal Navy on HMS Activity, hunting U boats. Roy Jenkins had been a code-breaker at Bletchley Park.

These were men who understood the consequences of isolationism, nationalism and war in a way that Arron Banks, Peter Bone or Jacob Rees-Mogg will never come close to comprehending. And it made them advocates of a brighter future. 

As it was, the nation voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EEC. Turnout was 64% and 67% of British voters – some 17.378 million people – chose to stay in.

The media, along with celebrity names including Henry Cooper and Kenneth More, had overwhelmingly supported the ‘Yes to EEC’ campaign with the Morning Star and Spectator being the only dissenting voices.

The fishermen weren’t happy as it meant that they couldn’t dredge the seabeds to extinction. Nor, clearly, was a nine-year-old prep schoolboy called Nigel Farage. But, as Britain faced the challenges of the late 1970s – and slowly began to feel the benefits of its membership – it looked as if the Eurosceptic cause was lost.

In fact, the story was far from over.


Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)

Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture warBrexit, crony contractsRussian interferencethe Coronavirus pandemicdemocracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Culture

The Upside Down: Why Folk Songs Still Mean Something

, 13 January 2023
The longer we look at this traditional music, the more we see that its very malleability is its strength and its challenge, writes John Mitchinson

A Letter to Nowhere: ‘Like Many Disabled People, I’m Fearful’

, 12 January 2023
Penny Pepper pens an open letter to her Conservative MP, explaining why the NHS crisis is personal and political for those 'living in the real world'

The White Knuckle Ride of 2022

, 23 December 2022
From Partygate to Trussomics, the death of the Monarch, and the humiliation of Vladimir Putin, OttoEnglish's review of the year takes us on a roller coaster of major fails and meteoric falls

More from the Byline Family