Selling a new deal in Europe: what the Remain campaign can learn from 1975

David Thackeray

Cross posted from The Conversation

Just before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan worked hard to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

The concessions agreed back then are now widely seen as having had little lasting value – they related to imports of New Zealand dairy products and a complex correcting mechanism within the EEC budget. And yet, at the time they were popular. At the subsequent referendum, the UK voted two-to-one in favour of staying in the EEC.

While the context of the 1975 referendum was very different, the way the renegotiation terms were presented back then offers some valuable lessons for the people campaigning to keep Britain in the EU today.

However, the conduct of the campaign so far suggests that Prime Minister David Cameron may struggle to replicate Harold Wilson’s successful 1975 campaign to remain in the EEC in the face of opposition from his own government ministers.

Lukewarm on Europe

Opinion polls in early 1975 suggested that the electorate was lukewarm in its support for Europe. But the idea of renegotiating was popular, especially among Labour voters. It demonstrated that the EEC was willing to listen to Britain’s concerns and that Britain could lever authority within the European Community.

The renegotiation subsequently featured prominently in the manifesto of the Yes campaign. It was even mentioned at the top of the referendum ballot paper. Voters were instructed that “The government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of the EC”. They were then asked: “do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)”.

By contrast, polling suggests that Cameron’s renegotiation has had little discernible impact on public attitudes to the EU. He spent weeks convincing fellow European leaders to allow the UK to limit welfare payments to EU migrants, among other measures, but voters appear unmoved.

Crucially, Harold Wilson was cautious in the way he presented the value of the new terms gained through renegotiation, in contrast to the more strident tone used by Cameron. Following the Labour cabinet’s majority agreement to support continued membership, Wilson stated in parliament:

I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved.

The Yes manifesto subsequently focused on the fact that many of Britain’s key historical trade partners in the Commonwealth supported its continued membership of the EEC, rather than promising significant change.

Wilson’s cautious approach arguably reflected the public mood of 1975. Support for European membership was tepid at best but it was often seen as better than the alternatives. Europe was often seen as a side issue to Britain’s domestic economic problems. Indeed, Europe did not often appear as a cover story in the national newspapers, even in the weeks leading up to the referendum vote.

Setting the tone

In 2016, the Remain camp has been widely criticised for the negative tone of its campaign. It has even been labelled Project Fear by supporters of Brexit. Yet there are parallels here with the approach of the successful Yes campaign in 1975, which also highlighted how Brexit would leave Britain in an uncertain geopolitical position.

Behind the scenes, civil servants involved in contingency planning for a potential Brexit often expressed anxiety about the logistics of leaving the European Community, for which there was no real precedent.

1975 indicates that focusing on the uncertainties of leaving the EU could be an effective strategy, not least as then, like now, supporters of Brexit are far from united in what alternative economic model they would follow.

And the Yes camps should acknowledge that the debate about the value of the concessions recently achieved by David Cameron is not likely to go away anytime soon. Michael Gove has already tried to question whether the package of reforms is legally binding, and Brexit backers are likely to continue to pick holes in the deal right up until the vote.

Wilson’s success in keeping Britain in Europe in 1975 suggests that it is essential for the Yes manifesto to acknowledge the limitations of the renegotiated terms as well as their value. In particular, as has been noted, it is important that each side provides independently prepared forecasts about how the different outcomes of the vote might affect immigration over the next ten years.

In Wilson’s Shadow: Why the 1975 Europe Referendum Still Matters

Margaret Thatcher,  William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference. June 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

 

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum

Richard Toye and David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Forty years ago today Britain went to the polls to decide a crucial question: would the country remain in the European Economic Community (EEC)? It had only joined the EEC, the EU forerunner organisation, two years previously, and this was the first UK-wide referendum. When the votes were counted the results were emphatic. The nation had voted ‘yes’ to Europe by a two to one margin. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson hailed the result, noting that no one in Britain or the wider world could be in doubt about its meaning. Margaret Thatcher, the recently-chosen Tory leader, observed that the ‘massive “Yes” vote could not have come about without a massive Conservative “Yes”.’ Today, as the British people prepare for a new European plebiscite, what lessons can be learned from the experience of 1975?

Some things have remained constant over the last four decades. Even back then, David Dimbleby was one of the faces of TV politics; he hosted a Panorama debate on the EEC. Other things have changed, though, not least the fact that in those days it was the Labour Party that suffered the worst splits over Europe. Anti-European socialists such as Tony Benn and Barbara Castle found themselves at loggerheads with Europhile social democrats such as Roy Jenkins. The 1974 Labour manifesto tried to square the circle, condemning the Heath government’s ‘profound political mistake’ in entering the Community ‘without the consent of the British people’ yet keeping the door open for continued UK membership if the terms could be renegotiated. Although a different party was in charge, the parallels with David Cameron’s current strategy are obvious.

Wilson’s renegotiation did succeed, and the British gained concessions on the EEC budget, on the Common Agricultural Policy, and on food imports from Commonwealth countries. Some would argue that the changes that he secured were more nominal than real; today some Eurosceptic Tories fear that Cameron is planning to ‘do a Wilson’ and will use whatever cosmetic reforms he can secure as an excuse to campaign vigorously to stay in the EU. Be that as it may, it is worth noting that many of the key issues have changed, along with the political and economic context. In 1975 Scotland was the most Eurosceptic part of Britain and the SNP campaigned in support on an exit from the EEC. 1970s Europhobes harped on about food prices and the threat to the balance of payments. Little attention was paid to questions of freedom of movement for European workers during the referendum. After all, the EEC was then a club of nine wealthy European nations and Britain’s economy was fairing worse than many of its European neighbours at the time. Now, Cameron’s wish-list focuses on welfare, immigration and political integration.

There is, however, also an underlying continuity: the deeper issue in both the old-style and modern debates is that of sovereignty, and the degree to which it should be sacrificed in the interests of other benefits such as access to markets.

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

As in 1975, the ‘yes’ campaign is likely to receive significantly greater funding than the supporters of an exit from Europe. Business was overwhelmingly in favour of continued EEC membership in the 1970s, based on perceptions that access to European markets would enable Britain to improve labour productivity and promote high-tech industry.[1] Some opponents of EU membership now argue that the British economy would be better served by having a free hand to develop relationships with emerging markets such as India and China. However, the leading business organisation, the CBI, made clear its keen support for a ‘yes’ vote last week.[2]

In the light of the recent announcement that the Bank of England is organising a taskforce to make contingency plans in the event of a British exit from the EU it is worth noting that government departments organised similar operations forty years ago.[3] A Treasury memo produced in 1975 claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes civil servants raised the concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, meaning that Britain’s budget commitments would remain in place for another year.[4] There was no legal basis for the withdrawal of a member state, so the logistics of renegotiating trade relationships and implementing exit were uncertain.

If the British electorate decides to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum, the example of 1975 suggests that it would only be the beginning of a complex process of renegotiating a new relationship with Europe.

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[1] http://gladstonediaries.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/business-and-europe-1975-referendum.html

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32805539

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/may/22/secret-bank-of-england-taskforce-investigates-financial-fallout-brexit

[4] C.W. Fogarty, Treasury memo., 30 May 1975 and attached undated Cabinet Office memo. ‘Referendum ‘No’- Contingency Planning Report’, , T355/275, National Archives, London

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The History and future of British trade identities

Cross-posted from History & Policy (originally published 23/11/14)

  • Many of the core debates in UK politics today concern the nation’s future trade: the question of Scottish independence, devolution of political power to the regions, and a potential referendum on EU membership. Exploring the history of British trade identities can provide important insights into how we got here and the potential choices for policy makers. As historian Jim Tomlinson has argued, the twentieth century witnessed a gradual process of the ‘partial de-globalisation’ of British regions, with the declining influence of manufacturing and the growth of a more atomised service-sector economy. The discontents this has caused, exacerbated by the recent worldwide economic downturn, have been seized upon by parties such as the SNP and UKIP.

Britain, almost uniquely among major nations, retained a system of free trade until 1932. This owed much to the strong integration of Britain’s regions into global trade relationships. Amongst the heartlands of electoral support for free trade in Edwardian Britain were the cotton manufacturing towns of Lancashire and textile producing districts of West Yorkshire, which relied heavily on exports to a variety of world markets; and Dundee, then a global centre for jute manufacture. Even when tariffs were introduced in the 1930s, Britain sought to lower trade barriers to aid industrial exporters, signing trade treaties with a number of countries including Denmark, Argentina and the USA.

In fact, the 1930s can be seen as a higher watermark in support for the Union. A Conservative-dominated National Government won landslide election victories in 1931 and 1935, achieving a clear majority of seats in England and Scotland on both occasions. Business organisations such as the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire and the Federation of British Industries played an important role in trade affairs at this time, giving regional groups such as Liverpool and Glasgow shipbuilders, Lancashire cotton producers, and Yorkshire textile industrialists an important lobbying role with governments both in Britain and the wider Commonwealth. These bodies helped exporters develop links with overseas buyers, gave advice on commercial arbitration, and enabled industrialists to lobby for access to lower tariff rates in Dominions such as Australia, Canada, and South Africa. In turn, popular campaigns were launched in those countries to support the buying of goods from Britain and the wider Empire.

This system was challenged after 1945, leading to the eventual fracturing of Commonwealth trade relationships in the 1960s, which occurred concurrently with Britain’s first attempts to join the European Economic Community. Moreover, a steady decline in the role of manufacturing within the UK economy undermined regional identities, which were closely tied to industry. Whereas manufacturing made up 41 percent of the British economy in 1948,  this fell to around 30 percent in the early 1970s, and stands at 10 percent today. The region with the highest reliance on manufacturing is the East Midlands, where it accounts for 12.5 percent of jobs, whereas manufacturing accounts for only 2.4 percent of jobs in London. The troubled economic times of the 1970s led to a growth in Celtic nationalism which challenged the authority of central government at Westminster, a crisis brilliantly documented in Tom Nairn’s The break-up of Britain (1977). In October 1974, following a year in which oil prices escalated as the result of an Arab embargo, the SNP claimed over thirty per cent of the vote in Scotland (a share they have not bettered at a British general election since).

The recent revival in opposition to the two main parties at Westminster can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the ongoing long-term experiences of regional de-industrialisation and a concurrent de-globalisation of trade, aggravated by the recent recession. Scottish regions such as Dundee, which have experienced de-globalisation acutely as a result of the decline of manufacturing, voted for independence, whereas Edinburgh, a centre for international financial services, voted two-to-one against.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent pledge to tackle the ‘West Lothian question’ and implement a major devolution of powers across the four nations has further stoked debate about the future direction of Britain and the possibilities for English regional government. While the proposed devolution of decision-making may potentially help foster regional development, it is unclear how this will be achieved given that England makes up 85 percent of the UK’s population. What is most important is the need to rebalance the economy, lessening its reliance on financial services honeypots such as London and Edinburgh, and stimulating links with expanding markets in the regions. The UK is far more reliant on financial services exports as a percentage of total service sector exports than other G7 countries, making it particularly vulnerable to further instability in world markets.

The revived importance of the Commonwealth in world trade was recognised by the 2013 Lords’ Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence chaired by Lord Howell, which called for government to pay greater attention to developing economic links with this network of nations. With several fast-growing economies, including India, Australia and South Africa, and a doubling of trade between its members in the last 20 years, the Commonwealth provides key markets for the future. The UK is particularly well placed to exploit this link due to strong historical trade ties and the evolution of similar business cultures and legal institutions.

The Commonwealth Business Council, a company with corporate members, which promoted trade and investment in Commonwealth countries, ceased trading in July 2014. It is imperative that a successor organisation is formed which can play an important role in stimulating intra-Commonwealth trade. In addition, government needs to provide universities with greater opportunities to develop research and development links with markets such as India and China, thereby catalysing the UK’s regional economies.

Welcome signs of progress in this regard include the recent expansion of links between the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian Council of Historical Research, as well as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. AHRC projects offer a range of opportunities to project the UK’s ‘soft power’ – that is, building trust and prestige between nations through cultural influence. For example, Picturing China 1870-1950, a touring exhibition curated by historian Robert Bickers, offered a sophisticated image of pre-1949 China and its relations with the West. The project, which amassed and digitised photos by British expatriates and Chinese nationals, created a new public forum for discussion of complex pre-1949 Western-Chinese relations in China. In total the Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimates that the project reached 10 million people.

Globalisation may be a catchphrase for these times, but it has important historical antecedents, which throw light on the current challenges facing British policy makers as increasing numbers of disillusioned voters seek alternatives to the traditional two-party system. One of the key challenges that UK politicians face today is appealing to a population which has witnessed the partial de-globalisation of trade in some regions, it is therefore imperative that efforts are made to stimulate connections with growing markets such as India and China building on historic connections.

Buying British Across the World

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum (originally posted 03/12/13)

David Thackeray

An Empire Marketing Board poster from the late 1920s

This autumn I spoke at several universities in Australia and New Zealand on the subject of the various shopping weeks that were launched to promote Empire trade during the 1920s and 1930s. The story of the Empire Marketing Board’s efforts to develop the idea of ‘Buying Empire’ in inter-war Britain is well known, and its posters still appear regularly on the covers of books written about imperial culture. What is less well known is that the same cause was taken up with enthusiasm by a variety of organisations in the Dominions, and arguably achieved greater and more lasting prominence there than it did in Britain.

At the same time, it quickly became clear to me that the archives in England and Australasia were telling different stories. Politicians and businessmen in Wellington and Melbourne may have conceived themselves to be members of a ‘British’ trade community, but their understanding of what the future of the Empire as an economic unit should be often differed from their counterparts in London.

This 1932 poster was one of many designed for the Empire Marketing Board.  Courtesy of the Museum of London website http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/mol-84-1-890

This study forms part of a wider project on debates about Britain’s economic future since 1900, for which I have received AHRC fellowship funding for 2014-15. While Britain remains at the centre of the story, my overseas trip has reminded me of the continued dynamism of imperial studies in Australia and New Zealand. Much of the best and most innovative of this work has sought to ‘decentre’ Empire, through explorations of culture and race [1]. While ties with Britain played a central role in shaping the identity of the nascent settler colonies in the nineteenth century, we need to recognise the importance of the cultural links that Australia, for example, formed with South Africa, India, and its close neighbour, New Zealand.

Using such decentred approaches to trace the history of trade networks adds new layers to our understanding of imperial economic history. Moreover, it underlines the importance of going beyond the trade figures to understand the wider culture of the imperial economy. A ‘British’ trade identity was no doubt vital to many in the Dominions, at least up until the 1960s, but it could express itself in participation in the Toronto trades fair, crossing the Tasman to attend a meeting of Chambers of Commerce, or supporting a state-wide drive to promote Australian manufactures, as well as more literal practices of buying British (or Empire) goods. Teasing out these often uneven links of trade is a complex process but a vital one if we are to get a clearer understanding of the history of ‘buying British’ and I look forward to uncovering further perspectives when I travel to Australia and South Africa to undertake research in the New Year.

Peking University’s new History Department, built in a traditional style

My autumn trip ended with participation in a delegation of Exeter historians at Peking University, the top humanities university in China. The pace of change in Beijing and its sheer scale is hard to believe. When one of my cousins visited the city seven years ago there were two metro lines; now there are fifteen. Peking University itself has twenty thousand postgraduate students and the nine-block hotel complex where we stayed on campus is the size of a village. As for the road network, imagine London being encircled by five M25s and have you have an idea of its scale.

The colloquium provided a unique opportunity for us to discuss the wide breadth of original research being conducted in our respective departments – sex in mediaeval Spain, the revolutionary experiences of France and China, and the history of desert regions – as well as learn about our respective postgraduate programmes. We look forward to welcoming a return delegation from PKU next year, although we’re not sure we can compete with the fantastic quality of their food — but perhaps a Devon cream tea comes close.

Works Cited

[1] See for example Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s colonial past (Auckland, 2013); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality(Cambridge, 2008); and Philippa Mein Smith, Peter Hempenstall and Shaun Goldfinch, Rethinking the Tasman world (Christchurch, 2009).