The Parties and Europe 1: Labour and the 1975 Referendum

The European Referendum campaign is now in full swing, creating heated political debate and causing some unusual alliances. In British politics, however, the issue of Europe and Britain’s role in it has been long-running and divisive for both the Labour and Conservative parties. The issue features prominently in our interviews with former MPs for our oral history archive. In the first of two blogs on Europe and the parties based on our archive, here we explore divisions in the Labour party in the early 1970s.

In 1970 the Conservatives won the general election, and Prime Minister Ted Heath began a major diplomatic effort to join the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market. Even after successful negotiations at the European level, passing the legislation would remain difficult for Heath’s government.

Although opposition to joining the EEC could be found in both parties, throughout this period the largest internal divisions were found in the Labour party. Two polarised and outspoken groups emerged: on the party’s left, a group led by figures such as Tony Benn opposed the EEC on economic grounds, believing it would impact on Labour’s plans for a more planned economy; on the party’s right, an enthusiastic pro-European group supported entry both for ideological and economic reasons, led by Roy Jenkins. One of this group, Dick Taverne, even resigned the Labour whip on the issue [see our blog: ‘Defection, by-elections and Europe… in the 1970s’ ].

Ted Heath’s legislation saw Labour MPs joining forces with the Conservatives on both sides of the debate. David Stoddart, MP for Swindon who opposed joining, remembered working directly with the Conservatives to oppose legislation:

David Owen, then a member of the shadow cabinet, remembered the manoeuvres on the pro-EEC side to ensure that the Bill passed:

With this help Heath passed the legislation, despite needing 300 hours of Commons debate to pass the 1972 the European Communities Bill, and the UK joined the EEC.

By the 1974 election therefore, Labour leader Harold Wilson was left with a divided party. He solved this by giving in to the demands of the anti-Europeans in his party and included a promise of a referendum in Labour’s election manifesto. This earnt him praise from some in his party, such as his PPS Frank Judd, who at that time opposed the common market. He remembered that Wilson “understood and respected that point of view,” and was pleased to be able to discuss the issue with Wilson openly whilst keeping his job. The decision to hold a referendum however angered many of the pro-Europeans. David Owen said it was “blatant manoeuvring” and Robert Maclennan, MP for Caithness and Sutherland, it was a party political move he “couldn’t stomach”. Along with Jenkins and these two, a number of MPs resigned from the Shadow Cabinet on the issue.

Yet the Referendum proved a success for the pro-Europeans, when the country voted convincingly to remain part of the EEC. Ray Carter, MP for Birmingham Northfield, remembered the change of opinion in his constituency:

For those had campaigned against the UK staying in, however, the result was a significant disappointment, and did not stop their opposition. In this clip Frank Judd remembers drifting apart from his friend and political ally Tony Benn because of the vote:

Unfortunately for Wilson, the Referendum had failed to resolve the issue within the Labour party. It  became part of larger divisions between left and right in the 1980s, and helped cause one group to leave Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (see our blog: Labour leadership elections through the years). Yet by the 1990s it was the Conservative party who were most at war with themselves over Europe, as we’ll discuss in a post later this week…

EP

About The History of Parliament

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