The EU and the 1975 prophecies of doom

The Road to the 23 June 2016 Referendum

FlagOnly a week into the EU Referendum campaign and campaign fatigue has overtaken the vast majority of us. In four months we will be asked  in English or Welsh:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? / A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?

The last time Britain answered that question: 5 June 1975

I remember very well the campaign in 1975 where we voted for the first time on whether we should remain within the EU or strike out on our own.

Yes No

Every household at the time received three booklets. One from the government titled “Britain’s new deal in Europe” summarised the Government’s position with the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson recommending that we stay. The other two booklets which were simply entitled “Why You Should Vote YES” and “Why You Should Vote NO”.

There are some striking similarities to the current campaign and the quality of the literature is as abysmal as that of the rhetoric we read and hear currently.

“Why You Should Vote NO” booklet   

The NO booklet started with a fascinating quote. “The present government, though it has tried, has failed to achieve the ‘fundamental renegotiation’ it promised at the last two General Elections. All it has gained are a few concessions for Britain, some of them only temporary. The real choice before the British peoples has been scarcely altered by renegotiation.” Exactly what the NO campaign are saying today.

The main concern of the NO booklet is a fear of movement towards merging into a single nation. It trots out the expected line that the Common Market (as it was then known) makes our laws and decides our policies on food prices, trade and employment. Their main thrust mirrors that of the Ukip mantra on Briish loss of sovereignty.

It makes much of the fact that the Common Market is making our food more expensive with punitive import taxes on such things as butter. It makes great capital on the food mountains of beef, butter, grain et cetera. Fortunately, those mountains are no longer in existence.

Bizarrely, it warns of job losses because of the drift of industry southwards and to the continent. It warns of interference with the oil market which, of  course has not happened. It points out that our trade deficit with the Common Market was running at £2.6 billion annually (£19.7 billion at 2015 prices – Bank of England calculator), whereas in 1970, trade was almost in balance. In 2015 the goods deficit with the EU was £8.1bn, less than half of the1975 adjusted figure.

It lists four main reasons to leave

  • Common Market policies prop up inefficient farmers on the continent and cause our food prices to be high
  • We need to have control of our own agricultural policy and our fishing waters
  • our links with the Commonwealth will be further weakened. And, “we shall cease, in practice, to be a member of the Commonwealth”
  • We will become a mere province of the Common Market

Finally, we would be able to remain members of the European Free Trade Area and it lists seven countries, most of which subsequently joined the EU.

It finishes “in a very few years we shall enjoy in North Sea oil a precious asset possessed by none of the Common Market countries”. It obviously had no idea what was going to happen to oil prices in 2015.

“Why You Should Vote YES” booklet

My natural inclination is to continue to be in membership of the EU. However, the case made in the YES booklet would never have convinced me. It summarises the four reasons for staying as:

  • it makes good sense for our jobs and prosperity
  • it makes good sense for world peace
  • it makes good sense for the Commonwealth
  • it makes good sense for our children’s future

Hardly a compelling case!

The booklet is full of worthy quotes from leading politicians of all parties and Commonwealth leaders which actually don’t amount to anything.

Probably their major case is made on the grounds that “Our friends want us to stay in”. They go on to say that the old Commonwealth (Australia, Canada and New Zealand), the 34 members of the new Commonwealth, United States and the other members of the European Community want us to stay in. They go on to say “outside, we should be alone in a harsh, cold world, with none of our friends offering to revive old partnerships.” Ahh, bless,

The arguments on why we can’t go it alone are probably the most embarrassing paragraphs and are all insubstantial rhetoric. My suspicion that this booklet had been written by a former Army Colonel who is now a Daily Express journalist were reinforced when it went on to talk about the position of the Queen being unaffected and English common law being safe.

The argument about jobs is also very shallow with statements like, “It is very doubtful if we could then negotiate a free-trade agreement with the Community.”

They did try some scaremongering about the future of our food supply and the major statement in the section, written in bold, read, “But Britain, as a country which cannot feed itself, will be safer in the Community which is almost self-sufficient in food. Otherwise, we may find ourselves standing at the end of the world food queue.”

In their summary of the alternatives they include statements like:

  • some want an isolationist Britain with a “siege economy” – controls and rationing
  • some want a Communist Britain – part of the Soviet bloc

To be honest, were it not for the fact that probably nobody read these two rubbish booklets, and relied on the fact that they made up their own minds without the benefit of properly reasoned argument, it is amazing to me that we secured a “Yes” vote.

I re-read the Government booklet and I don’t think it’s worth trying to summarise their arguments here. Their leaflet was heavy on graphics, heavy on difficult-to-understand statistics and light on reasoned arguments as to the consequences of a Yes or No vote.

Conclusion

There are two differences between the 1975 and the 2016 campaigns. In 1975 the role of the Commonwealth was a recurring theme through the booklets and there was no mention of immigration. In 2016 the reverse is the case.

In 2016, the best summary I have read for remaining in the EU was a letter written by Simon Sweeney in the Guardian. Although it is a little out of date – it was written in 2013 – it still makes a compelling case for the achievements of Britain being in the EU.

For an objective document about the consequences of a British withdrawal from the EU, I recommend the paper written by Dr Patrick Dixon.

We have four months of spectacularly tedious campaigning to endure which will be full of scaremongering and made up ‘facts’. I hope at the end of it that the decision will have been arrived at by careful consideration of the real facts, by rejecting nonsense, scaremongering and hyperbole. I’m fairly sure that the reality will be that, like in any election, the vast majority of people have made up their minds based on their own prejudices and the final result will be decided by the 15% or so people who have an open mind.

In 1975, of the 25 million people who voted, 67% voted to remain in the EU and 33% to leave.

It’s interesting to compare the 1975 figures compared with the latest polling (Survation, 20 Feb 2016). There is a huge disparity between England and the other UK nations.

 

  Stay % 1975 Stay % 2016
England 69 55
Wales 64 77
Scotland 58 77
Northern Ireland 52 77

The worrying prospect is that the overwhelming numbers in England will weight the results with a scenario that England, were it to vote to leave the EU, would wipe out the majority of the other nations who voted to remain. Without doubt, that is a great danger to the unity of the United Kingdom and would weaken the Union. We face difficult days ahead.