Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 16 June 2016

Both sides have changed their tune considerably since the last referendum

Long life | 16 June 2016
Text settings

It was 41 years ago that The Spectator first urged its readers to vote Brexit in a referendum, but the circumstances were different then. In 1975 the Establishment was generally enthusiastic for Europe. Most of the Tory party, including its new leader, Margaret Thatcher, was keen to keep Britain in the Common Market it had only recently joined. The dissenters were few among the Tories and were mostly on the left wing of the Labour party and the trade unions, which saw Europe as inimical to socialism. Almost a third of Harold Wilson’s cabinet members were Eurosceptics, and he set the precedent (later followed by David Cameron) of suspending cabinet collective responsibility to let his ministers campaign against each other on this occasion.

In 1975 Fleet Street, too, was enthusiastic for Europe. Apart from the communist Morning Star, The Spectator was in fact the only national publication to propose Brexit, and it did so with vigour and commitment. For a time it seemed almost consumed by its anti-Europe campaign. It even offered space in its offices in Gower Street to some rather odd bedfellows — people like Arthur Scargill, the miners’ firebrand leader, and even young Hilary Benn, who then shared his father’s Eurosceptic views. In the end, of course, they were all thoroughly beaten: the Remainers got two thirds of the votes in the referendum. Mr Wilson called it a ‘historic decision’, and Roy Jenkins reflected a widely held belief when he said, ‘It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.’ But the uncertainty grew again so much that David Cameron had eventually to call another referendum to calm the turmoil in his own party.

Some of the present Brexiteers who voted for Europe in the first referendum claim that they had then been asked to support only a single market. But that’s not quite true. The government’s pamphlet advocating a ‘Yes’ vote included the Common Market’s aims ‘to bring together the peoples of Europe’ and ‘to help peace and freedom’. It also recognised that membership of the EEC would curb Britain’s independence of action, even though it would be ‘better able to advance and protect our national interests’, something it called ‘the essence of sovereignty’. The pamphlet didn’t raise the spectre of a united or federal Europe, but it did suggest rather more than a mere trading arrangement.

While Enoch Powell had warned in his Birmingham speech of 1968 that Britain was ‘heaping up its own funeral pyre’ by permitting 50,000 immigrants a year, immigration did not feature in the campaign for the 1975 referendum. This was because Powell had not been referring to European immigration but to immigrants from the Commonwealth. Immigration, however, has been the most important factor in strengthening Brexit in the present referendum campaign. One of the Leavers’ most powerful cards has been their emphasis on Cameron’s failure to keep his promise to reduce the flow of immigrants. People planning to vote ‘out’ usually mention immigration to me as their main reason, even though they don’t seem to take account of the fact that it wouldn’t affect the 188,000 annual non-European immigrants who are more numerous than the European ones. Leaving the European Union would still leave Cameron unable to achieve his promise. And this strikes me as another fiendish problem that would be more likely to be solved in the long term if we were closely involved in European discussions.

Apart from economic ones, there are other good reasons for remaining a member of the European Union. It is a bulwark against the nationalism that is rising again. The catastrophes that nationalism inflicted on Europe during the 20th century were in the mind of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, when he confessed he would vote Remain in the Mail on Sunday last weekend, and they will be in mine. There has never been a time when Britain has managed to keep separate from the conflicts on the continent, and there never will be. In the end, how everyone votes on 23 June will depend mainly on how European he feels. For myself, I feel very European. Britain and the countries of the Continent share the same civilisation, topography even. You travel a few miles and reach a village with a church. It’s not like the United States, where you can drive for 50 miles and only come to a petrol station and a convenience store. Europe feels like home. We should embrace it.

4Will Britain vote to leave the EU? Can the Tories survive the aftermath? Join James Forsyth, Isabel Hardman and Fraser Nelson to discuss at a subscriber-only event at the Royal Institution, Mayfair, on Monday 20 June. Tickets are on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here to join us, from just £1 a week.