Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 16 June 2016

Both sides have changed their tune considerably since the last referendum

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.

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