The first referendum

Reassessing Britain’s entry to Europe, 1973–75

Author: Lindsay Aqui

On 1 January 1973 Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath brought the UK into the European Community. Although this was celebrated at first, by the end of the year the mood had changed from ‘hope to uncertainty’. Not only was 1973 a bad year to join the Community, the UK had done so on the promise that it would ‘join now and negotiate later’. This proved a poor strategy. Compounding these difficulties, Heath faced trouble at home which eventually led him to lose the February 1974 general election. Labour’s Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street, promising a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of membership and a referendum on whether to stay in the EC. This was what he delivered and, in the end, 67 per cent of voters said ‘yes’ to continued membership. Yet the renegotiation has been dismissed as a political strategy which ultimately delivered few results and the referendum is seen as an ‘unenthusiastic vote for the status quo’. But it is clear that in some areas, Wilson’s renegotiation was contiguous with the Heath government’s attempts to revise the terms of entry. Moreover, there was a lively campaign in 1975, which engaged the country in a wide range of arguments for and against membership. In this book, Lindsay Aqui seeks to understand what happened during the first year of membership, the extent to which the renegotiation changed the terms of membership, and whether voters were convinced of the pro-Market case in 1975.

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