Picture by Dave Kellam

The United Kingdom is just over three months away from leaving the European Union. However, despite two years of negotiation, a parliamentary majority to approve the deal reached with EU officials is looking unlikely, with the prospects of a no deal Brexit or even another referendum look higher than ever before. But how did we end up here after 45 years of membership? I take a look at the history behind our constantly evolving relationship with the European Union in this six-part series. In this blog, we’ll be looking at when Britain joined, the first referendum and how euroscepticism moved from the left of the political spectrum to the right.

Applying to join (1945-1973)

Following the Second World War, Winston Churchill (now Leader of the Opposition) called for a ‘United States of Europe’, centered around a partnership between France and West Germany to prevent further conflict on the continent. However, Churchill said that Britain and the Commonwealth would act as ‘friends and sponsors of the new Europe’, rather than being in it itself. Successive British governments stood back while France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, evolving into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.

Former French President Charles de Gaulle

Britain sought to join in 1963 and in 1967 (when it had become the European Communities). However, Britain’s application for membership was rejected after France objected to the UK joining; then-president Charles de Gaulle claimed that “a number of aspects of Britain’s economy, from working practices to agriculture [had] made Britain incompatible with Europe”.

After de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, Britain under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath made a third application which succeeded, and the country joined on January 1st 1973, alongside neighbouring Ireland and Denmark. However, even at this stage of our relationship with Europe, there was already scepticism and opposition. In particular, Labour MP Peter Shore expressed concern at the Treaty of Accession, saying:

This is a treaty which carries the most formidable and far-reaching obligations. It is a treaty – the first in our history – which would deprive the British Parliament and people of democratic rights which they have exercised for many centuries. I can think of no treaty, to cite only one characteristic of the Rome Treaty, in which the British Parliament agree that the power to tax the British people should be handed over to another group, or countries, or people outside this country, and that they should have the right in perpetuity to levy taxes upon us and decide how the revenues of those taxes should be spent.

Labour had been deeply divided on the question of accession, with pro-market MPs such as Deputy Leader Roy Jenkins at odds with the NEC who disagreed with the UK’s entry. Having previously opposed it, Labour promised a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EC followed by a national referendum, the first of its kind in the UK.

The first referendum (1975)

Following Labour’s victory in the October 1974 election, a refrendum was held on June 5th 1975 on whether to remain part of the European Community. Almost 26 million people cast their vote in the referendum, being asked “Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?”

Results of the 1975 UK European Communities referendum
(Yes: Green, No: Red)

In the ‘Out and into the world’ campaign included left wing names of the Labour Party, including Michael Foot and Tony Benn, a small number of eurosceptic Conservative MPs, former Conservative minister and controversial figure Enoch Powell, alongside the Democratic Unionist Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the far-right National Front. The campaign blamed the Common Market for higher inflation, as it forced the UK to buy food from other member states, rather than its fellow Commonwealth nations where food was cheaper.

Supporting Britain’s membership in the ‘Keep Britain in Europe’ campaign were Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Chancellor James Callaghan and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. Almost all Conservative MPs supported membership, including newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher. This side of the referendum argued that Britain needed the EC to maintain food security and that leaving would be disastrous for British industry.

Two-thirds of voters (67.2%) voted in favour; only two regions voted against – the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Labour chose to opt out of new European institutions, such as the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM) – a system introduced to reduce variability in exchange rates in Europe introduced in 1979. This decision was criticised by then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher.

The Conservatives won the 1979 general election, marking the start of what would be almost two decades of Tory rule. Under Thatcher’s rule, the country would not only change dramatically domestically, but would also inspire eurosceptics and light the fuse that would eventually lead to Britain’s vote to leave in 2016.