Yes to Europe!. The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

Saunders, Robert
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 509 S., 34 SW-Abb.
£ 24.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Kiran Klaus Patel, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University

Robert Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen Mary University of London, has written a book that could hardly be timelier. Amidst the chaos around Brexit negotiations in our own times, he sheds new light on the United Kingdom’s 1975 referendum on membership in the European Communities (EC).

Readers mainly interested in trying to make sense of the situation today will be struck by the stark differences between 1975 and 2016. Some of them are rather well-known, such as Margaret Thatcher’s support for remain (or “Yes”, as it was framed in the referendum context of the time), donning a pullover displaying the flags of the EC’s member states – which can be seen on the book’s cover. It is also comparably well-known that those parts of the United Kingdom that came out most strongly against membership in 1975 (Northern Ireland and Scotland) opted clearly for remain in 2016. But Saunders also points to more subtle differences. Fear figured prominently in both remain campaigns – but resonated with people’s experience much more strongly in the 1970s than it did some forty years on. Migration, so central in 2016, was marginal in 1975, and where it mattered, it was mostly about fears of Brits leaving their troubled country, not about mass immigration into the UK. The 1975 referendum, held a mere two years after the UK joined the EC, is a stark reminder of the fundamental shifts in political debates and the wider contexts of British society, European integration and world politics over the past half century. Saunders’ arguments thus warn against drawing hasty conclusions about the country’s perennial reluctance vis-à-vis Europe and offer a thorough explanation of why at the time, a vast majority of voters chose to stay in the European Communities.

But Saunders has even more to offer. While others have already dealt with the diplomatic aspects of the topic, as well as the electoral politics (mostly already during the 1970s and hence before archives opened), Saunders’ biggest innovation lies elsewhere. In his work, he also “follows the referendum debate out of Parliament and into the country: to the churches, women’s organisations, paramilitary groups and business meetings at which the European question was being thrashed out” (p. 21).

In order to do so, Yes to Europe! is divided in three main parts. The first part, examining the long road to the 1975 referendum, is the most conventional, but even here, Saunders brings in new perspectives. He discusses how the UK became an EC member state in the first place and why, so shortly after joining, there was already talk about leaving again. This is followed by a subtle analysis of the constitutional complexities of the first referendum in the United Kingdom’s history, for which Saunders briefly revisits the debate since the late nineteenth century. Besides this British context, he demonstrates how the decisions to hold referendums in the three other states seeking EC membership during the early 1970s (Denmark, Ireland, Norway) impacted the discussion. He also dedicates ample space to the campaigns of both sides and the role of the media. It is particularly the book’s second and third parts that then venture into new territory. In part two, Saunders examines the role of various groups, such as women and the churches, as well as specific topics, for instance the debate about sovereignty and the referendum’s links to empire and decolonisation. Part three then takes the reader to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, to examine the specific dynamics in each of these parts of the United Kingdom. Thus overcoming political history’s usual focus on London and England, Saunders effectively uses the 1975 referendum to shed new light on a whole range of problems of British society at the time.

From the vantage point of European history, few – if any – other books help us to understand how integration did and did not impact societies at the time as effectively as Yes to Europe!. Saunders uses the referendum as a fathometer for British society, arguing that attitudes to European integration were greatly shaped by other controversies such as women’s liberation, secularisation and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The chapter on the female electorate and gender norms offers a good example: For all the attention historians tend to pay to women’s liberation and the new roles women acquired in the aftermath of “1968”, Saunders reveals a surprisingly conservative cultural climate, in which appeals to women mostly built on traditional tropes – housewife, mother and keeper of the household budget. Obviously, such a focus did not fully reflect gender roles at the time. Vicki Crankshaw, who figured prominently in the “Britain in Europe” campaign, was not just the “attractive secretary” The Times described after she returned from a shopping expedition to Norway to demonstrate that consumer prices would soar if the UK left the EC. In fact, she was an impressive activist for female rights. Still, Saunders demonstrates that during the campaign Crankshaw consciously contributed to her rather traditional public image as housewife and working mother, while in private she was quite unhappy with this focus on domesticity. At the same time, the Yes camp also stressed the EC’s initiatives against gender discrimination, such as the equal pay directive issued just a few months before the referendum. In the end, many more women voted “Yes” than early polls had predicted, though support for continued membership was slightly lower than among men.

Drawing on a broad range of sources from archives across the United Kingdom, Saunders thus deepens our understanding of British society at the time, and how it related to Europe. He forges innovative bridges between two historiographical fields that are normally kept separate: British history on the one hand and the history of the UK in Europe on the other. Other successful attempts to create such a dialogue include his chapter on the role of the churches (often absent from analyses of 1970s British society, despite the depth and breadth of their presence in the country and their long engagement for European unity) and his scrutiny of the multi-layered debate around EC membership that played out in Northern Ireland. Whereas in other parts of the UK, sovereignty remained too abstract a concept to have real salience for voters, the situation was markedly different on the western shores of the Irish Sea. It is impressive how Saunders familiarises his readers with the complexities of such dynamics, how they impacted the referendum result and what all this tells us about British history and its links to Europe.

Despite some minor repetitions and a tendency to describe the UK of the 1970s as slightly more traditional and crisis-ridden than some of the latest research has it, this elegantly written book offers fascinating insights into British society during the 1970s. Moreover, it is an innovative and inspiring contribution to the research on European integration history.

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