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Paul Johnson: Campaigned to leave the EEC in 1975, one of the few public intellectuals to do so

Michael Gove was not the first man to call on the public to ignore the experts during a European referendum. During the United Kingdom’s previous vote on our continued participation in European political integration in 1975, the historian Paul Johnson, who was one of the very few public intellectuals to support leaving the European Economic Community, asked in the Sunday Times if readers could name a single major decision since the war on which “the establishment consensus” had been vindicated. The experts had been wrong on appeasement in the 1930s and they were now wrong on the EEC, he wrote.

Yes to Europe! by Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, offers a lively and at times entertaining account, at least by the general standards of academic writing, of the 1975 referendum campaign. He shows that there are a surprising number of similarities between that campaign and the 2016 referendum. 

The result was, of course, very different: in 1975 just over 67 per cent voted to remain part of the European project. And the two sides were much more mismatched back then. In 1975 the In side vastly outspent the Outers, 20 to one by some estimates. Even just taking the official campaigns (and there were many other pro-EEC groups), the Britain in Europe (BIE) campaign declared spending of £1,481,583 (roughly £11.2 million in today’s money) while the National Referendum Campaign (NRC), the Out side, spent £136,734 (just over £1 million today), little more than half of what BIE spent on printing alone. Apart from its government grant of £125,000, the NRC managed to raise only £11,734, almost half of which came from the sale of literature. In 2016, while Remain did have the advantage of having the government machine on its side, the two official campaigns and the myriad ancillary and rival groups on both sides managed to raise and spend money on a fairly equal, and prodigious, basis. Unlike in 2016, the press was almost uniformly in support of continued membership 43 years ago. The only titles which supported leaving back then were the Communist Party’s Morning Star and the Spectator. Both titles maintained their stance in the 2016 referendum. 

Some of the issues have also moved on. Immigration was hardly raised in the earlier referendum. It was a live issue in the mid-1970s — the heyday of the National Front — but the concerns were all about Commonwealth immigration, not migrants from the affluent Western European club the EEC then was. On the other hand, the price of food was a central debating point in 1975, but, despite the fact that a strong case can be made that EU membership dramatically forces up food prices in the UK today, it was hardly raised in 2016. A year or so before the second referendum campaign started, some of those later running Vote Leave thought that food prices would take centre stage and be just the issue to win over swing voters. In the end, £350 million for the NHS played the role that the cost of food might have done.
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