A chapter from Sandbrook’s history of the 1970s - on the 1975 UK referendum determining whether the UK should remain in the European Economic Community (EEC).
The author begins with a description of the political and cultural climate of a then largely Euro-sceptic UK. The political similarities and contrasts between 1975 and the present Brexit drama are striking; then too, the Labour Party had a Euro-sceptic leader who gave half-hearted support to the remain campaign. But, in a mirror-image reversal of today (2019), it was the Labour left led by Tony Benn who were most fiercely for leaving. They used many of the same arguments right wing Brexiteers use today; loss of sovereignty, Europe as an unaccountable elite/cartel etc. Margaret Thatcher, recently elected Tory leader, enthusiastically campaigned alongside her predecessor Ted Heath for the victorious remain campaign.
The Great Referendum Sideshow – Dominic Sandbrook
BASIL: We are all friends now, eh? All in the Market together,
old differences forgotten, and no need at all to mention the war. Sorry!
Faulty Towers, 'The Germans', 24 October 1975
Benn has taken over this referendum. He will lose it, but it has been his referendum, from inception to the end.
Bernard Donoughue's diary, 28 May 1975
In November 1974 the Labour Party conference met at Central Hall, Westminster, to celebrate a second successive election victory. Thanks to the |IRA's bombings, security was stiflingly tight, but one foreign intruder did manage to penetrate the cordon. At Harold Wilson's invitation, Helmut Schmidt had been invited to deliver fraternal greetings from the Social Democrats. The omens were not promising. Only the day before, the conference had voted to support British withdrawal from the European Economic Community, and there were rumours that left-wing delegates would stage a mass walkout during the West German Chancellor's speech. But as soon as Schmidt got to his feet, the mood lightened. He came, he said, as a friend and comrade; although he hoped Britain would stay in Europe, he felt rather like 'a man urging on a Salvation Army meeting the advantages of drink'. The delegates laughed; he had them. 'How handsome and relaxed he looked!' admitted the sceptical Barbara Castle. 'His speech was masterly: it was a joy to hear how he dodged all the pitfalls and how cleverly he played on those emotions in his audience which were most likely to be favourable to him ... Above all he had them rolling in the aisles and once again I was surprised to realize what a good sense of humour Germans have.’
The next day's papers were full of Schmidt's triumph. 'He made some good jokes, quoted Shakespeare, spoke flatteringly of the Labour Party's historic contributions to trade unionism and the welfare state, and in general cut the ground from under the feet of [the sceptics],' thought the Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan. Even Tony Benn, a ferocious critic of the Common Market, allowed that the German Chancellor had been 'very witty and amusing'. On the right of the Labour Party, meanwhile, many listeners wished they could keep Schmidt and send Harold Wilson off to Bonn. 'In its confidence, crispness, political agility, its relationship to the world of political ideas, and even its use of the English language,' wrote the GLC councillor Stephen Haseler, Schmidt's speech had made for a 'stark contrast to the third-rate performances of the British politicians. To those who observed this spectacle it represented a poignant picture of the decline of British political leadership.' But among those who hated the idea of European speakers at Labour conferences, old attitudes died hard. 'I smell a plot to fiddle the Common Market referendum next year,' declared John Ryman, the backbench MP for Blyth. 'The speech by the West German Chancellor was an impertinence. Why should this patronising Hun lecture the great British Labour Party?'
Memories of the struggle against the Hun were everywhere in the mid-1970s. 'Every game, every conversation, every television programme seemed in some way to spring from the War,' wrote one child of the Wilson years, recalling 'a ceaseless round of Airfix model planes, Commando comics, Dad's Army, military games, Action Man and dreams of visiting the Imperial War Museum, a form of childhood that had been consecrated in Britain since the War itself'. Comics recreated a world in which plucky Tommies were forever hacking their way past square-headed sadists, while 'every playtime seemed to be devoted to loving reconstructions of El Alamein or D-Day'. On television, mean while, the Second World War seemed to have taken over the schedules, from the anti-German jokes in Till Death Us Do Part, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Fawlty Towers and Rising Damp to the sententious brilliance of The World at War, which ran for 26 episodes over the winter of 1973-4. The biggest hit of the season, though, was the BBC's Colditz, which concluded in April 1974 with audiences of almost 19 million people. Escapist entertainment it may have been, but it was firmly rooted in memories of the war: in January, the Imperial War Museum invited veterans of the camp to a reunion party, where they mingled with actors and production staff.
Even Are You Being Served?, which began life in 1973, found it hard to escape the shadow of the war. In its third episode, the staff at Grace Brothers find themselves stranded by a transport strike and are forced to spend the night in the store, sleeping in tents and telling old war stories. 'Some people seem to forget,' says Mr Rumbold, 'that men like Captain Peacock and myself were instrumental in making this a country fit for heroes to live in.' In April 1975, meanwhile, the store holds a 'German week', decorating the shop floor with German flags, playing German music and serving German wines. It is, of course, a disaster. 'I won't forget being thrown flat on my back on Clapham Common by a landmine. And the German air force was responsible,' Mrs Slocombe says darkly. 'All the other times she was flat on her back,' Mr Lucas puts in helpfully, 'the American air force was responsible.’
`World War II has turned from history into myth,' Colditz's producer Gerard Glaister told the Daily Mail in 1977. Aged just 24, Glaister had joined the RAF in 1939, captained a Blenheim bomber and flew reconnaissance missions over the Western Desert, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. As he saw it, the war was 'our last frontier, the English equivalent of the Western'. But although politicians never wearied of appealing to the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz, the contrast between the imagined unity of wartime and the 'conflict, envy and cynicism' of the present was painful to contemplate. Watching a documentary on the late Richard Dimbleby in September 1975, Bernard Donoughue, who was only 11 when the war ended, wished he could have been 'a war correspondent, in a genuine war I believed in, when Britain mattered'. Three months later, one of the war's great chroniclers, A. J. P. Taylor, told an interviewer that he wished Britain could turn back the clock to 1940, 'the best time we ever had, in my lifetime, when the country was best run, the most egalitarian society and the most efficient'. Perhaps, he mused, 'we might consider having a war with somebody — but it would have to be someone just big enough to give us a fright, and yet not big enough to defeat us'. A few weeks later Taylor told his wife that he had abandoned plans to revise his classic book on Britain between the wars. It would 'destroy the spirit', he explained. 'When I wrote [it] I still had great hopes for the future. Now I have none.’
What made memories of the war particularly painful was the fact that Britain seemed to have fallen so far behind its former enemy. Since the early 1960s the comparison between the British and German economies had been simply embarrassing, and it got even worse in the decade that followed. Britain's inflation rate for the 1970s was 13 per cent; West Germany's was just 5 per cent. Britain's unemployment rate was 4 per cent; Germany's was 2 per cent. Britain's productivity growth rate was barely 1 per cent; the Germans' was more than 3 per cent. At the moment,' admitted the Express the day after Schmidt's appearance at the Labour conference, 'the Germans are top dogs. After the awful destruction of the war, Germany started from scratch and everything from factory management to parliamentary government is geared to the present. The admirable cooperation usually shown in German industrial relations contrasts with British discord and Germany's enormous balance of payments surplus puts everyone else to shame.' The Cummings cartoon on the same page rather said it all: wearing a Wehrmacht uniform adorned with the Red Cross, Schmidt is dragging the battered figure of Harold Wilson along on a trolley marked 'Britain — Sick Man of Europe'. 'You WANT Britain in Europe, Herr Schmidt?' reads the caption. 'Then you must either be the greatest humanitarian since Florence Nightingale or be off your head!'
Even on the football field the Germans had become the model. When West Germany humiliated England 3—I at Wembley in April 1972, the newspapers could not contain their admiration for the victors. 'From the cool heads in defence to the glittering flair of the forward line', wrote the Daily Mail's Ian Wooldridge, this was a 'team to make nonsense of the pulp magazine conception of the German character and to make a few million adults realise that their prejudices are as obsolete as Bismarck's spiked helmet.' No Englishman', agreed the Observer's Hugh Mcllvanney, 'can ever again warm himself with the old assumption that, on the football field if nowhere else, the Germans are an inferior race.' But by now the idea of the Germans as inferior, given their economic accomplishments, was simply laughable. 'Hello Germany!' proclaimed a four-day Daily Mirror feature in May 1975, looking enviously at the `golden journey' of `one of the richest nations in the world', where, unlike in Britain, the unions held 'a solid and united front against inflation'. For many British politicians, West Germany was the ideal: strolling around Bonn one summer, Bernard Donoughue was amazed 'how clean and optimistic everything was, how smart and efficient the shop assistants are'. This was, he wrote enviously, 'the spin-off of a successful nation'. Even Margaret Thatcher, not known for her fondness for all things German, told the Commons in November 1975 that 'Germany is doing four times better in dealing with inflation than we are and therefore can speak with more authority. The Prime Minister has to rely on Germany and America to reflate because he has lost control of the economy here. He has to go to other private enterprise economies to try to get the Socialist-run economy of this country out of its financial mess’.
But German observers, too, were conscious how the balance of power had shifted. Ten months after his Labour conference speech, Helmut Schmidt told the Guardian that although 'a very anglophile person', he was sorry that Britain had become so 'damned class-ridden'. I would not feel that Britain is advanced,' he said sadly. `By no means — not regarding her social set-up, not regarding her industrial set-up, and not even regarding her political set-up. I think that the English nation for too long a number of years has taken too many things for granted.' He had harsh words for Britain's 'outmoded' trade unions: while he thought German unions 'behaved extremely sensibly', he was appalled that in Britain 'ten, twelve or fifteen times' more working days were lost to strikes every year. 'British trade unionists', he remarked, 'are the right-wingers because they don't really want to have a say in the British economy and society.' He was right about that. Only a few months later, Harold Wilson set up a committee under the historian Alan Bullock to discuss copying European models of industrial democracy, with workers' representatives sitting on companies' boards. When the committee reported in January 1977, it had warm words for the West German system, seeing a 'strong and direct connection' between their excellent labour relations and their economic miracle. But its recommendations never made headway. Condemned by the right as a surrender to union power and by the left as an attempt to co-opt the forces of progress into bourgeois capitalism, the Bullock report withered on the vine — just as Helmut Schmidt might have predicted.
When Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974, Britain felt more like part of Europe than at any time in living memory. The previous January, after a gruelling parliamentary battle, Ted Heath had taken the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community. Nine million people a year now holidayed outside Britain's shores, turning Benidorm and Torremolinos into household names and bringing back a dubious taste for sun, sangria and sombreros. From duvets and au pair girls to tourism and town-twinning, from the Eurovision Song Contest and It's a Knockout to Abba's 'Waterloo' and Sylvia Vrethammar's 'Y Viva Esparia', European influences seemed to be everywhere. And yet exceptionalism - the belief that Britain was different, and should steer its own course free from Continental entanglements — died hard. Millions of Britons might sear themselves on the beaches of Spain, yet they insisted on surrounding themselves with reminders of home, from fish and chips and warm beer to the Daily Mirror and kiss-me-quick hats. There had been no referendum on European entry, and many people still deeply disliked the idea. Even on the day that Britain entered the EEC, a poll for The Times had found that only 38 per cent of people were pleased at the prospect, with 39 per cent unhappy and 23 per cent undecided. And a year later, two out of three people agreed that Britain should have 'developed links with the Commonwealth' instead. 'Now that we are in the Common Market,' one Black Country shop steward told an interviewer, 'we are just like all those other countries who have foreigners making decisions for us.'
As the product of a lower-middle-class Huddersfield home, Harold Wilson looked across the Channel with deep suspicion. In the late 1960s he had made a doomed bid to join the EEC, but at heart, he admitted, he had always been 'a Commonwealth man'. He was 'basically a north of England, non-conformist puritan', wrote Bernard Donoughue. The continental Europeans, especially from France and southern Europe, were to him alien.' On top of that, Wilson's party was deeply divided over Europe. Most right-wing ministers, such as Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, were passionately for it, while outspoken left-wingers such as Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle regarded it as a terrible capitalist cartel. When Heath announced that he was taking Britain into Europe, therefore, Wilson refused to back him. Instead, Wilson supported Tony Benn's plan for a national referendum, giving the British people the right to decide whether they remained in the Common Market. In the February 1974 manifesto, he promised that Labour would renegotiate Heath's terms to get a better deal on the Community budget and Common Agricultural Policy. If better terms were forthcoming, Wilson explained, the government would advise people to vote Yes in the referendum. If not, it would support withdrawal.
Since Britain had been in Europe only since January 1973, Wilson's new partners were less than impressed by his demand to renegotiate the terms. In the French news magazine Le Point, a cartoon showed Harold Wilson as a petanque player, invited by Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing to join them instead of playing on his own. First Wilson demands that they carry his balls for him; then that they let him throw with his feet apart; then that he be allowed to throw outside the circle. `Pick up my balls for me, please,' he says. 'I can't bend down. Public opinion won't stand for it.' They humour him, and at the end, Giscard asks: 'Well, do you like petanque? "No!' Wilson says, walking away. 'You Continentals don't have any sense of sportsmanship!' Another cartoon, published in the satirical magazine Le Canard enchain (the French answer to Private Eye), made the point rather more graphically. Wilson, a diminutive and frankly ridiculous figure, is in bed with a gorgeous naked woman, who wears a crown labelled 'EUROPE'. Positioned between her thighs, he gazes plaintively into her eyes. 'Get in or get out, my dear Wilson,' she says wearily. 'But do stop all this ridiculous coming and going.'
What really shocked European observers, though, was that Wilson's representatives seemed oblivious to the courtesies of international diplomacy. When the new Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan, met his counterparts in Luxembourg in April 1974, he opened with a speech that was regarded as 'blunt to the point of rudeness'. Unless Britain's partners gave ground, Callaghan said brusquely, he would advise the electorate that the terms were 'unacceptable' and ask them to support `withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Community'. By the staid standards of European diplomacy, this was sensational stuff: over the next few days, Callaghan's rudeness was the talk of the chancelleries of Europe. Yet beneath the John Bull exterior, the Foreign Secretary was nothing if not a pragmatist, and by the late summer he was beginning to mellow. As he admitted, the terms were hardly the stuff of life and death, and when he found himself haggling over 'import levels of apricot halves' and the precise distinction between 'mutton and lamb', he felt `not so much a Foreign Secretary as a multiple grocer'. One low point, he recalled, came when 'nine Foreign Ministers from the major countries of Europe solemnly assembled in Brussels to spend several hours discussing how to resolve our differences on standardising a fixed position of rear-view mirrors on agricultural tractors. I wondered what Palmerston, Salisbury or Bevin would have made of it.'
By the end of the year an agreement seemed close. At a summit in December, Wilson promised that he would support Britain's European membership if Schmidt and Giscard agreed to amend the Community budget, and when they reconvened at Dublin in March 1975, the deal was done. Precisely what had been gained was not obvious, since the terms were remarkably similar to Heath's. Even a Foreign Office diplomat admitted that renegotiation 'never produced any financial results'. In essence, it was nothing more than a gigantic public relations exercise, designed to mollify the Labour left and prepare the ground for the referendum campaign. But it was not entirely pointless; as David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger point out in their definitive analysis of the referendum, `time was of the essence'. By the spring of 1975, the British people had had two and a half years to get used to European membership, strengthening their sense that it would be better to stick with the status quo than to face an uncertain future alone. If the referendum had been held earlier, it might have produced a very different result."
On 17 March, Wilson reported to the Cabinet that the talks had been a glorious triumph. 'We have substantially achieved our objectives,' he said proudly, since the Community was 'now operating much more under the political direction of the Governments of member states' — a very dubious assertion indeed. 'The cohesion of Western Europe might well be disrupted if we were to leave the EEC, and the British people might be misled into taking the view — which had bedevilled British policies for decades after the Second World War — that we remained a great major world power in our own right,' recorded the Cabinet minutes. On top of that, 'the Community was not now developing in a federalist direction; as long as we remained members we could prevent it developing in that way.' (This, as later events would show, was even more dubious.) Not all Wilson's colleagues, though, were convinced. 'The Community will destroy the whole basis on which the labour movement was founded, and its commitment to democratic change,' insisted Tony Berm, who predicted that Britain would find itself on a 'federal escalator'. `We're giving up so much,' agreed Michael Foot. 'We shall dismember Parliament and the UK: In the end, the Cabinet voted 16 to 7 to recommend staying in. In other circumstances, the split would have been a disaster, but Wilson had already promised that during the referendum campaign ministers would be free to campaign on either side. 'It is a triumph for HW,' wrote Bernard Donoughue. 'He has held the party together and put us in a position to stay in the Market. Nobody else could have done that."
The referendum was set for Thursday, 5 June, and the question — 'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?' — could hardly have been simpler. On the face of it, this was a seismic moment: not merely the first national referendum in Britain's history, but an opportunity for its people to choose between proud isolation on the one hand, and closer union with the Europeans on the other. But it did not seem that way at the time. Coming so soon after two general elections, the referendum never really caught the imagination. For one thing, the campaign had no shape, only spluttering into life around the middle of May, when both camps began holding press conferences. Unlike in a general election, the Prime Minister never really threw himself into the campaign, giving just eight very unenthusiastic speeches, while his Foreign Secretary was even more elusive. 'I am not pro, nor am I anti,' Callaghan told Robin Day during a phone-in show. 'What are you doing on this programme?' asked a mystified Day. 'You're here to advise people to vote "Yes", aren't you?' But the truth was that neither Callaghan nor Wilson could muster any passion for their cause. Wilson was 'clearly unhappy at having to come out so firmly in favour of the Market', noted an amused Donoughue. 'He is required to be in favour but he is really a Little Englander, and at heart he agrees with every word that Peter Shore says. So he fights to the end against actually telling people to vote yes.'
Wilson's ambiguity was symptomatic of the entire campaign. Confusingly, the battle lines were blurred. Seven Cabinet ministers opposed European membership, while 145 Labour MPs had voted against the government's recommendations and the party's special conference had voted by a huge majority to pull out of the European Community. The unions, too, were divided: although the TGWU, ASTMS and the printing unions recommended a No vote, the GMWU, APEX and the railwaymen all supported the Yes campaign. But while Wilson hesitated to pin his colours to the mast, the new leader of the opposition had no such qualms. Since Conservative voters were overwhelmingly pro-European, Margaret Thatcher had nothing to lose by backing the its campaign. There was 'not a genuine alternative' to British membership, and Europe's future depended on 'working closely together on trade, work and other social matters which affect all our peoples'. The Conservative Party, she told her first campaign press conference, 'has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party ... We are inextricably part of Europe. Neither Mr Foot nor Mr Benn nor anyone else will ever be able to take us "out of Europe", for Europe is where we are and where we have always been.'
Rather awkwardly, Mrs Thatcher was joined at her first press conference by the unsmiling figure of Edward Heath, who had agreed to be the chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe. Perhaps wisely, Thatcher chose to play the modest protégée rather than the Iron Lady. `It is especially appropriate that we should open the Conservative campaign to keep Britain in Europe under your chairmanship,' she said bashfully, 'because you have done more than anyone else for the Conservative cause in Europe, and to see that Britain's place is in Europe. Naturally, it's with some temerity that the pupil speaks before the master, because you know more about it than any of the rest of us.' These words cut no ice with Heath; as she was speaking, the camera caught him glaring at her with undisguised loathing. And although he quoted her statement in his memoirs, he then declared that he had been `disappointed' by her efforts. But it is a myth that she did nothing to help. She visited the European Assembly, gave television interviews and a few speeches, and most memorably, posed in front of Churchill's statue in Parliament Square with nine women in woolly jumpers, each decorated with the flag of a European member state. She might not have shared Heath's passion; but nobody listening to her in the summer of 1975 could have doubted that Mrs Thatcher was a keen European.
By and large, it was the Tories who provided the backbone of the official Yes campaign, Britain in Europe (BIE), handing out leaflets, booking speakers, organizing rallies and getting out the vote on Referendum Day. Even the campaign headquarters off Piccadilly was borrowed from Mrs Thatcher's future confidant Alistair McAlpine, then treasurer of the European League for Economic Co-operation. The campaign was not entirely a Conservative affair, of course: the Liberals were staunchly pro-European, while the Labour Campaign for Britain in Europe, run by Shirley Williams and Dick Mabon, boasted 88 MPs, 21 peers and 25 senior union officials. BIE also commanded the keen support of the Confederation of British Industry, which set up a European Operations Room and sent out a million documents encouraging a Yes vote. Businessmen had long supported membership of the Common Market: in a poll for The Times in April, 415 out of 419 chairmen of major companies said they wanted Britain to stay in. As a result, BIE had no problem getting money. Shell, Marks & Spencer, ICI, GKN and Vickers each donated £25,000 to the campaign; Ford, IBM, Rank and Reed all gave £20,000; and Legal & General, Royal Insurance, Sun Alliance and Unilever each gave £15,000. With the government giving a further £125,000 to both camps, the BIE campaign had a war chest of almost £1.5 million. Not even the Conservatives had ever spent as much on a national campaign.
Branded with a Union Jack-coloured dove in flight, the Yes campaign's advertisements were everywhere in the weeks before Referendum Day. Many played on the perennial concerns of jobs and prices, insisting that families would be much more prosperous if Britain stayed in, but some other old favourites crept in, too. On 8 May, for example, newspapers ran the following ad:
Thirty years ago today, the war in Europe ended.
We called that day — VE Day.
Millions had suffered and died in the most terrible war Europe had ever
On VE Day we celebrated the beginnings of peace.
Vote Yes to make sure we keep it.
Keep Britain in Europe.
But not all their ads were quite so solemn. Another trumpeted the Yes campaign's long list of celebrity supporters, from Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov to Susan Hampshire and Joyce Grenfell, from Graham Greene and Stephen Spender to Don Revie and Derek Dougan. The nation's favourite policeman, Dixon of Dock Green's Jack Warner, shared his pro-European enthusiasm with the readers of the Daily Mail, while Henry Cooper and Brian Close appeared in television commercials. Even Kenneth Williams recorded a pro-European message for the BBC, though not all his Carry On comrades shared his views. `Lunch with Bernard [Bresslaw] (Anti-EEC) and Elke (Sommer) and me who are pro-EEC,' he recorded on 10 April. 'Quite long discussion. Bernard maintains it is a false union and that it will inevitably lead to trouble.' But even Bresslaw admitted that the referendum 'will be won by the Marketeers'.
BIE's greatest asset was that its spokesmen were among the most popular public figures in the country. According to a Harris poll, the politicians most respected by the public were Harold Wilson and Ted Heath (each admired by 42 per cent), followed by Jeremy Thorpe (40 per cent), Roy Jenkins (34 per cent), Willie Whitelaw and Shirley Williams (both 33 per cent) and Jim Callaghan (31 per cent). Of these six names, four were active in the BIE campaign, while Wilson and Callaghan made vaguely supportive noises. The real star was Heath, who hammered away with an articulacy and passion that astonished his critics. Only inside Europe, he insisted, could the British 'fulfil ourselves as a nation'; as for the sceptics, 'their talk of sovereignty would only make sense if the Royal Navy ruled the waves and gunboats could be dispatched anywhere in the world'. At rallies around the country, he cut an implausibly dashing figure, bounding on to great torrents of applause. `There was no doubting [his] new-found, or rediscovered, popularity when he appeared, looking aggressively bronzed, to address a Britain in Europe rally in Leeds Town Hall yesterday,' reported The Times on 2 June. As he entered the stage, flanked by Cyril Smith and Reg Prentice, `the 2,000-strong crowd rose cheering and clapping'. 'That's for Mr Heath,' an elderly man whispered to the watching reporter."
In an age of deep ideological polarization, the experience of the BIE campaign came as a welcome tonic to its chief spokesmen. Behind the scenes the key figures were Roy Jenkins and Willie Whitelaw, who set the tone of good-humoured collaboration. The steering group, one member said later, `was one of the best committees I have ever attended . . . . Perhaps we were all on our best behaviour. Perhaps there was an unusually high proportion of professionals who knew how to fight elections and just got on with it.' For Jenkins, an increasingly lonely figure inside Wilson's Cabinet, the experience of working with similarly centrist figures was 'a considerable liberation of the spirit'. Men like Whitelaw, he thought, 'epitomised the feeling that the "yes" side was the side of sense, substance and public spirit'. Like many of his supporters in the media — especially in The Times — Jenkins hoped that the campaign might lead to a political realignment, producing a coalition that would address Britain's 'gross inflation and subservience to the unions'. But of course the realignment never happened: too many people were still attached to their tribal loyalties. Looking back later, Jenkins lamented that he had not done more to keep the BIE spirit alive. 'I look back on 1975', he wrote, 'as a great missed opportunity for Heath and Whitelaw and a whole regiment of discarded Conservative "wets" as much as for Shirley Williams and Steel and me.’
At the grass-roots level, too, the Yes campaign often looked uncannily like a dry run for the launch of the SDP. For the journalist Hugo Young, its activists were 'a fraternity of the middle-minded'; for the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, it was conducted through 'a haze of remembered vacations, beaches, bougainvillea, business jaunts and vintage wines'. Despite his sneering tone, Thompson was not far wrong. In Huntingdon, the local Yes group was set up by an export manager who had joined the Tories in 1961, 'flirted with South Kensington Liberals in a vegetarian restaurant' and became a Liberal activist in 1974. In Aberystwyth the key figure was a Liberal postgraduate student; in Sussex, one group was 'formed over gin-and-tonic one Sunday morning in February'. By May there were more than 300 such groups, and by Referendum Day the total had reached 452. Like high-minded groups through the decades, they depended on the voluntary efforts of middle-class women who put up posters, organized lunchtime lectures and evening discussions, and sent speakers to Rotary Club lunches, Townswomen's Guilds and school debates. Cannily, their pamphlets often played on local concerns: 'Nuneaton and Bedworth will be better off within the EEC'; 'Rugby, the hub of the British road and rail networks communicating with Europe, is ideally placed to benefit'; 'The Border area has proved to be highly suitable for the growing of vegetables, especially peas. Access to the European Common Market will offer greater opportunities for the full development of this potential.'
The really extraordinary thing, though, was how well different activists worked together, perhaps because they came from similar backgrounds and identified with the moderate wings of their respective movements. In Nottingham, one Labour activist fondly remembered, `the Conservatives were a wow at welcoming people', even putting on lilac or plum-coloured ties instead of the usual blue, as a conciliatory gesture to the Socialists'. Outside Bristol, the Tories sent their loudspeaker car to advertise the visit of a pro-European Labour MP; in East Grinstead, the local Conservative MP toured the constituency trailing all three party colours. Interviewed afterwards, many activists described the campaign as a `joy', 'refreshing' or 'invigorating'. 'It was marvellous to be free of the traditional restraints; the caution of agents, the touchiness of the old guard, the parsimony of treasurers, the endless cups of tea,' said one Labour MP. 'It had all the improvisation of Dunkirk and much of the steadfastness of the Battle of Britain.’
The No camp — officially the National Referendum Campaign (NRC) — was not a happy ship. While the pro-Europeans cultivated a moderate image, many Get Britain Out branches were rather less keen to stick to the middle of the road. In Braintree, the local Get Britain Out group was almost entirely Communist-dominated; on Merseyside the Communists were 'so much in evidence' that some Labour activists refused to join the campaign; in Ipswich, the No campaign was staffed by a peculiar alliance of Labour activists, Communists, disaffected Tories and a married couple described as 'not quite National Front, but close'. This was not a recipe for success: in Burnley, the chairman was an avowed anarchist, the secretary a Communist and the Treasurer a Labour supporter, while other activists included a 'solitary member of the Conservative Party' who was said to feel 'rather out of place'. Some people found this collaboration invigorating — a woman from Norfolk was pleasantly surprised to find that 'not all Trade Unionists are selfish left-wing extremists but are in many cases more patriotic than many a Tory and certainly as hard working as many employers!' — but others were less enthused. Only her 'passionate love of this country', a Twickenham woman said, had given her 'the stomach . . . to consort with Communists, International Socialists, Labour Party members and Maoists'. And many groups were frankly a mess. 'Our campaign was a shambles from beginning to end,' one activist wrote, blaming Communist infiltration for alienating 'all [the] moderate and right-wing voters'.
At the national level the No campaign was little better. An uneasy coalition of hard-left and hard-right groups, the NRC was terribly short of money. While their opponents had £1.5 million to spend, the anti Europeans had a derisory £133,630. Embarrassingly, all but £9,000 had come from the government. One commentator thought the competition was like a race between a Formula One car and a bicycle, while a visitor from the Yes camp 'stumbled out of the NRC offices saying that it was like taking candy from a baby'. Looking back, Butler and Kitzinger thought the No campaigners did tremendously well to hold their own, despite the great gulf in 'money, facilities and in many respects, professionalism'. But they could not match the glitter and glamour of their opponents: the only celebrities who actively supported the campaign were the unlikely triumvirate of Kenneth Tynan, Harry H. Corbett and Paul Johnson. To make matters worse, Paul McCartney announced that he would be voting No for patriotic reasons. Since the referendum came only a few days after Wings released their fourth album, the result can perhaps be explained by the fact that his musical crimes were so fresh in voters' minds.
The NRC's other obvious problem was the lack of a popular spokesman to match Heath, Jenkins and Whitelaw. An incisive cartoon in the Evening Standard showed a 'Get Britain Out' march led by Tony Benn, Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, surrounded by banners reading 'Trotskyists', 'National Front', 'Orange Order', 'Communist Party' and 'IRA'. None of these men had a moderate reputation: by far the most popular was Powell (liked by 33 per cent of voters), while only 17 per cent liked Benn or Foot. As the polls suggest, every time they spoke they probably lost votes rather than gained them. On top of that, the senior figures never worked well together. Their catering was adventurous enough: when they met to plan their strategy on 16 March, Barbara Castle served `taramoosalata' and goulash, an oddly Continental choice for such an occasion, which left Jack Jones 'a bit apprehensive'. But after speaking to 2,000 people in Manchester's Free Trade Hall, Castle admitted that their case was 'over-simplified extremism', and that despite the revivalist atmosphere inside the hall, they were struggling to win over moderate opinion. Characteristically, however, Benn drew an entirely different conclusion from the same event. 'It was one of the best meetings I have ever attended,' he recorded afterwards, flushed with millenarian enthusiasm. 'That great tide of public opinion cannot be held back now, of that I am sure.’
Probably no minister in modern times has suffered the abuse directed at Benn during the month-long campaign. By now it was almost impossible to exaggerate the loathing he inspired in City executives and Conservative columnists, and even to many Labour sympathizers he had become a 'cult hate figure', the Red Menace in human form. His sheer prominence was simply extraordinary: in just over a month, the Guardian devoted 829 column inches to him, The Times 586 and the Telegraph 505, in each case overwhelmingly negative. ‘Benn Factor Now Dominant Issue in Campaign' read one Telegraph headline, while the Guardian thought he had 'dominated the campaign single-handed, making the headlines day after day'. Not one of those headlines was positive. By the spring of 1975, most newspapers habitually described Benn as either a madman or a Communist: the Daily Express's William Hickey gossips column ran a photograph sent in by a reader who thought Benn looked like Hitler, while the Sunday Telegraph's cartoonist drew him as a rapist dragging off the screaming figure of Industry with the words 'Good Heavens! Everyone knows that when a woman says "No" she really means "YES "!' Benn had become a 'dangerous politician who stirs up and exploits political forces that will first bring Britain to economic ruin and then possibly use the rubble as the foundations for a collectivist regime, which would immediately discard him as the Kerensky whose work was done', agreed The Times's David Wood. And even when Benn tried to improve his image, giving an interview to the Mirror denying that he was a 'Dracula-like bogeyman', the front-page headline read simply 'BENNMANIA'.
On 16 May, Benn gave his critics all the ammunition they could want with a disastrous gaffe that sealed his fate. Staying in Europe, he said, would bring 'industrial disaster' and 'mass unemployment'. What was more, there had been 'nearly 500,000 jobs lost since we entered the Common Market'. At the very least he was guilty of creative arithmetic, and the following morning the pro-Europeans returned fire. Benn's `Sunday scare story' had stood 'the truth on its head', declared Willie Whitelaw. It was an 'absolute lie', concurred the Liberal man-mountain Cyril Smith, while in the Commons even Harold Wilson admitted that he 'did not agree with those figures'. Up went the cheers from the Tory benches. 'Is he a liar? Sack him!' they yelled, their fingers jabbing at the white-faced Industry Secretary. But it got even worse for the beleaguered Benn. On 26 May, making a rare intervention in the campaign, Denis Healey issued a statement slamming his 'falsehood' and condemning those who tried to 'escape from real life by retreating into a cocoon of myth and fantasy'. The next day, Roy Jenkins told a press conference that he found it 'increasingly difficult to take Mr Benn seriously as an economics minister'. Behind the scenes, this brought a furious rebuke from Wilson, who was appalled by the spectacle of his ministers throwing mud at each other in public. But the damage was done. Even the Mirror now twisted the knife, devoting its front page to an attack on `The Minister of Fear'. 'Mr Benn bears the heavy responsibility of misleading the country. Of trading on fear,' it declared, noting that not even Michael Foot had backed him up. 'There is no mystery about what others of Tony Benn's colleagues think. They think Mr Benn is not telling the truth.
It was to Benn's credit that he somehow kept going under the pressure. On 17 May Special Branch warned him that 'there may be a risk of you getting biffed or attacked in some way', while two days later he was besieged by rumours that one of his children had secretly been admitted to hospital. A few weeks after that, he was sent a death threat signed, bizarrely, under his wife's maiden name, while his daughter heard a previous conversation being played back to her on the phone, suggesting that the line was bugged. Equally disturbingly, his rubbish disappeared every morning, almost certainly stolen by journalists. Yet among his comrades on the anti-European left, there was surprisingly little sympathy. 'He's losing us the referendum,' Barbara Castle's special adviser Jack Straw told her despairingly. This was no exaggeration: a Harris poll found that Benn's efforts actually made voters less likely to vote No, while a poll for the Sun found that only four in a hundred people had been persuaded by his arguments. 'Mr Benn often complains that the press and television are biased against the anti-marketeers,' agreed the Telegraph's John O'Sullivan. 'And he is absolutely right. They keep on reporting him."Wedgie Has Decided Me,' read the headline on John Akass's Sun column on the last day of the campaign: 'I'm Going To Vote Yes.'
Looking back, the striking thing about the referendum campaign was that it was such a non-event. Despite the fuss about Tony Benn, the tabloids were more exercised by the crimes of the Cambridge rapist, the
misbehaviour of the nation's football fans and the triumphs of the Bay City Rollers. The BBC and ITV struggled to show much enthusiasm for the campaign, and even the broadsheets devoted more attention to the tribulations of Chrysler and the horrific inflation figures. Only very occasionally did the campaign threaten to burst into life. On 27 May, Edward Heath was addressing a packed house in Lancaster when the head of the Blackpool Get Britain Out committee, Harry Bucklitch, shouted that he was a traitor and ought to suffer the fate of Lord Hawhaw. At that, a nearby woman, later identified as a senior member of the Lancaster Conservative Association, 'smacked Mr Bucklitch in the face and was slapped back before they were separated'. 'I have never hit a lady before,' Bucklitch said afterwards, 'but I did not think she could one, so I struck back.
By and large, though, the campaign never took off. The weekend before polling day, both sides told the Sunday Times they had been disappointed by the voters' horrible lack of enthusiasm'. Most people were much more interested in prices, jobs and the state of the economy: in a poll only a few months before, just one in ten had ranked Europe as an important issue. And it is not true, as is often claimed, that people were never told about the consequences for British sovereignty. At rally after rally, Foot, Shore and Powell warned that the EEC posed a deadly threat to Britain's political independence. The implication of a Yes vote, Shore claimed, was that 'the long and famous story of the British nation and people has ended; that we are now so weak and powerless that we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations, almost as though we had suffered defeat in war'. These were stirring words, but most people took absolutely no notice. As Hugo Young observed, the truth was that public opinion about Europe remained `changeable, ignorant and half-hearted'. Even in the week of the vote, for example, Michael Palin recorded that he was 'still undecided':
In both cases it boils down to having confidence in Britain. Either to stay in Europe and keep up with the fast rate of material progress which undoubtedly have made France and Germany quite attractive places to live in, or to have the confidence to break from the incentive and the protection of Europe and become a one country independent free trader, as in the good old days. Neither decision I think involves the downfall of our nation. Once a decision is taken it will all be absorbed into the system and the country will carry on working (or not working) as it always did.
Palin's instinct was to vote No in protest against the 'smugness and complacency' of the Yes camp. But eventually he changed his mind, following the advice of one of his favourite columnists, the Mirror's Keith Waterhouse, who thought that 'a thousand years of insularity' had produced only the 'bingo parlour, carbonised beer and [i]Crossroads[/'. Palin’s experience was not unusual: although most people remained suspicious of European collaboration, they followed the advice of the politicians and commentators they most respected. And at a time of terrible economic anxiety, with headlines showing that wage inflation had reached a record 30 per cent, few people wanted to gamble with Britain's future. It's damn cold outside the European Economic Community,' remarked the formes Conservative MP and European Commissioner Sir Christopher Soames, `and in our present parlous position, this is no time for Britain to be considering leaving a Christmas club, let alone the Common Market.’
The opinion polls tell the story. As late as January 1975 they had suggested a clear No vote: while fewer than one in three people thought Britain had been right to join the EEC, half the electorate thought it had been a mistake. But when Wilson and Callaghan announced they had been converted to the European cause, the picture changed. By the beginning of April, 60 per cent said they would vote Yes, and by Referendum Day the Yes campaign's majority had surged from 8 per cent to 34 per cent in just three months. No doubt economic uncertainty had a lot to do with it, but in the final analysis, most people probably voted as their favourite politicians recommended. At open-air meetings in Blackburn shopping centre in the final days, women crowded around Barbara Castle. 'How can I choose?' they asked her. 'I don't know enough about it.' She particularly remembered one woman who listened to her arguments with respectful appreciation' before asking worriedly: 'Then why does Harold Wilson take a different view?' I realized then', Castle wrote, ‘that Harold's identification with the pro-Market cause would be decisive for most Labour voters. People still vote party rather than ideas.'
The other obvious factor was, of course, the media. In most papers, as Tony Benn complained, the No campaign was almost drowned out by the cacophony of abuse. To take them in circulation order, the Mirror ran 2,436 column inches on the pro-EEC case and only 533 on the antis; the Sun ran 1,408 for and 529 against; the Express ran 1,722 for and 665 against; and the Mail ran 1,672 for and just 476 against. Given the supposedly non-partisan nature of the debate, this was partiality carried to extremes: some 69 per cent of the Mirror's content was aggressively pro-European, with only 15 per cent critical. And as polling day approached, the coverage became more strident. The Sun ran a gigantic leader promising that jobs would be more plentiful and prices lower if Britain stayed in the EEC: 'Yes for a future together, No for a future alone'. The Mail (‘Vote YES for Britain') ran a long feature imagining the future if Britain left the Common Market: 'A Day in the Life of Siege Britain ... No Coffee, Wine, Beans or Bananas, Until Further Notice'. And the Mirror outdid itself with a huge picture of nine small boys from an international school in Brussels, eight huddling cheerfully together, the ninth standing miserably alone. That ninth boy was, of Course, British. 'He's the odd lad out,' the paper explained, no doubt wiping away the tears. 'FOR THE LAD OUTSIDE, VOTE YES.’
In the final days, both the BBC and ITV mounted referendum spectaculars. On Tuesday evening, Granada's State of the Nation team organized a two-hour debate, with Heath and Jenkins leading the pro-European team and Powell and Shore spearheading the anti European response. The real story was the non-appearance of Tony Benn, who, unlike his colleagues, refused to share a platform with a Conservative. The producers offered him seven different seating options, including a gangway that would physically protect him from Conserrvative contamination, but Benn was not having it. Intrigued by the prospect of a debate crossing party lines, 9 million people tuned in, and despite a blistering closing speech from Peter Shore, who told viewer's that they were being 'asked to renounce our freedom [and] the rights of our Parliament and people', the Yes camp were thought to have carried the day. The Metropolitan Police commissioner Robert Mark, who had previously been undecided, was probably not alone in finding it all very one-sided. 'My God! If that's the lot who want us to come out,' he remarked, 'let's get up early and go to vote to stay in.'
The following evening, the BBC followed suit with a two-hour debate live from the Oxford Union, pitting Heath and Thorpe against Shore and Castle. By any standards, this was an extraordinary occasion to viewers more accustomed to, say, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, it must have seemed like some baffling upper-class ritual from the dawn of time. Heath and Thorpe, both former presidents of the Union, arrived in their dinner jackets, while Castle, a graduate of St Hugh's, was wearing a sixty-year-old 'suffragette blouse' that had turned up among her nit mother's old things. Despite her long experience, she felt 'paralysed' with nerves, and when the speakers walked into the Union, her worst fears were confirmed. The place was 'packed to the ceiling', and while she and Shore were 'greeted with catcalls and boos, there was warm applause for Jeremy and a crescendo of adulation for Heath, who took it with a new dignity'. And although Thorpe's wisecracks had the audience 'rolling in the aisles', the real star was Heath. 'The audience was his,' Castle recorded admiringly, 'and he responded to it with a genuineness which was the most impressive thing I have ever seen from him. He stood there, speaking simply, strongly and without a note. They gave him a standing ovation at the end, and he deserved it for the best example I have ever seen of The Man Who Came Back.'
Afterwards, as they had drinks in the president's room, everyone was around Heath, congratulating him and shaking his hand. Even Castle, trying to ignore 'the slow stain of the misery of failure', told him how good he had been. He was 'at his warmest and most natural', she recalled almost in disbelief, 'and thanked me genuinely for the nice things I said to him'. It was the greatest rhetorical triumph of Heath's career, all the
sweeter for coming on his old stamping ground. 'It obviously attracted some celebrated viewers,' he wrote years later, full of Pooterish pride, 'as I received congratulatory letters from Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry On films, and the comedian Dave Allen.'
On the last evening of the campaign, it was clear that the life had gone out of the No campaign. At a final press conference, flanked by the odd couple of Jack Jones and Enoch Powell, Wilson's dissenting ministers begged voters to make Thursday 'Britain's independence day', but even the press seemed barely interested. The Yes campaign's only fear was that turnout would be too low, thereby keeping the issue alive, and when Roy Jenkins awoke on Thursday, 5 June to pouring rain, he feared the worst. Visiting a polling station in Birmingham, he posed for photographs in a 'sodden playground'; then, not untypically, he went down to London for lunch. By the time he emerged, however, a 'miraculous weather transformation had occurred'. The sky was clear, the sun was out and all seemed right with the world. A couple of miles away, in Westminster, Harold Wilson told Bernard Donoughue that he thought the turnout would be surprisingly high. Wilson himself had voted early and was hoping for a big victory: interestingly, though, both his wife Mary and Marcia Falkender had voted No. That evening, Donoughue walked Soho for a quiet pint, standing outside and watching the world go by. The evening headlines, he noticed, were already predicting a landslide. As he walked home across Hampstead Heath, watching the 'families playing on the grass', he felt 'no sense, however, among the people around of a great day of decision. They did not look as if they had voted!'
Unlike in a general election, the referendum votes were counted not by constituency but by counties and regions, with Northern Ireland's votes calculated separately. The count did not unofficially start until
nine on Friday morning, and within two hours the first results were in: a 75 per cent Yes vote in the Scilly Isles, a 72 per cent Yes in Cumbria, a 71 per cent Yes in Gwynedd. In Number 10, Donoughue listened to the results with a celebratory bottle of champagne. Outside, he noted, it was 'a gloriously sunny day — European weather'. And as the figures flooded in, it was obvious that the Yes campaign had won a smashing victory. Turnout was just under 65 per cent (compared with 78 per cent in February 1974 and 73 per cent in October), and in total, 67 per cent voted to stay in Europe, with every county and region recording a Yes vote. Pro-European sentiment was weakest in Northern Ireland and Scotland, while it was strongest in affluent Conservative counties such as Buckinghamshire, Surrey and West Sussex. The explanation was simple: the vast majority of Conservatives had voted Yes, while Labour supporters divided fifty—fifty. Perhaps not surprisingly, richer and better-educated voters, who were more likely to have travelled abroad, had rallied to the European banner. Yet Butler and Kitzinger thought that, rather than being suffused with European enthusiasm, most voters were motivated by fear that Britain would sink if left on its own. It was lucky for the pro-Europeans that the economy was in such a mess: had the referendum been held a few years earlier, or indeed a few years later, the instinctive insularity of the British people might have swung the result the other way.
In the press, all was jubilation. 'Full hearted, whole hearted and cheerful hearted', the result was a 'tonic for Britain and a tonic for Europe', gushed the Guardian. It was 'the most crushing victory in British political history', agreed a delighted Daily Mail, which thought the effect of this thunderous YES will echo down the years'. The Sunday Times even thought it 'the most exhilarating event in British politics since the war'. Many commentators thought it had also been a vindication for Harold Wilson, whose machinations had managed to secure Britain's European future without a split in the Labour Party or the loss of a single Cabinet minister. The referendum had been 'quite frankly a triumph for Mr Wilson', announced the Telegraph, not normally among his admirers. But if it was a victory, he seemed remarkably disinclined to enjoy it. That evening, his aides arranged a little party at Number 10. When they were all ready, however, Wilson said: 'I had better go to see Marcia,' and disappeared to her room to drink champagne. Eventually Haines and Donoughue got bored and went off to watch television instead.
By and large, the anti-Europeans took their defeat with good grace. 'I have just been in receipt of a very big message from the British people, Tony Benn told the press, showing remarkable good humour after enduring such abuse. 'I read it loud and clear.' As for the victors, their joy was unconfined. At a celebratory press conference at the Waldorf, Roy Jenkins noted that it was the anniversary of D-Day, 'when we had to fight a more painful campaign to end our exclusion from Europe'. Yet even Jenkins had to admit that the star of the campaign, 'as impervious to the waves and as reliable in his beam', had been his old Oxford friend Ted Heath. For The Times, the former Prime Minister was 'the Achilles of the European cause', while the Sunday Express thought that `Britain in Europe is Edward Heath's achievement. Twice rejected by the electors and finally disowned by his party, Mr Heath has known the cruelty of public life. But he has the richest of consolations, that he has left an abiding mark on his country's destiny.' Even Mrs Thatcher paid tribute to her predecessor on the Monday after the vote, declaring that all of us on this side of the House, and many on the other, would wish hand the campaign honours to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup'. At that, all eyes turned to Heath. Surely such a generous tribe could not fail to elicit a smile? But Heath had not changed one iota. 'Head in hand, stony-faced,' remarked The Times, 'he made no acknowledgement.'
The European referendum was one of the decisive moments in modern British history. If the result had gone differently, then Wilson and the Labour moderates would have been grievously, perhaps fatally damaged. For the left, victory would have been a tremendous boost; for Benn, it would have been a crucial stepping stone to the leadership. Abroad, a No vote would probably have done terrible damage to Britain's reputation. If the United Kingdom really had pulled out of Europe in the summer of 1975, then the collapse of the pound would almost certainly have happened earlier and been even more devastating. As it is, however, the result broke the left's momentum. From this point onwards, although Benn and his allies still made an enormous amount of noise, they posed no serious threat to the more moderate triumvirate of Wilson, Callaghan and Healey.
Four days after the referendum, Wilson reshuffled his government. In theory, the reshuffle was meant to be a definitive reassertion of his authority; in practice, it was merely an embarrassing reminder of his failings. Hoping to balance left and right, he had conceived an elaborate plan to demote the right-wing Education Secretary, Reg Prentice, to Minister of Overseas Development, while promoting the left-wing Overseas Development minister, Judith Hart, to Transport. But when refused to budge, the scheme exploded in Wilson's face. Prentice eventually moved but kept his place in Cabinet, while Hart refused to accept her new position and therefore got the boot. Embarrassingly, Wilson sat meekly through furious lectures by Roy Jenkins and Michael leaders of the rival factions, on his folly and perfidy. It was totally humiliating', wrote Bernard Donoughue. 'He should never have allowed It to happen. Attlee would never have tolerated it. It was part of the erosion of HW's power. Just like a 15th-century monarch, when the feudal barons had excessive and independent powers.
The big development, though, was the emasculation of Tony Benn. As soon as the referendum results were in, Wilson made his long rumoured move, shifting him from the battlefield of Industry to the backwater of Energy. Although Benn suspected what was coming, having been spotted 'glowering blackly' on his way into Number 10, he made no attempt to conceal his anger:
`You've got lots of energy, if you know what I mean,' [Wilson] said smiling.
I did not smile.
`You'd enjoy it,' he said. 'It's a very important job.'
I said nothing.
`Well, haven't you got any questions?'
`No,' I replied, 'except how long are you going to give me to think
`I must know soon. Two hours.'
In the end Wilson gave Benn until the following afternoon. But by four o'clock the next day, there was no reply. 'Nobody has seen Benn, Donoughue wrote. 'He is not in his ministry. Neither did he turn up at the House, so the committee stage of his Industry Bill was abandoned. A chaotic atmosphere. The House and the lobby are now full of rumours.'
At last, shortly before seven, Benn appeared in the doorway of Wilson's office. 'What is your answer?' Wilson asked, staring at him intently with what Benn called 'his piggy little eyes'. Benn promptly launched into a long tirade. 'What you are doing', he spat, 'is simply capitulating to the CBI, to the Tory press and to the Tories themselves, all of whom have demanded my sacking ... You are capitulating and if you think this is going to save you, you've made a great mistake because they'll he pleased for twenty-four hours and then they'll turn on you.' That was too much for Wilson. 'You don't speak for the movement,' he snapped `I know as much about the movement as you do.' A few moments later Benn walked out, slamming the door behind him. It seemed obvious that he had resigned. But when Wilson emerged, 'his round face looking battered and blank', it turned out that Benn had taken the Energy job after all. It was now 'transparently clear', Donoughue thought, that there was no humiliation which he would not swallow in order to stay in the Cabinet'. Amazingly, though, Benn was more convinced than ever that history was flowing his way. 'Wilson has made a fatal error,' he wrote, 'and he will not be Leader of the Labour Party by the end of the year.'
The next day's papers interpreted the reshuffle as a turning point, not only in Benn's career, but in political history. Yet behind all the headlines about comings and goings, the basic economic reality had not changed a jot. On the very day of the reshuffle, with Arab petrodollars rushing out of London, the pound hit a record low, while new figures showed that manufacturing investment was falling at an unprecedented rate of 15 per cent a year. 'When the edge was off the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,' wrote one American reporter, 'Britons were reawakened to the fact that all of their old problems were still with them.' In the Sun, a cartoon showed Wilson and his ministers as animal tamers at a circus, gathered around a table labelled `REFERENDUM SIDESHOW', waving their whips at a tiny little mouse. Behind them rears the gigantic figure of a tiger labelled 'ECONOMIC CRISIS', its teeth bared to strike, saliva dripping from its fangs. 'Right, lads,' a bystander says nervously, `now you've finished playing with the mouse . . .'
Source; Seasons in the Sun – the Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, Dominic Sandbrook, Penguin, UK, 2012.
1] An ITN clip of the Thatcher—Heath press conference can be seen on YouTube, though it is easy to be distracted by the comments below it. 'What a wicked man he was,' writes 'real-zoomy'. 'Yes, wicked as in awesome,' replies 'Sir Edward Heath'. 'He was a great, imposing, impressive, astonishing, awe-inspiring man, unlike you, you spent old has-been hag.'
2] There is an obvious parallel here, of course, with the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011.