The UK public’s attitudes to the European Economic Community were vastly more positive than it has been recently claimed. David Thackeray writes that this period, between losing an empire and leaving Europe, is integral to understand why Brexit happened and what awaits in the future for the UK.

On referendum day in June last year, the 52-year old Nigel Farage expressed his satisfaction with being able to vote on the matter of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) for the first time. Brexiters like Farage have long claimed that membership of the EU/EEC (European Economic Community) lacked a democratic mandate.

My research argues that this notion is based on a ‘myth of 1975’. In fact, British public opinion was largely sympathetic towards EEC membership for much of the 1960s. During the first EEC application, Gallup polls demonstrate that approval of the idea of Britain joining the Community outstripped disapproval by a clear margin throughout the lifetime of the application, although there was an overall increase in disapproval rates too.

Gallup polls suggest enthusiasm for EEC membership grew in 1967 when Britain was dealing with the fall-out of a devaluation crisis. While there was some scepticism towards the original terms of entry in 1973 (a scepticism shared with the other new entrants, Denmark and Ireland), attitudes towards the EEC warmed thereafter and the renegotiation process was broadly popular.

Logo of the Keep Britain in Europe campaign; during the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. Image by MrPenguin20 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Referendum claims that Britain’s first renegotiation relied purely on economic concerns are another example of the myth of 1975 (although the Common Market issue was undoubtedly prominent), which ignores the wider political and social appeals of EEC membership at the time.

Opinion polls produced in early 1975 suggested that the electorate was lukewarm in its support for the EEC. But the idea of renegotiating was popular, especially among Labour voters. The renegotiation process, however flimsy it may seem in hindsight, appeared to demonstrate that the EEC was willing to listen to Britain’s concerns and that Britain could lever authority within the Community.

The triumph of the Leave campaign in 2016 resulted from their ability to overhaul earlier perceptions that EU membership was vital to Britain’s economic future. Crucially, it was able to popularise a plausible rhetoric of EU failure.

Indeed, the Leave campaign’s ability to present Europe as a region of economic stagnation and a security threat on account of its porous borders would have seemed remarkable to audiences in 1975 (when the issue of free movement of labour barely featured and Britain was far from the healthiest of the EEC’s economies).

The Brexit vote requires us to produce new histories of Britain’s relations with Europe. Indeed, we should ask why references to this history in the public debate often turned to counterfactual discussions about what Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would have done if they were alive in 2016, and why expert opinion was given short shrift in some quarters.

In much of the research literature on European integration, there seems to be an assumption that closer co-operation with Europe was the best course for post-war Britain and that in ‘missing the boat’ on several occasions, the country exacerbated its decline in world status.

Such an approach now seems problematic in light of the Brexit vote. As such, we need new histories of Euro-scepticism, but also of Euro-enthusiasm, aware of the differing experiences of the ‘four nations’, which can connect with a broad audience.

Of course, the EEC of 1975, which Britons voted two to one to remain a part of, was highly different in character to the EU of 2016 that the electorate narrowly voted to leave. In the post-Brexit world we need to develop a clearer understanding of how Euroscepticism has developed as a popular culture – its myths, conventional wisdoms, selective reading of history and, most importantly, how it has developed a plausible rhetoric of EU ‘failure’.

While a great deal of attention has been paid to Britain’s applications to join the EEC it is imperative that we get a clearer understanding of how Europe’s influence was understood in everyday popular culture and business life in the years after 1973, and in particular how this relationship (and its earlier history) has been reconceptualised through processes of globalisation, the eastern enlargement of the EU and experiences of mass immigration.

Finally, the result of the referendum is a useful reminder that we need to pay attention to the ‘cultural throw’ of economic theories, how they were articulated in everyday debate and received by the public.

We are now faced with a curious situation where Theresa May’s government appears likely to encourage aspects of globalisation through an economically liberal agenda (revivifying links with established and emerging markets through trade treaties and encouraging investment through a low corporation tax) while also promoting a populist agenda, which may be associated with anti-globalisation (curbing free movement of labour and presumably leaving the Single Market).

Britain now faces a period of profound uncertainty as we wait to see whether the (often conflicting) promises of Brexit campaigners can be made real.

This blog post was originally published in The Long Run (the blog of the Economic History Society). It gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. 

Dr David Thackeray is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter.

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