Tom Spencer's Blog

In the 1975 European Referendum the pro-European side started the campaign at a two to one disadvantage in public opinion. Britain had only been a member for two years. Harold Wilson was determined to avoid a split in the Labour Party and was a tactition of proven experience. There was a very real possibility that the UK might have had to withdraw after a Referendum defeat. The final result was a two to one victory. By July 1975 the pro-Europeans announced that the decision on Europe had now been taken and got on with the job of building Europe. The inevitability of victory settled into their souls. Forty years later they have forgotten how tense the 1975 campaign was. The assumption of near inevitable victory leads to over confidence, feuding, position hunting, prioritising party issues, concentrating on personalities and a lack of serious funding. This is the very same “political body dismorphia” which the Labour Party suffered from in the 2015 General Election.


It is of course very difficult to compare personalities between generations, but I cannot escape the feeling that the members of the Britain in Europe Referendum Steering Group were of a higher political quality than their successors of today. They certainly would not have named their campaign after mad cow disease. Roy Jenkins, Willie Whitelaw, Douglas Hurd, Shirley Williams, to name but a few, were exceptional politicians. They were used to cross-party platforms from their days in the entry campaign of 1973. Today only Peter Mandelson matches them in political experience.


So, purely for the purposes of stiffening our resolve, let me state the reasons why today’s pro-Europeans might lose. One third of the country has always been against British membership. For the last twenty years the pro-Europeans have given the impression of being frightened of pubic opinion and avoiding a Referendum at any cost. David Cameron has been forced into this Referendum as a result of difficulties in the Conservative Party. He has been outmanoeuvred tactically by Conservative Eurosceptics and the press such that he can use neither the Government nor the Conservative Party machines. In the crucial years ahead of the Referendum there has been a substantial imbalance of funding. The Eurosceptics are awash with cash, while major businesses refused to fund pro-European activity until they knew that the Referendum was happening. UKIP came close to breaking the mould of British politics and remains a motivated force of anti-European activists. A new breed of macho capitalists have got used to their money buying influence in British politics. These buccaneers, whether from the hedge fund industry or not, have often got rich by betting against the Establishment. To the West the Anglosphere chips away in an attempt to reverse what they see as Britain’s temporary involvement with the European mainland. To the East, Russia reenergises the Slavosphere and is spending time and money in the Balkans, trying to reverse what they see as the rush to EU membership of countries such as Bulgaria. Issues of migration and passport control have escaped from the decent obscurity of the Schengen Agreement to become symbols of the loss of power by the member states. Much of the EU is gripped by an anti-establishment or anti-populus frenzy.


One can understand why the average Briton, who ranks Europe as the thirteenth most important subject, can be persuaded to support an exit. He or she is told that we went into the European Union because we were economically backward. Now we are told that it is because we are so prosperous that migrants queue at Calais. The big battalions of British life favour our continued membership. The world has changed, but we should not despair. Roy Jenkins closed one of the Referendum Steering Group’s meetings, the minutes of which I was taking, with a jocular summing up “All right Willie, we are agreed then. I will fix the BBC and you will sort out the Church of England.”

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