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Referendum 1975

Referendum 1975

The relationship between Britain and the EU became very strained in the late 20th century. The question of "Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?" was put to the public, emphasising the tentative relationship that Britain had with the EU. Following a campaign filled with heated debates, eye-catching pamphlets and accusations of lies from both sides, the nationwide referendum was held on June 5th, 1975 to determine the outcome. But what was the reasoning behind the referendum and what analysis can we draw about its effect on Britain's relationship with Europe in the late 20th century?


A vote by the people on a single political question in order to make a decision.

What was the 1975 EU Referendum About?

The 1975 referendum was a public vote that decided whether Britain should remain a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC was an organisation created in 1957 to integrate the economies of its members. It is often referred to as the Common Market.

In 1993 when the European Union was formed, the EEC became part of it and was renamed the European Community. The EEC was sometimes referred to as the European Community even before it was renamed, as we can see in the wording of the 1975 referendum.

Britain had not always been a part of the EEC - in the post-war era, Britain saw the USA as its best potential trading partner, and so preferred to pursue relations with America rather than Europe. However, other economies in Europe were outperforming Britain, and its relationship with the US had become tense over the 1956 Suez Crisis. As such, Britain began the process of joining the EEC, applying in 1961 but not becoming a member until 1973 - why did it take so long?

  • French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain's first application as he was concerned that the French voice in Europe would be weakened if Britain joined.
  • He was also worried that Britain’s close relations with the US would lead to a large American influence on Europe.
  • De Gaulle also vetoed Britain’s second application in 1967.
  • After de Gaulle resigned in 1969, Britain was invited to reapply to the EEC and officially became a member on January 1st, 1973.

The 1975 referendum was proposed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson after he began to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership in the EEC. He presented these renegotiations to the public in a referendum.

Referendum 1975 Harold Wilson, twice Prime Minister of the UK StudySmarterFig. 1 - Harold Wilson, twice Prime Minister of the UK (16 October 1964 - 19 June 1970/4 March 1974 - 5 April 1967

The reasoning behind the 1975 referendum

Wilson held the referendum in 1975 after his Labour party had become badly divided over EEC membership. Due to many labour MPs being anti-EEC, he saw Europe as something which could break the government. He believed a referendum could fix this issue without splitting his party and give him the opportunity to say he was offering the people a chance to shape their futures by voting.


Euroscepticism is normally seen as an ideology of the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the government of Margaret Thatcher. However, Euroscepticism started far earlier and had a profound impact on British politics.

So, why were people Eurosceptic?

Many people were concerned that Britain would lose national sovereignty as part of the EEC, eventually becoming part of one European state.People felt that the EEC was too complex - it would take a long time for decisions to be made due to levels of bureaucracy.It would give other countries too much power over Britain in the making of laws.British people would lose jobs if Britain had easy access to European goods.The amount of money Britain was giving to the EEC was seen as too much in comparison to the benefits for Britain.


The authority of a state to control its own affairs

When Britain first joined the EEC in 1973, its position within the coalition was not strong - it did not have a lot to offer. People were acutely aware of the fact that the other European powers could use this in order to push Britain around.

Euroscepticism was a belief held by those on both sides of the political spectrum, meaning that political parties were divided over the issue of Britain's place in Europe.

On the left, people were very suspicious of the common market - they felt it was akin to a 'capitalist club' that would take away workers' rights. On the other side, the conservatives feared Britain losing its national sovereignty and relationship with the Commonwealth.

After Britain joined the EEC in 1973, things took a turn for the worse.

  • Rather than an improving economic situation as they had hoped, they were faced with the 1973 oil crisis, which saw an international rise in the price of oil. This severely affected Britain's economy.
  • After 1973, British exports to EEC countries declined.
  • The British people were told that joining the EEC was a purely economic arrangement and that Britain's sovereignty would not be affected. However, the founders of the EEC, in particular Jean Monnet, admitted that joining a European bloc would require nations to give up a degree of autonomy.

When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious what they had in mind was not democratic.

- Tony Benn, a prominent Labour politician and Eurosceptic.

All of this led to Britain maintaining a constant level of Euroscepticism. A 2009 study showed that out of the EU member states the UK was one of the countries that viewed the EU most unfavourably.1 Of course, Britain's Euroscepticism came fully out of the shadows during the 2016 EU Referendum, in which the UK voted to leave the European Union.

The 1975 Referendum Pamphlet

A government-produced pamphlet was released prior to the referendum, advocating to stay in the European Economic Community. This pamphlet was 16 pages long and had the following quote by PM Harold Wilson on its front page:

Her Majesty’s Government have decided to recommend to the British people to vote for staying in the Community.

The pamphlet contained a lot of information, such as:

  • What the referendum was
  • How to vote
  • What the common market was
  • The implications of voting yes or no

Supposed effects of a "no" vote

One of the pages contained information on the supposed effects of voting to leave the common market and is believed to be one of the reasons people were afraid to vote to leave.

The pamphlet stated that:

  • Foreign firms may pull out of British investments
  • The government would need to try to negotiate special free trade agreements for exports
  • There would be a risk of making inflation and unemployment significantly worse

To stay or to go?

So, did the government actually give unbiased, balanced and informative advice in the pamphlet? Let's have a look at the arguments given by both sides of this referendum - the in and the out campaigns.

Arguments for staying in the EECArguments for leaving the EEC
  • British people could work in other countries in the EEC, providing more job opportunities.
  • Britain would be entitled to European development grants.
  • They would have better chances of bringing in foreign business, creating more economic stability.
  • Membership of the EEC was one step closer to joining Britain and other EEC countries into one nation, losing national sovereignty.
  • The campaign claimed that in two years, the EEC had already lost the country 500,000 jobs.
  • Britain's membership would ruin its economy.

Which parties were in favour of leaving the European Community?

The Labour Party was very divided on the UK’s EEC membership, with most of their MPs being against remaining a member. Many had opposed Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973 and during both 1974 elections. The decision to hold a referendum was largely an attempt to resolve this issue. In the referendum, a high proportion of the Labour Party voted to leave, whilst most of the Liberals and Conservatives voted to stay.

The Conservative party, led by Margaret Thatcher, showed the most enthusiasm to say yes to Europe. This was because they followed the idea of having a free market, allowing businesses to decide prices without the intervention of governments.

1975 Referendum Results

The British people voted to stay in the EEC. With a 64% turnout, the results showed that over 2/3 of voters supposedly supported the UK’s membership in the common market.

Further analysis of the results showed:

  • 73% of women voted to stay
  • 71% of men voted to stay
  • 80% of people over 65 voted to stay
  • 62% of people aged 18-29 voted to stay

Referendum 1975 The Remain campaign logo for the 1975 Referendum StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Remain campaign logo for the 1975 Referendum

1975 Referendum Lies and Issues

Although the people voted to remain in the EEC, the government was not entirely honest with them about the implications of the vote.

It was the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-74) that had finally taken Britain into the EEC in 1973. Heath and Harold Wilson, the previous Labour Prime Minister, knew what it meant to be a part of that community, but they did not share important details on Britain’s future in the EEC during the referendum.

The Conservative Party knew that joining the common market meant that they were part of a group whose goal was to ultimately create a federal united state of Europe and that they would have to turn their back on their former partners and allies, and would no longer be able to purchase cheap food from the Commonwealth.

After the referendum was held members of the public came forward with issues that they had regarding the referendum. The two main issues were:

  1. Many people who voted yes to stay said they only did so out of fear of the consequences of leaving, rather than an actual desire to stay a member.
  2. Those who voted to leave the EEC claimed the entire thing was a betrayal of democracy. They believed that the vote should have occurred before Britain became a member rather than after.

1975 Referendum Analysis

The 1975 EEC referendum occurred at a time when Britain's economy was stagnating, largely thanks to a drop in exports and the international oil crisis. Driven by warnings of a worsening of the British economy if they left the EEC, many people voted to remain not because they agreed with staying in the EU, but because they were worried about what would happen to their jobs and livelihoods if they left.

This demonstrates that people were most concerned about the state of the economy - perhaps, if the economy had been better when the referendum took place, then more people would have voted to leave the EEC, as they would have felt that Britain did not need the support of Europe to get by.

Consider: What does the 1975 referendum have in common with the 2016 EU referendum, which led to Brexit?

European Community Referendum 1975 - Key takeaways

  • In 1963 and 1967 Britain’s first and second applications to join the EEC were vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle. In 1973, the UK officially joined the EEC, this being the third attempt made to join.
  • On June 5th, 1975, a referendum on the EEC membership was held, fully confirming the UK’s membership with the EEC after a yes majority vote.
  • The motivation for the referendum lay largely in the divides in government over the issue, especially in the Labour Party.
  • A government produce pamphlet was created, advocating to stay; they detailed the supposed devastating impacts if there were to be a majority no vote.
  • Joining the community meant giving up national sovereignty; membership of the EEC meant Britain turned its back on former partners and allies.
  • People had doubts about both leaving and staying, but ultimately, a yes majority vote was cast, and new membership terms were agreed upon by the EEC and the British government in an attempt to improve the situation in Britain.


  1. "Standard Eurobarometer 71 (fieldwork June–July 2009)" (PDF). European Commission. September 2009. pp. 91–3
  2. Fig. 1 - Harold Wilson (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harold_Wilson_1_Allan_Warren.jpg) by Allan Warren (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Allan_warren) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 2 - Keep Britain in Europe logo (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Keep_Britain_in_Europe_Logo.svg) by MrPenguin20 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MrPenguin21) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Referendum 1975

The referendum confirmed the UK’s membership of the EEC after more than 2/3 of the voters supported the stay.

The majority of voters said yes to staying in the EEC during the 1975 referendum, with over ⅔ of the voters voting yes.

Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime minister in 1963, was worried about the economic advances of France and Germany compared to Britain. This fear led him to make the first attempt to join the EEC.

Edward Heath was prime minister when we first joined the EEC in 1973, until his electoral defeat in 1974 to Harold Wilson - the prime minister who called for the referendum which cemented our stay in the EEC. The EU was not founded until 1993.

Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?

Final Referendum 1975 Quiz


In what year did the UK join the EEC?

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Show question


Who was the prime minister when we joined the EEC?

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Edward Heath

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 What does EEC stand for?

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European Economic Community

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Give an issue with the 1975 referendum

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One of the following:

1.    Some people said they only voted yes out of fear of the consequences of leaving

2.    The no voters believed the vote should have happened before joining the EEC

Show question


Why was a referendum held?

Show answer


Due to conflict in the labour party surrounding the EEC membership, PM Wilson used a referendum to solve the conflict whilst keeping his government in business, and giving the people the impression that they were helping shape their futures.

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When was Britain’s first application to the EEC rejected?

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 On what date did the referendum take place?

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5th June 1975

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Which government party was most enthusiastic about staying in the EEC, and who led this party?

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The conservative party showed more support than any other party for staying in the EEC, being led by soon to be prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

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Give two possible impacts of staying in the EEC

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Any two of the following:

1.    Britain and the other nations merged into a single nation

2.    Britain had to turn its back on both its allies and its partners

3.    Britain could no longer purchase cheap food from the commonwealth

4.    Unemployment and inflation rates rose

Show question


Which member of the EEC vetoed two of Britain’s applications to join the community and what was their reasoning?

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French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed both of Britain’s applications over fear that the French voice in the community would be weakened by Britain joining, and that close Anglo-American relations would lead to the US gaining more influence throughout Europe.

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