Historic EU referendum in more ways than one

Harold Wilosn and wife Mary at polling station Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Harold Wilson, accompanied by wife Mary to the polling station in Westminster where they cast their vote for the 1975 referendum

Excitement grows with just days to go before the vote to decide our future place in Europe.

The Prime Minister is pinning his political future on the result.

The Cabinet is so split on the issue that decades of close political allegiance are being shattered in public.

That was actually the scene 41 years ago in June 1975.

The Prime Minister campaigning to stay in what was then the seven-member European Economic Community was Labour's Harold Wilson.

The parallels with today's referendum are remarkable.

Cabinet split

Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson had won a General Election the previous year but to appease a powerful Euro-sceptic arm of his own party he had been reluctantly forced into promising to hold a referendum in his manifesto.

The question posed on the ballot paper in 1975 was "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community?"

Seven of the Wilson Cabinet campaigned on the "no" side.

They included two of the most popular and charismatic ministers, Tony Benn and Michael Foot, who both made barnstorming speeches across the country at packed public meetings proclaiming the dangers of remaining in the Common Market.

The opposition Conservative Party was also split in 1975.

Leader Edward Heath, and most of his shadow cabinet, supported membership of the Common Market.

That is not really surprising as it was the same Edward Heath who had negotiated and signed the membership treaty when he had been Prime Minister just two years before.

That was still a running sore for many ordinary Conservative members who saw that deal as a sell-out of the UK's historic status as an independent sovereign nation.

Despite the obvious parallels, there are also plenty of differences between the two campaigns conducted 41 years apart.

Image copyright Len Tingle
Image caption Len Tingle was a student union officer when the country was asked to decide its European future in 1975

My own experiences in 1975 reflect that.

I was a 20-year-old elected university student union officer at the time.

The TUC leadership was urging trade unions to fight what the left saw as a capitalist plot to reinforce the power of Europe's big business conglomerates.

In 2016 most trade unions have a far different view of the UK's membership of the European Union. It is seen as essential to the protection of workers' rights.

Back in 1975 a lot of support for membership came from the largest farmers and the rural communities who saw the benefits of food production subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy.

In the current campaign the National Farmers Union continues to support the EU, but a substantial block of largely smaller farmers believe they would be better off if global markets were open to them.

Town v country

As a rule Conservatives tend not look back with any fondness on the legacy of Harold Wilson's three terms of office as Prime Minister in the 1960s and 70s.

David Cameron might make an exception when it comes to the referendum result the Yorkshireman achieved 41 years ago.

On 6 June 1975 the Remain vote won hands down with 67% of those who voted supporting the UK's continuing membership and just 31% choosing to leave.

In Yorkshire, the results from the individual counts carried out by county councils show how the tensions between industrial and rural areas played out at the ballot box.

Despite the Labour Prime Minister's view, a highly trade-unionised South Yorkshire reflected its suspicions of the Common Market with a below average 63% voting to remain.

The farming communities of North Yorkshire followed Conservative leader Edward Heath and boosted the Remain vote to over 76%.

Referendum Results June 1975:

UK: Remain 67.2% Leave 32.8%

South Yorkshire: Remain 63.4% Leave 36.6%

Humberside: Remain 67.8% Leave 32.2%

North Yorkshire: Remain 76.3% Leave 23.7%