UK Politics

EU referendum: The night Britain stayed in

Angela Rippon on the set of 75: Not Out
Image caption Angela Rippon presents 75: Not Out on BBC Parliament on 5 June at 19:00 BST

The circumstances sound familiar, a prime minister promises to renegotiate the country's terms of European membership and then takes the choice to the people.

He makes the unprecedented decision to allow members of his cabinet to campaign to leave, despite his government urging the public to vote yes.

But the prime minster in question was Harold Wilson and the year was 1975.

On Sunday, 5 June on BBC Parliament, Angela Rippon will be looking back at the classic political television moments in that 1975 referendum campaign - which bears more than a passing resemblance to the current fight over Europe.

Although the story sounds familiar, the surprising thing is that the political parties seem to be re-enacting the behaviour of their opposite numbers.

Image caption Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn on Panorama

In 1975 it was the Conservative Party who were mostly in favour of continued EEC membership and supported the Yes campaign, while the majority of the Labour Party and the unions were anti-Europe and campaigned for a No vote.

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided it was best for his government to campaign to stay in Europe and found himself in the incredibly uncomfortable position of having a publicly divided cabinet and, indeed, his own ministers went on television to debate each other.

Pro-Europe Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and Industry Secretary Tony Benn, who was anti-Europe, appeared on Panorama in a tense head-to-head that saw eight million people tune in to watch.

Angela Rippon describes the similarities between the current campaign and the 1975 referendum as "spooky".

'Awful sweater'

She says: "In 1975 I was reading the news and reporting and I remember going out and talking to people on the streets. What was extraordinary was that they didn't have any better idea then than I think many people have now about what the main issues are and how we're going to vote."

Image caption Angela Rippon reading the news in 1978

Ms Rippon also recalls something that has stuck in many people's minds as their lasting image of the 1975 campaign.

She says: "I remember Margaret Thatcher's jumper, the one that had the flags of the nine nations that were at that time in the EEC, and I remember thinking where the devil did she get that awful sweater."

Image caption Margaret Thatcher campaigning for a yes vote in the 1975 referendum on Europe

Back in the present day we've seen prominent figures feel the pressure of major television debates this week. In 1975 one of the biggest dust-ups of the whole campaign took place in the august surroundings of the Oxford Union just two days before the referendum vote.

BBC television cameras were there and nine million people tuned in. Social Services Secretary Barbara Castle and former Prime Minister Ted Heath stepped up to that union dispatch box in a bid to win over the students and the country.

It all seems a little tame when you consider the 2016 referendum will see a live event at Wembley Arena with representatives of both sides of the EU debate questioned by voters. The only constant being David Dimbleby, who will present the programme alongside Mishal Husain and Emily Maitlis. However, despite the modern trend for grand venues, podiums and flashy graphics, viewing figures for political event television don't often hit the numbers that the 1975 campaign saw.

Image caption Barbara Castle addresses the Oxford Union

Although the audience at the Oxford Union wasn't representative of the general public, their "yes" vote was a precursor to the final decision of the UK.

On 5 June 1975 the British public said Yes to Europe by 67%. Every region of the UK voted Yes except Shetland and the Western Isles.

It was an emphatic win for the pro-Market campaign and particularly for Edward Heath who had taken Britain into Europe as Prime Minister in 1973.

Those who had campaigned for a No vote seemed to take the result with relatively good grace. Tony Benn said: "When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that's certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum."

Image caption The running order for 75 Not Out

Victorious Yes campaigner Roy Jenkins seemed to think the results put the question of Europe to bed. He said: "It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe."

Forty-one years later, as Britain goes to the polls again, the lessons from history show us that certainty over Europe is something we may never have.

You can watch 75 Not Out, a night of classic political television from the 1975 referendum, from 19:00 BST on Sunday 5 June on BBC Parliament.