The last time Britain had a referendum on membership in the European construct was June 5, 1975.
Back then, it was known as the European Common Market and the European Community.
The late Labour MP Tony Benn — formerly Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the Viscount Stansgate — until he modified the former and renounced the latter, was hardly a political idol of mine. Therefore, my quoting him here is likely to be a one-off. I do so, however, because on the European project he made sense — then and now.
The Spectator has helpfully resurrected Benn’s letter to his constituents before the 1975 referendum took place. It is eloquently worded. It is a shame no one at The Spectator proofread it. It looks as if the letter has been scanned, because there are many punctuation errors that were, no doubt, absent from the original. I have made those corrections below.
I highly recommend the letter to my fellow Britons, whether they intend to vote Leave or Remain. Brief excerpts follow, emphases mine.
Benn’s letter begins as follows:
In 1975 you will each have the responsibility of deciding by vote whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Common Market or whether we should withdraw completely, and remain an independent self-governing nation. That decision, once taken will almost certainly be irreversible.
The next part enumerates five rights the British people enjoyed through parliamentary democracy: enabling us to vote leaders in or out; establishing our own laws and taxes without outside interference; having courts that judge according to our own laws; exercising accountability among Members of Parliament, therefore, by extension, to the British public and, finally, continuing peaceful change by MPs on behalf of the voters.
In short, the power of the electors of Britain, through their direct representatives in Parliament to make laws, levy taxes, change laws which the courts must uphold, and control the conduct of public affairs has been substantially ceded to the European Community whose Council of Ministers and Commission are neither collectively elected, nor collectively dismissed by the British people nor even by the peoples in all the Community countries put together.
These five rights have protected us in Britain from the worst abuse of power by government; safeguarded us against the excesses of bureaucracy; defended our basic liberties; offered us the prospect of peaceful change; reduced the risk of civil strife; and bound us together by creating a national framework of consent for all the laws under which we were governed. We have promised a ballot box decision because all these rights are important, and none should be abandoned without the explicit consent of the people.
… no one who votes [at] the ballot box should be in any doubt as to the effect British membership has had, and will increasingly continue to have, in removing the power the British people once enjoyed to govern themselves.
Having campaigned so long to win for you the right to have a referendum I am proud to serve in a government that has promised that the final decision will be made by all the electors through the ballot box …
The arguments presented to the British public that year led them to believe that the Common Market was a matter of trade only. Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Labour) had ‘renegotiated’ Britain’s position within the European Community. It is not surprising, therefore, that voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin that the UK should remain a member of the Common Market. You can read the content of the 1975 pamphlet here.
Since then, the number of member nations has increased from nine to 28. More will be added, possibly even Turkey, not historically considered to be in Europe geographically. Various treaties over the past quarter-century have changed the nature of membership. Consequently, British Prime Ministers have had to renegotiate aspects of our membership.
The Common Market and European Community became the European Union. With the EU came increased loss of national sovereignty, not only for the UK but also for other member nations. We are now subject to the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, both powerful and largely anonymous institutions which exercise increased power over every EU member state.
Tony Benn foresaw this.
I would urge every British voter to seriously consider his words and to read what he had to say in full.
We do not know how the EU will evolve in the next 12 months, the next decade or the next 40 years. As it is highly unlikely we will see another EU referendum in our lifetime, please think carefully about how you intend to vote in the upcoming referendum on June 23 and why you are doing so.