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Teesside a bellwether for national voting trend in 1975 European Referendum

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The Headline of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette on June 6, 1975 after Britain voted to remain in Europe

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“It’s January in June!” screamed the headline of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette on June 2, 1975 – the week of the last referendum on Europe. But if the elements seemed a little confused, the people of Teesside had no trouble making up their minds which way to vote, coming out by a two-to-one majority in favour of staying in what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC). By the time the result was through, summer was back and Prime Minister, Harold Wilson who – like David Cameron – had led the Yes campaign after undertaking a lengthy renegotiation with Brussels, was declaring victory on the steps of Downing Street. Teesside was to prove the bellwether region in the national vote with the result almost exactly mirroring the final outcome across the UK.

Given that some 41 years have passed since the last European referendum, many people living in Britain today will have never experienced the chance to have their say on the debate that will define Britain’s fate at the European, political table. But can a look back to the landscape of Teesside in 1975 provide an insight into likely voting trends this coming June? The archives of The Evening Gazette and the North East Film Archive reveal a fascinating understanding into public opinion in the North East prior to the last European referendum.

The question put before voters in the 1975 referendum was simple: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”

The table below outlines the breakdown of votes in Teesside (Cleveland) and the surrounding regions.

Cleveland voting 1975

The results of the 1975 referendum

Whereas the two regions book-ending Cleveland demonstrated significant sway from the national trend, Cleveland’s results fell within 0.1% of the national average, with 67.3% of people voting to remain a part of the ECC – a factor suggesting Teesside may once more prove a bellwether for British public opinion.

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On June 4, 1975, the Editor of The Evening Gazette encouraged people to fulfil their civic duty and vote in the referendum.

A journey back in time to the media debates in June, 1975 sheds light on the outcome, with everyone from Politicians to Vicars and newspaper Editors weighing in their views in an attempt to sway public opinion. Much of this paints a striking parallel to the current debates on show from both the pro and anti-European groups in contemporary Britain.

On June 2, 1975, the Business section of the Evening Gazette reported that “Job prospects at ICI would suffer if Britain decided to pull out of the Common Market, the company’s chairman, Mr. Rowland Wright, has warned employees.” Striking parallels are observable when compared with the current debates put forward, with The Evening Standard reporting last November that “’Brexit’ would lead to loss of 100,000 bank jobs”.

The 1975 “Yes” campaign was also reinforced from a somewhat unexpected source, the Rev. Geoffrey Hunter, vicar of Linthorpe, who the Evening Gazette reported as saying: “Europeanism is not to be lightly dismissed. Europe, with its unique amalgam of industrial and artistic endeavour, political freedom and Christian morality, arose out of the Biblical and Roman traditions.”

By contrast, Tony Benn, the 1975 Industry Secretary and father of current Labour MP for Leeds Central, Hilary Benn led the “No” campaign. On June 3, 1975, he wrote in The Evening Gazette: “Our final chance to say ‘No’. We must say no because if Britain stays in the market, we will lose the power to protect ourselves from high food prices, loss of jobs and unemployment.”

Hilary Benn is not following his father’s precedent, preferring to campaign to stay in the EU in June. In a blog post Mr Benn said: “We shouldn’t let frustration with some aspects of Europe result in our stumbling inadvertently towards the EU exit sign.

“The fact is, we have more power as a nation because we are in the EU than we could ever hope to have by acting alone.”

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Leeds Central MP, Hilary Benn pictured in 2008. Credit: Steve Punter, under license CC BY-SA 2.0 Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Hilary_Benn%2C_September_2008.jpg

Given the contemporary context, a somewhat ironic article is present on June 2, 1975, whereby “Cleveland Tory”, Councillor Ron Hall warned of a “‘Red’ Link-Up”, proclaiming that “those who criticised [Europe] were extreme Left-wing trade union officers with known Communist Party connections.” At present, of course, it is those planted in the right of politics who have severed a rift within the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, amongst others, defecting from the Prime Minister’s pro-European position.

A television news report provided by the North East Film Archive affirms the faction with the Labour party in 1975. The report from the Today at 6 programme, broadcast on Tyne Tees TV , encapsulated the debate within the North East context.

Doris Starkey, Labour Councillor and former Mayor of Newcastle (1978-79), championed the ‘No’ campaign, “the country belongs to us, the common people, not parliament,” she argued.

“It is not a common market, it is an aristocratic market – in the end, it is the majority vote of the common people and the workers that matters.”

Her views were not shared by fellow Labour party member, Richard Hoyle, a Magistrate from North Yorkshire, who led the ‘Yes’ campaign from a Newcastle base. By contrast, Mr Hoyle made it clear that he believed leaving the ECC would be bad for the working classes in the North East: “I think we have more to gain than the rest of the country [by staying in Europe.]

“They have only got to vote ‘Yes or No’ and I am hoping they will take the safe way out and vote ‘Yes’.”

Mr Hoyle did concede however, that the Labour party rift had created problems for the left, “we almost feel rather embarrassed, ourselves” he said, when asked to reflect on the mood within the Labour camp.

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Conservative Councillor Ron Hall, warned of the links between the anti-European Campaign and the Communists

Meanwhile, in the regional print media The Evening Gazette opted to sit on the fence when it came to editorial comment, “Nothing could be worse for Britain than a low poll with a tiny majority one way or another. For all our sakes a decisive answer is essential,” said the Editor, the day before the referendum.

He continued: “It is the Editor’s policy of this Independent newspaper that The Gazette will not play politics.”

Come June 7, 1975 after voters had made their desire to stay in the EU clear with an emphatic majority, the emphasis shifted towards the future. “Europe: ‘Get in and win’ says Tees MP” headlined The Evening Gazette’s title page. Mr Ian Wrigglesworth, Labour MP for Teesside is quoted as saying: “The result was good news for Teesside’s major industries” – a statement that would undoubtedly raise questions today, in light of the recent closure of the SSI steelworks in Redcar.

Elsewhere, Prime Minister, Harold Wilson said the result signalled the time for us to “get down to the task of making Britain strong.”

After the referendum, The Gazette reported that the weather had taken a significant turn for the better, with “flaming June” finally arriving. Has the sun shone on Britain’s membership of the EU ever since and would leaving truly be a “leap in the dark” as David Cameron has claimed? That’s for you to decide on June 23, 2016.

An opinion poll conducted by The Gazette  last month outlines that 67.2% of people intend to vote to leave the EU, with only 30.7% backing the “In” Campaign.

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The results of a poll on gazettelive.co.uk

Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research explained the reasons behind the distrust over Europe. He said: “Britain is as sceptical about Europe as it has ever been, feelings that seem to be largely driven by concerns about the impact the EU is having on the nation’s identity and cultural life, not least as a result of high levels of EU immigration.

“However, for most people on its own this scepticism is not enough to warrant leaving the EU. The Leave campaign evidently needs to persuade more voters of its economic arguments, while Remain has to assure voters that the economic advantages of membership are worth putting up with interference from Brussels.”

If Teesside truly proves a bellwether for national opinion once more, significant political and economic changes may be on the horizon.

More information about the 1975 referendum can be found in the video below:

 

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