From the archives: Britain says yes! – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise17th November 2018
No, not to Theresa May’s Brexit deal where the divisions are deep. But to the 1975 Referendum on the Common Market. In AEI’s At the Polls series, the late Anthony King, one of Britain’s most highly regarded political scientists and an AEI adjunct scholar, described in vivid detail the process through which the British people went to the polls on June 5, 1975 to decide the single issue of whether or not the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Community (EC). The first national referendum to be held in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of the nation participated with 67 percent voting in favor of remaining within the EC.
King’s book describes how this major constitutional innovation in a country without a tradition of direct democracy came about. For years prior to 1975, opinion polls showed that a majority of Brits were hostile to membership. Yet, on decision day, they voted two-to-one in favor. England voted “yes” as did Wales, Scotland, and even Northern Ireland (by a narrow margin).
The vote was uniform across the country and in most demographic groups, although Conservatives were more in favor than Labour. King wrote that the chief consequence of the referendum was that it made it more likely that referenda would be held in the future, although another nationwide referendum would not happen for 36 years. The “anti-Europeans” suffered a severe loss of credibility in Britain in 1975. AEI’s “Britain Say Yes!” is not dry political science but a riveting account of the internal and external politics surrounding the vote.
Fast forward to today. In a recent AEIdeas blog post, scholars Michael R. Strain and Dalibor Rohac rehearse the arguments on the agreement Theresa May negotiated, writing:
However vague and contradictory the promises made by the Leave campaign were, a chaotic or poorly structured Brexit and the possibility of Mr. Corbyn’s premiership are not what Tory Euroskeptics had in mind. But if those are the only options, then they should admit that Brexit has been a failure, and return the decision to the people. The irony is palpable: Though there should never have been a referendum two years ago, today a second one is the least bad option on the table.
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