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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 June, 2005, 06:26 GMT 07:26 UK
How Britain first fell for Europe
By Michael Cockerell
BBC News

Woman reads pro-Europe newspaper
All newspapers backed the Yes campaign in 1975
When Jack Straw stands up in the Commons on Monday - with all the commentators predicting he will announce the shelving of the referendum on the European Constitution - he will be doing so on an historic anniversary.

For 6 June is exactly 30 years to the day since the votes were counted in the only nationwide referendum the British people have ever had on Europe.

The choice was whether or not Britain should stay in the European Common Market, having joined just two years earlier. To start with, two-thirds of the public wanted Britain out, but by end the figures were exactly reversed.

So how did this remarkable transformation come about? It's a tragi-comic tale of high politics and low cunning that yoked together the strangest of bedfellows.

It was rather like tip-toeing into a brothel
Lord Hurd

From the start of the campaign it was clear that there was nothing like a balance of power between the two sides.

The Yes campaign was well staffed, well funded and well organised and consisted of like-minded people from the centre ground of the three main parties - Tories, Labour and Liberals.

The No campaign by contrast was far less compatible. It came largely from the Left wing of the Labour Party, the Right wing of the Tories and the far fringes beyond from the National Front to the Communist party. And they had minimal resources.

"We were operating on a shoe-string compared to the Rolls Royce operation on the other side," recalled John Mills, national agent of the No campaign.

'Slightly daring'

The leader of the Yes campaign was the Europhile Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins. He was delighted to share public platforms with top Tories and Liberals.

"Of course we didn't know each other very well to start with," said the former Conservative minister Douglas Hurd. "There was a slightly daring feel about working together with people who were normally your political enemies.

"It was rather like tip-toeing into a brothel. You felt that you were doing something which might or might not be pleasant but was certainly rather risque."

Mrs Thatcher in her Yes sweater
The Yes campaign won 67% of the vote 30 years ago
The No campaign eschewed such dangerous liaisons.

And the fact that leading anti-Marketeers included such figures as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Dr Ian Paisley played into the hands of the pro-Europeans' strategy.

"The whole thrust of our campaign was to depict the anti-Marketeers as unreliable people - dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path," said the Yes campaign treasurer, Lord McAlpine.

"It wasn't so much that it was sensible to stay in, but that anybody who proposed that we came out was off their rocker or virtually Marxist."

I put this point to Tony Benn, who was then Labour's industry minister - saying that opinion polls at the time all gave a negative rating to the leading No campaigners like himself and Powell - while the Yes men all had a positive rating.

"If you haven't got a single newspaper supporting you, you don't expect good coverage," he said. "It's quite straightforward - nothing strange about it."

Margaret Thatcher has now come round to my view
Tony Benn
Tony Benn had a point. Thirty years ago all the press was pro-Europe, including Rupert Murdoch's Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

It was a world turned on its head. At the time one of the leading pro-Marketeers was the newly-elected leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher.

She turned out in a sweater made up from the flags of all the nine Common market countries and called for "a big Yes vote for Europe".

When the referendum votes were counted 30 years ago, it was clear the well-oiled Yes machine had succeeded in dramatically transforming public opinion.

Constitution vote

So how does Tony Benn see things now?

"You have to make your case - and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But in the sense that Margaret Thatcher has now come round to my view, Rupert Murdoch has now come round to my view, it wasn't unsuccessful, was it?"

Back in 1975, the combined forces of the political Establishment, the national press and a sophisticated marketing campaign persuaded a doubtful public of the case for saying Yes.

But in 2005 would a sceptical, if not cynical, British public be convinced in the same way?

The governments of France and the Netherlands failed spectacularly to secure a Yes verdict, despite having similar apparent advantages. And Tony Blair's government clearly has no appetite to share their experience.

Michael Cockerell's film "How We Fell for Europe" was broadcast on BBC Two at 20:25BST on Saturday, 4 June, 2005.

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