The last referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community (now the EU) was in 1975. And 1975 was another country.
I learned this salutary fact when watching a very useful evening of television from that year on the BBC Parliament Channel last night. The Seventies have been trashed in recent times as part of the Thatcherite, and the the neoliberal project to erase all memory of social democracy, Keynesianism and the welfare state. The Dominic Sandbrook view has prevailed; that the era was one of national decline, public squalor, pompous prog rock, and bad fashion. But that wasn’t really what I saw last night on my holiday in 1975.
First of all, let’s take the referendum campaign of 1975. A long Panorama programme was devoted to a discussion between the ‘out’ campaigner, Tony Benn, and the European idealist, Roy Jenkins, then both Cabinet colleagues. The Sandbrookites tell us that the atmosphere between the Labour right, exemplified by Jenkins, who would go on to found the Social Democratic Party, one of the forerunners of the Lib Dems, and the Labour ‘hard’ left represented by Tony Benn was poisonous. And that that poison would keep Labour out of power for eighteen years until the blessed Tony Blair embraced the great god ‘Markets’. Well, it didn’t look much like that to me.
From the midst of the 2016 referendum, a noisy confection of post-truth junk politics, the 1975 debate takes on the air of the senior common room. David Dimbleby, the chair of the debate, looked in reality like an undergraduate caught between two professors. He scarcely said a word. Jenkins and Benn were entirely capable of discussing the issue without any mediation by a journalist. Neither man raised his voice, talked over the other, or was anything other than polite. Yet the discussion was robust, based upon mutually agreed facts and anchored by positions of principle.
Contrast that with the witless nonsense that passes for ‘discussion’ today. Indeed, contrast it with the arguments about the format for TV debates, squabbles about who will, or will not appear with whom, and the rest of it. In 1975 they simply explained their positions, engaged in a proper argument, and let the voters decide for themselves.
And that might have been it, had I seen nothing but the Panorama programme. But there was more.
A debate filmed in the Oxford Union shocked me. Barbara Castle was one of the speakers (for the ‘out’ side). A previous speaker, Jeremy Thorpe, had made reference to his own time as President of the Oxford Union. Castle, anticipating a hostile audience, and plainly a little nervous, went into fight, not flight mode. She opened by saying that when she was an Oxford undergraduate, women weren’t even allowed to become members of the Union.
For if the current referendum noise is dominated by Tory men, in 1975 merely being a woman in politics and public life was a challenge on a scale unimaginable now. Castle was fiery, witty, determined, but also unmistakably besieged. When women with opinions get flamed on social media these days (we all do), it’s a minor comfort to think that one’s attackers are losers hiding behind screens. Castle had to take all the crap up close and personal. (I should add that I was tweeting as I watched this. Another person on Twitter – Matthew Bailey – responded with what I think was a photograph of a page from Castle’s diary indicating that she was indeed rattled.)
She wasn’t alone. The interviews with Margaret Thatcher from 1975 also revealed quite a vulnerable woman, confident in her views, but far from the Iron Lady of later repute. Thatcher had just beaten Ted Heath to the Tory leadership; an act of chutzpah that appalled the patricians who had for so long dominated Conservatism. What came to mind as I watched Thatcher’s interview, and other aspects of the media treatment of her in 1975, was Jeremy Corbyn.
That’s right. As with Corbyn, the political Establishment, including the media, was incredulous. How could a serious political party elect a woman as leader? She didn’t look like a leader, sound like a leader, command respect like a proper leader. The condescension was palpable. I’m not saying that Corbyn will ‘do a Thatcher’ and win the next election, going on to become the dominant figure in British politics, but I am saying that there are some surprising parallels.
There are very few ways in which the 1975 referendum compares to that of 2016. It was called for the same reason – internal party management problems besetting the Prime Minister. But in all other respects we are in another time and another place.
Our politics today has become like our financial services, dependent on algorithms, number-crunching, and, crucially, bare faced misselling. PPI politics, cynical and shoddy. Sub-prime politicians, taking us for fools. I’ve no nostalgia to return to the misogyny, racism, homophobia and myriad other unfairnesses of the 1970s. But I wouldn’t mind a bit more of its seriousness, and willingness to argue politics intelligently, from principle, and without a focus group in sight.