Britain in Europe: The Selling Point

The cross-party ethos on which the Britain in Europe movement (BIE) was founded may have seemed an obstacle at first glance due to the sheer range of interests on different issues that it had to appeal to. Yet in the 1975 EEC membership referendum it managed to produce an overwhelming victory, with the electorate remaining more or less 67% in favour of membership throughout the campaign. With all the potential problems a cross-party ethos may throw up, one must ask how the BIE achieved such a comprehensive victory.

Ernest Wistrich, the mastermind behind the BIE machine, realised that as long as different messages were addressed to different audiences, the BIE would be able to take advantage of the wider audience a cross-party ethos has to offer. With this in mind, the movement adopted several different campaign themes in order to tailor its message to specific audiences.

Robert Saunders has argued that the most prominent of these were ‘thoughtful themes’, those more focused on abstract issues such as sovereignty and peace. Particularly dominant in the opening and closing stages of the campaign, this angle stressed ‘Europe’ as a cross-generational cause, the onus being placed on the youth of today to rectify the injustices of the old world. The desire for Britain to keep peace with its neighbours was also emphasised as memories of the horrors of WW2 provided the political context in which campaigning took place.

BIE also recognised the importance of portraying membership not as a bleak bureaucratic obligation but rather as a modernising project that could mark the beginning of a national revival in the form of renewed self-confidence in terms of its place on the world stage.

Yet on some occasions the aforementioned approaches were deemed too abstract to sway voting intentions, with some within the BIE such as Roy Jenkins favouring to address the more concrete ‘bread and butter’ issues such as jobs, food prices and social policy. However, the rhetoric when addressing these issues was much more ominous as it focused not on what membership could provide but rather what leaving would threaten, heavily emphasising that Britain could not survive outside the EEC. It painted a dismal picture of Britain outside the Community and had particular resonance with traditional Labour voters in the depressing economic climate of the time.

Stemming from the menacing undertones of this more hard-hitting approach was the portrayal of the European debate as a fight for democracy itself. On one side was the moderate majority of British politics supporting a ‘Yes’ vote. On the other were the political extremists whose desire for a ‘No’ vote was shared by the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the threat of Communism was increasingly stressed in BIE advertising, and Antis (particularly Tony Benn) were derided as communist sympathisers, or as Richard Body termed – ‘fellow travellers’.

The BIE perhaps found more success in stressing its economic message and the ramifications a ‘No’ vote would create, and as a result were less keen to do so with the political issues surrounding the European debate. Where it did, ‘soft’ and abstract issues such as peace were accentuated, while the more significant ones of sovereignty and federalist sentiment were deliberately omitted out of fear that it would lead to a significant reduction in the amount of support they had.

Leave a Reply