Lawyers were urged to give ‘reassurance’ in the last European membership referendum.
‘You will be inundated by questions from clients. Here are some of the reasons stated simply and clearly why you, and they, should vote and vote YES.’
So an advertisement from a group called Lawyers for Europe opened its case in the Law Society’s Gazette of 41 years ago this month – the last time the British people voted on membership of the European community, then usually labelled, even officially, ‘the common market’.
The full-page ad lists 17 reasons. Some have dated like a seventies sitcom. Not many EU enthusiasts today would enthuse that the common agricultural policy ‘stabilises prices, supports farmers, and guarantees supplies’. However other 1975 arguments for voting yes have a familiar ring: ‘Vital legal decisions will be made in the European community which will affect all of us, whether we are members of the community or not.’
The 1975 yes campaign's main fear, however, seems to have been voter apathy. The advertisement's first three points deal specifically with this, starting with the sentiment: ‘Lawyers should be leaders in all communities.’
We then move on to an argument which has yet to surface in the 2016 campaign: ‘The United Kingdom entered into a treaty. Treaties should be kept.’
Next come four points dealing specifically with EEC law, specifically ‘the harmonisation of commercial law’. Point seven stresses that ‘practising lawyers and judges from the United Kingdom are playing an important role in the development of the community and community law. These contributions must continue to be made’.
There is no explicit mention of the European Court of Justice. However point nine deals with the question of sovereignty, which had been raised many times in the Gazette’s letters pages that year. In a tone which comes over as a trifle paternalistic to modern ears, it advises: ‘Some people in this country want to be reassured that sovereignty and basic freedoms will not be threatened if we stay in the community. Lawyers better than anyone can give that reassurance by declaring publicly that they will vote YES.’
We then move on to what in 2016 would be called ‘Project Fear’. Less than three years into the community, the legal consequences of leaving are already ‘daunting’, the advertisement warns, with no guarantee of negotiating a replacement free trade area. Withdrawal would also hit the general right to work in any member state, along with foreign investment and UK investments in ‘Europe’.
Point 16 is the agricultural one, noting that the UK produces only 55% of its food. (The mid-1970s may have been when McDonald’s arrived in the UK, but it was still an era when anyone leaving uneaten food on a plate would invite a lecture on rationing.) Unsurprisingly, the advertisement makes no attempt to defend the common fisheries policy, then a topic of huge controversy and, of course, the issue over which the ECJ's supremacy over parliament-made law, in the shape of the Merchant Shipping Act, would in due course be affirmed.
On 23 June we will be voting not for 2016 but for the decades to come
Finally, the peroration. Point 17 declaims that the European community ‘is already a great influence for peace, civilisation and stability in a troubled world. With our Fellow Europeans (capital letters in original), we can make this community strong and prosperous for the future happiness of all our people and for that of the many developing countries with whom it is in association.’
We can argue today about the association with the ‘developing countries’, especially with regard to agricultural tariffs, but the impact of the sentiments about ‘peace, civilisation and stability’ should not be overlooked. In 1975 Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain and run by men who had spent part of their youth in uniform, in concentration camps, or in the UK prime minister's case, at the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
That summer, I hitchhiked through Germany and Austria en route to Istanbul, accepting rides from white-haired Mercedes drivers who would detour to show me where the RAF had done its work in 1944 and how a new Europe had emerged from the ashes.
It stirred the blood.
It still does, even more so now the tank traps at the border with the Eastern Bloc are gone. But that first Europe referendum is further away from us now than Hitler was to 1975. We know how it turned out: perhaps lawyers ‘inundated with questions’ helped drum up the two-thirds yes vote.
But my point of hauling up the 1975 campaign arguments is not just nostalgia, it’s a reminder that on 23 June we will be voting not for 2016 but for the decades to come. If any 19-year-olds are reading this, be assured that the next 41 years will pass quickly enough.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor