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UK Prime Minister Edward Heath signs the UK's accession treaty to the EEC at a table surrounded by other men

Looking back: The Common Market Referendum

The United Kingdom held its first-ever nationwide referendum in 1975.

This referendum, the Common Market Referendum, asked voters whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Economic Community (EEC).

The UK did not hold a referendum before joining the EEC in 1973. The issue of membership was debated intensely and, in the UK’s 1974 General Election, the Labour Party won a majority and Harold Wilson became Prime Minister.

One of Labour’s manifesto commitments was to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the EEC and to hold a referendum on the question.

The referendum took place on 5 June 1975. The result was: 67% to stay in and 33% to leave, on a turnout of 65%.

There are some comparisons we can make between the Common Market Referendum in 1975 and the EU referendum in 2016:

  • Both referendums followed pledges made in a General Election campaign, in which the winning party secured a parliamentary majority. Both votes were preceded by a renegotiation of the UK’s EEC/EU membership.

  • In both referendum campaigns, cabinet collective responsibility was suspended on the issue. This means that government ministers are allowed to express their individual views and take either side of the debate (instead of following the government line).

  • The UK is the only EU member to have renegotiated its membership and held a referendum on the specific question of staying in or leaving the EU – twice.

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Towards Brexit? The UK's EU Referendum

The University of Edinburgh