Hopeless, But Not Serious

While Britain was gearing up for its referendum on EEC membership in 1975, somewhere near the Iron Curtain, politics in Austria was dominated by one man: Bruno Kreisky.

As head of the Socialist Democratic Party and Chancellor for much of the decade, Kreisky’s personal appeal, fuelled by the campaign slogan “Kreisky – who else?” (culturally appropriated much later by a multinational conglomerate flogging coffee), was central to centre left success in Austria through the 1970s. Although to be fair, like West Germany to the west (and unlike the sick man of Europe even more to the west, Britain) a booming economy, political consensus, and the stability of the social partnership certainly ensured electoral longevity.

This meant Kreisky’s governments could sweep in widespread reforms, including employee benefits, equalisation of the rights between the sexes (never too late) and it seems a cut in the working week to forty hours. Indeed, historians are not sure about this but the famous “Wiener Freitag” – an enshrined informal piece of legislation where you knock off from work on a Friday just after lunch – is also assumed to have become the norm around this time. They also tinkered with “Wehrdienst” (military service, the most feared compound noun amongst teenage boys in the German speaking world) reducing it from nine to six months. (In Britain, although it was abolished in 1961, this was known as “national service”, a golden age of youth discipline, no foreigners and freezing cold homes.) All in all, such was the transformative and lasting impact of the 1970s in Austria, that many people to this day still wear the same fashion and insist on listening to the same music.

Meanwhile, over in Vienna, a little bit further from the Iron Curtain, but not much, three big events in the 1970s stood out: first it witnessed the arrival of the U-bahn (underground) in 1978, although why the city planners of the day decided to build it from Karlsplatz in the centre towards Reumannplatz in the south is still unclear. Presumably motivated by some pesky municipal visionary obsessed with urban renewal (this really took 40 years and even then I am not sure about the efficacy of what ensued). But until the expansion in 2018, it was commonly known as the Bronx Connection and if you know this then more than anything, you are a true honorary Wiener.

Second, was the construction of Vienna International Centre between 1973 and 1979. Its most famous tenants are the United Nations (one of four main offices worldwide) and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and in total about five thousand people work at the site (never on Friday afternoons: see above). In international stuff it is considered an “extraterritoriality” meaning it is exempt from the jurisdiction of local law although in practise I am not sure what this means. But other examples include diplomatic missions, Antarctica and the Moon, which is good to know if you are planning on hitching a ride with a billionaire online grocer.  

But arguably the biggest news story of the decade, which also took place in the same year of the UK referendum, was just before Christmas in 1975. No, Vienna didn’t run out of Punsch but six terrorists, led by the infamous Carlos the Jackal, thought it would be a good idea to attack the OPEC headquarters (in Vienna since 1965) and take more than sixty people hostage. The siege ended two days later with the terrorists fleeing to north Africa on specially charted flights and although all the hostages walked free, one police officer and an OPEC security guard were not so lucky. To this day, however, walk past the OPEC building in the first district, it is adjacent to the Das Haus der Europaischen Union (just saying), and you will see an army guard outside where everybody congregates for a cigarette. Indeed, if you are lucky, when the oil barons are in town it is also amusing to observe many of the security personnel having their lunch at the nearby sausage stand on the Wipplingerstrasse just near the park.

Talking of chilled meat products, I don’t remember the EEC referendum of 1975 as I was too busy trying to get to grips with the regulatory challenges of primary school. In any case, much like then, more than forty years later, the narrative surrounding the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the decision to leave the EU is inextricably reliant on the much-repeated premise that the argument has been made and the people have decided. That lemon has been sucked dry, we are told and it is time to move on and embrace the future (and not embrace the past which in truth is the very essence of Brexit). It is a sentiment we hear from both Conservative and Labour factions in Britain and although it is unpalatable, the reality is quite simple: we have an almost unworkable Brexit deal and Britain is a “third country” (soon to be third world country which is ironic because this was one of the fears in the 1970s if Britain DIDN’T become part of the club).

That said, we are where we are, is what I think we used to say, and certainly, from where I am sitting, receipt of my Austrian ten-year Brexit visa seemed like a befitting moment in which to accept this truth and hope Mrs ViennaDad was joking about withdrawing her patronage. So, with this depressing thought in mind, one question remained: how long did it take the original “no” campaigners (no to EEC membership in 1975) to accept the UK was going to be part of the Community? In other words, when did liberation set in and the whinging cease?

When Edward Heath took Britain into the EEC in 1973, the Labour leader Harald Wilson initially refused to support him. Indeed, at the 1974 Labour conference, the party voted to withdraw from the EEC as it was then called, although Wilson was later happy to back a national referendum giving the people the right to decide. It may surprise some readers to hear this but this antagonism to the European project was as much rooted in “exceptionalism” as it was 40 years later during the Brexit campaign. A belief, alive and well in 1970s Britain, that the nation was different and destined to steer its own course free from “continental entanglements” (I have had a few of those). The only difference to 2016 was that the “out” groups in 1975 were dominated by the hard left and the unions, fronted by the “Minister of Fear”, Tony Benn, and his colleague and eventual Labour leader in the disastrous 1983 election, Michael Foot.

So why did Wilson eventually back a referendum? The reason according to the sources was one of simple pragmatism; Wilson’s party was deeply divided on the issue and thus he saw it as a way towards consensus and effectively putting the issue to bed (ring any bells?). In fact, it was only later, once back in power that he promised to get behind the “yes” vote if he could renegotiate the Community budget terms agreed by Heath (ring any more bells?). Which he did, although apparently the terms were not entirely clear. In any case, Wilson’s sense (like Thatcher later) was that as long as the UK remained a member, it could shape its future direction and prevent any attempts at federalism. More so, because as the minutes of cabinet noted at the time, if Britain did leave, the British people might be misled into taking the view that it remained a major player in its own right (recurring delusion number one).  

The referendum (the first in UK history) was held on the 5th June 1975 with the simple question: Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community?” Interestingly, and this is where the world turns upside down, the Conservatives, led my Thatcher, were overwhelmingly pro-European, arguing that Europe’s future depended on working together on trade, work and social issues. In fact, as she said at the time, “We are inextricably part of Europe. Neither Mr Foot nor Mr Benn nor anyone else will ever be able to take us out of Europe, for Europe is where we are and where we have always been.” (You heard it here, Boomers!)

But it was Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, who was the biggest European cheerleader who famously quipped – in 1975 – that Eurosceptic talk of sovereignty would only make sense if “the Royal Navy ruled the waves and gunboats could be dispatched anywhere in the world” (recurring delusion number 2). And he should know. He was an expert yachtsman.

Across the aisle, the “no” campaign was a wonderfully eclectic bunch. The Communists, the National Front, the IRA, the Orange Order, and, it seems, Paul McCartney. And bafflingly of all, given the change of fortunes in the twenty-first century, pro-European sentiment was weakest in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and, get this, strongest in affluent Conservative constituencies.

In the end, turnout was 65 per cent and 67 per cent had voted to stay in Europe with every county and region in the UK recording a yes vote. And the explanation may give strategists pause for thought in 2021 because the vote to stay in the Community was overwhelmingly Conservative with the Labour supporters – many who now live in Brexit constituencies – divided right down the middle.

The result may have “settled” membership for the next four decades, but Benn and his mates didn’t go quietly. Indeed, eight years on during the 1983 election – with ally Michael Foot now as leader – it was again Labour policy to leave the EEC and was only shelved with a crushing defeat at the polls and a change of direction in leadership under Neil Kinnock (who then carelessly lost two elections).

As for Thatcher, Europe was simply a conduit for exercising statecraft and her patriotic credentials. Essentially playing hardball with her European partners and obsessed with getting a good budgetary deal for Britain (which she did). Some of the reasons for this were to deflect from her apparent unpopularity at home and economic woes but at heart it was about being part of a bigger project where Britain could shape and influence the institutions and legislation to the advantage of Britain, in a sense a British economic vison for Europe. But the thought of leaving the EU as it was to become known, was inconceivable.  

So why did the explicitly anti-European parties eventually emerge in the 90s? The root is unquestionably the Maastricht Treaty which laid the foundation of closer EU integration, enlargement and the Euro. Although John Major, Thatcher’s successor favoured “subsidiarity” which effectively meant important decisions should be taken at a national rather then EU level, he was staunchly pro-European, although secured opt-outs from the single currency and the Social Chapter (early evidence that Britain already had a favorable deal).

However, Major could talk up Europe all he wanted because he was not expected to win the 1992 general election when ratification would taken place. But win he did prompted, some have argued, by the legendary headline in The Sun: “If Kinnock Wins Today Will The Last Person in Britain Please Turn Out The Lights”. Crucially, the sources tell us that Europe was not an issue in 1992 but for now, seventeen years after the referendum to stay in the EEC, the Conservative parliamentary party had endorsed the treaty sending a clear message about the UK’s future role in European affairs. And with the rise of the Blair years and a resolutely pro-European agenda, any discussion about Britain’s membership of the EU was about as likely as an English football team winning a penalty shoot out (at the time, at the time).

Yet, not far away, Maastricht had spooked some on the right (and left) and it is here that the encroaching menace that became arguments about sovereignty and eventually the “taking back control” mantra in 2016 were seeded. UKIP came in 1993 (originally it was called the Anti-Federalist League formed in 1991 with the specific aim to reject Maastricht), closely followed by the Referendum Party in 1994 (sole objective was for a referendum on UK membership of the EU) which was eventually consumed by Farage and his goblins. And we all know how that ended.

So, there it is. The situation seems hopeless, but in true Viennese fashion, not serious (thank you Alfred Polgar). All it means is no more beefing about Brexit until 2032. Just in time to renew my visa.  

© 2021 RJ Barratt

Note: Most of the source reading concerning the 1975 referendum, and the indirect/direct quotes, are derived from the excellent book “Seasons in the Sun” by the historian Dominic Sandbrook.