Referendum: Truly bizarre

After Doctor Who (first one we’d seen for four weeks due to travelling) we happened to catch a fascinating documentary about the British referendum on staying in Europe, thirty years ago tomorrow.

I think the referendum is actually the first political vote I remember. I don’t remember either of the 1974 elections (and we were in America for the first of them) or the long-forgotten Constitutional Convention elected on 1 May 1975 in Northern Ireland. But I think I actually put “Yes” campaign stickers on my schoolbag. Not a big deal, of course; most of the middle-class South Belfast Catholic population would have been in favour of Europe then, probably even more so now.

Most of the politicians featured in the documentary were as I remember them; Jenkins if anything more effective than in the 1980s, Shirley Williams (the only one of them who I’ve actually met) as ever, Douglas Hurd looking more reasonable then than he did in later life. On the anti-Europe side, Tony Benn still seems to embody the concept of being a “swivel-eyed loon”, and Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, Peter Shore, all utterly mad. The one who surprised me there was Barbara Castle, who I remember from the 1980s (when she had basically retired) as a much more sane person. I guess she took defeat gracefully.

But the utterly brain-melting moment was that on the day before the referendum, a Youth Vigil For Peace in favour of a united Europe was held outside Parliament at Westminster. And the keynote speaker, in a fantastic sweatshirt showing all nine flags of the European member states stretched tightly across her chest, was


it is not possible

Margaret Thatcher, then the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, and completely in favour of European unity.

As someone once said, it’s a funny old world.

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