Many Britons seem to believe that we consented to Britain’s entry into the European Union. This is not true.
People under the age today of 60 or so can have had no direct memory or involvement in the debate at the time. In the general election of June 1970, Edward Heath’s Conservative Party achieved a surprise victory. The issue of Britain’s entry into the EU was a marginal one during the campaign; the Conservative Manifesto promised that “our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less”. But in 1972, without further consultation of the British people, Heath’s government passed the European Communities Act 1972, which paved the way for British entry into the EC. The British people were not consulted.
In the Spring of 1974, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party confronted the Heath government at the subsequent general election. On 23 February 1974, Enoch Powell said in a speech: “This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate expressed in its own Parliament, or whether it will become one province in a new European superstate under institutions which know nothing of the political rights and liberties that we have so long taken for granted.” A lifelong Conservative, he campaigned for a victory for Labour.
Harold Wilson defeated the Conservatives, having pledged to renegotiate terms for Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EC. In the subsequent referendum, the British people voted for the status quo — continued membership — by a margin of 2:1. Those parliamentarians opposing continued membership were drawn from across the political spectrum, and included those most alive to the long tradition of parliamentary sovereignty: Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and others.