EU referendum: Looking back at Islington’s role in the 1975 vote
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The year was 1975. The Bay City Rollers topped the charts with Bye Bye Baby as Margaret Thatcher was elected as the first woman leader of the Conservative Party. Overseas, the Vietnam War was coming to an end after nearly 20 years of brutal violence, and in London, 43 people were tragically killed in the Moorgate Tube crash, in the biggest loss of life on the Underground in peacetime Britain.
But 1975 is notable for one other reason: it was the last time Britain voted on its membership of the EU.
That’s right. Before anyone had even heard of Jeremy Corbyn, Europe was on the agenda. With the economy tanking and inflation running rampant, many saw leaving the European Economic Community (as it was called back then) as the solution to our problems.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson found himself in much the same position as David Cameron did 12 months ago: with a party divided over Europe, with large portions demanding a referendum on European membership. So Labour campaigned in the issue in the 1974 general election and, after winning, delivered the referendum it had promised.
And when campaigning began, Islington found itself as one of the main hotspots of the debate.
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Tempers flared on March 25 as 400 members of the National Front, a far-right movement that reached its peak in the 1970s, marched through the borough with placards and banners in protest at closer ties with Europe.
They were met outside Islington Town Hall by 300 counter protestors who, although cordoned off from the march, made their voices heard with chants and placards of their own.
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In April, Labour hosted a special conference on Europe at the Sobell centre in Islington. Michael Foot made the concluding speech, with quotes from Nye Bevan and Thomas Rainsborough, urging his party to choose leave in the upcoming vote.
It seems there’s always been a divide between pro- and anti-EU forces in the borough, then.
Yet local man Rodney Trott, 84, who now lives at Lennox House care home in Finsbury, says it’s always been quite simple to him.
“Ever since I can remember, the majority of people I’ve heard wanting to leave have wanted to do so for their own advantage, whereas the majority of people wanting to stay are doing it from the point of view of making the world a better place,” he tells the Gazette.
“In 1975 I didn’t really have any feelings about the EU at all. We were brought up with it, and I can’t think of what it would be like outside.”
This was a view shared by the majority of people at the time. While turnout was relatively low at 65 per cent, two in every three people voted to remain in the EU.
But it is those people eligible to vote in the last referendum that are now most likely to leave, with 56pc of over-60s now wanting a Brexit. So what’s changed?
“I think far more people are worried about immigration now than they were before, and I can understand why,” says Rodney.
“But although the EU is a bit of a nuisance at times, we’re better off for it. People are saying ‘we want to do our own thing’, but for a small country we do our own thing enough of the time anyway!”
Since the 1975 referendum, Islington has enjoyed a mixed relationship with the EU. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the seat in 1981 he was famously anti-European, yet has been pro-Europe in the lead up to today. No one appears to be able to make up their mind ahead of today’s vote.