The 40-Year “Neverendum” on the UK’s Relationship with Europe

  • Andrew Glencross
Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics book series (PSEUP)


This chapter examines continuities in British Euroscepticism that after the 1975 referendum on EEC membership resulted in a 40-year “neverendum”. The UK approach to European integration is characterized by a pragmatic and utilitarian element – stripped of a normative commitment to a European ideal of ever closer union. Calls for a new vote on EU membership came to prominence precisely as an extension of British elites’ exceptionalist position towards integration. Evidence from voting behaviour in other EU referendums is examined to show the difficulty facing the pro-EU camp in the UK. The risks of a Brexit vote were compounded by the current salience of immigration in UK politics, a factor not pertinent during the 1975 referendum.


Neverendum British exceptionalism Euroscepticism EEC referendum Politicization 

Introduction: A Tale of British Exceptionalism

Citizens and politicians around the globe like to think of their own state as exceptional. It’s a comforting thought and one that is intimately linked to the notion of an “imagined community” which is at the heart of modern nationalism (Anderson 1983). The nation-state has its origins in the principle that its people share certain common features, notably language, ethnicity, religion, culture, or values, so it is not surprising that many countries like to believe they are unique. But in saying that British Euroscepticism is a mark of British exceptionalism towards European integration I do not mean that the UK is somehow exceptionally nationalist. Rather, the argument is that the British debate over Europe – led by political elites – is different compared with the mainstream Western European tradition.

At first glance the UK does look anomalous amongst EU countries. It chose to opt out of the euro and the Schengen open-border arrangement. Britain’s political economy also makes it stand out: its consistently large trade deficit is compensated by equally large capital inflows. This means financial services – namely the City of London – are politically very influential and dominate the economic aspect of relations with the EU. However, the nature of British exceptionalism within the EU runs deeper than just structural or institutional factors, as this chapter will demonstrate. In particular, I will show that what is exceptional in how Britain approaches European integration is that it does so purely as a pragmatic and utilitarian foreign policy stripped of a normative commitment to a European ideal of ever closer union.

The failure to perceive sufficient benefits from pooling sovereignty is why in the 1950s the UK remained aloof from the original Franco-German project for European unity (Dinan 2004). The political history of British exceptionalism casts a long shadow as it further explains why in 2016 the UK, alone amongst its EU peers, held a referendum on staying in the club. The very call for a referendum to determine Britain’s EU status was a statement of an exceptionalist attitude premised on the idea that Britain could simply walk away from a federalizing EU with no deleterious consequences. The referendum gambit thus evoked an inherent sense of superiority.

In fact, this was the second time that British politicians asked the people to decide the country’s relationship with Europe, for in 1975 there was a referendum on whether to stay in the EEC. Yet the outcome of the previous vote – merely two years after the UK joined the EEC – was a clear two-thirds majority (on a turnout of 65 %) for staying in. So why, 40 years later, did the demand for a referendum arise anew and how can the somewhat forgotten 1975 episode be compared with the 2016 vote on the EU?

Tellingly, James Callaghan, who as Foreign Secretary oversaw the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership prior to the 1975 referendum, understood the EEC as a “business arrangement” (Wall 2013: 516). It is precisely this accountant’s mindset about calculating the costs and benefits of pooling powers with other European countries that held sway in British politics into 2016. From this utilitarian perspective, criticism of the balance between the costs and benefits of integration relates not just to recent developments such as the politicization of intra-EU migration in the decade before 2016 (Gifford 2014). Rather, there is a significant continuity in the Euroscepticism found in contemporary British politics in that complaints about the detrimental impact of the EU centred on core first principles of European integration as much as on continued moves towards greater political union (Glencross 2015a). Once the debate was framed in this way, advocates of EU membership became obliged to demonstrate the real-world benefits of staying in. In this context, the argument pursued in this chapter is that it is necessary to examine the 2016 referendum on EU membership as part of an – in EU terms – exceptional, four-decade-long debate or “neverendum”.

Then and Now: From 1975 to 2016

In 1975 Britons were asked to vote on whether to stay in the then European Economic Community. Since that time, there have been repeated demands from British politicians to withdraw from the EU, alongside calls to hold referendums on key EU issues (namely, on specific treaties and on the euro) as well as on membership itself (Gifford 2010; Oppermann 2008). When then Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in 2013 that an In/Out vote offered a neat and democratically compelling solution to a long-standing debate opinion polls showed the idea was popular amongst the electorate (Chatham House/YouGov 2015).

Having won an outright parliamentary majority in the May 2015 General Election, Cameron’s top priority for his new term of office was to hold this vote. More than 40 years on, the most obvious parallel with the 1975 referendum was the government’s strategy for winning: renegotiate the terms of membership prior to allowing the people to decide. This move was doubly unilateral by virtue of asking first for British-focused concessions followed by an ex post form of democratic authorization by the British public. The potential fallout for other EU countries of this whole process was not considered sufficient reason to avoid carrying out Cameron’s referendum pledge. If anything, his confidence in reforming the EU prior to winning the people’s consent made him think it would have positive repercussions for the wider EU.

The lack of attention to the wider dynamics of the referendum beyond Britain illustrates how far this vote was essentially a domestic party political matter. The 2016 In/Out referendum meant asking UK voters to resolve a constitutional question of a complexity comparable only to “the Irish Question”, which convulsed British party politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In a similar way, the EU referendum question has haunted generations of politicians of all stripes since entry into the EEC in 1973. Whereas it was the Labour Party that campaigned in February 1974 to allow the people to give their consent to continuing EEC membership, in 1992 it was Prime Minister John Major who faced a revolt amongst his Conservative Party MPs as they sought to engineer a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. A decade later, Tony Blair sought to defuse the Constitutional Treaty by offering a popular vote, a decision echoed by David Cameron’s subsequent promise in the run-up to the 2010 General Election to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Neither of these proposed votes went ahead. Yet by unexpectedly winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons in 2015, the Conservative Party was then uniquely in a position to move ahead with a popular consultation.

However, resorting to direct democracy to deal with European integration does not make the UK unique. Across Europe many countries have resorted to holding referendums on specific EU-related matters. There are indeed a multiplicity of reasons why politicians call referendums on EU issues (Hug and Schulz 2007; Finke and König 2009). The novelty of the British position was rather that mainstream political elites – not just nationalist populists as with the Front National in France – openly discussed the possibility of withdrawal from the EU and were prepared to actually devolve this decision to the public. In fact, policy convergence around the idea of holding a membership referendum spanned the political spectrum to cover not just the Eurosceptic elements of the Conservative Party, but also, albeit in an attenuated form, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In response to David Cameron’s move, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged in 2014 that if elected his party would change the European Union Act so that there could be “no transfer of powers without an in/out referendum” – a repeat of a promise actually made in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto.

The common feature behind these repeated calls for a referendum was nonetheless a twofold Eurosceptic worry. Firstly, there was the concern that the nature of EU membership is somehow unfair or too restrictive for the more free-trade and globally oriented UK. Such a concern is peculiar as the UK had an opt-out from the most constraining aspect of integration, European Monetary Union and its tight fiscal coordination. The second fear was that popular consent for membership was singularly lacking amongst the British public. This narrative – as evidenced by Cameron’s comment that “democratic consent for Britain’s membership has worn wafer thin” (Cameron 2014) – was associated with the claim that the 1975 referendum was about voting for a common market and not a political union. Referring to this earlier referendum, the UKIP argued that “the British people were not getting – and have never got – what we were led to believe we were voting for” (Farage 2012).

Ever-present in the Europe debate was the spectre of a federal super-state. By approving the idea of holding an In/Out referendum pro-EU actors implicitly responded to the Eurosceptic complaint that the EU’s institutional structure and its policy effects had evolved beyond the control of British voters since 1975. Conscious of the knowledge deficit surrounding public understanding of the under-reported EU (McCormick 2014), Europhiles across the major political parties believed that the only way to settle this argument was by resorting to the voice of the people. However, from a pro-integration perspective there were always going to be many perils associated with letting the people decide Britain’s EU future, as suggested by the evidence from voting behaviour in comparable referendums.

Euroscepticism and Voting Behaviour in EU Referendums

There are a host of reasons that determine how voters behave when asked to vote on EU-related issues. Most pertinent for the 2016 UK referendum are votes on particular treaties. These referendums replicate what occurred in the British debate: an unwieldy mix of national preoccupations alongside existential questions surrounding European integration. In such moments, Euroscepticism has played a determining role in the eventual electoral outcome. As with deciphering results for European parliamentary elections, the key explanatory dilemma for political scientists studying EU-related referendums is how far domestic factors (government/opposition dynamics, the state of the economy, etc.) count as opposed to EU-related political attitudes such as Euroscepticism. This dichotomy is framed as a tension between second-order voting preferences that reflect domestic or tangential issues and first-order reasons related directly to the referendum question at hand (Reif and Schmitt 1980; Glencross and Trechsel 2011). An axiom attributed to François Mitterrand, that in a referendum you will always get an answer to a completely different question from the one asked, captures the risks associated with second-order voting.

There are of course ways to reduce the probability that voters will answer a question of their own choosing. Here party stances can be crucial given that levels of approval for incumbent governments matter for electors’ readiness to use a referendum as an opportunity to punish the government of the day (Franklin et al. 1995). In principle, therefore, this risk is minimized when opposition parties rally to the cause. During the ratification process for the 2005 Constitutional Treaty, seven of the ten countries officially scheduled to hold referendums saw the main opposition parties join forces with the government to recommend a yes (Crum 2007). Nevertheless, in two of the member states that actually held a referendum on this treaty – France and the Netherlands – voters rejected the treaty despite an inter-party consensus in favour of a yes. Parties officially supporting the Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands held 93 % and 85 % of the seats respectively in the lower house of parliament, while in the referendum the yes camp mustered only 45 % and 38 % (Crum 2007: 75). In both cases, voters refused to follow the official pro-EU cues of the main parties and were instead sceptical about the proposed benefits of the Constitutional Treaty (Glencross and Trechsel 2011).

Parties are neither unitary actors nor capable of dictating how voters evaluate the merits and demerits of the EU. Hence many established parties in Western Europe are vulnerable to factionalization when forced to take a specific stand on European integration, precisely because Euroscepticism is an issue that largely cuts across the left/right dividing line. Party fragmentation was a distinct problem in France in 2005, as leading figures from the Socialist Party rejected the official party stance (agreed upon through a party ballot in which 59 % of members chose to accept the treaty) and campaigned against the Constitutional Treaty. Significantly, surveys showed that a majority of voters identifying themselves as Socialist or Green (another party officially supporting the treaty) did not toe the line (Crum 2007: 76).

The difficulty confronting major parties in convincing their electors to follow their cues during a referendum points to the anti-establishment dynamic often present in such campaigns. It is in these circumstances that Euroscepticism can thrive. In Ireland in 2008, a heterogeneous assortment of minor parties and interest groups succeeded in persuading 53 % of voters to reject the Lisbon Treaty. Once again, this reverse came in the face of elite consensus as four main parties (Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats, Fine Gael, Labour Party) backed the treaty. Tellingly, the most popular slogan of the no camp was “Don’t Be Bullied”, a motto indicating the desire to send a message of defiance that connected otherwise disparate groups.

Indeed, the Irish example also highlights what a hodge-podge of issues may get entangled in an EU referendum campaign. Nationalists, anti-abortion campaigners, and those worried about retaining control over corporation tax all sought rejection of the treaty. Strange Eurosceptic bedfellows are able to unite – for different reasons – to oppose an EU treaty precisely because these complex documents provoke a range of concerns and even misapprehensions. In Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin argued that the Lisbon Treaty would traduce Irish neutrality. Even though the Irish government would retain a veto in this policy area, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy was portrayed as forcing Ireland into a militarized approach to international problems (Hodson and Maher 2014). In France, a host of tangential issues infiltrated the 2005 campaign, including immigration, Turkish accession, and even the ham-fisted abolition of the Whitsun bank holiday (Glencross 2009).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, referendums on EU issues can prove rather unpredictable affairs. The Norwegian people’s rejection of EEC membership in 1972 came as a surprise because opinion polls had suggested the opposite result. In the 1975 UK vote there was concern about regional divergences, with polls at the beginning of the campaign showing a 16-point lead for withdrawal amongst Scots. Yet the final result in Scotland was 58 % in favour of remaining in the EEC (Saunders 2014). The potential for a large swing vote is also suggested by the evidence from referendums held to, in effect, overturn an earlier electoral verdict. Irish voters rejected the Nice treaty by 54 % but adopted it a year later by a 63 % majority; the Lisbon Treaty similarly failed the first time after 53 % of voters rejected it before subsequently receiving the backing of 67 % of the population (Hodson and Maher 2014). In the Irish case, successful re-run referendums are associated with higher turnout via party mobilization and especially intensive government campaigning. Naturally, this kind of get-out-the-vote initiative is much easier when governing parties and the opposition put on a united front in support of the EU. Thus in a British context of a deeply divided governing Conservative Party an In/Out referendum was a highly risky strategy. These risks become clearer by contrasting the current political climate with the manner in which the 1975 referendum was conducted.

Echoes of 1975: Renegotiation and Campaign Dynamics

Complaints from 40 years ago about the EEC sound strikingly familiar: the UK pays too much for too few benefits, Europe is too inward-looking, accompanied by an overall feeling that it is fine to participate in an economic arrangement but that Britain must stay aloof from federal blueprints for monetary integration (Wall 2013). More precisely, two aspects of the earlier vote were particularly salient for 2016: the renegotiation tactics and their outcome; the campaign element, involving a divided government alongside cross-party collaboration both for and against EU membership. These two dimensions need to be analyzed in turn to assess why the dynamics of 2016 were unlike those of 1975.

Last time around it was the Labour Party that had the gravest misgivings about European integration. Following two earlier unsuccessful applications in the 1960s, the UK managed to join the EEC under the Conservative government of Edward Heath in 1973. However, the Labour manifesto of February 1974 stated the residual, twofold concern with that arrangement: the terms of membership and the method of obtaining popular consent. Labour argued that EEC rules imposed too many costs and constraints, while also pledging that the party would “restore to the British people the right to decide the final issue of British membership of the Common Market”.

After the Labour Party victory in the General Election of February 1974, negotiation by the Wilson government hinged on the same two factors applicable today, namely the scale of the reformist ambition and the ability to forge partnerships with foreign capitals (Butler and Kitzinger 1976). Back then, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan outmanoeuvred EEC-sceptics such as Tony Benn by settling for policy reform (notably regarding the budget and the Common Agricultural Policy) rather than treaty change. This move reassured other leaders by showing that British unilateralist rhetoric was nevertheless compatible with the existing rules of the game. Indeed, the attenuated renegotiation goals were in large part dictated by the attitudes Callaghan encountered amongst EEC partners. The French and German governments in particular were united in their unwillingness to see any backsliding that would undermine the existing institutional structure and the “own resources” system of financing (Haeussler 2015). Ultimately, after nearly a year of talks, the Labour government claimed that the majority of renegotiation objectives from the February 1974 manifesto had been achieved.

Although the UK was unable to have the EEC treaty amended, the Labour government was able to present a narrative about a successful renegotiation based on the creation of a regional fund, a budget correction mechanism, and improved access to New Zealand foodstuffs. The fact that the budget issue came to a head again not long after under Margaret Thatcher demonstrates that the nitty-gritty of the renegotiation was more nuanced than the pro-EEC camp suggested. Nevertheless, these policy changes allowed the Yes campaign to make the case that Britain’s demands had been met, a claim that proved highly persuasive. The final result of 67 % in favour of remaining in the EEC represented a marked swing as Gallup polling had shown a 41 % plurality for leaving in January 1975, as shown in Fig. 2.1.
Fig. 2.1

The impact of renegotiation on the 1975 referendum

However, in 2016 the neverendum surrounding European integration was a problem primarily for the unity of the Conservative Party and not Labour. This shift occurred as a result of an issue absent from the 1975 campaign and which greatly impacted the nature of renegotiation after 2015: immigration. It is no coincidence then that at the top of David Cameron’s agenda of demands for changing the terms of UK membership was the idea of restraining the fundamental EU principle of free movement of people. The populist UKIP made tremendous inroads in European elections (coming first with 28 % in 2014) on a platform combining dislike of the EU with calls to curb immigration. In this case the UK is far from unique as a number of Eurosceptic parties across Western Europe are gaining traction with a similar message, thereby contributing to the fragmentation of party systems (Hanley 2015). Populists’ success is also founded on the electoral fragility of centre-left parties that traditionally relied on working class votes. As demonstrated by the result of the 2015 General Election, which saw a marked swing to UKIP in traditional left-leaning constituencies in England and Wales, Labour in Britain is particularly vulnerable to the immigration–EU connection that UKIP vehicles. After all, it was Tony Blair’s government that underestimated the scale of potential labour migration and chose not to impose transitional controls after the 2004 EU enlargement.

So the argument for a referendum in 2016 was that dramatic changes in what EU membership entails for Britain dictate the need to renew public consent. By contrast, the essential point of principle that exercised Labour politicians and party members alike in the 1970s was the issue of whether EEC rules constrained statist solutions to UK economic woes, of which there were many. Opponents of the EEC, personified best by Secretary of State for Industry Tony Benn, worried that nationalization and other hard-left industrial policies they favoured would run afoul of Brussels. Misgivings of this nature have lingered on in some segments of the Labour movement, including its leader during the 2016 campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, nevertheless the Parliamentary Labour Party was heavily in favour of EU membership the second time around.

The dividing line in the Conservative Party further highlights this political transformation that in turn reflects the economic changes wrought in the British economy since the previous referendum. Its Europhile wing recognized that the free movement of EU citizens offers enormous gains. As with capital mobility, free labour movement provides UK businesses with a vast pool of resources with which to innovate and grow, but only on the basis of accepting constraints on immigration policy that are unpalatable to dyed-in-the-wool Eurosceptic Conservatives. Cameron’s tactic in 2016 – as with Labour in 1974–1975 – was to attempt a reconciliation between these camps, first through renegotiation of the terms of EU membership. The problem with this strategy is that, as the referendum campaign eventually demonstrated, there is both little common ground between the two factions and not much scope for change within the EU system.

Hardline Eurosceptics sought unilateral concessions to the UK (e.g. a parliamentary veto over the ordinary legislative procedure) or else the overhaul of fundamental EU principles such as free movement of people. In a context in which there is no appetite for treaty reform per se across the EU – not least because of the absence of a common Franco-German project on which such change normally depends – hard British Eurosceptic demands could never have been met (Glencross 2015a). Consequently, the method for overcoming internecine Conservative strife was always likely to be the same as in 1975 for Labour: an “agreement to disagree” within the government and the party at large during the referendum campaign.

It is not just British political elites that have struggled to adapt to the Europeanization of politics provoked by European integration. Parties across Western Europe have tended to downplay contestation over the depth and scope of integration because these issues are orthogonal to the traditional left/right cleavage (Van der Eijk and Franklin 2004). In this context, the politicization of EU-related questions raises the spectre of internal splits and the possibility of a structural reconfiguration of party cleavages along a nationalist/cosmopolitan divide (Kriesi et al. 2006), hence the attractiveness of de-politicizing integration in national politics (Hooghe and Marks 2009).

Indeed, based on the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the UK was one of the first political systems to experience the consequences of the politicization of integration. At the time, however, it was the very novelty of the constitutional device that captured the imagination, and which was considered the cause of the unusual campaign dynamics that followed (Butler and Kitzinger 1976). Most notably, the contentiousness of the topic meant that collective cabinet responsibility was waived for only the second time in modern political history. The cabinet vote to support what was termed “Britain’s New Deal in Europe” was won 16–7, demonstrating the extent of internal opposition, especially from those espousing more hardline leftist views. This dissent was even more prevalent amongst the Labour Party faithful, as reflected in the vote at a specially convened party conference to support a motion opposing EEC membership, which was carried by the block votes of influential trade unions (Butler and Kitzinger 1976: 113).

As a result of the Cabinet’s agreement to disagree, the 1975 campaign was essentially a cross-party one, thereby prefiguring the trend, discussed in the previous section, evident in more recent referendum campaigns across the EU. Government figures, as well as influential opposition leaders, could be found on both sides of the debate. However, the anti-EEC movement was primarily associated with charismatic, if maverick, politicians such as Tony Benn and Enoch Powell. The latter had switched allegiance from the Conservatives to the Ulster Unionist party, which, like the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, formed part of the official campaign against the EEC. By contrast, the pro-EEC camp was inherently associated with the political and business establishment – the Britain in Europe campaign raised fifteen times more in private donations than its rival.

Four decades later, the pro-EU constituency in Britain could not count on the unwavering support of an established elite. In line with what political scientists define as a growing pan-EU “constraining dissensus” (Hooghe and Marks 2009), the British media and political establishment were divided over the merits of integration. Whereas in 1975 the print media was overwhelming in its support (with the exception of The Morning Star, a communist paper) for the EEC, Euroscepticism is deeply engrained in the fabric of tabloid and even broadsheet reporting (McCormick 2014). Perhaps the most significant consequence of this ideological hostility, and the tendentious EU-related coverage it brings, was a persistent information deficit amongst British voters. This facet of the EU debate in the UK was vividly illustrated by the fact that citizens’ median estimate for British contributions to the EU budget is €40 billion per annum, when the reality is €11 billion (Chatham House/YouGov 2015).

Conclusion: Britain’s Elite Euroscepticism

Unlike other strands of Euroscepticism, therefore, in the UK an elite version coexists alongside the bottom-up populism vehicled by opportunistic parties found across Western Europe (Leonard 2015). Nowhere was this particularity of British Euroscepticism more evident than in the parliamentary Conservative Party, where constituency selection processes favour Eurosceptic parliamentary candidates and, hence, similarly inclined party leaders (Fontana and Parsons 2015). Rhetorical devices and policy proposals by Conservative politicians further reinforce this point about the elite nature of British Euroscepticism. In 2013, 95 backbench Conservative MPs wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the introduction of a unilateral parliamentary veto (completely at odds with European law) over EU legislation. Similarly, Boris Johnson argued that “the option [of leaving the EU] is also attractive”, because “a generous exit” can be arranged (Johnson 2014).

It is no coincidence then that it was former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, for whom European integration was a particularly heavy cross to bear, who presented an EU membership referendum as potentially cathartic (Major 2013). The intended catharsis, however, related less to a mass/elite rupture than to healing the split within a divided elite (especially amongst Conservatives). Yet Major’s perspective also symbolized an Anglo-centric approach to Europe. For by 2016 an In/Out referendum was inevitably a matter of UK constitutional debate and not just of international affairs. The centrality of EU membership within contestation over the future of the British Union was apparent already during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Unionists claimed a vote for staying in the UK guaranteed EU membership, compared with the uncertainty surrounding EU accession for an independent Scotland.

Whereas in 1975 the worry was that Scottish voters would reject the EEC (polls initially showed a 16-point lead for withdrawal in Scotland in January 1975), the roles in 2016 were reversed. Political elites in Scotland, where UKIP and the Conservatives are electorally much weaker, are attached to EU membership to the extent that prior to the referendum the Scottish Nationalist Party called for a Scottish veto on Brexit if a vote to withdraw from the EU did not also gain a majority in Scotland. Scottish nationalists in 2016 thus link independence to remaining in the EU, although they are ambivalent on the euro and associated fiscal rules. In this way, Euroscepticism in the UK fuels divisions between mutually exclusive claims of Scottish and British exceptionalism, which is another indication of how much has changed since 1975.

Speaking the day after the decisive Yes verdict, Harold Wilson proclaimed that the result brought to a conclusion “fourteen years of national argument” (quoted in Bogdanor 2014). The subsequent four decades of never-ending debate on EU membership demonstrate the flawed logic of expecting direct democracy to provide a decisive answer to an evolving constitutional conundrum. Hence when the question of EU membership was once again put to the British public, it is not a surprise that the campaign turned out to be markedly different from that of 1975, as the following chapter explains.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Glencross
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Politics and International RelationsAston UniversityBirminghamUnited Kingdom

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