Monday, 9 May 2016

An apology to the young for my vote in the 1975 European referendum

In June 1975, I was eighteen years old when I stood in a polling station in Manchester and cast my ballot to remain in what was then called the Common Market. Over forty years later I want to kick my younger self for that act of stupidity, but since I do not have a time machine that is an impossibility. Instead, this piece is a mea maxima culpa from a man who will hit sixty in August this year, and who bitterly regrets the foolishness of his youth. How could I have got it so wrong all those years ago? 

I was not the only young fellow in 1975 who felt that the future was going to be better than present, because millions of others felt the same way. We were the children of the men who had suffered the dole and the means test in the 1930s, fought in the Second World War, and then voted to ensure that never again would unemployment be a factor in British life. We took full employment for granted, and regarded it as our right. Indeed, we never imagined that any government could ever take the plentiful supply of easy to get jobs away from us.

We stopped providing the teaching trade with employment one Friday afternoon when we were fifteen, and the the following Monday we left the house and started the world of work. It was our right not just to work, but not to have to take any old buck from the two-legged cockroaches known as the management. They would tell us what to do and we would tell 'em to take it up with the union. Then we left them to argue about it with the union for the next year or so, with the result that nothing much changed because the union could usually negotiate away at least half what management scum wanted to do. For the rest, well, the odd concession was made, but those concessions usually came with more money for us, and since bastard work is the price that we all pay for our money, we accepted such changes along with the extra brass that jangled in our pockets.

This is why when we looked to the future it was with optimism in our hearts. We talked about new technology, and believed that it would mean easier work, fewer hours and no loss of pay. It was going to be introduced by politicians who would work with the unions, and would ensure that by the end of the century we would all be working twenty hour weeks with probably a couple of months' holiday a year, and then we would all retire at 60 or even earlier. How would people fill their long leisure hours? That was the question that many of us asked in those dim, innocent days.

We saw the European Union - or Common Market as we then called it - in that light. It was about progress, and progress to us was a very good thing indeed. It was about more money for less work, and work that new technology would make a lot easier than the grimy, balls-achingly, tedious version of it that we all did as part of industrial Britain all those years ago.

We were told that pretty soon every job that was going begging anywhere in the EU would be advertised at every labour exchange. I can remember in 1975 being told by some political hack in Market Street, Manchester, that if I wanted to get a job as a projectionist in any cinema, anywhere in Europe, all I would have to do would be to wander along to the local employment exchange and they would give me a list of all the available positions. A few months later I did just that and needless to say the man had been talking out of his arsehole.

Had we not fallen for those lies, then Britain today would be a very different country than it is, and a far better one to boot. By voting the leave the EU in 1975 we would have created an enormous political crisis that would have led to the resignation of the Labour men who just two short years later would introduce the proto-Thatcherism, that disfigured the years from 1977 to 1979. The likes of James Callaghan and Dennis Healey would have been discredited by their defeat, and would probably have been replaced with the Labour victors, such as Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle.

Across the Commons, the likes of Margaret Thatcher, who was also a committed proponent of the European ideal, and whose policies after 1979 were a harsher, colder version of what Labour was already trying to introduce, would also have felt the blowing of the icy winds. Would the Tories have  replaced the creature in the wake of what would have been a defeat for her? We will never know, but what is pretty certain is that the Tories, had they still won the election in 1979, would not have had the right-wing Labour policies that led to the Winter of Discontent to build upon for their own vile ends.

So we lost the chance to change our history, and we condemned ourselves to the long, cold winter that started in about 1977 and which still shows no signs of ending. 

I am now in the evening of my life, but I want to try and make things right. Not for me, as I am too old, but for the young people who look around in bewilderment as they face a lifetime of crappy jobs, for a crappy wage, for a crappy employer that is all interspersed with achingly long periods on the social.

You deserve better than the wretched country which my generation will bequeath to you, but let me join you in starting the fightback on the 23 June 2016.

Please, also, accept my apologies for my appalling mistake in June 1975. I really knew no better.

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