Back to the Future? Comparing Radical Right Referendum Results, 1975 and 2016

It is hard to deny Brexit’s important place within recent radical right discourse and activity. Recently, Paul Stocker’s excellent book English Uprising has captured this part of that debate. The radical right had a significant impact in dictating the tone and trajectory of the Leave campaign, especially away from the official Vote Leave platform. Equally, those in Britain at the time will have heard references – both before the referendum and since – to the 1975 vote that confirmed Britain’s membership of the European project, often linked to claims that, back then, all we ever agreed to join was an economic union. This begs the question of how radical right and extreme groups engaged with that 1975 referendum, and whether indeed they were arguing simply against an economic union.

To do this, the present blog will focus on primarily the writings of John Tyndall and his neo-fascist magazine, Spearhead. Launched in 1964, Spearhead invited contributions from across the radical and extreme right, though mostly from Tyndall’s own movements – first the Greater British Movement and later the National Front, New National Front and finally, following its establishment in 1982, the British National Party. Spearhead had been engaged with the Common Market debate virtually since its inception. For instance, a 1968 cover asked the question ‘Do We Need Europe?’ by simply showing the geographical size of the Common Market when compared to Australia.

Comparing Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Europe is something trotted out over and over by Spearhead. Tyndall saw this ‘White Commonwealth’ as a positive message that he could bring to the European debate. By providing a racial and Anglophone alternative to what Britain could be outside of Europe, Tyndall believed he could claim centre stage during the 1975 European campaign. In turn, he hoped the campaign would give a wider audience to his specific fascist ideology, which saw a rebirth of Britain based around this renewal of Empire. It would also include a return to Africa to explicitly take the continent’s wealth and resources; notionally, in Tyndall’s mind, to repay Britain for the ‘benefits’ of Empire.

Tyndall envisioned that part of this appeal would extend beyond the confines of the radical right, even to break into the mainstream. To do so, Tyndall sought to make common cause with other anti-European politicians of the time. The well-known socialists in the Labour Party, Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were even seen as possible allies – as well as with the with the extreme, revolutionary left – in combatting the existential threat of European dominance. Indeed, May 1975’s Spearhead stated that the militant left was preferable to the EU Common Market. The problem for Tyndall came in his ideological inability to avoid racist rhetoric, which invariably saw them isolated from the main campaigns. In a piece for February 1975’s Spearhead, for instance, Neil Farnell of the National Front’s Industrial Section (and also of the Transport and General Workers Union) blamed Europe for black migration and ‘race-mixing’, even while trying to urge moderates to support them. Rather predictably, Tyndall was isolated throughout the entire campaign, nor were the National Front invited into the main campaign.

With this national platform denied to them, the National Front instead engaged in a street campaign in the run up to the 1975 vote. They dedicated their by-elections, such as Marylebone in 1970, to the anti-European cause and re-framed themselves as the only party to be consistent and united in opposition to Europe. Despite this, by the time he was writing in August 1971’s issue, Tyndall was convinced that the European issue was already lost to the National Front, going so far as to claim that their exclusion meant there was no positive message from the anti-Common Market campaign, while adding his voice to later claims that the referendum was a sham.

Racist conspiracy theories are of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the radical right; in this case, addressing the need to explain why people were not supporting the National Front, even as they claim to be the true voice of the common man. In 1969, Spearhead used a flawed Harris Poll to claim that they represented the true will of the people. That issue’s front cover depicted Britain’s major parties colluding to force John Bull over the channel and into France. By 1971, another leading NF member, Martin Webster, was alleging that the move to get the UK into Europe came from the United States – alongside ‘International Money Power’ (an obvious code term for Jewish influence) – in an attempt to use Britain’s strength to push American interests in Europe. There were also NF claims that may be familiar to us in 2018, such as their September 1969 assertion that their protests were being kept out of the mainstream media by the Conservative Party and Lord Beaverbrook.

However, we should not pretend though that Spearhead only spoke in racist terms. They also spoke of economic matters and made a number of arguments around, and stressed the importance of, British sovereignty. For Spearhead it was, as their article of August 1971 maintained, a question of Britain choosing between being a ‘Free Nation or Province of Europe?’, between freedom and European enslavement. For the neo-fascists of the National Front, joining the Common Market was not just a case of a simple free trade, but the very future of the British state and its people; that is, whether Britain’s identity was that of an island nation or a European one.

Of course, in the end those opposed to joining the European project lost heavily in 1975. Spearhead declared in July of 1975 that this was not the end; that the fight to get Britain out of Europe would go on. Ever sore losers, the NF blamed the loss on their exclusion from the No campaign, but also the evil hand of International Finance and, most of all, they blamed the fact that the Yes campaign was fear driven rather than fact driven and that the entire campaign played upon emotion. Plus ça change?

Spearhead and Tyndall were far from the whole of the radical right at this point, to be sure. Sir Oswald Mosley was campaigning heavily in favour of the Yes vote, hoping that Europe could act as a white Christian bastion, able balance the competing power blocs of the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet it is fair to say the NF represented the most nationalistic radical right groups in Britain. From their campaign messaging, we can see how they undertook a dedicated effort to mainstream their ideas, only falling back upon open discussion of their more extreme nature when this was thwarted.

Mr Daniel Jones is a Doctoral Fellow with CARR, and is a Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Northampton. See his profile at:

© Dan Jones. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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