What can the 80s tell us about the EU Referendum?
Dr Lucy Robinson is a Senior Lecturer In History in the School of History, Art History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex.
I remember being canvased for the 1989 European election. I was a nineteen-year-old mother of a two-year-old, living in a shared house. It was the first election I’d been old enough to vote in. It was also the first time I had ever heard the Green Party talked about as an electoral force.
Something interesting was going on. I can’t say that Europe itself really mattered to me very much, but it opened up ways to think things through that we couldn’t really find space for elsewhere.
These are not public opinions to be broken down and crystallised into a set of truths about what people do or don’t think. Mass Observation understood that their writers were not an object of study, they were part of the analytical process.
The Mass Observation Archive specialises in recording the everyday lives of people in Britain.
I didn’t know it at the time but those discussions have gone on to connect with my life. Not only have I ended up living in a constituency with the only Green MP in the country, but the debates around Europe in the 80s are still with us.
Then, as now, the Mass Observation project has seized the opportunity to explore what Europe might mean to people. A social research organisation, which is part of the University of Sussex’s special collections archive, Mass Observation was founded with the aim of creating an 'anthropology of ourselves'. It has become increasingly important on my journey from teenage mum to fully fledged academic.
In 1982 Professor David Pocock invited a team of volunteer writers for the Mass Observation project to answer a series of questions reflecting on nearly ten years in the Common Market. He recognised that Mass Observation’s team of ‘citizen journalists’ were well placed to ‘demonstrate the distinctive value of Mass-Observation material and so [he hoped] demonstrate the distinctive value of the project’s work’.
Despite the simple binary of a referendum, Mass Observation invites us to think in messy ways about complicated arguments.
Then as now, the arguments over Europe were as much a battle over information, pollsters, methods and public opinion as they were over whether Britain should be in or out. The discussions around Europe offered Pocock a perfect marketing opportunity to show just how innovative and useful the project’s methods could be. The real question was after all, not ’Do the people want to be in Europe?’, but ‘How do we know what people want?’
Pocock’s questionnaire was a combination of short factual questions (‘Do you know who your euro MP is?’; ‘If you could ban one import from the Common market what would it be?’ ) and a more reflective section inviting writers to comment on any thing that struck them.
The suggested areas are telling – “List any jokes heard or seen about the Common Market” is classic Mass Observation material: the arenas that discussion seeps into, beyond the top-down statistically-loaded propaganda.
These are not public opinions to be broken down and crystallised into a set of truths about what people do or don’t think. Mass Observation understood that their writers were not an object of study, they were part of the analytical process. They were invited to observe for themselves, bring together their personal experiences with their analysis of wider structures. Despite the simple binary of a referendum, Mass Observation invites us to think in messy ways about complicated arguments.
One female mass observer carried out her own survey amongst her friends and family: “None are for the EEC, my husband is strongly against. Few knew the answers to your questions which proves they are against something they know nothing about.”
The mass observers understood that there is no dividing line between a fact and an opinion, or the evidence and the argument. They wove the public and personal elements of their lives together.
Facts, we hear, are the key. The public just want the facts without the spin. Politicians on either side swap and shift the order of their facts in a game of statistical pingpong. It is as if they, as we, hope that there really is a magical fact. A shibboleth that can open the door to the unknown future and show us exactly how a global set of social, cultural and economic intersections will respond if we do or don’t make a decision.
As a historian I’m not really that interested in facts, or indeed in uncovering what happened in the past. Historical facts, like Brexit statistics, can engage us in a game of historical cause and effect. Shift the order of the facts and we shift the order of significance perhaps, but it never really gets us anywhere. I’m much more interested in what the drive to the factual means. What is it about our experiences, our analysis and arguments, then and now, that drive us to the magic truth moment, the ultimate fact that will legitimise all we stand for? How can we feel so strongly about something ‘we know nothing about’?
Campaigners during the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should join the European Economic Community.
The mass observers understood that there is no dividing line between a fact and an opinion, or the evidence and the argument. They wove the public and personal elements of their lives together. One worried about the impact of decimalisation on her children’s education, alongside the value of post-war internationalism.
Mass observers shed light on a whole array of implications: quality of shoes in summer sales, the egg industry, local milk rounds, day trips and holiday prices, anxieties about German power mongering, food standards, food prices and variety famine and third world debt. But they also get to something beyond the facts. They move between the mundane, to the political and the abstracted, sometimes in the same sentence.
Then, as now, observers weighed up the day-to-day implications of Europe, and what it told them they valued about their everyday lives and their imagined communities. They used discussion of Europe as an opportunity to think about what it means to be a citizen – of a nation, and internationally. The fact-givers, the press and the politicians, get pretty short shrift. The press is biased, the politicians are untrustworthy. Perhaps it is not the lack of factual knowledge that is the issue here, but an experienced, analysed and evaluated set of arguments that mean something to people.