Cameron should learn lessons from the past over EU referendum

Despite his best efforts to avoid this situation the Prime Minister has become embroiled in the Europe in-out debate. The country has many more pressing issues, both home and abroad, than European membership but nevertheless it is going to consume much of his energy. The opposition is in disarray, in the process of electing an unknown leader, but with only a slim majority the Prime Minister’s outward confidence and control will be sorely tested if he cannot unify his Party over the issue. The leader, however, is widely seen as a wily operator and adept at managing his Party’s opposing wings. Having moved very carefully he called a referendum on the issue of membership of the European Community, promising to renegotiate a better deal from our European “partners” and the Brussels bureaucratic behemoth who all seem – according to the hardliners – intent on extracting money from Britain, reducing workers’ rights and forcing the country to accept unwelcome rules and regulations. The Party has been split for decades over Europe, causing animosity in its higher echelons, which has been unhelpful for governing and unappealing to voters. Some suspect mischief making is a foot and worry that a renegotiation will be fudged and grander claims made for simple cosmetic changes. Nevertheless the Prime Minister is banking on winning a referendum to settle the issue, unify the Party and give him renewed authority.

Sound familiar? I’m actually talking about Harold Wilson in 1975 but the comparisons with David Cameron today are uncanny. Granted we can only take them so far. The EU today is larger and more complex than the European Community in 1975 and the issues that concern voters different. For instance in the 1970s politicians were more concerned that European membership led to emigration rather than immigration. In addition the support of the media and business cannot be taken for granted, as it was in 1975.

Margaret Thatcher, the then untried leader of the opposition, said during the 1975 campaign that Labour had called the referendum as “a tactical device to get over a split in their own party”. Another Conservative politician, Chris Patten, later said “on the whole, governments only concede them (referenda) when governments are weak.” That was certainly the case for Harold Wilson in 1975 and despite his recent election victory, also applicable to David Cameron. He committed to a referendum in 2013 as pressure mounted from his Eurosceptic flank and the rise of UKIP. Yet governing with a slim majority will become increasingly difficult if (or rather when) the Eurosceptics start to rebel. Cameron is trying to avoid the fate of the Major government, which was paralysed by the issue. As a result the British people (and increasingly others in Europe) have had to spend much of the 1990s as well as this current decade paying far too much attention to the internal squabbles of the Conservative Party. There is certainly an increase in populist-led anti-EU feeling across the continent as a result of the contortions of the financial crisis. This has played into the hands of the long-term machinations of the Eurosceptic right in the Tory Party but whether it will be enough for the British people to vote against the status quo, time will tell.

Whatever the result of the referendum, and let’s assume it ends similarly to 1975, the historical lessons for David Cameron are stark. Harold Wilson resigned only months after winning the 1975 poll, exhausted both by power and leading his unruly Party. Ideologically-lite, Wilson’s overarching objective was to keep Labour united. Probably feeling he had achieved this when he left office in fact the opposite happened. Votes in referenda overwhelmingly go in favour of the status quo. This in turn can never pacify those that want change and means the device is only a temporary one. Take, for example, the Scottish vote on independence last year, or for that matter the European vote in 1975. After Wilson retired the Labour left – the main anti-Europe bloc at that time – became increasingly vocal within the Party ranks and by the early 1980s caused a group from the right led by Roy Jenkins to form the breakaway, pro-European, Social Democratic Party.

David Cameron may win a referendum over EU membership. What might be hailed as masterful Party management could follow Harold Wilson’s example and very quickly be seen as principle-less, short-sighted and weak leadership that simply kicks the can a bit further down the road and in the end may simply the delay the split of his party.
Robert Ledger, July 2015

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