It has been 40 years since British citizens last voted on whether to stay in what was then called the European Economic Community (also known as the Common Market). In a referendum held on June 5 1975, the country spoke decisively, with 67% of Britons voting to stay in.
At the time, Prime Minister Harold Wilson said the referendum had brought a lengthy national argument to its conclusion. This turned out not to be the case, since the referendum turned into a “neverendum”. A conclusive vote turned into a 40-year debate and now the UK finds itself back at square one, voting on whether to remain part of the EU.
The 1975 episode does nevertheless offer some valuable lessons for the upcoming referendum. Primarily, it shows the many complications that face a government divided over Europe.
The 1975 referendum gambit was deployed by Wilson to patch up splits between opponents and supporters of European integration within his own Labour party.
The hope was that renegotiating the terms of membership would mollify Eurosceptic MPs and overturn the animus within the party base. These two objectives mirror those of the Conservative government today, but the 1975 precedent does not bode well on either count.
A party divided
Wilson’s failure to obtain treaty changes – the most cast-iron guarantee of reforms beneficial to the UK – meant that in 1975 the cabinet remained at odds when a decision was taken on whether to recommend staying in the EEC.
Sixteen Cabinet members voted in favour of campaigning to stay within the EEC, while seven opposed the new terms on offer (which in reality were largely cosmetic). This lack of consensus led Wilson to propose an “agreement to differ” so that government ministers could argue against European integration during the referendum campaign without having to resign.
As a result, leading Labour figures, notably Tony Benn, led the charge against their own government’s recommendation to stay in the EEC. The presence within the Cabinet today of staunch Eurosceptics such as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond suggests history may well repeat itself on this front.
Any new settlement for the UK will fall short of the unilateral concessions sought by the most anti-EU Tories in Westminster. Giving the British parliament the right to veto EU laws is just one such sticking point. To keep the parliamentary party together, therefore, Cameron will have to mimic Wilson by allowing ministerial dissent if the government line is ultimately to support continued EU membership.
The price of abandoning collective cabinet responsibility could be very high. Of course, Benn’s inability to persuade Britons to leave the EEC spelled the end of his aspirations to lead Labour. So ambitious ministers will think more than twice before deciding to oppose the government line this time.
However, an anti-EU campaign that taps into popular prejudices against Eurocrats and Brussels red tape, stoked by a hostile tabloid press, might seduce Hammond or even Boris Johnson sufficiently to become the figurehead for a Brexit campaign – alongside, presumably, Nigel Farage.
Therein lies the second ominous precedent: the first UK referendum on Europe only maintained party unity in the relatively short term. The aftermath of the 1975 vote was an enduring split within the parliamentary party between Europhile and Eurosceptic factions. This led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. Shorn of the pro-integration wing, Labour adopted a hardline Euroscepticism that culminated with the demand to withdraw from the EEC during 1983 general election.
As illustrated by the defection of Tory MP Mark Reckless in 2014, there is a thin line of demarcation between eurosceptic Conservatives and UKIP. If Tory dissenters and UKIP enjoy the experience of joining forces to fight against the EU, a referendum has the potential to reconfigure the centre right, especially if Labour also succeeds in using a pro-EU, business-friendly message to recapture the middle ground.
The fundamental lesson from 1975 then is that David Cameron should not set high hopes for what his tactics can achieve when it comes to healing his party. Renegotiation, when it falls short of major treaty change, is of very limited value for reconciling deep divisions.
Equally, in the event of dissent within the government’s ranks, campaign dynamics in which ministers share platforms with opposition figures can polarise internal party cleavages. Cameron could thus win a referendum at the cost of the unity of the Conservative Party.