Brexit: Is it 1975 all over again? Not quite…

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Harold Wilson [Wikipedia]

The decision by David Cameron to allow members of his cabinet a free choice in the upcoming EU referendum is an intriguing example of history repeating itself, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche served as Ireland’s Minister for the Environment.

In the 1975 referendum on whether the UK should have remained in the EEC, Prime Minister Harold Wilson put cabinet collective responsibility, a core principle in the British cabinet system, on hold. Wilson had already set a constitutional precedent by agreeing to hold a referendum – a fundamental departure from the constitutional norm.

Like David Cameron today, Wilson had little choice but to act as he did. His party was split on the issue of Europe. The split was if anything more openly bitter, although probably no less profound, than the split that the premier faces today. Given the extent of the divisions allowing his cabinet colleagues, giving them the green light to have their say was pure pragmatism.  The tactic worked for Wilson. The question is whether it will work for Cameron.

First, allowing cabinet members from a single party government to campaign on different sides in any referendum is both novel and dangerous. Voters have the right to expect some clarity from those who govern.

As in any referendum campaign voters are bombarded with conflicting messages. The fact that the conflicting messages are coming from political players who are normally on ‘on the same side’ makes the position even more confused.

In a TV interview in 1975, the then-Home Secretary, and later European Commission President Roy Jenkins, was asked why voters had taken the decision to remain within the EU. Jenkins responded, with perhaps more candour than he intended that “the people took the advice of the people they are used to following”.

While politicians are held in lower esteem today than in 1975, it remains the case, particularly for voters who support a particular party that they do expect clear advice from the political leaders that they follow.  

In the upcoming UK referendum, Conservative supporters – a very important segment of voters – will face conflicting messages by those from whom they normally tend to take their political lead: they will be told ‘you are on your own’.

Free rein

The fact that the decision to allow cabinet members and MPs a free rein has been announced, while the EU negotiating process is some way from completion, is probably politically expedient. It releases pressures that were building up in his party and helps Cameron to ‘keep a lid’ on the dissenters while negotiations are ongoing.

That is not without its dangers. The stance that the prime minister has taken provides no incentive to those within his party who are long-term critics of membership of the EU to adopt an open mind, to remain neutral, or indeed to change their views.

Looking back at the 1975 referendum it seems nothing short of miraculous that Wilson managed to deliver not just a ‘yes’ vote but a comprehensive 2:1 majority for the ‘in’ side.

Wilson’s cabinet was split with powerful voices, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle vigorously opposing the EEC.  A majority of Labour MPs opposed continuing membership. Wilson only managed to navigate his legislative proposals through the Commons with the support of MPs from Conservative, Liberal and smaller parties. A Labour PartyConference on 26th April 1975, at the outset of the referendum campaign voted 2:1 against EEC membership. The trade union movement led by the TUC was equally, if not more vigorously, opposed.

In spite of all of these divisions, Wilson managed to sell something of ‘a fudge’ to the voters in the 1975 referendum. The Dublin EC Council of March 1975, at which the deal on the UK ‘renegotiations’ was concluded delivered an important concession on the budgetary contributions, concessions on New Zealand agricultural produce, and Commonwealth sugar and statements on steel and inflation. It was a long way short of the ‘fundamental renegotiation’ of UK membership terms promised in the two general elections of 1974.  So how did Wilson succeed?

First Wilson was in many ways ‘blessed in his opponents’.

Michael Foot, Tony Benn (who had first mooted the idea of a referendum) and Barbara Castle – the leading opponents of ‘Europe’ in the 1975 Labour cabinet were gifted orators but their appeal was located in a section of the labour movement. 

In the wider labour movement, the trade unions were the most powerful opponents of EEC membership, were seen by large swathes of electorate – and the media – as being the prime cause of the contemporary economic difficulties faced by the UK.

The leading political opponents of EEC from outside Labour, Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley also had limited appeal amongst the electorate in general.

Second, Wilson received extraordinary support in the Commons and during the referendum campaign from the main opposition Liberal and the Conservative parties. 

The Conservative Party proved to be Wilson’s political ‘trump card’.

While not ‘sold’ on the idea of a referendum, the Conservatives were strongly in support for continuing EEC membership.

Edward Heath, William Whitelaw and more importantly the recently-elected Tory leader Margaret Thatcher were strong advocates of continuing membership.

These played a significant role in getting the ‘YES’ vote out in 1975.  Remarkably, given her later problems with Europe, Thatcher played a particularly important role.

A number of other key factors played to Wilson’s hand in 1975.

Different media landscape

In 1975, the campaign to keep the UK within the EEC had 100% backing from the print media. Only the Morning Star and The Spectator favoured withdrawal. British newspapers that are today’s most virulent critics of the EU were to the forefront in their support of continuing membership in 1975. 

British business and the City of London were 100% in favour of staying in Europe.

The 1975 ‘Out’ campaign operated on a ‘shoestring’ budget. Those campaigning to keep the UK in the EEC were far better funded.

As voters went to the polls in the 1975 referendum, very few could have had an optimistic view of the capacity of the UK to ‘go it alone’. The UK economy was in disarray, inflation was in double digits, national debt and the trade deficit were both growing, GDP in serious decline, taxation was at eye watering levels, and industrial relations chaos was the order of the day. Europe in contrast looked like the promised land. 

Finally there was the issue of timing.  There had been two general elections in 1974.  These occupied the energies of all sides of the Europe debate. The EEC was an issue in both elections. Labour manifestos committed to fundamental renegotiation on the terms of UK membership – what constituted ‘fundamental’ was not defined.  

When the ‘renegotiations’ finally got underway, the process was firmly in the control of Wilson and the Foreign Secretary James Callaghan – and the detail was kept very much under cover. Throughout the negotiations the ‘no’ side were very much kept in the dark.

The speed with which the ‘renegotiations’ were concluded and the prime minister’s decision to set 5th June as the date for the referendum vote meant that the ‘NO’ campaign, had precious little time to put in place a national campaign.

All of these factors combined to producing an unambiguous endorsement for the UK remaining in the EEC, which, when the results were announced on 6th June 1975, took even the most optimistic ‘Yes’ campaigners by surprise.

The conditions for Prime Minister Cameron are in many ways more challenging.

While he faces serious divisions within the Conservative party, at least on the surface, they do not seem to be as virulent as that faced by Wilson in 1975. That could change rapidly.

The senior Eurosceptic members of David Cameron’s party are holding back until he completes his negotiations. When the negotiations are concluded they will be free to speak.

Cameron needs a scalp

If Cameron does not deliver something that can be dressed up as a significant victory from his negotiations – and he has not helped himself by rather over-selling his key points – the relative civility and tranquillity could quickly disappear.

In 1975, Wilson’s political opponents within Labour were ‘off sided’. That will not happen to the pre-Brexit brigade in the Conservative Party. They have been waiting for their moment for a long time and are unlikely to drop the ball.

Another issue that could well fracture the peace is the question of the Conservative leadership. The premier has stated that he does not intend to seek a third term as prime Minister. 

The current ‘frontrunner’ for leadership, Chancellor George Osborne can be expected to join the PM in campaigning for continuing membership.

All of the other potential front runners, the Home Secretary, Teresa May, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, are on the Eurosceptic side of the Tory party, particularly Mr Javid. The electorally very popular Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is ‘holding his fire’ but has dismissed claims about the economic downside of Brexit, said that the UK could have a “great great future outside the EU ”and that the value of Britain’s relationship with Europe has “never been lower”. If the Tory leadership contest and the referendum campaign become ‘conflated’ it could have very serious and negative consequences for those anxious to keep the UK in the EU.   

Perhaps the most striking change is the position of the UK media. The media support for Europe that was available in 1975 will certainly not only be forthcoming the upcoming referendum. In many cases it will be replaced by outright hostility that will strongly advantage the ‘out’ campaign.

Another change that will tilt the balance is in the area of funding. In 1975 the ‘no’ side was poorly funded. That will certainly not be the case on this occasion. All of the indicators suggest ready funding for those favouring withdrawal. The current indicators also point to a high degree of professionalism amongst those favouring ‘Brexit.’

The economic position of the UK is also significantly different than it was in 1975. It has weathered the recent economic storms rather better than many other Member States. The EU today looks less like a safe haven, growth is low, the Eurozone is still pulling out of its crisis and confidence in the Schengen area has been shot by the influx of refugees and of migrants. This reversal could contribute to a degree of hubris amongst voters and could impact on the referendum persuading voters that Brexit is ‘doable’.    

Since 1975, the British Labour Party has completely changed its position on Europe. However, Labour has its own internal distractions. A pro-EU group formed in the party is reported as having the support of over 90% of Labour MPs, including the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who voted ‘no’ in 1975. Corbyn has added a caveat that he would support British exit if Cameron negotiated a ‘watering down’ of workers’ rights. 

It will be interesting to see whether the Labour Party that is heavily focused on its internal issues, which is not anxious to do any favours for Mr Cameron and which is anxious to stem the slippage of its supporters to UKIP, can carry its voters in the referendum.

Finally, there is the position of the business community. While big business generally supports EU membership, so far business leaders have been cagey about coming out publically on the business benefits of EU membership.

David Cameron has drawn heavily on Wilson’s 1975 script. Given the internal pressures within his party he had little choice but to agree to hold a referendum and to put collective cabinet responsibility in abeyance for the duration of the referendum campaign. That has certainly ‘kept the lid’ on the potentially explosive pressures within the Conservative ranks and given him breathing space.

However, the respite might be short lived and the other elements that contributed to the 1975 result do not exist. There are no grounds for certainty that Mr Cameron will be able to stage a reprise of Wilson’s 1975 performance. Tribute bands are never as successful as those they imitate, however occasionally they manage to satisfy the audience. In the 27 other capitals, fingers will be crossed that this is one of those occasions.  

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