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.