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The EU Referendum Repeat

1975 versus 2016

Isn’t it strange how history sometimes seems to repeat itself? Not always in exactly the same way, but in ways to make it seem uncanny.

Take the remarkable resemblances between the referendum of 1975 and the one we’re having now, both regarding Britain’s future in Europe.

Back in 1974 Labour leader, Harold Wilson, won a general election with a very slim majority.

One year earlier Britain joined the European Economic Community (later to be called the European Union) under a Conservative government led by Edward Heath.

Prime Minister Wilson promised to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then to hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EEC.

The Labour government was in favour of Britain’s continued membership. But the cabinet was split. So Mr Wilson suspended Cabinet collective responsibility. Cabinet members were allowed to publicly campaign against each other.

In total, seven of the twenty-three members of the Labour cabinet opposed EEC membership, mostly the left-wing stalwarts of the Labour Party, such as Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Barbara Castle.

In some ways, the 1975 referendum was a mirror image of today.

Unlike today, in 1975 the Labour Party and the TUC were against Britain’s membership of what was then nicknamed the Common Market. Indeed, the Labour Party conference voted 2-to-1 against continued membership.

Also unlike today, in 1975 all main British newspapers were in favour of Britain’s continued membership.

And unlike today, Conservative Party members in 1975 were mostly in favour of Britain’s membership. Indeed, the then leader of the Conservative Party and the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, fervently campaigned for Britain to stay a member.

Some of the same language was used in the 1975 referendum as today. When Labour cabinet minister, Tony Benn, claimed that Britain had lost half-a-million jobs as a result of membership of the EEC, the Daily Mirror responded by calling him, “The Minister of fear.”

Although many Eurosceptics today claim that, in 1975, they were only told that the European Economic Community was to do with free trade, that wasn’t reflected in the campaign literature of the time. In the ‘No’ campaign brochure voters were warned about Common Market membership:

• To end a thousand years of British freedom and independent nationhood is an unheard of constitutional change.

• Do you want us to be a self-governing nation, or to be a province of Europe?

• Do we want self-government as a great independent nation, or do we want to be governed as a province of the EEC by Commissioners and a Council of Ministers, predominantly foreign, in Brussels?

• Do we want to lose the whole of our individual influence as a nation, which is still great, in order to enhance the status of Europe, which would then function largely outside our control?

David Cameron also only won the General Election in 2015 with a very slim majority.

Just as Prime Minister Harold Wilson had promised in 1974, Prime Minister David Cameron also promised in 2015 that he would renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum.

Just as detractors in 1975 described Mr Wilson’s reforms of Britain’s membership as ‘cosmetic’, so have Eurosceptics today similarly described Mr Cameron’s reforms.

Just as Harold Wilson’s Labour government was in favour of Britain’s continued membership, so is David Cameron’s Conservative government.

Just as the Labour Party membership was mostly against EEC membership in 1975, in 2016 most Conservative Party members are against Britain’s membership of the European Union.

And just as Harold Wilson allowed his Cabinet Ministers in 1975 to campaign against each other on the question of Britain’s future membership, so has David Cameron in 2016 allowed his Cabinet Ministers to campaign against each other.

Just as in Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1975, a total of seven of David Cameron’s 22 Cabinet Ministers are campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union.

They are mostly the right-wing stalwarts of the Conservative Party including Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan-Smith (who recently resigned as a Cabinet Minister).

In June 1975, the electorate voted overwhelmingly – two-to-one – in favour of Britain remaining a member of the European Economic Community.

However, the Labour Party was never the same again.

Nine months after the referendum, Prime Minister Harold Wilson resigned.

Four senior Labour Party members later split from the party and formed the Social Democrats in 1981, later to be merged with the Liberal Party.

The 1974 Labour victory wasn’t to be repeated again for 23 years, when Tony Blair won the General Election for Labour in 1997.

Of course, to what extent, if any, the 1975 referendum was responsible for the change in Labour’s fortunes is difficult to prove, and there were many other factors.

However, it’s interesting to compare the striking similarities between Britain’s referendum of 1975 and the one we are about to have in ten weeks time.

Britain’s second referendum campaign on the question of our membership of the European Community has now officially begun. The vote will take place on 23 June, and we will know the result on 24 June.

Will there be any other similarities to the 1975 referendum? We will have to wait and see..

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