What Ed Miliband can learn from Harold Wilson about an EU referendum

It is a question of when, not if, Miliband will offer an EU referendum. Here's what he can learn from his predecessor-but-seven.

Ed Miliband can perhaps be forgiven for his reluctance to leap in and commit a Labour government to holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. After all, in a speech to the CBI last November he warned that fellow EU countries are "deeply concerned" because they sense Britain is "heading to the departure lounge". But realpolitik now makes it matter of when and how he follows David Cameron’s lead in calling for a referendum, not if.

When that moment comes, he could do worse than to learn a thing or two from his predecessor-but-seven, Harold Wilson. As prime minister, Wilson did what Cameron now promises to do: renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum on the outcome. Like Cameron today, his referendum was about fudging internal party divisions as he took a seemingly outrageous chance with the country’s future strategic interests. But Wilson – who won more general elections (four) than any other 20th century prime minister – was no slouch when it came to campaigning and his approach to the 1975 referendum bears a number of useful lessons for Miliband now.

1. A referendum can be cathartic. In his 1976 book The Governance of Britain, Wilson wrote that the referendum "ended once and for all the previous doubts about the support of the British people for membership of the European Community." It’s a high-wire act, but the potential reward for winning a referendum on Europe could be to bring to an end to decades of sniping and foot-dragging about Europe. And it would set up Ed as a leader prepared to lead boldly.

2. Hold a vote quickly. Wilson’s famous dictum that "a week is a long time in politics is especially insightful when it comes to holding referendums. It is wise to move quickly before other problem sget in the way and the vote becomes a stick to beat a mid-term government. The 1975 referendum was held just nine months after the October 1974 General Election on 6 June.

3. A win is a win: don’t set a threshold for support or turnout. The 1975 referendum was passed with 67 per cent support on a 65 per cent turnout. However Labour’s disastrous decision just four years later to impose a condition that 40 per cent of Scotland's total registered electorate had to vote in favour during the referendum on a Scottish parliamentsaw the vote fall short (just 52 per cent voted yes on a 64 per cent turnout). This precipitated the collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government.

4. Public opinion will shift. Just as now, a majority of people in 1975 were sceptical about European membership at the start of the referendum campaign. But as Peter Kellner points out, now, as in 1975, opinion "is not completely fixed"; with the renegotiated terms providing a potentially useful new element which can be used to undermine existing hostility.

5. Labour is more united now than it was then. A referendum is often a time for friends to agree to disagree. Wilson suspended the cabinet’s collective responsibility courtesy of an "agreement to differ". He had huge political figures like Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle ranged against him and much of the trade union movement hostile to Europe. Miliband is far more fortunate; divisions within the Labour tribe about Europe are puny compared to those confronting Wilson in the 1970s. Miliband’s problem is not about getting colleagues to vote yes, but how to keep them aligned as he choreographs a change of policy to now support a referendum.

6. A referendum forces the political centre ground to co-operate. Wilson, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan – the big beasts of the Labour government – were united in favour of a 'yes' vote in 1975. As were much of the Conservative and Liberal parties. Indeed, one opposition figure was particularly forthright: "If we fail and the British people vote ‘no’ to the European Community, they will read how there was a defeat for co-operation between nations…They will read how extremism won over commonsense."

So said Margaret Thatcher.

Harold Wilson's 1975 referendum on Britain's EEC membership ended in a 67-33 vote in favour of staying in.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.