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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear