The loser now, will be later to win? Anti-market campaigners in 1975. Photo: Getty Images
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Don't look back in anger: why both In and Out must move on 1975

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Britain's last referendum on its membership of the European Union. But both In and Out must move on from that contest if they are to win the next one.

To remain, or not to remain, that is the question which will dominate the first half of this Parliament, beginning with the second reading of the Referendum Bill next week.

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" appears set to be the question on which we shall all have the chance to vote, maybe next year, or otherwise in 2017.

Forty years ago today, Britain voted by 17 million to 8 million to remain in the European Economic Community, a 2-1 victory to stay in the club, with 65 per cent of those eligible turning out to vote.

Even four decades on, that referendum casts a long shadow still. Indeed, both sides of the next referendum debate risk remaining trapped in a 1975 timewarp, having done nothing like enough to update their arguments to adapt to how the world has changed since. This helps to explain why neither side looks anything like ready to contest the referendum – certainly once it comes to preaching beyond their committed supporters to the undecided voters who will actually decide the outcome.

“We only voted for a Common Market” is the refrain of those who have been itching for a re-run practically every day since June 1975.  That potent emotional cocktail of conspiracy and betrayal is a source of much Eurosceptic passion and energy. It casts Ted Heath as a traitor, never to be forgiven, each of his successors from Wilson to Cameron part of an elite conspiracy of sovereignty surrendered, borders opened and Britain betrayed.

It is an argument that can work, too – just as long as you remember that first vote personally. Around one-third of the 25 million who cast a vote in 1975 are still around today. They chose Europe then, when they were the younger part of the 1975 electorate, mostly aged between 18 and 34. 

So the big success of the 'out' cause has been a big sceptical swing among those who did cast a vote in 1975, and who are now the one group in the population who are more 'out' than 'in'. But its big failure has been to find an argument that makes sense to those who were not already adults then, especially those born in the last 40 years. If the referendum franchise were restricted to the over 55s, old enough to be voting for the second time, the “out” camp would start favourites, rather than underdogs. The problem for "out" is that everybody else will get a vote as well.

Hence the growing concern among thoughtful Eurosceptics about the “Farage paradox” – that, despite UKIP's intense appeal to the 13 per cent who voted purple in May, the overall impact of UKIP's high public profile has been to reduce support for leaving the EU, risking the 50 per cent target slipping beyond reach. Curiously, this gives UKIP a good claim to be the only political force in living memory to have shifted British public attitudes in a pro-European direction. Where Ted Heath, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg all failed, Nigel Farage seems to have accidentally succeeded. 

However, the pro-Europeans should not be too complacent that the other side will simply do their work for them. They too have the ability to be their own worst enemies. The story of 1975 is so beguilingly comforting that it risks trapping the Europhiles in a 1975 timewarp too.

A Prime Minister, dealing with a divided party, promised a renegotiation. Few paid any attention to the details – and precious little, bar some concessions for New Zealand butter, was achieved anyway – but opinion swung dramatically from an ‘out’ lead in the polls to give ‘in’ a decisive victory.

The 1975 campaign became characterized as a debate between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremes’. All of the people who looked like they could govern the country – Wilson and Thatcher, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams – were on one side, backed by business, most union leaders and the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail too. The opposition was a motley coalition of political renegades. But the combination of Tony Benn, Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley didn’t inspire confidence in having a plan for Britain after we left.

The hope that history will repeat itself has been much picked over in pro-European gatherings - even when they are meant to be strategising about the next referendum, not the last one. At one think-tank seminar, shortly before the General Election, where almost every contribution had focused on dissecting precedents and lessons from 1975, it all got a bit too much for one former government minister. “Could you all please stop going on about 1975? It’s ridiculous. Do you think they sat around discussing the campaigning lessons of the 1930s?", he shouted in frustration.

He was right to challenge the complacency. If a coalition of the elites proved persuasive in 1975, it might generate a two-fingered salute in today’s less deferential Britain. A narrow elite-led campaign runs the risk that people will hear them talking about the benefits of the European Union and simply think “we already know it works for people like you – but I don’t see why that benefits me”.

But the biggest shadow of 1975 for the pro-Europeans is that they forged their ‘winning’ arguments at a moment of national decline. 1975 was not a confident moment for Britain. Sir Christopher Soames summed up the 1975 mood with his warning that ‘In our present, parlous condition, this is no time for Britain to consider leaving a Christmas club, let alone the Common market’. It was an era dominated by debates about British ‘decline’, the country being ungovernable and going to the dogs. Even the most ambitious idea seemed to be that if we could try to catch up with the continentals, or turn ourselves into Germany, things might just get better.

That era of economic, cultural and psychological decline has long been over, but the pro-European arguments have barely changed to adapt to that. Forty years on, Nick Clegg was still making the Soames’ case. In losing his televised debate with Nigel Farage, Clegg painted a bleak picture of a "sort of Billy No Mates Britain - a Billy No Jobs Britain, a Billy No Influence Britain", which would commit “economic suicide” if we were to leave. As with Nigel Farage’s claim that Britain cannot claim to be a democracy if we stay in the EU, the absolute certainties of the committed fail to connect with anybody who feels torn by the choice. 

Tired pro-European metaphors about missing the boat and trains leaving the station have lost their power. In the era of the Eurozone crisis, people are much more inclined to want to ask questions about the train’s destination before worrying about not being on it. 

As Survation’s new polling on trust and Europe for British Future shows, both sides of the referendum campaign might want to be wary of those who are keenest to lead the referendum charge.  

Either side could win this referendum – or, perhaps more to the point, lose it, by failing to understand those who do not already agree with them.

‘Out’ won’t win if they do not broaden their appeal beyond those who remember 1975 – and who would turn the clock back if they could. Optimistic Eurosceptics like Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and UKIP’s Douglas Carswell have made a cogent case that their side needs to make an argument about the future, not just offer a better yesterday. 

‘In’ can’t win if it offers a campaign only by, for and about those who feel confident about the way Britain is changing today, contrasting enlightened internationalism with narrow nationalism, and declaring that the question is whether to be “open or closed”. ‘In’ will win most graduates, as well as Londoners and Scots, but it needs a majority across Britain. 

Any sense of complacency that ‘in’ is likely to win could prove fatal for the pro-Europeans, particularly if that leads to a lower turnout. The 1975 turnout of 65 per cent sounds pretty respectable today, but six million of the 78 per cent who had turned out in the February 1974 general election didn’t bother. Should a referendum turnout in 2016 or 2017 dip towards 50 per cent, then the ‘out’ camp’s stronger appeal to older voters could be more useful than the half-hearted support of those who weren’t persuaded it would make enough difference to them, and didn’t turn up. 

So there is everything to play for. This referendum will be a big moment for British democracy. The outcome is up for grabs. Nobody can be certain which side will seize the opportunity. Whichever works hardest to escape the long shadow of the 1975 campaign may well have much the better chance. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.