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.