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  1. Election 2024
7 January 2016

David Cameron has borrowed Harold Wilson’s tactics – will he share his fate?

In 1975, Labour divided over Europe. In 1983, they were split - and crushed. Will the same happen to the Tories today?

By Tim Bale

David Cameron was always going to do a Wilson.  Pressed, like the political maestro who led Labour between 1963 and 1976 into holding a referendum as a last resort, he too has conducted a renegotiation which his opponents condemn as cosmetic and has announced he’ll allow his Cabinet colleagues to campaign on either side of the argument. And presumably he’s hoping the parallels won’t end there: on 5 June 1975, UK voters decided by an overwhelming margin to keep the country in what was then the EEC.

However, those parallels aren’t by any means exact.

True, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – then the Tories, now Labour – is overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in Europe, which should help ensure the support of a good chunk of otherwise hostile voters.

But it nevertheless looks like it might be much closer this time round. Eurosceptic attitudes are now much more mainstream than they were back in the mid-seventies. There is now a third party in the country which garnered four million votes at the last election and is dedicated to getting Britain out of the EU. Business backing isn’t quite as solid as it was back then. The resources both sides can bring to bear are likely to be much more evenly matched than they were in 1975.  And, unlike then, the print media is, on balance, more inclined to recommend people vote out than in.

Still, in spite of all this, Cameron stands a decent chance of pulling off a win – mainly, just as Wilson did, by convincing enough of his own, as well as floating, voters that, firstly, he’s got a good-enough deal out of Brussels and, secondly, that Brexit just isn’t worth the risk.

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Ironically, however, that’s when some very astute analysts are forecasting that the parallels between the first and second European referendums could get really interesting and, if you’re a Tory, really scary.

Labour, they point out, failed to put itself back together again after a vote which saw its radical true-believers campaign on one side and its moderate, pragmatic centrists campaign on the other.  After losing, first, its ingenious (but exhausted) leader and then its shaky parliamentary majority, it limped on as an increasingly fractious minority government until it was finally defeated by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Worse, Labour’s misery didn’t end there.  The struggle between the party’s right and left grew so bitter that some MPs in the former camp left to form the SDP in 1981, and in 1983 Labour, on a manifesto which called for withdrawal from Europe, suffered a catastrophic election defeat, helping to ensure that, after four years in opposition already, it would stay there for a further fourteen.

But are the parallels between what happened to Labour after the 1975 referendum and what might happen to the Tories after 2016 or 2017 that persuasive?

Probably not.  For a start, Labour’s divides over Europe were symptomatic of divides across a whole range of issues, both ideological and organisational. Although, when it comes to the Tories today, there’s some limited evidence to link particularly hardline Eurosceptic views with views on other economic and social questions, particularly among MPs, the contemporary Conservative Party simply isn’t as fundamentally split as Labour was four decades ago.

Secondly, the Tories, both at the grassroots and at Westminster, are supremely confident that they are going to win the next election – in marked contrast to their Labour counterparts in the late seventies and early eighties and, indeed, their very own predecessors in the Major years.

That confidence could, of course, breed complacency and carelessness, particularly if indulged during a closely-fought leadership contest.  Yet it’s far more likely to encourage those Tories with any ambition who end up on the losing side of the referendum to cut their losses and get with a programme based around keeping the state small, regulation light and taxes low – causes that almost Conservatives can happily unite around.

Finally, it’s difficult to believe – especially in the light of Ukip’s failure to convert its support into parliamentary seats and the lack of any serious prospect of electoral reform – that a bunch of Tory MPs, in the highly unlikely event that they are persecuted post-referendum, will do a Williams, Owen, Jenkins and Rodgers and jump ship.

It may be that some Labour people, convinced (as some Tories were convinced back in 1975) that they’re saddled with a leader who the public won’t warm to, are praying that a government split over Europe will eventually see it implode. If so, those prayers look set to go unanswered. 

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