When Harold Wilson announced in early 1975 that he would hold a referendum on Britain’s EEC membership, the new Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, derided the government’s decision as “a tactical device to get over a split in their own party.”
Much the same could be said today of David Cameron’s referendum promise. But, in this regard, Cameron appears not to have learned the lesson of the last referendum. Far from helping Labour get over the split in its party, the referendum just compounded the issue. It took them 22 years to recover fully and win a general election.
Read any account of the 1975 referendum and you will be transported back to a world where the labour movement was at the peak of its powers. A world where left and left-of-centre politicians – from Tony Benn to Roy Jenkins to Jeremy Thorpe – consistently dominated headlines and set the national agenda, and Labour had won four elections out of the last five.
There are many different theories as to why Labour disintegrated in the years that followed – structural changes in the workforce, the rise of individualism, ill-advised militancy on the part of the trades unions – but none of them really account for the suddenness of the party’s demise.
1975 was the moment Labour stepped over the edge of the cliff and Europe was the issue that pushed them. After that it was only a matter of time until – like Wile E. Coyote – they looked down and realised there was no ground beneath them.
After his 1972 resignation from the shadow cabinet over the decision to support a referendum on EEC membership, Roy Jenkins was never again to feel quite at home in the party led by Wilson and Callaghan. And when one of the strongest advocates of British withdrawal, Michael Foot, took over as Labour leader in November 1980, enough was enough. Two months later, Jenkins along with three other senior Labour Europhiles – Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – quit the Party and founded the SDP, splitting irrevocably the progressive, social democratic coalition that had been a dominant force in British politics since 1945.
The result of the referendum was even worse news for the traditional Labour left, which had campaigned strongly for a no vote. When 67.2 percent of the country voted yes, even the Guardian lined up to ridicule them: “the notion that Mr Benn or the Transport and General Workers’ Union can ‘speak for the working class’ has been exploded in full sight,” was the judgment of Peter Jenkins.
But the Tories can hardly look back at 1975 with glee as the moment the Labour party imploded, because they fared little better. Enoch Powell quit the Conservative Party for good in February 1974, in protest against the fact that he was expected to toe the party line on EEC membership. He timed his departure to create maximum political impact – five days before a general election – and then proceeded to advocate voting Labour. Talk about burning your bridges.
Powell’s self-imposed exile left other Eurosceptic Tories feeling marginalised. When the referendum came a year later, the party lined up behind its pro-EEC leadership. Though exact figures are not available, The Economist estimated at the time that 85 per cent of Conservatives voted to stay in.
Despite this apparent display of unity, the wound opened by Powell in 1974 has refused to heal. Every Tory leader since has had to plot a careful course between the Europhile Scylla and Eurosceptic Charybdis within their own rank and file. Thatcher’s demise came when she tacked too close to the Eurosceptics, only to have her Europhile deputy PM, Geoffrey Howe, resign and bring her down with him.
Major’s battle with “the bastards” (he was caught on an open mic referring to his Eurosceptic Cabinet colleagues as such in 1993) was a running sore that blighted his whole time in office. And today, Cameron faces the twin problem of fighting off an electoral challenge from Powell’s political heirs in Ukip, while also keeping the Eurosceptic wing of his own party happy.
So in a sense, the 2016 EU referendum is itself a consequence of the domestic political storms unleashed by the last one. History may not be the best guide to the future, but if Cameron thinks his referendum will put the Tory party’s travails over Europe to bed, he should think again.