David Cameron dislikes the frequent comparisons between his premiership and that of Harold Wilson, but he should be grateful for the reassurance that the latter’s eventual victory in the 1975 referendum has given to jittery pro-Europeans in recent days. Back then, support for leaving the European Economic Community (EEC) reached its highest point just two weeks before the vote, after which the status quo recovered.
No one expects the result of this month’s referendum to be anything like Wilson’s landslide victory – the result was 67-33 to stay – but at the top of the Remain campaign there is still a belief that it will prevail, albeit by a narrow margin. This would follow the pattern of Cameron’s premiership: doing what Wilson did, only a little bit worse.
It was the Labour peer Andrew Adonis who first compared Cameron to Wilson, who won a general election “only by a whisker” in 1964. Cameron couldn’t even manage that in 2010 and took office in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That shortfall irks the Prime Minister when he and Wilson are compared.
Just as Cameron was bounced into his referendum to appease the right flank of his party, Wilson’s referendum was the product of the agitation of the Labour left. It was Tony Benn who first suggested it and Wilson, in the words of his then policy chief, Bernard Donoughue, “grabbed” the idea “because he saw it would get him through the next  election”. His subsequent victory in both elections in 1974 cannot be attributed solely to that promise, but the infighting that it averted helped to avoid a defeat.
Unfortunately for Cameron, he faces a more hostile crowd, as tribute bands often do. He must regret that, like Tony Blair but unlike Wilson, he did not keep his prime ministerial expiry date secret. Wilson told only a loyal few, including the Queen, whom he informed – shortly after becoming prime minister for a second time in 1974 – that she would have someone new in No 10 before the decade was out. The possibility that he might endure as leader of the Labour Party made Outers in the cabinet more cautious in attacking the government’s pro-European arguments. Cameron, deprived of the ability to take lasting revenge, has failed to stop his ministers traducing his character and deriding the predictive abilities of his Chancellor.
Those attacks have been amplified by the media, which are far more hostile to a Remain vote than they were in 1975. In the run-up to Wilson’s referendum, just the Morning Star and the Spectator backed an Out vote. Leave campaigners today are confident of securing the endorsement of the Mail, the Sun and “at least one” of the Times and the Telegraph. Remain campaigners are certain of the support of only the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Economist.
In 1975, this magazine described the “Out into the World” campaign to leave the EEC as “an essay in fear”. But Out into the World was a far less ruthless opponent than its successor Vote Leave, which has been criticised for setting up a website that purports to help people register to vote but in reality harvests their data for the Brexit camp.
Untruth is not a new commodity among Brexiteers. In 1975, the Out campaign warned of a “great queue of price increases” that would be unleashed if Britain voted to stay in. Now Vote Leave warns of a queue of 75 million Turkish people who will come to Britain when – not if – that country joins the European Union.
There are other vital differences between the two Eurosceptic campaigns. Today, every message from Vote Leave passes through a series of strategists and pollsters, but in 1975 Out into the World’s campaign could almost have been designed by pro-Europeans to advertise the weaknesses of their opponents’ case. It focused on prices and the wider economy – territory where, then as now, the Remain argument was more compelling.
Cameron has stronger opponents and weaker allies. Wilson took a back seat in the referendum campaign, as he was blessed with the support of Labour heavyweights who were as popular as him, if not more so: Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Jim Callaghan. When Cameron looks for aid from his own big beasts, he can call on George Osborne, consistently the least popular politician in Britain; Philip Hammond, a relative unknown to the public despite being Foreign Secretary; and Theresa May, at best a reluctant campaigner for a Remain vote. The only Conservative who is more popular with the public than Cameron is Boris Johnson – and he has declared for the other side.
Wilson was also fighting against a backdrop that was more sympathetic to the idea of peaceful unity in Europe. The 1975 vote was as close to the end of rationing as the 2016 referendum is to the advent of Tony Blair. It took place a decade after the death of Winston Churchill, when most voting adults could remember the Second World War. That conflict could still shape the outcome of the 2016 vote – support for a Brexit vote is weaker among the generation that can remember the war than it is among the baby boomers born soon afterwards.
Yet, for all the difficulties, the same focus on jobs, trade and security that delivered 17 million largely Conservative and Liberal votes in 1975 to keep a Labour prime minister in office may yet deliver enough Liberal Democrat and Labour voters to save David Cameron’s job. That would keep him on track to be remembered as the Conservative echo of Wilson’s Labour original.
Despite his irritation with the comparison, Cameron will take that epitaph over being remembered as the premier who took Britain out of Europe by accident.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe