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Analysis

We must learn lessons from the successful 1975 referendum

by David Hannay | 06.08.2019

The new government makes no secret of the fact that it is in campaigning mode, whether for an early election or another referendum – although its face is firmly set against the latter, usually described as undemocratic, an affront to the will of the people etc. That is an odd way to characterise a narrow victory on the basis of a false prospectus. Never mind; we will get there. 

But it is surely time to study and to apply some of the lessons from 1975 and 2016.

Collective leadership 

The 1975 “Yes” campaign had no single leader. The prime minister, Harold Wilson supported its objective. So did his foreign secretary and eventual successor, James Callaghan, who had re-negotiated the terms of Britain’s entry which provided the basis for the referendum. But they were not part of that campaign and would not share platforms with their cross-party allies. The leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, was not a leader of it either. 

From the outset there was a collective leadership drawn from across the three main parties. They shared platforms up and down the country and agreed policies on European issues, although they remained adversaries in Parliament. So it can be done. And it won a 2:1 victory.

Avoid gaming post-referendum options for government

At no stage in 1975 did the “Yes” campaign flirt with ideas of a government of national unity after the referendum. The break-away from the Labour Party of the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers) came later, when control of the party fell into the hands of the leaders of the “No” campaign (Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Peter Shore) and it headed for the manifesto commitment in the 1983 election to leave the European Communities. 

Talk of post-referendum options for government sets up tensions within the campaign leadership, confuses and risks alienating the electorate and brings no compensating benefits.

Positive or negative campaign?

The “Yes” campaign in 1975 was determinedly positive. The same could not be said of the Remain campaign in 2016 and that was surely an error. Now the government has taken ownership of Project Fear and is going to spend millions on the communications campaign setting out the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal – and they will not be pretty. Leave them to it. 

Supporters of Remain in a future referendum campaign should concentrate this time on Project Hope, not Project Fear – on setting out the positive policies which a UK still in the EU would champion: environmental policies to combat climate change, completing the single market in services (80% of our economy), a free and fair global trade policy, tough competition and tax avoidance rules to face the challenge of multinational companies, effective action against terrorism and cross-border crime, foreign and security policies to stand up for the values and interests we share with the rest of Europe and to avoid simply bobbing along in the wake of Donald Trump’s erratic attempts to disrupt the rules-based international order. Quite a list – and more besides.

Try truth, not fiction 

No doubt some aspects of the 1975 campaign were not perfect and some untruths were told on both sides. But it was not the case that the “Yes“ campaign advocated staying in a common market rather than a political body. If you do not believe that, just read Thatcher’s speeches at the time. 

And in 2016 Leave told some real whoppers – about the sums of money sent to Brussels and which could easily be switched to the NHS, about the millions of Turks who would shortly benefit from free movement, about staying in the single market after we left. Next time they must not be allowed to get away with it. Not by fighting fire with fire; but by rigorous fact-checking and transparent advocacy.

Argument by historical analogy is never exact or perfect. But those who ignore the lessons of history are all too likely to repeat it.

2 Responses to “We must learn lessons from the successful 1975 referendum”

  • You’re forgetting the fundamental difference between 1975 and 2016: in 1975 the issue of European immigration was not linked to the issue of immigration (which was extremely unpopular in the ’70s, as can be noted by the strength of the National Front at the time).

    It was only in 2005 when impoverished ex-communist countries joined the EU (and worse, when only the UK, Ireland and Sweden gave their citizens immediate access to their labour markets) that the UK started to experience mass immigration from EU states, thus allowing the Brexiteers to ride to referendum victory on an anti-immigration ticket.

  • Sorry, I meant “the issue of European _integration_ was not linked to the issue of immigration” of course…