Calls for EU referendum awaken old memories of political havoc: Opponents of gathering campaign point to prospect of deep divisions and bizarre allegiances. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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'WHEN Labour had a referendum in order to provide party unity, it not only created the Social Democratic Party but it has kept them 14 years in opposition.'

That was yesterday's contribution to the great referendum debate from Jim Lester, the Tory MP for Broxtowe. As far as the spectacular Labour divisions caused by the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Community are concerned, some would say that is putting it mildly.

Gerald Kaufman, one of many Labour MPs who revised their anti-Community opinions after Harold Wilson's plebiscite over whether Britain should stay in, has no doubt that the event split the party.

The contest saw seven left- wingers fighting alongside Tory anti-marketeers against an all- party coalition which, with the help of a press unanimously in favour, won the popular vote by a comfortable 2 to 1.

The antis, particularly, attracted a clutch of unlikely faces on the fringes. The likes of Tony Benn, Peter Shore, Ian Mikardo, Michael Foot and Clive Jenkins, the white-collar union leader, were joined by Enoch Powell, the former Tory minister, the National Front and the Maoists. Mr Powell advised the electorate to vote Labour in 1974 because of its anti-European credentials.

Pros such as Sir Edward Heath, and Labour's Roy Jenkins, later to defect to the Europhile SDP, had the privilege of the support of Sir Oswald Mosley.

Opponents of the gathering campaign, based largely on notions of party 'unity', for a referendum on the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference, and even on the much more distant decision on the single currency, point to the political manoeuvrings involved in framing the questions, the bizarre alliances that would be forged to campaign over the result, not to mention the fact that it would still leave a number of Euro-sceptical demands unsatisfied, including ruling out all prospect of monetary union or even leaving the European Union altogether.

John Major was 'demented' not to firmly stamp on the idea, Mr Kaufman declared. Yesterday's prime minister's questions saw him 'preparing to retreat. It was a weak and craven performance'.

Arguably, a referendum has the potential to make last year's Maastricht battle look like an out- of-hand children's tea party. A crucial difference is that the rebellions were largely confined to late- hour House of Commons sittings, with the entire payroll vote of Cabinet ministers and junior colleagues toeing the line.

According to Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister who took Britain into the Community in 1972, the loudest calls come from those who never accepted the result the last time. The argument about unity was 'absolutely misconceived'.

Mr Kaufman's advice to Mr Major of the short-term pitfalls could not be clearer.

'The 1975 referendum made disarray within the party a routine event. It became perfectly all right for members of the Cabinet to appear on platforms against each other, for MPs of different parties to appear on the same platform, for different parties to ally themselves.'

The argument began when Wilson's minor renegotiation of Britain's membership was rejected by 145 Labour MPs, while a further 33 abstained. But the depth of Labour's internal warfare is disputed by Peter Shore. 'There was a very big division when the proposal was first floated. But by the time it took place it was an essential healing process,' he said.

Formerly Secretary of State for Trade, he was moved to environment afterwards, while Mr Benn shifted from industry to energy.

But the fomentation, once established, went on wreaking political havoc. A majority of the 1976 party conference voted against direct elections to what was then the European assembly. Even then, the argument was that this would be an irreversible step towards membership of a European superstate. As late as 1983, pulling out of the Community still featured in the Labour general election manifesto. Neil Kinnock was later to admit that to 'court the idea of trying to get on the outside' was an error of judgement.

Even those who were against the idea of a referendum entertain some fond memories, however, of vigorous, well-attended meetings, of a public engaged in the issue. There was, Mr Shore added, no question of them passing a verdict on the Government. He believes, perhaps hopefully, that they would equally fasten on the 1996 changes and the single currency issue, if given the chance - al though there would have to be strict rules on equal access to the media and campaign expenditure. It would be a fitting quid pro quo for not having had a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

Everyone knows that one Parliament cannot bind future Parliaments but European treaties can, he emphasised. 'We are peculiarly defenceless. We haven't got a written constitution. Measures can be passed by a parliamentary majority of one.'

(Photograph omitted)