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UK Politics

Donald Macityre's Sketch: With one bound, Ed Miliband breaks free of Harold Wilson


It was easy to imagine, as he was speaking at the London Business School, how daunting it must have been for Ed Miliband to step out of the shadow of a Labour Prime Minister who became party leader after his predecessor’s untimely death, was a serial election winner, a brilliant communicator, and is in some ways a model for David Cameron.

In case you have anyone more recent in mind, we’re talking about Harold Wilson, of course. Because it’s all Wilson’s fault, this referendum business. After his speech Miliband was pressed to agree that as it was “40 years” since the British people had been asked about EU membership, it was surely time to ask them again. As if Wilson’s 1975 stratagem was some deeply embedded part of the constitution instead of the first UK-wide referendum in history, and at the time a distinctly un-British and spatchcocked solution to the split in his party.

Which is just the example that Cameron is now following, with – if he wins the election and they stay in their posts – William Hague and Europe minister David Lidington being allotted Jim Callaghan and Roy Hattersley’s historic roles of cobbling together some threadbare formula which will allow the PM to claim that he has “renegotiated” the terms of British membership.

For a speech that has had the gestation period of the average camel, having been in the making, with much internal argument on the way, since Cameron first announced he was going down that road back in January last year, Miliband’s address was hardly Ciceronian.

But his mood was confident enough for him to ask at one point if any more journalists wanted to ask him about it (as well as the “ordinary” people in the audience – possibly not the wisest way of describing the assembled whizz kid MBA students and future CEOs; “real” is perhaps a better word on such occasions).

True, he made a simple, if ingenious, formula sound a bit more complicated than was strictly necessary. His new “guarantee” of an in/out vote is more than “unlikely” to be needed in the next parliament, since no one is talking about transferring more British powers to Brussels.

But you could hardly expect him to say out loud: “Read my lips: there will be no referendum before 2020 if I win, as I believe I will. If you think a Labour government is going to be derailed by some anti-European new Tory leader, then dream on, suckers.”  

Whether because of the evident relief of much of business at the suddenly decreased prospect of a referendum, or his own at having finally delivered, he seemed happy.

With one bound, however long delayed, he had broken free of the Wilson incubus.