A referendum is no cure-all Why do so many politicians want an EU vote? Stephen Ward recalls Wilson's exper ience

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The Independent Online
Under pressure from public opinion and their own backbenchers, the leaders of both main political parties are openly considering the possibility of a referendum on Britain's future relationship with Europe. For John Major, and to a lesser extent p otentially for Tony Blair as well, a referendum would be a means of settling inner-party differences and pleasing the voters.

Some of the consequences of Harold Wilson's 1975 referendum on Common Market membership, however, were not so beneficial, although this has tended to be forgotten.

To worried government managers at the moment, the 1975 referendum must seem like an ideal. Imagine John Major's mind working out his New Year dreams: he offers a plebiscite on Europe, and after a campaign led from his soapbox, a nation votes in favour bya comfortable majority. Michael Portillo, and the 60 or so anti-Europe MPs in his party, say: "All right, John, we've lost this one, you were right, you're the leader, let's all get on with running the country."

In popular memory, that is what Wilson achieved in 1975. But Mr Major would be wise to look more carefully.

For a start, the dream ignores potential pitfalls along the way. What question does the referendum ask; is it binding or consultative; how much money does he allow each side to spend; when exactly does he hold it, before or after a general election? Evenif he gets these essentially tactical considerations right, experience of the Labour referendum suggests it was not the panacea it was supposed to be.

Wilson had started with a more deeply divided party and Cabinet than Major. He had publicly even been anti-referendum himself as late as 1972, when the Heath government carried a free vote in the Commons. The opposition within the Labour leadership from then on came on two fronts: opponents to membership of what was then called the Common Market, and those who favoured Europe, and so were against the principle of a referendum to reopen an issue they believed was closed.

Wilson himself had carefully not rejected membership of the EEC on principle, but only on the grounds that the terms on offer were not good enough. In March 1973, the Labour Shadow Cabinet switched policy to favour a referendum. Roy Jenkins, then deputy

leader, resigned, followed by David Owen, but they returned to the Shadow Cabinet before the February 1974 election. This election, dominated by the miners' strike, power cuts and the three-day week, returned a minority Labour government; the subsequent October election returned one with a small working majority. Among the issues had been Europe, but anti- marketers had only a limited choice: if they voted Conservative, Britain would stay in the EEC for certain; if they voted Labour, there was at least the prospect of a referendum on the matter.

By the time of the referendum campaign in June 1975, Wilson had negotiated better financial terms, which allowed him, and the Cabinet, to recommend in favour. But, in a more significant constitutional development than holding a referendum, anti-marketeers including the ministers Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle were allowed to drop the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility and argue against.

By just over two to one, the vote was in favour of staying in Europe, and the antis were allowed back in, with the issue of Europe shelved. To Machiavellians, Wilson had triumphed. While the Tory leader, Edward Heath, had arguedagainst the very idea of areferendum as "not the British way", saying it "undermines the mandate of a government", he had shown that a referendum could be used once, then put away again without the world ending.

But the Labour government's coherence had been fatally undermined, as is shown by the anger expressed in the memoirs of almost all the participants. The left felt that their campaign had been swamped by the disparity in spending between the "yes" and the"no" campaigns. A White Paper published after the campaign showed that one side had raised £1.5m and the other only £8,600, on top of the £125,000 of public funds allocated to each. Owen, Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers left the party within a decade.

An arguably still more damaging effect was on the credibility of a government unable to agree on a fundamental issue. Wilson himself implicitly acknowledged the loss of direction by handing over power a year later to James Callaghan, who had been no moreenthusiastic about Europe than he had been.

His Cabinet included ministers who had campaigned against him, and the Government, although fresh from a period in opposition, had a feel similar to the tail end of the 13 years of Conservative rule up to 1964, and of the present Conservative government - though without the same excuse. All three governments seemed to have lost authority, to have done all they came into office to do, and to see staying on in office as an end in itself.

There were also effects on the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility. This allows Cabinet ministers to argue as much as they like behind closed doors, at the same time ensuring that in public they accept and defend the agreed policy, or resign.

The Wilson and Callaghan experience showed that the principle of collective responsibility has a purpose beyond convenience for the Prime Minister trying to keep people in line. If the members of a government cannot agree on a policy even among themselves, why should anyone owe it any respect?

In 1932, the coalition National Government was similarly split over tariff reform, and the Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, suspended collective responsibility. There was no referendum then, but that too became a discredited, aimless government, which subsided into decline. Again, it stayed in power, but with little purpose other than power itself.

It is arguably good for democracy if a question that bears on something so fundamental as sovereignty is put directly to the people every two decades or so, thus showing the accountability of Parliament, but it will not necessarily get a divided party off the hook.