Analysis: History likely to repeat itself

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The Euro-sceptics may be unwise to call for a referendum on EU membership – they are likely to lose.

Yesterday, hopeful Conservative back-benchers filed into the Commons to vote on MP James Wharton’s private member’s bill.

Whether they were motivated by the electoral threat from Ukip or principled opposition to British membership of the European Union, they should be careful what they wish for.

Of course, all this is part of David Cameron’s attempt to bury the issue of EU membership until after the next election. But there is a chance – some would say a risk – that a referendum could be held before.

This prospect has drawn criticism from the likes of Ken Clarke. He need not worry. The chances are that a referendum would be won by those supporting EU membership.

To understand why, it is useful to consider the previous referendum on the issue in 1975.

Back then, when Britain had just joined the EEC (the precursor of the EU), a majority was in favour of withdrawal. Cocksure of victory, Conservative Euro-sceptics such as Enoch Powell led the campaign for a referendum.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson decided to hold a vote. It was a risky strategy; the opinion polls showed a solid 65-35 per cent lead for leaving.

This opposition was reversed during the campaign. In the end 67 per cent voted to stay in the EEC. Faced with the prospects of not having access to the Common Market and the risk that London would no longer be the financial capital of Europe, a majority of the voters opted for pragmatism at the expense of – what some might call – “swivel-eyed” romanticism.

The result buried the issue of Euro-scepticism until the mid-1990s, and Powell and his friends and allies were politically a spent force in UK politics for a generation. The same fate may await Nigel Farage and the Tory right.

If a referendum is held there is every chance that history will repeat itself. There is little enthusiasm for the EU in the UK, but faced with the prospects of an unknown future on the sidelines, it is likely that the British voters will vote to stay in – just like they did in 1975.

• Matt Qvortrup is author of A Comparative Study of Referendums (Manchester University Press)