Forty years ago today, Britain voted to stay in what was then the European Economic Community. Margaret Thatcher, the newly elected pro-European Conservative leader was pleased with the result, but she had opposed there being a referendum in the first place. When Harold Wilson announced in January 1975 that there would be a vote she condemned it as a tactical device to get over a split in Labour. The New Statesman reported that she described the Labour government as being “incapable of making a decision” and of “passing the buck to the people.” The anti-EEC Scottish Nationalists in 1975 were furious that Britain would stay in and the deep splits in Labour took many years to heal.
What a difference four decades make. Today it is a Tory leader getting ready to hold a referendum. The SNP is a Europhile party that thinks the world would end if the UK left the EU. Meanwhile, the number of Eurosceptic Labour MPs is comfortably in single figures.
On the evidence of the last referendum on Europe, and the recent Scottish independence referendum, the circumstances certainly favour the “in” crowd advocating the status quo. The Europhiles are not advocating Status Quo, the British band infamous for Rocking All Over the World, Marguerita Time and You’re in the Army, Now. If the voters thought for a minute that a vote to stay in meant more Status Quo, they would surely vote to leave.
No, instead the “in” campaign advocates membership with a few tweaks designed to make it look as though something dynamic and thrusting has been achieved. When it comes to the vote, this will probably be enough to convince British voters, who tend to be sceptical of ideologues and wary of dramatic changes of direction unless the case is overwhelming.
Of course, those in favour of leaving say that the case is overwhelming and that this is a question of self-government and raising Britain’s sights beyond the European horizon.
But as a new poll out today demonstrates, most voters are not gripped by conviction on this either way and will make up their minds on hearing the arguments. The poll of 4,000 voters for the think tank British Future suggests that 16% of voters are for definitely staying in and 12% for leaving. Of the rest, many are leaning in one direction or another, although they are yet to decide definitively.
There is a way in which “in” could mess this up and give “out” a shot at victory, of course. I wrote several weeks ago for the Sunday Telegraph that there is a disagreement at the heart of government on how best to proceed, with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn favouring a referendum sooner rather than later after a quick renegotiation. The suggestion is being made that the vote could take place in less than a year, to capitalise on David Cameron’s electoral honeymoon and to coincide with the 2016 devolved elections. In contrast, the Chancellor, George Osborne, is understood to favour a more substantial renegotiation, believing that there is a chance of securing a proper two-speed Europe, allowing the Eurozone to integrate more closely and those outside to have a looser relationship with Brussels. He will also have an eye on the Tory succession. Excessive involvement in a stitch-up could harm his chances when it comes to attracting support from MPs.
So far the government’s renegotiation with the EU is bordering on the comical. It seems to come down to a row about benefits for Polish plumbers, which after decades of Eurosceptics shouting about democracy and sovereignty doesn’t really cut it. Unless the Prime Minister produces something meaningful, the risk for him must be that moderate Tory MPs decide to back “out” in the referendum on the grounds that no-one likes to be taken for a fool. Voters too will ask what all the fuss was about if this is really just a row about child benefit.
The “out” campaign’s best hope then, is for the renegotiation to be seen as a sham modelled on Harold Wilson’s pathetic efforts in the run-up to the 1975 vote. Forty years ago, voters were far more credulous and inclined to believe the pledges made by party leaders. Now, scepticism about elites is ingrained, leaving scope for the “out” campaign to present the renegotiation as an Establishment fraud if little is returned in the way of powers. Although “out” will have to be careful not to shout too loudly about this (as most voters can’t stand those they perceive to be nutters shouting at them) if they get the tone right, and fuse a sensible critique of the Prime Minister’s efforts with an upbeat explanation of the opportunities outside the EU, they could yet be in with a chance.