The Huffington Post UK looks back on the UK's first ever referendum, and what lessons can be learned by those in the two sides of the upcoming campaign.
Referendum Revisited Part 1: The French Keep Saying 'Non'
Referendum Revisited Part 2: Labour Begins To Fall Apart
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Referendum Revisited Part 3: Wilson Promises An Historic Vote
Harold Wilson knew he had to do something drastic in order to keep his party together. Faced with seemingly no other option, he reluctantly decided to suspend collective ministerial responsibility – the rule that all ministers had to in public toe the party line.
It was a momentous, almost unprecedented decision. The last time a Prime Minister suspended the convention was in 1931 over tariff reform – but then had been when there was a coalition government.
It was a risk. It could either give his warring Cabinet a chance to clear the air in public, or drive them further apart as they tore lumps out of each other’s positions.
Reflecting on the decision made his political rival, Ken Clarke said: “Wilson didn’t want to. He was quite angry about it.”
No sooner had Wilson allowed his Cabinet to go their own way, than he regretted it.
What was supposed to be a way of allowing colleagues to express their views on one issue risked turning into a very public civil war.
With collective responsibility suspended, 80 Labour MPs attended an anti-European meeting, and the press were told the party’s National Executive Committee would consider actively campaigning to get Britain out of the EEC.
Wilson, who rarely lost his temper or gave into emotion, was furious.
He summoned Barbara Castle, one of the Cabinet’s leading ‘Out’ figures, to a late night meeting in the Commons. Recounting the phone call from Wilson in which he gave the instruction, Castle said: “He was almost beside himself. The venom poured out of him. He had generously allowed us to disagree publically on the Common Market and what had we done? ‘Made a fool of me,’ he declared. When he talked about freedom to dissent he hadn’t meant that we should rush out and hold a press conference and organise an anti-Government campaign.”
Michael Foot, a fellow ‘Out’ who was also summoned by Wilson that evening said: “Harold was talking of resigning or of calling the whole thing off.”
Wilson recovered his composure and the Referendum date was set for June 5th. The question to be put to the people was:
"Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market)?"
Shirley Williams recognised the structure of the question gave the ‘In’ side an advantage, as they could campaign using the positive ‘Yes’, not the negative ‘no’.
She said: “After a lot of polling work we discovered if you use the phrase ‘remain’ or ‘stay’ in Europe, you got a sustainably bigger pro-vote than if you used ‘join’.
She added: “It meant that a lot of what you might call the instinctively conservative – little ‘c’ – element in the British electorate, and it’s very strong, moderate-conservative element, led them to vote for staying in.”
Things went from bad to worse for Wilson when on April 26 a special Labour conference overwhelmingly backed Britain leaving the EEC.
Most of the 3.7million votes for ‘Out’ came from came from the two biggest unions, the Transport Workers and the Engineering Workers.
Tony Benn said: “We have had a conference and the decision is clear. It is very clear that there now must be a move for the Labour Party to campaign."
The ‘In’ campaign recorded nearly 2million votes, which Shirley Williams described as “much better than we had feared, but not quite as good as we had hoped.”
Williams was trying to put a good spin on the defeat, but now the majority of Labour backers seemed to be against the Labour leader on the European issue.
Wilson, a canny politician who knew how to play the game, continued his personal policy of stepping back from the field of battle.
Although a supporter of Britain staying in, he prized party loyalty above all else, and whatever the result wanted his Cabinet to come back together after the referendum.
Williams: “Harold meanwhile, who was one of life’s most brilliant manipulators, absolutely brilliant, he always intended to stay in but he also knew that to say so could have been damaging.”
The anti and pro Europeans went off into their respective camps.
The ‘Yes’ group, Britain in Europe, was led by Roy Jenkins, and comprised fellow Labour MP Shirley Williams, Tory MPs Ted Heath (recently ousted as party leader by Margaret Thatcher) and Willie Whitelaw, and former Liberal leader Jo Grimond.
The ‘No’ group, known as the National Referendum Campaign, was led by senior Labour figures such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. The most high profile right wing ‘No’ campaigner was Enoch Powell.
Shirley Williams said: “Most of the establishment was in favour of remaining in but there was quite a chunk of the establishment, especially on the far right and the far left, which were not in favour. It was noticeable how the extremes came together – Tony Benn on one side, Enoch Powell on the other to take the typical example.”
Despite only achieving a junior ministerial rank in his career, Powell is one of the most infamous politicians of the 20th Century.
Possessed with a fierce intellect, Powell graduate from Cambridge University with a Double First in Latin and Greek. He went on to learn other languages, including Urdu, Welsh, Greek and Portuguese.
During the Second World War he rose from the lowest rank of private to the brigadier, a feat only matched by one other soldier.
In 1950 he was elected as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton East, and earned a reputation as a fantastic orator in the Commons.
In 1965 he stood in the Tory leadership contest, coming third with just 15 votes. Contest victor Ted Heath appointed him Shadow Secretary of Defence, but sacked him after his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Relegated to the backbenchers, Powell became a vocal critic of the EEC, but his thanks to his views on immigration his appeal was limited.
He lost is seat in the first General Election of 1974, but reentered the Commons as an Ulster Unionist MP representing the Northern Ireland seat of South Down in the October vote.
Ken Clarke remembers Powell as “the most well known, and formidable, Eurosceptic.”
Back in the Commons, he joined the ‘No’ campaign alongside left-wing pin-up Tony Benn, much to the horror of some of the Labour MP’s supporters.
Dennis Skinner said: “I told Tony Benn not to do it. As the decent man that he was he was good enough to say he made a mistake afterwards.”
One of Powell’s modern day admirers is Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who fondly recounts driving Powell to anti-EU meetings in the 1990s in his autobiography Fighting Bull.
Both men are superb orators who pitch their Eurosceptism in nationalist tones, and both alienate more people than they attract.
Shirley Williams thinks that is as far as the comparison goes. She said: “Enoch Powell was an intellectual, he was professor of classics. Farage is a charmer but he’s not an intellectual. He’s got a very quick and clever political mind but what he hasn’t got is a deep sense of the great sweeps and movements of history somehow which obviously Enoch Powell had.”
Williams also thinks Farage bears little in common with the other great anti-European voice from 1975, Tony Benn.
She said: “Farage’s charm is more directed at women. Farage is what the Edwardians used to call a lounge lizard, which Tony absolutely wasn’t. Tony had charm, but it was charm towards people, it wasn’t specifically slightly sexually driven charm which it is with Farage. I think Tony is a weightier figure than Farage, I think Tony thought quite a lot about ‘wither the left’ and that kind of thing, I don’t think Farage thinks much about ‘wither the right’. Farage thinks mostly about Farage.”
With the separate camps established, each received £125,000 of public money to fund its campaigns.
The ‘Yes’ group was able to raise a further £2million from pro-European businesses and supporters, while the ‘No’ group managed to collect a mere £166,000 in addition to the public funds. ‘Yes’ was able to outspend ‘No’ by 12 to 1.
Shirley Williams: “Most of the establishment was in favour of remaining in but there was quite a chunk of the establishment, especially on the far right and the far left, which were not in favour. It was noticeable how the extremes came together – Tony Benn on one side, Enoch Powell on the other to take the typical example.”
As well as outgunning the ‘No’ side financially, the ‘Yes’ group had friends in the media.
“Most of the press was on our side. The right of centre press as well,” remembered Ken Clarke.
Both sides were allowed to have one leaflet, paid for by taxpayers, which would be sent to every house in the country.
The ‘Yes’ leaflet focused on world peace, jobs and prosperity, benefits for the Commonwealth and “our children’s future.”
Beneath the headline “Why can’t we go it alone?” the leaflet said: “To some this sounds attractive. Mind our own business. Make our own decisions. Pull up the drawbridge. In the modern world it just is nor practicable.”
The same words would be used by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg 39 years later when debating the EU with Nigel Farage.
The ‘No’ leaflet focused on higher food prices, threat to jobs in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern England, and a weakening of Commonwealth links.
One section read: “The real aim of the Market is, of course, to become one single country in which Britain would be reduced to a mere province. The plan is to have Common Market Parliament by 1978 or shortly thereafter. Laws would be passed by that Parliament which would be binding on our country. No Parliament elected by the British people could change those laws.”
Nigel Farage argues that this is precisely what happened.
Williams described these leaflets as putting forward “the serious argument, not the Daily Express argument, but the argument as presented on both sides by their leading writers.”
Importantly, there was also a third leaflet, produced by the Government, which backed Britain staying in the EU. As John Campbell noted in Roy Jenkins – A Well-Rounded Life: “Even the leaflets through the door were two-to-one in the ‘Yes’ campaign’s favour”.
Williams felt this leaflet was crucial, and said: “People approached the vote itself in a fairly objective way. I pushed very hard for this because I was convinced that if we had a Government statement that went to everybody but that was acceptable to the antis as well you would with any luck raise the debate to the level of a sort of serious political discussion. I can’t state too strongly about that last one. That Government leaflet had a huge impact on people who are normally non-voters.”
Both campaigns set off around the country, taking the great European issue into town halls across the UK.
Shirley Williams: “What was so striking was those meetings there were thousands – thousands came, not hundreds. Crowded to the gills, just incredible, up and down the country and in every case we would always have a well known Tory, a well known Labour figure, and at that time, well the Liberal Democrats hardly existed so the occasional appearance of a Liberal as well.”
Ken Clarke: “I remember one in Lewisham, and I was on the same side as a local Labour MP. The main person against us was Ian Mikardo, a well-known left wing orator. He represented dockers in the East End. He spoke as of he was addressing a meeting outside the dock yard. It was wonderful to watch.”
Despite Wilson’s initial fear that the campaign would further divide his party, ministers seemed to behave themselves. The only major rebuke from the Prime Minister came when Jenkins made a dig at Benn.
The left-wing ‘No’ campaigner, who at the time was Minister for Industry, claimed that being in the EEC had cost the country half a million jobs.
“Since the unemployment figure was currently about 800,000,” writes John Campbell, “this amounted to claiming that outside the EEC Britain would have been enjoying – in the middle of a world recession – the lowest unemployment since the war.”
Jenkins, who was hardly bosom buddies with Benn, dismissed the claim in a press conference, adding: “I find it increasingly difficult to take Mr Benn seriously as an economics minister.”
Wilson was furious. He did not want the campaign to get personal, and more than that, he wanted to move Benn if the vote was ‘Yes’ and didn’t want it to be seen like he was following Jenkins’s advice.
Williams: “Harold wasn’t delighted with Tony Benn at any time. One of the interesting things about Tony, he was quite a friend of mine actually, he was a moderate Labour figure for a long time. All through the sixties, which was when he and I were both elected, we got on perfectly well.
“Tony changed quite dramatically somewhere in the second half of the 1960s. How much it was ambition and how much it was idealism I don’t know. But when he was minister of technology he was a full scale moderate labour member of the cabinet. Sensible, thoughtful, fascinated by new technology, just at the beginning of the computer age and so on, and reliable. Then he went slightly bonkers and started all kinds of strange experiments of various kinds which he always did without any agreement from the rest of the Cabinet. Then he became more and more embroiled with the rise of the militant tendency in the 70s, who were really nasty. He became caught up in that, and that’s the point at which he and I fell out completely and I was totally against the militant tendency.”
More than eight million people tuned in to watch a TV debate between Jenkins and Benn a few days later, but far from fireworks viewers were treated to a serious and sober discussion of the merits of each case.
The TV debate matched the tone of the campaign in general, which Clarke described as “all very agreeable.”
Reflecting on the campaign, Williams said: “Although by 1975 you had the first wave of Caribbean immigrants, immigration wasn’t a passionate issue like it’s become because of Ukip. In fairness the Conservative Party didn’t make a huge issue out of immigration.”
By the time it came to the day of the referendum, the vote was hardly in doubt.
On a 64 per cent turnout, more than 17.3 million people voted ‘Yes’, with just 8.4 million voting ‘No’. The pro-Europeans had won, and won decisively – 67.2 per cent to 32.8 per cent.
Jenkins was delighted, and said: "It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it."
Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, who had kept a low profile during the campaign, declared: “It is really thrilling.”
Benn seemed to accept the result with good grace, telling reporters: "When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that's certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum."
Referendum over, result decisive, and Cabinet back together – Wilson had pulled it off.
But within just six years the European issue would lead to the Labour Party splitting as the left sought revenge for its defeat.
The referendum was over, and the decisive victory meant there was little further dissent over the issue from Labour eurosceptics. The people had spoken, and they were clear.
Now, Harold Wilson could get back to running the country. Except he had had enough. Less than a year after the referendum, on March 16 1976, Wilson announced he was going to stand down as Prime Minister within a month.
The race to succeed him was a short one – especially by the current marathon – and on April 5th James Callaghan beat Michael Foot to become Labour leader and Prime Minister. Tony Benn had stood, but after coming fourth in the first ballot withdrew from the contest.
Callaghan’s three years as Prime Minister were not a huge success, and in 1979 he lost the General Election to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party.
It was this defeat which brought the splits in party so masterfully covered over by Wilson to the fore.
Benn, without the shackles of office, began to agitate for major changes to the way the Labour Party was run, handing more power to the unions and the activists at the expense of MPs.
Many on the right of the party, including Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen, feared Labour was being infiltrated by left wing militants.
Speaking about Benn, Williams said: “There was a very clear change. Tony in the 1980s is a very different character from Tony in the 1960s. He became immensely popular but with a limited group of people.”
In 1980, Callaghan stepped down as Labour Party leader, and the contest to succeed him was vicious.
Under pressure from Benn and his allies, the Labour Party changed its rules on electing its leader, moving away from it just being a vote among MPs to a system which gave members and the trade unions a greater say.
Callaghan, worried that his preferred successor Denis Healey would not be elected under the new system, stood down before it came into force, meaning once again MPs – and MPs alone – would chose the leader.
One of the first to declare was Shadow Leader of the Commons John Silkin, who announced if he won he would campaign for Britain to leave the EEC.
Williams was furious. She said: “Silkin comes out, he is quite senior in the party at that time, he comes out for leaving the European Community and I remember that David, Bill and I, who were by that time thinking about breaking away, we were absolutely infuriated by this. It was a complete breach of trust because both sides in the Labour party said we will accept the outcome of the referendum, bit like Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland right now. It hadn’t been long since we had had the referendum, it had been a decisive decision and here we were, one of the leading Labour contenders for leadership, which made the other contenders go quiet.”
Silkin eventually came third in the contest, but Healey – who had supported Britain staying in the ECC – did not win either. Instead, veteran left-winger Michael Foot, an ‘Out’ campaigner, pulled off an upset and emerged victorious. He hadn’t originally even planned to stand. He too wanted to take Britain out of the EEC despite the referendum result.
Williams said: “We felt totally cheated. We had played by the book, all three of us, as Labour cabinet ministers, all three of us.
“We had a genuine sense of being betrayed. Really betrayed, and that was what was for us, almost certainly the single most decisive factor, certainly was for me, was nothing to do with equality and all the rest of it, all that be accepted, but on Europe we were outraged.”
Roy Jenkins, the leading pro-European in Labour in the 1970s, had put his money where his mouth was in 1977 and gone to work in Brussels as President of the European Commission.
His post came to end in 1981 and dismayed with anti-EEC, lurch to the left the Labour Party was taking, joined with Williams, Rodgers and Owen to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Although Jenkins and Williams were no longer MPs (Williams had lost her seat in 1979), 28 Labour parliamentarians joined the SDP. The split which Wilson had worked so hard to prevent finally occurred, and 10 per cent of Labour’s MPs quit the party.
The SDP entered into an alliance with the Liberal Party for the 1983 General Election, securing 25 per cent of the vote but just 23 MPs. In 1988, the two parties officially merged to form the Liberal Democrats.
Labour, with an avowed left-wing leader in Michael Foot, went on to lose the 1983 election in dramatic fashion. It was reduced to just 209 seats, and its manifesto was described by one of its own MPs, Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”.
It would take Labour a further 14 years to truly recover from the 1983 defeat, which had been brought about by the left of the party wrestling control away from the moderates with dire electoral consequences.
Today’s leadership election, in which left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is the surprise favourite, has echoes of the early 1980s.
While Corbyn has rowed back from his left wing Euroscepticism, his politics has seen the talk of a Labour split emerge for the first time since the days of Michael Foot and Tony Benn’s grip on the party.
Does Shirley Williams, one of the Gang of Four from 1981, believe this Labour leadership election is similar to the one which provoked her desertion?
“It is, but it’s not a crossroads on one issue in the way that essentially Europe dominated that whole period. It’s much more about how does one live with or how does one not live with capitalism. That’s the central issue in that one. I think therefore that the sense that many Labour people have that you have to compromise in order to get re-elected because the public as a whole, far more of the public sees itself as middle class and property owning and all those things.
Is there a risk of a split?
“Yes I think there is. I don’t think there will be a very quick breakaway but I think what there will be, in my view over the next couple of years there will be a move towards saying why doesn’t the democratic left get together and there’s quite a lot of people saying that already, in order to do that they would have to buy into certain fundamental values. There are some where we are stronger than Labour, particularly on civil liberties – Labour’s not good on civil liberties, never has been. Others for Labour where we would have to buy into it e.g. some services should remain within state ownership, going back to railways for example should they go back to being state run. I think therefore there’s a basis for coming together among slightly leftier end of the Liberal Democrats and the slightly centralist area of the Labour Party.”
What lessons can today’s Prime Minster, David Cameron, learn from the 1975 referendum?
Ken Clarke believes he will find it difficult not to follow Harold Wilson’s lead and suspend collective ministerial responsibility, as there are “at least two in the Cabinet who would want to campaign for Britain to leave.”
But the Tory veteran does not believe such a move would ultimately result in a split, as happened with Labour.
He said: “We have never had the same personal animosity. The party has never had the personal bouts like the Labour Party did in the 70s and 80s. I have very strong, die-hard Eurosceptic colleagues who come up to me sometimes and say we mustn’t split the party.”
Shirley Williams agreed with Clarke, and said: “It is likely the Prime Minister, given the splits in his own party, not in the Labour or Lib Dem parties, he is going to have to concede, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure from the far right from this in his own party, that Cabinet ollective responsibility is abandoned for the period of the referendum.”
However, unlike 1975, the media will not be as staunchly pro-European.
“There’s not a pro-European Conservative newspaper,” Clarke said, lamenting how he struggles to get pro-EU piece in many Tory supporting outlets.
Dennis Skinner is worried the pro-EU business world will simply out-finance the ‘Out’ side again.
“There’s a lot more firms that are much more heavily integrated in Europe than they were in 1975,” he said.
As for the campaigns, Nigel Farage is already lamenting on the lack of an ‘Out’ group, and has announced Ukip would be launching a “ground war” from September to start putting the case for EU withdrawal.
However, those hoping for a great alignment between the right in Farage and the left in Skinner – mirroring Enoch Powell and Tony Benn - will be disappointed.
“Mine objection is not about being a little Englander and waving a Union Jack. It’s about European capitalism,” said Skinner.
No chance of sharing a platform then?
“No way, the man is detestable. I wouldn’t even face him in a pub.”