Selling a new deal in Europe: what the Remain campaign can learn from 1975

David Thackeray

Cross posted from The Conversation

Just before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan worked hard to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

The concessions agreed back then are now widely seen as having had little lasting value – they related to imports of New Zealand dairy products and a complex correcting mechanism within the EEC budget. And yet, at the time they were popular. At the subsequent referendum, the UK voted two-to-one in favour of staying in the EEC.

While the context of the 1975 referendum was very different, the way the renegotiation terms were presented back then offers some valuable lessons for the people campaigning to keep Britain in the EU today.

However, the conduct of the campaign so far suggests that Prime Minister David Cameron may struggle to replicate Harold Wilson’s successful 1975 campaign to remain in the EEC in the face of opposition from his own government ministers.

Lukewarm on Europe

Opinion polls in early 1975 suggested that the electorate was lukewarm in its support for Europe. But the idea of renegotiating was popular, especially among Labour voters. It demonstrated that the EEC was willing to listen to Britain’s concerns and that Britain could lever authority within the European Community.

The renegotiation subsequently featured prominently in the manifesto of the Yes campaign. It was even mentioned at the top of the referendum ballot paper. Voters were instructed that “The government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of the EC”. They were then asked: “do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)”.

By contrast, polling suggests that Cameron’s renegotiation has had little discernible impact on public attitudes to the EU. He spent weeks convincing fellow European leaders to allow the UK to limit welfare payments to EU migrants, among other measures, but voters appear unmoved.

Crucially, Harold Wilson was cautious in the way he presented the value of the new terms gained through renegotiation, in contrast to the more strident tone used by Cameron. Following the Labour cabinet’s majority agreement to support continued membership, Wilson stated in parliament:

I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved.

The Yes manifesto subsequently focused on the fact that many of Britain’s key historical trade partners in the Commonwealth supported its continued membership of the EEC, rather than promising significant change.

Wilson’s cautious approach arguably reflected the public mood of 1975. Support for European membership was tepid at best but it was often seen as better than the alternatives. Europe was often seen as a side issue to Britain’s domestic economic problems. Indeed, Europe did not often appear as a cover story in the national newspapers, even in the weeks leading up to the referendum vote.

Setting the tone

In 2016, the Remain camp has been widely criticised for the negative tone of its campaign. It has even been labelled Project Fear by supporters of Brexit. Yet there are parallels here with the approach of the successful Yes campaign in 1975, which also highlighted how Brexit would leave Britain in an uncertain geopolitical position.

Behind the scenes, civil servants involved in contingency planning for a potential Brexit often expressed anxiety about the logistics of leaving the European Community, for which there was no real precedent.

1975 indicates that focusing on the uncertainties of leaving the EU could be an effective strategy, not least as then, like now, supporters of Brexit are far from united in what alternative economic model they would follow.

And the Yes camps should acknowledge that the debate about the value of the concessions recently achieved by David Cameron is not likely to go away anytime soon. Michael Gove has already tried to question whether the package of reforms is legally binding, and Brexit backers are likely to continue to pick holes in the deal right up until the vote.

Wilson’s success in keeping Britain in Europe in 1975 suggests that it is essential for the Yes manifesto to acknowledge the limitations of the renegotiated terms as well as their value. In particular, as has been noted, it is important that each side provides independently prepared forecasts about how the different outcomes of the vote might affect immigration over the next ten years.

Planning for the Referendum and After: Lessons from 1975

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from History & Policy

Forty-one years ago this month, James Callaghan finalised the renegotiation of Britain’s EEC membership at a Dublin meeting of the European Council. At the subsequent referendum the results were emphatic. The UK voted ‘yes’ to remaining in the EEC, the forerunner of today’s EU, by a two to one margin. Now with the EU referendum date set, this article considers the key differences between the 1975 and 2016 votes and the lessons of the 1975 renegotiation for policy-makers planning for the vote and its aftermath.

The first striking difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums is the wording of the question which voters are being asked. In September David Cameron accepted a recommendation by the Electoral Commission that voters be directly asked whether they wish to stay in or leave the EU. This marks a radical departure from the precedent of the 1975 referendum. Significantly, opinion polls from the time suggested that many Britons were unhappy with various aspects of EEC membership, however they were willing to support continued membership on the terms proposed: ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)’. Interestingly, the Cameron government’s original preferred wording for the upcoming referendum closely resembled that chosen by Harold Wilson in 1975.

The 1975 referendum demonstrates the importance of how the European question is framed in another way. Britain’s recent renegotiation of its terms of membership was mentioned at the top of the ballot paper and appears to have been a vote-winner. Gallup polls held before the renegotiation suggested willingness to support new terms of membership. The ‘yes’ majority widened significantly after the final renegotiation talks, with the Yes camp enjoying at least a sixteen per cent majority among decided voters for the final three months of the campaign. With supporters of continued EU membership enjoying no such advantage today, the renegotiation terms are likely to be a major area of contention over coming weeks and the Yes campaign will need to make a clear case for the value of the new terms.

Given the current uncertainty over the likely referendum result, contingency planning to meet the various outcomes will also be a key concern over coming months. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’ Donnell has recently commented that it is likely that civil servants are ‘mentally’ carrying out work in preparation for a potential British exit. Interestingly, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Foreign Office were involved in substantial planning for a British exit in 1975. At the time, there was particular anxiety about how a British exit might affect the stability of the EEC. Civil servants expected that Denmark might join the UK in leaving and worried that bilateral relations with the Republic of Ireland would be complicated, potentially exacerbating problems in Northern Ireland.

Much of the contingency planning in 1975 focused on the complexities of leaving the EEC, for which there was no precedent. A Treasury memo produced at the time claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers publicly called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes, civil servants raised concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, which largely relied on the goodwill of other EEC members. If the January deadline was not met then Britain’s budget commitments of £200 million would likely have remained in place for another year. It was hoped that a treaty of withdrawal could be kept as short as possible, with more complex aspects of Britain’s future trading arrangements to be settled afterwards. Whilst Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) includes a clause for Member States to voluntarily withdraw from the EU, the growth of this organisation’s functions over recent decades means that the procedure for Brexit remains highly complex.

In many ways the stakes of voting on EU membership are higher now than in 1975. Indeed, the wording of the referendum ballot paper means that voters will be given a specific ‘in-out’ question on membership for the first time. Convincing voters to support the renegotiation terms may also be harder now. In 1975 Britain had only been a member of the EEC for two years and was economically ‘the sick man of Europe’, having been particularly badly hit by the oil price spike of 1973-74. Many voters were dissatisfied with aspects of Britain’s EEC membership but willing to endorse it for fear that exit would leave the UK internationally isolated. By contrast, developing links with emerging markets like China and India is today commonly seen as crucial to Britain’s future economic growth and the problems of the Eurozone have tempered the appeal of the EU as an economic unit.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming referendum, and with the UK’s next presidency of the EU due to begin in July 2017, the nation’s shifting relationship with Europe is due to be a key matter of interest for some time to come.