The UK and a referendum on Europe

Peter Kellner, November 2012

The UK and a referendum on Europe

British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Deputy Nick Clegg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine the scene. Britain’s Prime Minister is sitting in his office in Downing Street. He is nervous about Britain’s links with the rest of Europe. His party is divided: he wants Britain to remain a member of the club, but many of his backbenchers and some Cabinet members want out. To keep his party together he has promised to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership and to put the outcome to a referendum. However, the polls show that a clear majority want Britain to “leave Europe”. A tactical exercise in party management threatens to become a strategic nightmare.

We have been here before. That scene might come true in the next two or three years; but it is also a description of the problem Harold Wilson faced in 1974. Edward Heath’s Conservative government had taken Britain into the Common Market (as it then was) the year before. Wilson’s Labour Party was bitterly divided on the issue. In the February 1974 general election, Wilson promised a referendum. Labour squeaked to a narrow victory, and improved its position slightly in a second election in October 1974. Now Wilson had to keep his promise.

Early in 1975, Wilson returned from Brussels, hailing his renegotiations as a triumph for Britain. He said that, given the new terms, he would strongly recommend a “yes to Europe” vote in the referendum, to be held that June. In fact the negotiations had achieved little (as was evident from an internal Labour party analysis, leaked to me – then a young journalist on the Sunday Times – much to Wilson’s irritation). However, most voters were disinclined to take the risks of leaving the Common Market. Polls tracked the sharp change in the public mood, which culminated in a two-to-one majority for “staying in Europe” in the June referendum.

If a new referendum were held in the next few years, would history repeat itself? It depends on whether the similarities or the differences with 1975 end up mattering more.

Similarities. Assuming that David Cameron calls the referendum with the aim of securing a “yes” majority, we would have the leaders of all three main parties campaigning to keep Britain in the EU. The issue would move from the back of most voters’ minds to the front.  Many voters who are generally hostile to “abroad” would be faced with the hazards of Britain going it alone. Happy to tell pollsters at other times that they liked the idea of telling Brussels to get lost, they would find themselves confronting the practical dangers of withdrawal.  As so often happens in referendums round the world, the status quo would become increasingly attractive as decision day approached. “Yes” would win the day.

Differences. In 1975, not a single major newspaper supported withdrawal – the tiny communist daily paper, Morning Star, was alone in wanting Britain out of Europe’s “capitalist club”. As far as prominent British politicians were concerned, almost all the people that commanded respect advocated a “yes” vote. (On one occasion, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives’ new leader, sported a  jumper displaying the flags of the Common Market’s members, to demonstrate her devotion to Europe.) The supporters of a “no” vote were those depicted by virtually all the papers as extreme – Tony Benn and sundry trade union leaders on the Left, Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley on the Right.

This time, there would be plenty of newspapers and “respectable” politicians advocating withdrawal.  And whereas the decision in 1975 could plausibly be depicted as simply about economics, markets and jobs, a “yes” vote this time would far more readily be presented by the “no to Europe” campaign as a step towards the hated destination of political integration.

Which would end up having more power if there were a referendum this time: the similarities or the differences? YouGov research suggests that British voters can be divided into three broad categories. The largest, though not a majority, are “worried nationalists”. Their dislike of “Europe” flows from a broader wish for Britain to have far less to do with the rest of the world. Not only do they hate “Brussels”: they also dislike immigration, overseas aid and globalisation. It is possible that some “worried nationalists” would be convinced by arguments of economic peril if the UK left the EU, but most are likely to vote for withdrawal.

At the other end of the scale, around one in four Britons have a broadly internationalist outlook. They recognise that Britain needs to work with other countries if it is to prosper in today’s world. Most of them tell pollsters today they would vote “yes” in an EU referendum; the rest would largely follow suit by the end of a campaign.

The swing group are the “pragmatic nationalists”. They know that Britain needs to work with other countries but see this as a functional matter, something to be acknowledged reluctantly rather than embraced enthusiastically. At the moment most would vote for withdrawal from the EU. Their decision in a referendum would be crucial. They would have to shift in significant numbers for the “yes” campaign to secure an overall majority. If most pragmatic nationalists continue to favour withdrawal – or even if they divide evenly – then “no” will win the day.

My best guess at this stage is that everything would depend on the context in which a referendum is held. If Cameron does a Wilson, and calls a referendum in order to endorse a “new” UK-EU relationship that he manages to negotiate, then I would expect a “yes” majority. Britain would stay in the club. A “yes” vote is also likely if Labour wins the coming election, due in May 2015, and holds a referendum very early on – say, September that year. But Ed Miliband, the new Prime Minister, would have to act quickly, during the period of honeymoon popularity that incoming governments usually enjoy for just a few months.

I would be less certain of a “yes” majority in other circumstances – if, say, Cameron can’t persuade other EU countries to offer even cosmetic changes to UK-EU arrangements, and then advocates withdrawal; or if a Labour government were to hold an in-out referendum in mid-term, say  2017 or 2018. Perhaps most seductively dangerous of all, from the point of view of Britain’s pro-Europeans, would be a referendum which was ostensibly called in order to “instruct” the Prime Minister to achieve certain stipulated changes to the EU (say, more opt-outs for Britain, big cuts in EU spending on agriculture, and clear limits to financial and political integration on the Eurozone). A referendum would be likely to give Cameron (or his successor) the mandate he wanted – but start a chain reaction that could well leave to Britain’s exit when these demands are rejected.

Only one prediction seems safe: that, one way or the other, Britain’s future relationship with the rest of Europe, now so murky, is likely to become clear in the next few years.




Tags: referendum, public opinion, EU

  • Peter Kellner

    Peter Kellner is president of YouGov, an international online survey research company based in the UK. ...

    Peter Kellner

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