Paul Clarke recounts the background to the forthcoming EU referendum, and contrasts the arguments in favour of remaining in and leaving the EU.

The Prime Minister comes back from negotiations in Brussels with a deal that he is prepared to put to the country in a referendum on EU membership promised in his election manifesto. He then finds that one of his main challengers is a charismatic rebel within his own party. Does that sound familiar? It will if you were around in 1975, when Harold Wilson had to see off a determined fight by Industry Secretary Tony Benn with, incidentally, the Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, mocking Labour’s decision to hold the referendum as “a tactical device to get over a split in their own party” — plus ça change…

1975 and all that

The similarities between that referendum and the current situation do not stretch very much further, although it is interesting to note that 7 of the 23 members of Mr Wilson's Cabinet opposed European Economic Community (EEC) membership: almost exactly the number defying David Cameron. The 1975 Conservatives, and their leader Mrs Thatcher, were firmly in the “Yes” camp, as were the great majority of UK businesses and all the national newspapers, with the sole exception of the Morning Star. Tesco even handed out carrier bags with a pro-EEC message while other companies held meetings at which their staff were instructed in the benefits of membership.

There was of course no social media for politicians to air their views (Bill Gates was just starting to work on a BASIC program for one of the first microcomputers) and there were only three TV channels (BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV). Modern viewers might find it hard to believe that when party political broadcasts about the referendum were aired in 1975, they were watched by 20 million people.

The Europe that was up for discussion was also totally different from today's continent-spanning 28-member giant. The EEC, as it then was, had only nine Member States. It is also worth remembering that many of the EU Member States with which Mr Cameron has had to do battle over benefits for migrant workers were still firmly under Soviet rule in the 1970s.

The choice

Although he went to some lengths to set out the arguments (the official 15-page pamphlet sent to every home in 1975 can be found at www.harvard-digital.co.uk), Mr Wilson had a much easier job than that faced by David Cameron. In the 1970s, the country had only recently tried the most obvious alternative — the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) — and discovered that the countries in the EEC were, in economic terms, leaving EFTA well behind.

In 2016, the UK has moved ahead of even Germany in terms of GDP and has an employment rate that is the envy of the rest of Europe. In addition, two of the EU's most significant innovations — the Schengen “Europe without borders” area and the single currency (both of which the UK declined to join) — are coming under ever-increasing pressure. The European Central Bank (ECB) is defending the Euro but the already weakened economies of southern Europe are being further damaged by the demands of being at the front line in the EU's faltering attempts to deal with the escalating migrant crisis. So is now a good time to leave a damaged EU to deal with its own problems, or would the UK be better off standing with its neighbours in the face of growing global economic and political threats?

The Prime Minister's position

Announcing his decision to ask Parliament to hold an in-out referendum on 23 June, David Cameron put his doubts about the European project to one side and came out strongly in favour of a vote to a remain an EU member. He told Parliament that leaving the EU “could hurt working people for years to come” and presented a stark choice between an "even greater Britain" which stayed in the Union, and the dangers of a “leap into the dark” if it left. The deal on matters such as staying out of ever-closer union, protecting the UK from votes by Eurozone members and tackling migrant in-work benefits is set out by the Prime Minister in a document rather pointedly titled The Best of Both Worlds (available from gov.uk). In it, Mr Cameron says that he set out to answer the question: “How do we make our country stronger, safer and better off?” The answers, he concluded, lie inside a reformed EU.

Vote leave

Those opposing the Prime Minister had the disadvantage of having to wait for him to set the terms of the debate and having, as yet, not been able to combine behind one leader and one message. A campaign led by Nigel Farage and George Galloway seems unlikely to appeal to a broad section of the electorate while Michael Gove, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, is “brilliant but unloved”. His argument about the legal basis of Mr Cameron's deal with the other 28 Member States, however well expressed, is unlikely to be at the forefront of voters' minds in June. Furthermore, it was immediately shot down by EU Council president Donald Tusk who confirmed to MEPs that the deal is "legally binding and irreversible". Mr Gove's comments that he was hindered at every turn when Education Secretary by officials saying things could not be done because of EU rules has left some of those officials puzzled as education is not an EU competence and other ministers who served with Mr Gove cannot remember a single instance where they were balked by Union red tape.

Which leaves Boris Johnson, who did nothing for his reputation by offering a series of reasons for exiting the EU that have long been discredited as “Euromyths” including:

  • a ban on children under eight blowing up balloons (the only EU rule is that latex ones need to carry warnings to parents)

  • rules saying that tea bags cannot be put into compost (which is simply not true)

  • a restriction on the power of vacuum cleaners (which is an energy efficiency measure in line with that for fridges and which ignores the call by James Dyson for the power to be cut even further than the European Commission proposes).

Mr Johnson's later suggestion that an "Out" vote would force Brussels to give the UK a better deal has been rubbished by Number 10, which said “a vote to leave is a vote to leave”.

A leap in the dark?

A number of MPs genuinely think that the UK should leave the EU, and would have argued for that result whatever Mr Cameron brought back from Brussels. However, the arguments they offer in support of that view often lack credibility. The “Norway” suggestion, for example — that the UK would thrive outside the EU because the Scandinavian oil-rich country does — ignores the fact (see the feature Procurement: a European success story, which appeared in June 2015) that Norway has to abide by all the EU's single market legislation without having any say in how those laws are devised (as does Switzerland).

Similarly, the often-expressed view that the UK would simply pick up bilateral trade deals to replace the more than 50 to which it is currently a part by virtue of its membership of the EU, fails to recognise that trade agreements frequently take several years to negotiate and, for at least two years after a vote to leave, UK trade officials will be tied up in negotiations over the terms of the Brexit.

Last reviewed 29 February 2016