John Osullivan

A sadder, wiser referendum

It was fairer, better-contested and more realistic – in part because of voters with long memories

A sadder, wiser referendum
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In June 1975, I was given the heavy responsibility of writing the Telegraph’s ‘light’ op-ed on the conduct of the first Euro-referendum campaign, which duly appeared on the day of the vote. My theme was that it had been the nicest possible stitch-up.

‘From the establishment and the respectable anti-establishment, from the Economist and the New Statesman, from the Lord Feather [of the TUC] and Mr Campbell Adamson [of the CBI], from Mr Wilson and Mr Heath, from the Royal Commission Volunteers to “Actors and Actresses for Europe”, the same advice, the same dire predictions of life outside the Market…’

It rings loud bells today. ‘Mr Barrie Heath told the workers at Guest, Keen and Nettle-folds that membership of the EEC was not even a political issue. “Is he Sir Barrie?” asked Mr Enoch Powell, the leading right-wing campaigner for a No vote. “No? Well, he soon will be.” ’ Barrie Heath was duly knighted three years later ‘for services to exporting’. Jim Callaghan’s largesse was much stingier than David Cameron’s.

My op-ed concluded by predicting that, as a result of the unbalanced campaign, the British people would decide to stay in the New Europe in the resigned spirit of ‘If you know of a better airport lounge, go to it.’ It wasn’t a risky prediction. But there were risks involved. My final sentence ran: ‘In supporting Europe, the entire British establishment has put all its money on one horse — admittedly the favourite. But what if, like most of the establishment’s fancied runners in the last 20 years, it comes in fourth?’

Just 16 months later, that happened. Voting Remain was followed by, in short order, the 1976 sterling crisis; Denis Healey turning around his car at Heathrow to respond to it; Jim Callaghan’s formal embrace of monetarism (three years before Mrs Thatcher’s); and the IMF granting Britain a loan of £3.9 billion on condition that the Labour government cut spending by £2.5 billion. (It seemed a lot of money then.) The inflation and currency crises rumbled on until the first Thatcher administration seriously tackled them.

Nor did Europe contribute much to solving our industrial and economic crises. The main argument for EEC entry in 1976 was that Britain would benefit from the ‘cold bath of EU competition’ that had lifted the growth and living standards of Germany, Italy and France.

Except that it hadn’t. Their higher growth rates in the previous 20 years were the result of large numbers of people leaving the country-side for cities. As the world’s first industrial country, Britain had already had this growth spurt. And as if to underline the argument, EU countries promptly stopped growing too.

Besides, Britain’s anaemic growth rate had been caused by restrictive labour practices fuelled by unions’ power and legal privileges. Their economic impact became both more powerful and more visible in the four years following the referendum.

It wasn’t until the miners’ strike of 1984-85 that these over-mighty subjects were finally brought under control by a blend of legal reform and government firmness. UK economic growth, already rising, then took off and achieved an average annual rate of 2.5 per cent between 1980 and 2008. The figures for our EU partners were 2.2 per cent for France, 1.9 for Germany and 1.8 for Italy.

In short, Britain’s membership of the EU had little if anything to do with its economic recovery. Indeed, because winning the Cold War was a priority in the 1980s — another matter in which Mrs Thatcher took a lead — the Brits may have had a great escape. If Jacques Delors and ‘social Europe’ regulations had arrived a decade earlier, say in 1980, the British labour market recovery might never have occurred.

None of the main arguments for Britain-in-Europe advanced by the Remain campaign of those days proved their worth in the years that followed. One result was that Britain, alone among EU countries until recently, continued to have a substantial body of sentiment opposed to membership. Opinion polls going back to 1977 show around 40 per cent of voters wanting to leave most of the time.

Though there were some astonishing similarities between the two referendums, memories of the first means that the second has been different and in some respects better.

Most obviously, the Remain campaign has been bereft of anything like optimism. Though the optimism of Britain-in-Europe was a tad too well-fed and self-satisfied in 1975, it really did believe that the EEC would save Britain from economic and social decline. Instead, Britain saved herself by her own exertions, while ‘the British disease’ of state-incentivised low productivity crossed the channel to Paris. This time, Project Fear has been almost the sole available campaign for Remain. Leave has had optimism but not with the satisfying support of detail.

Second, the establishment is more divided than in 1975. Two former chancellors have been on hand this time to demolish the Treasury’s statistics, for instance, which Enoch Powell with all his brilliance was unable to do in 1975.

Finally, in 1975, I noted sourly that there was a new European rhetoric: ‘As for our national characters being altered… Are the French any less French? Are the Italians any less Italian?’ Somehow, though, the question was never asked ‘Are the Germans any less German?’ I suggested diplomatically that the Germans were less German — ‘the first of the new Europeans, dedicated to hygiene, endlessly and solemnly tolerant, utterly lacking in eccentricity, the harbingers of a new steel armchair and plateglass civilisation’ which the British were now about to join.

Well, that was right. But it turns out to be not quite so comforting a thought today when refugees stream across European borders and the figures of youth unemployment in Mediterranean Europe remain stubbornly in the mid-fifties as a result of Mrs Merkel’s compassionate anti-nationalism and financial puritanism. Putting your government in the hands of other countries and institutions, even the best-intentioned ones, is never a good idea in the end, as the IMF taught us in 1976.

Apparently, it takes a referendum for governments and national institutions to recognise such large social realities. Voters, it seems, have longer memories than their betters. That has made for a fairer, better--contested and more realistic campaign. It also explains the lower levels of EU support from those who were politically aware in 1975 than from those born later. The over-65s have seen this movie before, and they don’t need higher education to know how it ends.