Daniel Korski

Can Cameron learn from Wilson?

Can Cameron learn from Wilson?
Text settings

Few Tories will enjoy looking back on 1974, but they may find it useful to study the second Wilson government and its successor, the Callaghan government, when it comes to the question of Europe.  Back then, we had a government coming to power in the midst of a severe economic climate, and which sought to change the pro-European course that its predecessor had set, including by re-negotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU and by appealing to fraternal parties in France and Britain. However, it ultimately ran into blades of domestic discontent and international indifference. The question is: could this end up being the story of a Conservative government from the middle of next year?

Sure, there are key differences between then and now.  For instance, Wilson headed a minority government – something which few psephologists think we’ll see next year.  But let’s focus on the potential similarities for now…  

Both Wilson and Callaghan thought they could appeal to the solidarity of fellow left-of-centre leaders in "Germany and Scandinavia", much like David Cameron’s Conservatives seem to be hoping they will get an easier ride from centre-right leaders in Germany, France and Italy. But though Messrs Wilson and Callaghan were greeted politely, they received no special favours. Expect the same in future from Berlin and Paris, even if – or, perhaps, precisely because – the German government is less ideological about the EU now than it was then.

Also, both Wilson and Callaghan had to work with a diplomatic machine that had become, after years of negotiating Britain’s EU entry, quite pro-European. As Daniel Hannan points out on his blog, Hugo Young’s interviews with the diplomatists who presided over Britain’s EU-accession in the 1960s and 1970s revealed that many had pursued a pro-European line even against political direction. On summer holidays this year, I read Nicholas Henderson’s diary, Mandarin, and was similarly struck by how appalled he and his fellow officials were at Callaghan’s initially more EU-sceptical line.  The lesson for Cameron is clear: he could similarly come up against an entrenched body of pro-European thought.

Finally, there is the question of Wilson’s renegotiation of Britain’s EU terms and the 1975 referendum. Lessons from these two events will be dependent on one’s disposition to the EU. It can either be seen as: the model for a future Tory policy, proving that even when the majority opinion is against a renegotiation/referendum it can prove to be the right thing in the end; a warning from history that a renegotiation/referendum occupies a lot of political space that could be used on other matters, upends international links and fails to put the controversy about the EU to rest for good; or completely irrelevant given the changing times and nature of the EU, and the fact that the issue is seen differently inside the Tory party today than in the Labour party in the 1970s.  Earlier in the year, John Redwood laid out the arguments for renegotiation and a referendum, the neo-Wilsonian option, while Simon Tilford puts the case against.

David Cameron already sees himself as Blair’s heir. Finding lessons for his Europe policy in the policies of past Labour leaders ought to be only a small step for him.