There may or may not be a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the next few years. UKIP will do everything possible to ensure that it happens, and that the result is the right one. But it is possible that such a referendum will produce the wrong result. It has happened before.
In February 1974, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, called a General Election. Enoch Powell, a lifelong Conservative and former minister with a huge personal following in the country, withdrew his candidature in his constituency and advised his supporters to vote Labour. He did so because the Labour Opposition had promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EEC (now called the EU) and to make Britain’s membership the subject of a referendum. He warned that the voters would not have another chance to speak on British membership of the EEC and should take this last opportunity:
It means giving a majority in the next House of Commons to the party which is committed to fundamental renegotiation of the Treaty of Brussels and to submitting to the British people thereafter for their final Yea or Nay, the outcome of that renegotiation..so that the question will remain and be seen to remain – where it ought to be – firmly in the hands of the electorate as a whole.
Enoch’s advice was probably enough to tip the balance against the Conservative government. The election resulted in a hung parliament and a minority Labour government, followed later in the year by one with a tiny majority, which survived for another five years.
The promised referendum took place in 1975. Powell campaigned for leaving the EEC but the result went the other way. His sacrifice had been in vain; and the next Conservative prime minister, who might have been Enoch Powell and might even have taken us out of the EU, was Margaret Thatcher, who did not. The referendum, which he believed the British electorate would use to reject the EEC, confirmed British membership for another forty years.
What went wrong? Why did Enoch Powell, the one hope of eurosceptics in the 1970s, rely so unwisely on the outcome of a referendum? He was right to rely on British patriotism; but patriotism is based on trust. Because British people are patriotic, because we have a profound belief in our country, we also have a long tradition of trusting our leaders to do what is best for our country.
The patriotic British electorate cannot easily be persuaded that the rulers of their country have willingly given up British independence. The whole British Establishment assured the electorate that all was well and campaigned for continued EEC membership in 1975 – above all the BBC, which had much greater influence than it has now. How could the ordinary voter stand up against such a campaign by people whom they had grown up to trust?
The electorate’s trust in their leaders was still relatively strong in 1975. The British electorate voted to stay in the EEC because (not themselves fully understanding what the EEC was all about) they placed their trust in their leaders to guide them in the best direction.
Six years earlier, in 1968, Enoch Powell had overnight become the most talked about politician in Britain because of a single speech: a speech protesting against Commonwealth immigration, which at that time was widely felt to be excessive.
At that time, referendums had not become part of the British political vocabulary. But the extraordinary outpouring of public support which Enoch received after one speech in 1968 suggests strongly that if he had campaigned in 1968 or 1975 for a referendum to restrict Commonwealth immigration, and had he managed to get a referendum, the result would probably have been that Commonwealth immigration would have been restricted.
By contrast, the electorate did not follow Enoch on the EEC in 1975. His advice alone was not enough to achieve the desired result. Faced with a referendum on immigration at that time, people would have felt able to make up their minds on the basis of their own personal experience; and their personal experience would have been confirmed by the advice of Enoch. They would not have had to fall back on the example and advice of the other leaders of society. But faced with a referendum on a subject remote from their own experience, which they did not understand, people returned to their normal loyalties and voted in the way they were advised to vote by the powers that be.
We are faced now with the same two issues, this time more closely connected with one another, because the immigration which is unpopular comes from the poorer countries of Europe rather than the poorer countries of the Commonwealth. These poorer Europeans are able to come in precisely because of that membership of the EU which forty years ago the EEC Referendum confirmed.
The immigrants now are very different from those who were coming in then. But as in 1968, the problem is basically numbers. Excessive EU immigration is as unpopular now as excessive Commonwealth immigration was in 1968. If we had a referendum on the subject, the electorate would almost certainly come out in favour of restricting it.
If they are to be an important and useful part of the democratic process, referendums need to be comprehensible to the average voter. Most people still do not understand the pros and cons of EU membership. If we have a referendum on our continued membership, far too many of the electorate will base their decision not on the political issue itself but on whether they trust Nigel or whether they trust those who lead the campaign on the other side. Those pro-EU leaders might yet be very attractive and plausible politicians – not David Cameron and Ed Miliband but say Boris Johnson and Alan Johnson. And the decision might go against Nigel as it went against Enoch.
By contrast, immigration is an issue unusually well suited to be decided by referendum because everybody can understand it. The result of a referendum on immigration would be far less dependent on personalities. If successful, it would lead to a confrontation between the British people and the EU. Everybody in Britain would then understand the direct link between the two issues. An EU referendum could then follow. Could that be the right way to go?
Photo by Diego3336