Mile End Institute

The EU referendum and lessons from the seventies

Lindsay Aqui, PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, reflects on David Cameron's Purdah defeat, and highlights similar challenges faced by Harold Wilson in the mid seventies.

8 September 2015

Last night’s dramatic defeat for David Cameron has highlighted the dilemma for Whitehall in defining its role ahead of the EU referendum campaign.

Thirty-seven Conservative MPs voted down a key piece of legislation on Purdah, which would have allowed ministers and others to conduct day-to-day business with the EU during the campaign period.

One MP described the issue to the Financial Times as ‘totemic’ for eurosceptics.

And, despite the rebels’ victory, leading Eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin told the BBC: “Let’s not have any illusions here. The whole thing is very much still stacked in favour of staying in the European Union.”

Lessons from history

But the debate over where governments cross the line between day-to-day business and active campaigning for membership is not new.

In 1974 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised a referendum and fundamental renegotiation of UK’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC).

Like David Cameron, Wilson deployed the referendum, in part, to manage the divisions within his own party. And like the current prime minister, he also chose to allow Cabinet ministers to diverge from the government’s position. David Cameron now shares the dilemma faced by Howard Wilson over where Whitehall will stand in the run-up to the vote.

Before last night’s defeat, David Cameron had already made concessions over the wording of the question from a straight forward ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to a choice between the options of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’.

In 1975 there was similar debate, though there was no comparative level of oversight from a body like the Electoral Commission.

The six months leading up to the 1975 vote brought much hand-wringing in Westminster about the role of government in the campaign. One of the most troubling questions was the extent to which the civil service could be engaged in the campaign to remain EU members.

It was decided that the newly created Cabinet Office Referendum Information Unit, would manage the government’s campaign.

The Unit was responsible for responding to inquiries from the press and public by providing factual information related to the referendum. It also published Britain’s New Deal in Europe the government’s pamphlet that explained the outcome of the renegotiation and the government’s recommendation in favour of remaining in the EEC.

Civil service

The terms of reference for civil servants in the Unit were restrictive. They were instructed not to proactively engage with the public, except for arranging mass distribution of the pamphlet. In an interview, Robert Morland, the senior civil servant in charge of the Unit, recalled that it ‘wasn’t allowed to talk to the public at all’, though this exaggerates the situation.

Media portrayals suggest a rather different perception. In early April 1975 the Unit began its work – including a newly established telephone information line. The Daily Mail reported: ‘voters will talk directly to a team of 13 experts in Whitehall, installed as the RIU – Referendum Information Unit. The new line is a public service to explain to the ordinary person why life is better in the Market than outside it.’ This was hardly the impression the government intended.

Then as now, Parliament questioned whether the government could act both as the authority recommending a yes vote, and as the authority ensuring the fair conduct of the referendum. In one debate, the government’s proposal to set up the Unit was referred to as ‘something rather sinister’.

Ministers questioned whether the government’s role was to offer a recommendation, to inform the public of both sides of the argument, or to avoid campaigning at all, lest it be accused of unduly influencing the vote.

Cabinet minutes from February 1975 reveal tension and division and, even among those most strongly in favour of membership, a reluctance to use government machinery to promote that view.

The 1975 poll resulted in a resounding 67 per cent voting in favour of membership. David Cameron insists he too can win his referendum – though no doubt by a much tighter margin.

When Wilson called his vote it was the UK’s first ever national referendum.  

The vote in 2016/2017 will be the British public’s thirteenth experience – despite this, the role for government remains fraught and unclear.  

About the author

Lindsay is a second year PhD student at Queen Mary University of London. She is jointly supervised and funded by the School of History and the School of Politics and International Relations.

Lindsay's research looks at the UK's relationship with the European Communities in the period from entry in 1973 to the referendum on membership in 1973. It examines the notion and implications of British exceptionalism in the context of Britain's first year of EEC membership, the subsequent renegotiation of Britain's membership terms and the nationwide referendum on whether to remain 'in' the European Communities.