Magazine article The Spectator

A Sadder, Wiser Referendum

Magazine article The Spectator

A Sadder, Wiser Referendum

Article excerpt

The campaign this time has been fairer, better-contested and more realistic than in 1975

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. …

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