I was actively involved in the “Get Britain Out” campaign in the referendum in 1975. I was on the wrong side of that referendum when I voted to leave, and I was on the wrong side of the next one, 41 years later, when I voted to remain. In the meantime, the British people changed their minds in one direction, and I changed my mind in the other. At the same time, mainstream politics, and much of the media, changed its mind as well as the common market evolved into the European Union. In the 1970s, many Conservatives who supported the common market, which many in Labour saw as a big businessman’s club, started to get nervous when the European Union started properly to deliver workers’ rights. At the same time, the Labour movement and the trade unions came round to the view that there were advantages in cross-European standards on equal pay, decent working conditions and, most importantly, good standards of health and safety.
The referendums of 1975 and 2016 have much in common. Ted Heath, the then Prime Minister, had taken us into the common market in 1972 without a people’s vote, so Harold Wilson promised a referendum after he delivered renegotiated terms. The British people went for it, and he won the 1974 election and the remain result in the consequential referendum. Fast forward to 2015, David Cameron, who was becoming terrified of the threat posed by Nigel Farage and UKIP, must have looked back in history and thought it would be a good idea to imitate Harold Wilson by promising a referendum in the forthcoming election. To be fair, David Cameron was successful in that his policy secured a Conservative majority for the first time since 1992. The first part of Mr Cameron’s cunning plan worked, but the difference was that it all went wrong for Mr Cameron because he was no Harold Wilson and was completely unable to persuade the British people to do what was in Britain’s best interest.
When critics say that there should be no second referendum, the fact is that we have already had two. In advance of the second vote in 2016, those who wanted to leave the EU claimed that the public did not understand the consequences of the common market when we first voted in 1975 so, as was their right, they argued for another referendum. Now, the same group who want to leave argue that another referendum—a third one—would be an insult to those who voted three years ago, because it would be tantamount to saying that those who voted to leave did not know what they were doing. The truth is that nobody knew what they were doing in 2016—if indeed they did in 1975. Only a few anoraks, mainly in this place, actually thought they knew what they were doing, and I have to say that some of them—unfortunately, scarily—still think they know what they are doing.
If there has been a mistake in this sad saga it is that we should never have had either referendum in the first place, and that is the fault of nobody but us politicians. We are responsible for this self-inflicted chaos, not the electorate, and we have a duty to resolve it.
If I have learned anything from all of this it is that yes/no referendums are not the right way, not even the honest way, to make complex policy in the interests of our country. They have been deviously misused by politicians to win general elections: the promise of a 1975 referendum won the election for Labour, just as the proposed 2016 referendum won the election for the Tories. What we should honourably do in the future is make it clear in our manifestos what we stand for and then put that to the public in a general election. I reluctantly have to say that Ted Heath was right in 1970 when he put in the Conservative manifesto that he would negotiate to take us into the common market and did so. That is what we should resolve to do in the future.
Where do we go from here? In crisis, we should stay calm and do the sensible thing, not the emotional thing: when in a hole, stop digging. As we stand, we have clear choices: a no-deal Brexit, the Prime Minister’s no-point Brexit, or no Brexit at all. The choices might well look unpleasant and humiliating, but this is where we are as a country.
For my part, I am not a fan of our present-day EU and its institutions, and there is much that we should change: the common agricultural policy is a disgrace; our fishing communities are treated unfairly; the free movement of labour was introduced too quickly without thought or consideration for low-paid workers; and as for the unelected bureaucrats and their unaccountable budgets, they drive me crazy. But to leave in panic with the Prime Minister’s proposed deal while remaining under the yoke of the unelected control of foreign powers is madness; it would be a betrayal, and it in no way honours the will of the British people, even in what was a flawed referendum vote in the first place. We would do better to stay in the EU and give the rest of them hell, particularly the unelected bureaucrats.
To stay where we are is my conclusion to this humiliatingly unsolvable problem, because the fact is that what was promised by the leave campaign in 2016 is not and never was deliverable. We just have to accept in life that there are some things that we cannot do. For my part I always wanted to score the winning goal in a World cup final in the last minute for England at Wembley after extra time, but I have reluctantly come round to the view that it is not going to happen. Likewise to be the first nation to leave the EU in opposition to 27 other countries and get a good deal for Britain at the same time was always, to say the very least, naive.
Some say that the Prime Minister has done her very best and she deserves a measure of sympathy; sorry, but I have none, because my concern lies with the fate of the British people, who have been led by this Government—her Government—into extremely dangerous waters.
The fact is that the Prime Minister has been centrally involved in this circus, all the way through, from the point when David Cameron and his Ministers opportunistically started the process. The Prime Minister should go back to Brussels and make it clear that we will not be bullied. We should leave, if we must, in our own time and on our own terms. And if we need to take up the option to delay or revoke article 50, of course we should do that. We should do whatever is in the interests of the British people, and if that creates uncertainty for our markets and an embarrassment for the Government, so be it.
My dad did not fight his way through the second world war to be humiliated, and I will not be voting for this cap-in-hand deal or any other remotely like it.