Doing a Harold Wilson


Just over three years ago coalition Prime Minister David Cameron promised there would be a referendum in the UK to remain in the EU or to leave it. He told colleagues that he was determined not to "do a Harold Wilson," referring to the previous 1975 referendum. On that occasion the Labour Prime Minister had negotiated meaningless and trivial "concessions" from what as then the EEC, but had claimed they represented a substantial change in the relationship the UK would enjoy with the rest of the EEC if it voted to stay. The UK voted heavily to remain, and the "concessions" were revealed to be inconsequential as the drive to concentrate more powers to the centre of the European project continued. UK voters thought they were voting to remain in an economic community, but they found themselves bound to what was increasingly a political union, indeed, one that changed its name to the European Union.

Despite his awareness of Wilson's action, and his determination not to repeat it, David Cameron appears to have done so. The renegotiation was not supposed to be about benefits and immigration, but about the fundamentals of the UK's relationship with the EU. It was supposed to be about the UK regaining ability to decide its own laws instead of having to accept ones decreed by the EU as a whole.

It is noticeable that the 'deal' - hailed at the time as an historic breakthrough - has scarcely been heard of since. Those campaigning to remain in the EU have hardly mentioned it, and the debate has simply been about whether the UK should remain within the EU as it is presently, or should leave. There is no status quo option. A vote to leave would engender some uncertainty, but so would a vote to remain. It would be a vote to remain within an EU committed to "ever closer union, with all the future uncertainties that this implies. The issue this time is not a vote about trivial "concessions." It is about UK sovereignty.