The Big Question: The likely UK-EU Referendum

Peter KellnerIn his ‘big speech’, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to promise a referendum on any new settlement brokered with the EU.  But what are the likely implications of such a referendum?

Who is likely to win a referendum on UK-EU relations? Past votes and recent polling offer some helpful clues:

1.    When a nation is divided, the status quo holds the advantage. Six to nine months ahead of three past referendums, most voters seemed to embrace change, only to draw back as decision day approached – in 1975 on whether Britain should leave the Common Market (as it then was), in 1979 on whether Scots wanted the devolution package that was on offer and last year on whether Britain should change its system for electing MPs.

2.    When Europe is not at the front of people’s minds, there is generally a 3-2 majority for Britain going it alone – but when push comes to shove, millions of people change sides and prefer to keep their links with the continent.

3.    Recent YouGov polling helps to explain why. Supporters of withdrawal are divided into two broad camps: (a) “Worried nationalists” who dislike not just the EU but our links with abroad generally. They oppose overseas aid, globalisation and immigration; (b) “Pragmatic nationalists” who are less hostile to the rest of the world, and judge our membership of the EU in practical terms – what is best for Britain? It is this second group that are the ones who could change their minds in a referendum campaign, if they start to fear the consequences of British withdrawal.

What, then, are the prospects for a referendum?

It depends on the circumstances.

The current campaign has echoes of what happened in 1975. The Prime Minister at the time (Labour’s Harold Wilson) leading a divided party, promised a referendum in order to hold Labour together. He renegotiated Britain’s membership terms and announced that these were good for Britain. In fact the renegotiations achieved little. Wilson grossly exaggerated what he had achieved, but it was enough to reassure Labour voters. On that precedent, Cameron need not achieve all that much to be able to say that he has protected Britain’s interests; what he does need is to generate the plausible appearance of successful negotiations.

The next most likely context for a vote on the UK’s role in the EU would be if Labour wins the next election and holds a referendum immediately. Assuming the present coalition lasts, and the next election is held in May 2015, then the earliest practical month for a referendum would be that September. As in 1997, when one of Tony Blair’s first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to hold a devolution referendum in Scotland, it takes a few weeks to pass the legislation to hold a referendum and a few weeks more to gear up for the campaign itself.

The key point, however, is that the referendum would need to be held during the new government’s honeymoon period. Were it delayed for a year or two, then the risk is that a referendum would in effect turn into a referendum on the Labour Party.

The danger would be even greater if Cameron, having lost in 2015, stands down as Tory leader and the party elects a Eurosceptic in his place. During the honeymoon period, the recently-defeated Tories would hold little sway with the electorate; but in mid-term, and newly revived, they could secure a referendum majority for withdrawal from the EU.

Even worse for pro-Europeans would be a referendum held in the middle of a continent-wide crisis. Suppose the Eurozone has fractured. And/or suppose significant parts of the EU are mired, year-after-year in economic slump and mass unemployment. And/or suppose that Germany and France lead moves by a majority of EU countries to  integrate their economic and financial systems, and make clear their intention to go ahead whether Britain likes it or not. It might then be impossible to mobilise the “status quo” instincts of millions of voters, for the choice might then be for Britain either to integrate more with the rest of the EU or leave it altogether. The choice we would face would not be between change and the status quo, but between two different kinds of change. In such circumstances, the prospect of withdrawal would be very high indeed.

This article was first published by Policy Network and is a contribution to Policy Network’s work on The politics of European integration.

  • Hywel

    I had no idea that I was a “Pragmatic nationalist”!