Listen to this article
This article was first published in the Financial Times of June 7, 1975.
After 25 years of doubt and 14 years of bitter fluctuating argument, the Common Market issue is settled. By their unambiguous vote on Thursday — the most overwhelming expression of popular will in British electoral history, certainly since 1931 — the voters have solved the politicians’ dilemmas for them and banished the issue from the centre or British politics.
This does not mean that the battle is completely over. There will be skirmishes, perhaps for many years, over the details of British membership and the degree and manner in which British interests ought to protected in Brussels.
But the sheer size of the majority and its astonishingly equal distribution does mean secession is now politically inconceivable in this generation; and second, that the issue will no longer provide the main channel into which almost every other grievance and dispute in British politics flows. This dubious role is likely to be played henceforth by the economic situation. Finally it means that a British Government, even one containing anti-Market Ministers, is unreservedly committed to a constructive role within the European Community.
The result will elicit an enthusiastic response from Britain’s partners in Europe, from the U.S. Administration, from the international financial community, from the City, and from British industry. It will also be greeted with a sigh of relief by British politicians of all shades — even, in private, by many on the Labour side who have publicly espoused the anti-Market cause. The implications of a No vote for the existing structure of British politics were too far-reaching and unpredictable for any but the extreme Left to contemplate with any real comfort.
It is within this negative framework that the immediate consequences of the referendum result are best judged. in the first place the British people have for the time being saved the Prime Minister from oblivion and the Labour Party from schism. If the answer had been “No” it is highly doubtful if Mr. Wilson could have survived, or that any other leader mold have been found to hold Labour together during a retreat from Europe.
Another negative consequence of the result has bean to prevent a vast increase in the strength and influence of the Left wing. If the anti-Market case had prevailed the claim of Mr. Wedgwood Benn and Left-wing union leaders to speak for the people would have been vindicated and the Government’s efforts to conduct a successful anti-inflationary economic policy made infinitely more difficult.
Another immediate evil which has been warded off was the danger that Scotland would vote “No” while the rest of the UK. voted “Yes.” Such a result would have been an unmixed boon to the Scottish National Party, which would have plausibly claimed it as conclusive evidence of separatist sentiment. The Yes verdict in Scotland, though less conclusive than elsewhere, is sufficientiy low to dispose of the argument for the present, and force the SNP to fall back upon its second line of defence, the claim to separate Scottish representation in Brussels.
All this is clear gain. But it is likely in become very obvious as soon as the dust has settled that of itself the referendum victory does not solve Britain’s political and economic problems. It merely removes one, admittedly large, obstacle to their solution.
So far as the Labour Party is concerned the balance of power has not been substantially altered. The Right wing has undoubtedly received a much-needed psyhological fillip and will fight its battles henceforth without the Common Market argument constantly undermining its position. On the other hand the complexion of the major unions, of the National Executive and of the conference has not changed. And that being so, Mr. Wilson is obliged to pay continuing attention to the sensibilities the Left.
For these reasons a radical reshuffle of the Government for penal or even efficient purposes is extremely difficult, particularly to at Prime Minister of Mr. Wilson’s tightrope-walking temperament. A more serious consequence is that in the bitter arguments which will inevitably take place on the economic measures to be adopted this summer and autumn, decisive policies of whatever kind will be extremely hard to devise and still harder to sell to the country.
Almost equally deep division on the Conservative side of the House over economic policy will not have been helped by the contrast between Mrs. Thatcher’s cautious pro-Market exercises in recent weeks and Mr. Heath’s astonishingly successful barn-storming tour of the country.
All in all, the referendum cannot be said to have made Britain more ungovernable. On the contrary, the public has clearly apporached its task in a mood of sober, if somewhat ewlldered, responsibility that suggestes that genuine political leadership would evoke a response. Fears that the campaign would exacerbate old enmities have by and large been proved groundless, and the cross-party alliances which have been forged cannot do anything but good in the long run. But the morning after the count Britain wakes up to find her predicament pretty much what it was before. When all the self-congratulations about the maturity of the British are over, the ten-sions of their society remain great and the outlook for their future grave.