In all the rune-reading that has happened since the Prime Minister’s European speech yesterday, I very few have looked back at the one data point we have – the 1975 referendum – to see what could be the long-term consequences for the governing party.
Wilson called for a referendum from the opposition benches in the run up to the 1974 election, thereby uniting his party which was badly divided on the issue of what was then called the European Economic Community.
As a result, in both general elections of that year, former standard-bearer of the Tory right, Enoch Powell, endorsed Labour, helping to pave the way for Wilson’s second term. At the time it looked like a political masterstroke.
But in the ensuing referendum, Labour cabinet members were allowed to campaign on either side. Europhiles like Roy Jenkins found that they had more in common with pro-Europeans in other parties than some on their own backbenches.
The 1975 Referendum was a short-term triumph for Wilson; as he managed to win an election, keep the UK in Europe and his fractious party together. But the poison it left behind spread in the following decade, leaving a badly divided party even after some of its most able members had split away to form the SDP. In many ways it was the beginning of ‘the long 80s’ for Labour.
The potential parallels for Cameron are glaring.