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Peter McKenzie: Brexit’s forgotten history

Peter McKenzie looks back to the turmoil of the 1970s to help us understand how Britain got to this point

The British government was split. Its leaders endorsed the European community as a visionary experiment that promised prosperity and peace (with caveats). Its radical elements decried European membership as an undemocratic check on Britain’s ability to chart its own course.

At the previous election the government had promised to hold a national referendum to resolve the dispute. As the referendum loomed, political colleagues savaged each other in person and in the press. They knew the result would determine Britain’s fate for decades to come.

The year was 1975.

Sound familiar? In recent weeks, Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly failed to pass her proposed Brexit terms through the British Parliament. That failure will bring new and intensifying waves of chaos as her country careens towards March 29, the date when Britain will unceremoniously and automatically be booted out of the European Union.

As the world watches, it is worth reflecting on how the Brexit debacle began. It is perhaps unsurprising that Britain, a country obsessed with history, was in many ways retracing its footsteps as it conducted the 2016 Brexit referendum. Looking back on the turmoil of the mid-70s helps us understand how Britain got to this point.

In 1974, Harold Wilson, leader of Britain’s liberal Labour Party, faced a dilemma. His party was riven over European membership. The in-fighting promised to consume his party and dash any chance of electoral victory.

Against this background Wilson agreed that if Labour won the upcoming election, he would call a national referendum on Britain’s European membership. His party united, Wilson became Prime Minister, renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership and led the pro-Europe faction to a landslide victory in the referendum.

Fast forward four decades.

Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, faced a dilemma. Ever since his party had come into government in 2010 it had been consumed by increasingly fractious arguments over European membership. The opposition Labour Party was gaining in popularity, and an anti-Europe party called UKIP was drawing a worryingly large share of the conservative vote. It was increasingly unclear whether he could win re-election.

And so, when the 2015 general election rolled around, Cameron followed in Wilson’s footsteps. He promised to call a referendum, which sated his colleagues and arguably won the election by keeping UKIP from undermining the Conservative Party’s voteshare.

Cameron then doggedly copied Wilson’s strategy. He renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership and built a powerful coalition of leading figures in business and government. He led the campaign in favour of European membership, warning Britons that leaving Europe would be “economic self-harm”.

He lost. History had repeated, but circumstances had changed. Cameron’s error was that he failed to adjust his strategy to suit the times.

The 1975 referendum was dominated by cartoons depicting a sinking British ship whose only chance of rescue was a great European ocean liner circling in the distance. It boiled the pro-Europe campaign down to basics: Britain’s economy is dying, and only Europe can save it.

At that point, economic devastation was all too familiar to Britons. In 1973 oil prices quadrupled after Arab nations embargoed the West. In 1974 a Caribbean import crisis created queues for sugar. By 1975 British house prices had doubled from three years prior, and inflation had hit nearly 25 percent. Early polls showed that more than half of voters thought that leaving the European community would cause an immediate economic and political crisis, and Britain had little appetite for further punishment.

By comparison, the nationalist arguments of the campaign against European membership carried little weight. Just 30 years after the Second World War, the prospect of European unity was still something to strive for. One pro-Europe advertisement reminded voters that “Forty million people died in two European wars this century. Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter”. Economic self-preservation and regional unity won the day.

Forty years on the battlecries were the same but the political landscape was very different. Still mired in austerity after the 2008 financial crisis, many voters were feeling the pinch. But Britons in 1975 had seen Europe as their economic salvation. A majority in 2016 saw it as a leading antagonist.

Europe had been battered by a debt crisis. Greece, Ireland and Portugal had to be bailed out by wealthier European Union member-states, and Italy and Spain lingered on the edge of collapse. In 2011 the Bank of England referred to this as “the most serious financial crisis at least since the 1930s, if not ever”. Britons began to see much of Europe as an economic hindrance. False claims during the referendum campaign, such as that Britain was paying the European Union £350m weekly, bolstered this sentiment.

In addition, the Brexit campaign had revamped their messaging. They portrayed the European Union as globalist elites who stole British sovereignty and used that power to impose economic policies designed to benefit Europe and the ultra-wealthy. Britons in 2016 knew that economic crisis loomed if Britain left the European Union. A majority simply thought it was a price worth paying to “take back control”.

After the Brexit campaign triumphed, David Cameron resigned. The Brexiteers were as surprised as anyone to have won, and it was left to Theresa May, Cameron’s successor, to find a path forward. She has been stymied time and time again, neutered by her parliamentary colleagues and European partners.

Now Labour is calling for May’s resignation. Many are pushing for another referendum. They call it a second referendum, but in reality it would be the third - and is fervently opposed by Brexit’s supporters. Another alternative is Brexit with no deal, which threatens food shortages and further economic downturn.

Nobody is coming out of this as a winner. And that too is unsurprising. When Wilson succeeded in keeping Britain in the European Community, it was hailed as a victory. Nine months later he had resigned as Prime Minister, senior colleagues were deserting the party, and Labour would not win another election for 23 years. The European referendum, then and now, was a short-term political fix.

After the 1975 referendum, Harold Wilson told journalists that “14 years of national debate” were over. When David Cameron announced that there would be a referendum on membership in the EU, he expressed a similar hope by declaring that it was “time to settle” the European question.

As Britain approaches the 29th of March, such hopes seem increasingly unrealistic.

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