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Why David Cameron can’t copy Harold Wilson on EU renegotiation

7 May 2013

3:25 PM

7 May 2013

3:25 PM

It’s at times like this I’m glad I’m not a Europhile. I imagine that Lord Lawson’s article in today’s Times is causing Brussels-lovers up and down the land a number of headaches this afternoon, not least because it is incredibly detailed and hard to find fault with: The EU’s desire for ‘ever-closer union’ is undiminished? Accurate. British businesses are being hindered by the EU’s daft regulations? Very true. We need to start looking beyond Europe for growth opportunities? Another tick. From a purely economic perspective, Lord Lawson’s argument is spot on.

However, there is a political problem with Lawson’s article which I can’t seem to get my head around – why can’t we try to renegotiate our way of these meddlesome directives? Why is the only answer full on Out? According to Lawson we shouldn’t humour the idea of renegotiation as ‘any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure will be equally inconsequential’. Inconsequential, really? Surely it’s a bit too early to throw in the towel – we haven’t even chosen which diplomats will lead our renegotiation efforts, let alone seen their results. How can we say any efforts to change our terms of membership will be inconsequential?

Lawson’s cynicism is pretty understandable – as he says in today’s article, he’s been here before, with the ‘trivial’ 1975 renegotiation which was carried out by the Labour PM Harold Wilson. If you read the history books it quickly becomes obvious that to call Wilson’s renegotiation a ‘sham’ is far too generous, with the historian Dominic Sandbrook branding it as an ‘enormously hollow exercise in political spin’. Despite achieving nothing except getting some tax exemptions for New Zealand imports, Wilson argued that he had fundamentally changed Britain’s membership of the European Community, even claiming that he had protected Parliament’s sovereignty. Buoyed by supportive headlines, people voted 2:1 to stay In.


With such a shoddy precedent it’s understandable why people are feeling sceptical about any new renegotiation – after all what if history repeats itself? Imagine, the PM comes back claiming that everything has changed and that Brussels is in full retreat. The press lauds his bulldog spirit and Britain votes overwhelmingly to stay in… before realising nothing has changed. Again.

But the thing Lord Lawson and other elder statesman need to remember is that this isn’t 1975 – like Pavlov’s dogs we have learned from punishment. Already journalists and Conservative backbenchers are warning of the dangers of the sham renegotiation. In the same way the Leveson report was taken to task within hours of publication, David Cameron’s eventual renegotiation settlement will be pored over by his colleagues and by commentators who will be on the lookout for any hint of a shame. In the age of Twitter and the blogosphere, fuelled by bitter memories of the past, a sham would be exposed very quickly.

Lord Lawson is very welcome to his view that renegotiation will fail, but his warning simply underlines how hard it will be for Cameron can pull a Wilson. The economics of our current terms of membership may be dire – but, so long as we hold our leaders to account, we should at least try to address them before leaving.

Oliver Lewis is the Research Director of Business for Britain.


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