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Labour has travelled a long way from the first European referendum

William Keegan
Photograph: Frank Barratt/Getty Images

My friend Tom McGuinness, who will be known to many as the lead guitarist in Manfred Mann (now the Manfreds), recently spotted a most moving Churchill quote on a D-Day memorial in Normandy. “Men will be proud to say ‘I am a European’. We hope to see a day when men of every country will think as much of being a European as of being from their native country.”

Having at one stage early in the second world war proposed a union between Britain and France, the great man cooled on the idea. Later he called for a United States of Europe, but he was not in favour of our joining. Nor was Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951. As for Attlee’s successor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, he was passionately against it, arguing that it would be an insult to “a thousand years of history”.

But it was in reaction to a thousand years of European history, and all the conflict between European nations, that the concept of a European union evolved. In particular the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars were quite enough for enlightened European leaders to come together and try to unite previously warring nations by economic means.

Unlike Gaitskell, whom I admired for other reasons but certainly not for his Euroscepticism, the two Harolds – Macmillan, Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963, and Wilson, Labour prime minister 1964-70 and 1974-76 – wanted us to join what was known in those days as the European Economic Community, or the “common market”. Quite apart from pursuing the principal objective of “keeping the peace”, the continental economies were faring better economically.

Macmillan is celebrated for his “wind of change” speech about Africa in the early 1960s; however, for the British empire – and Gaitskell’s “thousand years” – the winds of change had blown in 1956 with the Suez fiasco. But General de Gaulle vetoed both Macmillan’s and Wilson’s applications to join, and it was not until 1973 that we finally succeeded under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath.

Here we come to uncanny parallels, and differences, between then and now. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has finally come round, with a lot of “ifs” and “buts”, to the idea that there may have to be a second referendum – or third, if you include the one in 1975. But he claims to be emulating Harold Wilson in 1975 in saying he himself will stay out of it.

The referendum was called to resolve issues within the Tory party: instead it brought us the biggest crisis since Suez

Well: up to a point. As the head of Wilson’s policy unit, Lord Donoughue, and his principal private secretary, Ken Stowe, confirmed, Wilson had been in favour of our membership of the European community since 1965. The author of The Official History of Britain and the European Community, Stephen Wall, concluded that Wilson “had seen that the only way to win a decisive victory over the anti-Marketeers in the Labour party was to go beyond the party to the country at large”.

Before the 1975 referendum there was a rather more successful “renegotiation” than took place before the 2016 referendum. This was under the then foreign secretary, James Callaghan, and his minister of state Roy Hattersley. At the beginning of it, Wilson told Hattersley that his task was to keep Callaghan, who was going to take a hard line in the talks, “onside” to achieve a successful outcome.

The difference now is that Corbyn is a notorious Eurosceptic. The irony is that his political mentor, Tony Benn, may have been a Eurosceptic, but Benn’s son Hilary is a Europhile, whereas Corbyn is stuck in a Eurosceptical timewarp.

Wilson was rather more successful than David Cameron. Cameron may claim till the cows come home that he had to call a referendum because the EU was a burning issue; but the truth is that it was only a burning issue within the Tory party and not even in the top 10 of the broader electorate’s concerns. The referendum was called in order to resolve issues within his party: instead it aggravated them and brought us the biggest national crisis since Suez.

In his memoirs Cameron makes a pathetic attempt to claim that his and George Osborne’s austerity programme was not only necessary but successful. It was neither; what it achieved was economic and social discontent that proved a major factor behind the protest vote that the referendum became.

We now have the worst prime minister in living memory making a fool of himself and the country in painful efforts to patch up some kind of “deal”. The best deal is what we already enjoy: membership of the customs union and the single market, while being exempt from the deflation-bias of the eurozone.