The year was 1975 and that leader was Labour’s Harold Wilson. But with current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to hold a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership increasingly echoing the last time Britons voted on staying in the bloc, it could just as easily be 2016.
Facing the prospect of members of his team quitting, Cameron used the same tactic as Wilson this month and bowed to pressure to allow ministers to campaign to leave the EU after he renegotiates Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
But Cameron, who like Wilson favours staying in a reformed EU and has been accused by Eurosceptics of seeking insignificant changes in the negotiations, may be mindful of history.
Seven of Wilson’s team of 23 senior ministers campaigned to leave what was then the European Economic Community. While Britain voted 67 percent to 33 percent to stay in, Labour split six years later, with four pro-Europeans breaking away to form a new party.
“The divisions did not disappear just because they had had a polite agreement to disagree,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.
“It got them through the referendum campaign but it didn’t alter the situation that there were significant figures in the party who wanted to come out and those who wanted to stay in.”
The issue of Europe, which contributed to the downfall of two of Cameron’s predecessors, has long divided his party and pressure from his Eurosceptic lawmakers helped prompt a pledge to reform Britain’s EU ties and hold a vote by the end of 2017.
Cameron has said he will work hard to get “the best possible deal” in negotiations with the bloc. He hopes to win a deal in February, opening the way for a referendum as early as in June.
Some Conservative Eurosceptics say more than half of Cameron’s lawmakers could vote to leave, while several ministers, including Home Secretary Theresa May, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and House of Commons leader Chris Grayling, are reported by local media to be considering backing an EU exit.
In Cameron’s favour is that his party is in a strong political position – it won a majority in a general election last year, confounding pollsters’ predictions of a hung parliament, is presiding over a strengthening economy and is facing an opposition in disarray.
The election of veteran left-wing activist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the main opposition Labour has set off an internal conflict over its identity which some in the party fear could make it unelectable for years.