A word from Harold Wilson.

Photographer: Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

A Happy Political Precedent for Cameron

Matt Qvortrup is a professor of political science and international relations at Coventry University. His most recent book is "Referendums and Ethnic Conflict."
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British Prime Minister David Cameron's election upset is being compared to the Conservative Party's even more stunning victory in 1992, when John Major snatched a narrow majority from the jaws of defeat -- and promptly spent the next five years watching his party destroy itself over Europe.

The analogy to Cameron's situation as he prepares to deliver a promised in-out referendum on the U.K.'s EU membership is obvious, but also misleading. A better comparison would be the 1974 election win of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who also then fought an EU referendum. Not only did Wilson win that vote, he also put the U.K.'s Europe question to bed for a decade or more.

Cameron could use a happy political precedent. The widely held fear is that he will fall prey to his Euroskeptic backbench MPs -- who roared and pounded their tables in approval as he set out his referendum plans to the party on Monday -- and that he will lose the Europe vote. In the meantime, the EU question will overshadow everything else in Britain for years to come, to the detriment of the economy and even the unity of the United Kingdom.

Like Major in 1992, Cameron has a narrow majority, just seven seats in a chamber of 650, compared to 21 for Major and 73 for Cameron's previous coalition government. And like Major two decades ago, Cameron -- so the argument goes -- will be forced to make concessions to the right, or else engage in and internal fight that would cripple the party. After all, Major's 1992 victory was followed by a landslide Conservative defeat at the hands of Tony Blair, and more than a decade in opposition. 

There are several reasons why this analogy is flawed, and why Wilson's experience in 1974 is more useful in the lessons to be drawn.

Wilson won a majority of only three MPs and, like Cameron, faced both a rebellion from parts of his own party over Europe and from Scottish nationalists, who had just achieved their best ever election result. Then as now, pumped-up Scottish Nationalist Party MPs were pushing for the central government in London to devolve more powers to Scotland.

At the same time, the Conservative opposition Wilson defeated was rudderless. It had just lost a leader in Edward Heath, who was seen as out of touch and just plain odd. The parallels to Labour today, and to its recently resigned leader Ed Miliband, couldn't be clearer.

Wilson dealt with this situation successfully. He began immediately to renegotiate the terms of British membership in the European Economic Community (as the EU was then called).  He got a deal, even if few were sure exactly what it was he had achieved, because the other European leaders were keen to help him. Today they want to help Cameron, too, because keeping Britain in the EU remains in the bloc's interests. Cameron should therefore be able to secure a package of EU reforms to satisfy voters, if not his backbenchers and other Euroskeptics.

A year before the 1975 referendum, opinion polls had put support for staying in Europe at barely 35 percent. By polling day, more than 60 percent of voters opted to stay.  It was a resounding victory that silenced Labour's anti-Europe faction. “I have just been in receipt of a very big message from the British people, said Labour MP Anthony Wedgewood Benn, a leading voice against Britain's integration with the rest of Europe. "I read it loud and clear."

The situation is far less dire for Cameron. The most recent opinion poll suggests that support for staying in the bloc stands at 56 percent, with only 34 percent in favor of leaving. And this, mind you, is support for the present EU, before any deal Cameron may reach on reform. According to another poll, 58 percent of Conservative party voters want to stay in the EU.

So the risk of Britain leaving the EU is, in truth, minimal. A quick referendum should resolve the matter for at least the rest of this parliament, just as it did under Wilson.

There is another reason to compare Wilson's 1974 Parliament with the one elected last week. One is that Cameron has promised to step down before the end of his five year term, just as Wilson did in 1976.  The lesson here, though, is less sanguine.

Wilson passed the prime ministerial baton to James Callaghan. Before long, the government’s tiny majority evaporated. Legislation aimed at appeasing the Scottish and Welsh nationalists was derailed by constitutional purists, who feared that transferring more power to Edinburgh and Cardiff would lead to the break-up of the U.K. Callaghan was powerless, and in 1979 he was driven from office after losing a vote of no confidence, because the SNP, on whose MPs he now relied, voted against him. Margaret Thatcher was the beneficiary.

Neither Cameron nor any successor he may have will rely on the goodwill of Scottish nationalists to stay in power, but he too has committed to produce a new settlement that would transfer further powers to Scotland, which is certain to provoke a fierce constitutional debate in parliament. With such a slim majority anything is possible.

So Cameron should indeed learn from history, but he should look to Wilson's experience and forget about Major's. He should, as Machiavelli advised new leaders, "make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once,” moving quickly to deal with both the EU and Scotland, lest the Conservatives fritter away their majority, as Labour did in the 1970s. 

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To contact the author on this story:
Matt Qvortrup at drqvortrup@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net