Another reason why Cameron shouldn’t hold the referendum next June

Another reason why Cameron shouldn’t hold the referendum next June

Was this the match that lost the 1970 election for Harold Wilson and ultimately ushered us into the European Community?

Most of the country will be focussing on the football next June.

Since the second world war, the greatest general election upset was not 2015 nor 1992, but Harold Wilson’s surprise loss in 1970. Most of the polls and the commentariat expected Labour to win a majority comfortably yet the Ted Heath’s Tories won a majority. Some have attributed Labour’s defeat in part to England’s football team losing their World Cup quarter final to West Germany a few days prior to election day. 

Wilson categorically pooh-poohed any [World Cup] connection – “governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures” – but years later in his memoirs Denis Healey, then defence minister and later chancellor, let slip that as early as that April the Premier had called a strategy meeting at Chequers “in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day?” Even more explicit in his published reflections of the period was serious football fan (Grimsby Town) Tony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, who blamed the defeat “on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions”.

Nor was Wilson’s minister of sport, former League referee Denis Howell, in any doubt. “The moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday,” he wrote in his retirement memoir all of 20 years later.

Scotland’s determination to show they are unlike the other home nations also extends to their football team who are the only home nation not to qualify for next year’s European Championship, so in theory a substantial number of voters in the United Kingdom shall be interested in the football next summer especially amongst the Welsh and Northern Irish who qualified for an international tournament for the first time in fifty-eight and thirty years respectively.

In 1970 it was said the general election contest was an “unpopularity” contest with the public showing a much keener interest in the England football team’s attempts to win the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. You can see that also applying to the EU referendum. The side that is trailing in the polling might not be able to reverse that position if the majority of the country’s focus is elsewhere. As we saw with the Scottish Independence referendum the last few weeks are critical to both campaigns.

If most of the country’s focus and attention is on the football this might also have an impact on turnout, my own hunch is the lower the turnout the better it is for Leave. If Cameron chooses to hold the referendum next June, to paraphrase an old maxim, Cameron might find history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as Farage. Cameron should hold it when he has the nation’s full attention on the referendum which will maximise the “Cameron premium” that many think will be crucial in this referendum. 


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