Some time before 1973, when Richard Crossman was still editor of the New Statesman, I ambled along to Mr Benn’s substantial residence in Holland Park. My purpose was to talk to him about his proposed referendum on British membership of the Common Market. The visit was not, I confess, greatly to my taste. My practice, then as now, is to refuse to meet politicians in either their offices or their homes unless they are also friends, as Mr Benn was not. Our relations were civil but distant.
The interview was, as I recall, something of a put-up job between Crossman and him. They had both become excited about the referendum, seeing it as a device that would not only keep us out of Europe but also force persons of whom they disapproved out of Labour politics. In other words, they wanted the SDP to be formed about a decade before it actually was. In this they were partially successful. Lord Jenkins resigned the deputy leadership on account of Labour’s support for the referendum (and denied to me afterwards that he had ever regretted his decision to resign). Mr Dick Taverne left the party, successfully fought the Lincoln by-election and was the true begetter of the SDP.
The other great object of the referendum failed to come about. Indeed, the device produced the opposite result. In 1975 Britain was cemented in Europe for ever – unless the Europeans become fed up with Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s screaming and shouting and kick us out first, as they would be