Contingency Planning: The 1975 and 2016 Referendums



Contingency Planning - The 1975 and 2016 Referendums


Dr Lindsay Aqui (Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge)

Published: March 2019


In 2016, David Cameron proposed a national vote on the UK’s membership of the EU. Although ‘leave’ was one of the options on the ballot paper, the government developed no contingency plans for Brexit. Forty-one years earlier, the British voters faced a similar proposition. They were asked whether their country should stay in what was then called the European Community (EC). For over a year before the vote, and despite the fact that opinion polls consistently showed ‘yes’ in the lead, the government engaged in an extensive contingency planning exercise.

In this report, Dr Lindsay Aqui asks two questions about government preparations for these two referendums:

  • Why did officials and ministers plan for a ‘no’ vote in 1975 and what were their main considerations?
  • Why did the same rationales for preparing for withdrawal negotiations in 1975 not apply in 2016?

The report concludes by considering the question:

  • Should a government that holds a referendum develop a strategy for implementing an outcome it does not support?


  • About the author

    Dr Lindsay Aqui, Research Associate

    Dr Lindsay Aqui is a Research Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Her PhD is entitled ‘Britain and the European Community, 1 January 1973 – 5 June 1975: Policy, Party Politics and Public Opinion’. It explored the diplomatic and domestic aspects of Britain’s ...   Learn more

    Lindsay Aqui