Published on 4 March 2019
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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?

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