Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Peter Shore - wrote to the Prime Minister in late November stating that ‘Ministers will have very deep convictions that cannot be shelved or set aside by the normal process of Cabinet decision-making ... The only solution might be to reach some understanding on the basis of ‘agreement to differ’ on this single issue and for a limited period’.63In a statement on 23 January 1975 the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, announced that a referendum would be held before the end of June, once the outcome was known and the Government had made its recommendation, and stated: When the outcome of renegotiation is known, the Government will decide upon their own recommendation to the country, whether for continued membership of the Community on the basis of the renegotiated terms, or for withdrawal, and will announce their decision to the House in due course. That announcement will provide an opportunity for the House to debate the question of substance. That does not, of course, preclude debates at any earlier time, subject to the convenience of the House. The circumstances of this referendum are unique, and the issue to be decided is one on which strong views have long been held which cross party lines. The Cabinet has, therefore, decided that, if when the time comes there are members of the Government, including members of the Cabinet, who do not feel able to accept and support the Government’s recommendation; whatever it may be, they will, once the recommendation has been announced, be free to support and speak 62op cit,p.281 (footnotes omitted)63Jenkins, R (1980) Tony Benn: a political biography,p219; Tony Benn (1990) Against the tide: diaries 1973-76, pp274, 283
RESEARCH PAPER 04/82 28 in favour of a different conclusion in the referendum campaign. [HON. MEMBERS: ‘Oh!’]64The Opposition Leader, Edward Heath, noted that in that ‘unique operation and a major question of our time the Government are not going to maintain collective responsibility’. He asked several questions [cc 174-78]: If his Government are not to maintain responsibility, how will the Government make their recommendation to the House over what the attitude should be towards the situation of the so-called renegotiation? Will the Government set out the number of members of the Cabinet who support the recommendation and those who are opposed to it? Will the Government publish the names of the members of the Cabinet, who are on each side, or does he undertake to make a recommendation which will include freedom for them to decide to make no recommendation? Perhaps the Prime Minister will elaborate on the course he proposes to follow. The Prime Minister replied [c.1750]: The right hon. Gentleman said that a major constitutional question had been raised by what I have announced. This matter has divided the country. People on both sides of the question hold their views very deeply, very sincerely and very strongly. That applies both in this House and in the country. Indeed, the Liberal Party has such a division as well. There is undoubtedly a very deep and serious division in this House.