David Cameron, British Museum
Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on the European Union (EU) at the British MuseumLeon Neal/ AFP

The Telegraph on 05 January 2016 claimed in an article that Prime Minister David Cameron, had been forced to suspend Cabinet collective responsibility and allow his Ministers a free vote on the European Union Referendum. This most unusual decision arose because Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, had threatened that he would resign that same week and take other Ministers with him, if they were not allowed a free vote on the issue and be able to campaign for exit from the EU.

A split Conservative party? Many readers will not be old enough to remember anything different on this particular topic and if the country does vote to stay put, will this Tory civil war continue after the referendum?

It is hard to believe the desperation felt by Mr Cameron's predecessors during the 60s in trying to join the European Economic Community (EEC) only to be thwarted by the vetoes of France's General de Gaulle.

Back in 1961, the French President called Britain, America's "Trojan Horse". We were not "real Europeans". Hardly an auspicious omen for the UK's then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, or his chief European negotiator, Edward Heath, to make their case.

Britain was kept dangling for a reply. Official rejection was only announced at a press conference given by the General on 14 January 1963. The talks foundered because the UK wanted safeguards for the Commonwealth, felt likely to have a negative impact on the EEC's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). This had come fully into force in 1962.

Yet, given the General's undoubted clout, all might have been forgiven had Britain agreed to his nuclear weapons policy and proposal for a combined UK – French nuclear agreement to stand independent of the two super powers, Russia and the United States. No doubt it was a test, a trap even, of Britain's true European resolve.

Britain failed the test and the EEC's rejection left the Conservative leadership, if not the whole Party, truly distraught, a feeling held by many in the country, if not with quite the same degree of intensity.

Jonathan Fenby in his book The General, Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved (2010) relates that the French President told his Cabinet that to console Macmillan, he put his hand on the Prime Minister's shoulder to "intone the words of the Edith Piaf song of the time, 'Ne pleurez pas, milord' (Don't cry, My Lord).

In May 1967, Prime Minister Harold Wilson renewed Britain's bid to become a member – a change in his personal position – but yet again it was rejected in November that same year.

Why the urge to join, having been turned down? British governments were only too aware that since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 establishing the EEC, the member countries were growing at a much faster rate than the UK; Britain was running frequent trade deficits (after 1960) leading in turn to regular sterling crises.

Conservative or Labour, no matter, the motive to join Europe was purely economic and one has to ask whether any politician had bothered to read the clauses on "ever closer integration", a major principle of the Treaty of Rome - and of the Treaty of Paris (1951) which had set up the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the EEC's precursor. My copy of Benham's Economics by F W Paish (1967), a standard text when I was at college reads:

"The broad plan (of the EEC) is to move towards political and social as well as economic integration..."

Surely our politicians didn't simply read what they liked in the treaties and missed what was already in everyday print?!

If Britain's politicians weren't as clear with the public as they should have been on the implications of joining the EEC, most agreed that Britain was in real need of a "shot in the arm", France being a clear example.

During its "Trente Glorieuse" (Thirty Glorious Years) between 1946 and 1976, France averaged annual growth rates of five per cent – over 5.8 per cent between 1958 and 1970. These impressive figures had been helped by the country having, after the Fifth Republic was established, a government with a very strong executive coupled with strict central planning.

A major boost to French growth was also due to the fact that nearly all of America's aid to France – Marshall Plan plus other grants and aid and loans – of some $15 billion, was spent on industrial reconstruction. (Britain had spent much of its American assistance on setting up the welfare state).

Joining the EEC was a no-brainer but there was one other factor which concerned the politicians of the UK over and above economic figures. In 1968, ahead of schedule, the EEC became a customs union which meant that a common external tariff of any level could now be imposed against the imported goods of all other countries.

General de Gaulle was hardly cold in his grave (late 1970) when Britain submitted what would be a successful application and joined the EEC in 1973. Social and economic integration over the past 14 years, reinforced by numerous subsidiary agreements to the headline treaties, had been carrying on apace.

It was not just a free trade area, it never had been just a free trade area.

On 28 April 2016, Channel 4's Gary Gibbon interviewed Frans Timmermans in Brussels. Mr Timmermans, former Dutch Foreign Minister and now Vice-President of the European Commission, made it very clear, repeatedly, that if the UK chooses to leave the EU, any divorce is likely to be protracted, it will not be "smooth and straightforward".

"It will be mean and nasty," Mr Gibbon more stated than questioned.

As Mr Timmermans had already said that the whole referendum issue was seen as a potential "existential threat to the European project", his answer was of course in agreement, because:

"Everyone will be looking after their own interest"

In 1976, I sent a postal vote from Singapore to stay in the then EEC and cannot opine whether or not Harold Wilson was a "slippery fish" by not informing the electorate properly.

As one of the 67 per cent who voted to stay in, so too did 249 of the 275 Conservative MPs including Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Exit then without too much reproach is feasible but 41 years down the road? Likely to be very messy indeed.