Brexit is arguably the most significant event in the longstanding relationship between the Conservative Party and the European Community. Brexit is shaping the future of the Conservative Party, with fierce debates raging about how to proceed: whether to back May’s deal, or to push the UK to leaving without a deal. At the same time, there is a distinct pressure to get Brexit over and done with, and to refocus the party’s attention on other matters – as Matt Hancock put it, ‘If we become only a Brexit party, then we truly are finished’.
Historically, of course, the Conservative Party has been a central figure in defining Britain’s relationship with Europe. It led Britain into the European Community, and is now overseeing the end of British membership 46 years later.
Moreover, Europe created an ideological divide in the party along two axes: national sovereignty vs. interdependence on the one hand, and extended vs. limited government on the other. Today, of all days, it’s useful to go back and look at the contributions of various Conservative MPs who have played significant role in developing the party’s attitudes towards Europe.
Churchill had initially floated the idea of an integrated European community with his allusions to a United States of Europe in a speech in Zurich in 1946. He was purposefully ambiguous, aiming to ensure that the Anglo-American relationship was not undermined, and to avoid making Russia worry about a potential European bloc led by Britain.
Moreover, Churchill had to balance the three different strands of thinking in the Conservative Party which had already began to emerge on a European project – and which remain, in one form or another, present today.
The first were the ‘Europeanists’, who supported closer relations with Europe. The second group were the ‘sceptics’, who were more ambivalent towards Europe and who believed Britain should have a limited role in Europe and instead maintain strong ties to the United States. The last group were the ‘anti-marketers’ who felt that Britain had a leading, and independent, world role to play, with the Commonwealth and Empire.
What further complicated the matter, and would have a long-term impact, was the fact that the previous year’s general election had brought about the entry of 92 new MPs. These were not from aristocratic roots like traditional Conservatives, but instead came from grammar schools and industrial backgrounds – and they were more willing to challenge the Whips and Conservative leadership.
In this period, Churchill was still seen as the man who had won the war and now was not satisfied with being leader of the opposition, and sought a role to play on the world stage. A European Community offered such a platform.
However, when Churchill returned to Number 10 in 1951, his interested in Europe dwindled. The change in attitude seemed to show that Churchill had used Europe as a tool to win a general election, and that he was fundamentally pragmatic towards the European project.
Moreover, the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party had shifted with the intake of new MPs, and with three perspectives on Europe coalescing. These three groups would go on to shape the relationship between the Conservative Party and Europe for decades.
Eden had been groomed to take over from Churchill, having served as his Foreign Secretary. Eden was part of the group of sceptics, and at one point had stated that while ‘Britain was broke Europe was broker’. He remained critical of the idea of a supranational organisation taking powers away from Parliament, even rejecting a plan proposed by French Prime Minister Guy Mollet for Britain and France to create a political and economic union. Eden rarely consulted the groups within the Conservative Party, particularly on matters of foreign policy, instead opting to take advice from the Civil Service.
The rejection of the Mollet plan was a very important moment in the history of Europe, as thereafter France would almost always look towards Germany as a natural ally. This tendency can be seen throughout the history of the Community, and its foundations were built on a Franco-German relationship. Eden made periodic efforts to work with European countries and saw the value of a harmonious Europe; however, he favoured the kind of intergovernmental frameworks that were rejected by both France and Germany.
Ultimately, Eden’s legacy was defined by the Suez crisis, and many of the Europeanists in the party felt that Britain would have to re-evaluate its position in the world. As incoming Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, attempted to remedy this.
Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden and took on the immense task of re-establishing Britain’s role in the world after the Suez crisis had damaged the Anglo-US relationship. Macmillan had pro-European instincts, and was vital in the creation of European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960. EFTA was a British response to the European Economic Community (EEC), as the economies of the EEC members were developing rapidly and leaving Britain behind.
Macmillan had worked extensively on Europe since 1945 and had proposed various plans for intergovernmental frameworks. However, these plans were ultimately rejected and the EEC was created. Seeing a damaged relationship with the US, the stress of decolonisation, and the problems caused by a poor economy, Macmillan decided in 1961 to apply for EEC membership. He was able to be more openly supportive of the Community because of the actions of his predecessor in Suez, but also because internal balance of the Conservative Party was changing, with the Europeanist becoming more vocal.
Meanwhile, the eurosceptics, led by Enoch Powell, were no less vocal, but in this period they did not have as much influence, nor were they as willing to go against party lines, as they would later. The Europeanists were the more powerful lobby and backed his application to join the EEC – but this was quickly rejected by French President Charles de Gaulle, who had argued that Britain would be the United States’ Trojan Horse in the EEC.
Edward Heath came into power in 1970 and is arguably Britain’s most pro-European Prime Minister. It was under Heath that Britain entered the Community in 1973 on their third bid for membership (a second attempt after Macmillan was made by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1967). Britain’s application was accepted mainly due to changes in France’s political situation: de Gaulle had died, and his successor, Georges Pompidou, was more sympathetic towards British entry.
Moreover, following Enoch Powell’s departure by 1974, the right-wing group lost its cohesion. Without him, many backbenchers and anti-marketers did not take coherent positions on European matters. Conversely, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) had been created a year before Heath took office, and it now housed most of the Europeanists.
The group existed to pressure the Conservative Party to support entry into the EEC, and prominent backbenchers such as Norman St John-Stevas, and later James Spicer would be involved.
Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Community is the most well covered of the Conservative Prime Ministers in recent history. She had wanted to reduce Britain’s contribution to the Community (which she secured by 1984), and had wanted to reform the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) (although it remained relatively untouched throughout her tenure). During her premiership, the Community greatly deepened its integration, mainly following the efforts of the French President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors.
He wanted the Community to become more streamlined, and was committed to the reinvigorating the development of the single market – to be achieved by the Single European Act (SEA). This was passed in 1986, reforming the Community and setting a date for the completion of the single market by 1992.
Thatcher agreed to SEA, but in later years she would come to regret this decision. Notably, she felt frustrated by the fact that the SEA had reformed the Community but left the CAP untouched. In 1988 Thatcher attacked the Community during a speech in Bruges stating that ‘we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.’
A year after this speech the Bruges Group was created, advocating a drastic restructuring of the relationship between Europe and the UK. A rival to the Conservative Group for Europe, it contained prominent eurosceptics such as John Redwood and Norman Lamont; Thatcher herself was also to use this as a platform to influence the Conservative Party and its position on Europe.
Prior to 1988, though, Thatcher was pragmatic towards the European Community, having supported the introduction of European elections, and agreed to the SEA. Yet the Bruges speech was a very significant moment as it gave the eurosceptics within the Conservative Party momentum to once again become more systematic and organised.
Major emerged as the unlikely leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister in 1990. He had two significant moments with the Community. The first was at the Maastricht negotiations in 1992 where he was able to obtain opt-outs for Britain on various aspects of the Treaty, including membership of the proposed common European currency. The second was Major’s handling of the fallout from ‘Black Wednesday’ (16 September 1992), when Britain was forced to exit the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
This was a damaging moment for both the Conservative Party, and Major’s popularity, coming only four months after the 1992 general election. By 1997, the Conservative Party had become increasingly eurosceptic, and between the Bruges Speech and the ERM crisis, much had changed internally.
Thatcher continued her vocal attacks on Europe – albeit from the wings – and in 1993 the European Research Group (ERG) was formed, including eurosceptics such as David Heathcoat-Amory and Michael Spicer. Major struggled to balance the differing opinions in his party, and so the Conservative Party as a whole became more eurosceptic. Moreover, the eurosceptic networks within the Conservative Party had steadily grown, and now contained several prominent figures.
Years in opposition
Following Major’s departure the Conservative Party’s leadership selection was fought between Ken Clarke, William Hague, Peter Lilley, John Redwood and Michael Howard. Hague eventually won the leadership (at the age of 36), and in the second and final ballot he had had the support of Peter Lilley and Michael Howard.
Both were prominent eurosceptics, and in return for their support Hague also came to adopt an increasingly eurosceptic line, culminating in his ‘Save the Pound’ campaign. Unlike Major, he did not attempt to appease the different wings of his party on the European question and was more vocally eurosceptic, as the Conservatives were also cautious of the rise of UKIP and the Referendum Party by 2000.
Overall, following a combination of the Bruges Speech, Thatcher’s vocal opposition to Maastricht, the ERM crisis and the rise of the eurosceptic groups (Bruges Group and the ERG), it was increasingly difficult for the Conservative leadership to not follow a more eurosceptic line. Hague did however, attempt to modernise the Conservative Party, unchanged since Disraeli.
The party had lacked unity, lacked members, and lacked democratic values within its structures; Hague tackled these problems, ensuring volunteer groups worked more closely with the Parliamentary Party, and shifting spending towards constituency campaigns. Although this did lead to a more modern Conservative Party, euroscepticism remained a key component of the policy platform, and so it was clear that any future leader would have to face this increasingly organised eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.
Cameron’s legacy will be closely examined in the near future, as his memoirs are due out this year. As leader in opposition he had sought to appease the eurosceptics, and took the Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament.
These eurosceptic pressures within the party remained when he became Prime Minister; however, by this point it also came from beyond, with the rise of UKIP and with the euroscepticism of the Party’s financial supporters and the media. Cameron attempted to readdress this through the referendum, using it as a party management tool which ultimately failed.
Overall, the Conservatives have had a long and complicated relationship with Europe. The Party’s views on Europe had changed from leader to leader; but it is evident that between the Bruges Speech and the ERM crisis, euroscepticism was steadily formalised in the Conservative Party’s internal structures. A close reading of the historical literature suggests that despite waxing and waning, the Conservative Party consistently struggled to find an effective way of managing the European question.
In the recent months, indeed, we have seen both defections to the Independent Group (from the extreme pro-Europe wing) and the emergence of the Brexit Delivery Group (at the opposite end). Brexit has clearly highlighted the deep-rooted problems within the Conservatives and how these groups shape the overall Conservative Party.
By Khurram Jowiya, a PhD student at King’s College London, with a PhD focus on the Conservative Party and the European Parliament. He is currently working at United for Change as a Policy Manager.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.