This is the second part of a three-part series on the decline and fall of the Conservative Party. Part one is available here.
The Conservative Party’s current existential problems can be seen to have come about, at least partly, thanks to its internal conflict over Europe. From a stance of actively seeking and enthusiastically embracing the advantageous free trade opportunities afforded by membership of the European Community, it then became disastrously divided and is now the party of Brexit.
The Eurosceptic standard, proudly raised by Margaret Thatcher, was kept aloft by political factions who followed in her wake, gradually increasing their influence over the party as a whole.
This is how it happened.
The Bruges Group
The origins of Conservative Euroscepticism can be traced to the foundation of the Bruges Group think tank in 1989. The group was named for Thatcher’s Bruges Speech in September 1988 in which Thatcher expressed strong opposition to any attempts to transform the European Economic Community into a ‘federal Europe’ that might abstract powers from its member states. Its mission was to further Thatcher’s vision and to lobby against ‘ever-closer union’ in Europe. Most particularly it wanted to ensure that the UK could and would never be absorbed into a ‘European super state’.
The Bruges Group was a central rallying point for backbench Conservative MPs during Westminster ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s. Still active in 2022, the Bruges Group can be considered the ancestor of modern Eurosceptic groups such as the European Research Group (ERG).
Roughly simultaneously with these events, two other Eurosceptic political parties entered the UK political arena.
The Referendum Party
Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party was founded in 1994 and had as its sole policy the proposal for a referendum with the question “Do you want the United Kingdom to be part of a federal Europe or do you want the United Kingdom to return to an association of sovereign nations that are part of a common trading market?”. The Referendum Party stood candidates in 547 seats in the 1997 general election but only 42 of these polled above the 5% threshold to avoid losing their £500 deposit.
Goldsmith was widely criticised for using his wealth to unduly influence UK politics but always claimed he merely sought to have the question publicly debated and voted on. Goldsmith died some two months after the 1997 general election and his party died with him – he had been its effective sole proprietor and guiding light.
UKIP is born… sort of
The other single issue Eurosceptic Party of the time was the Anti-Federalist League, which was founded in 1991 by LSE lecturer Alan Sked. This failed to make much impact on British politics, losing its deposit in all 17 seats it contested in the 1992 general election.
In the summer of 1993 the Maastricht Treaty was ratified by the UK’s elected MPs in Westminster – achieved by then-prime minister John Major tying the question to one of confidence in his government. Following this, in September 1993, the League decided to reinvent itself. The result was the name it is now more widely known by: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
UKIP gradually grew in size once the Referendum Party ceased to exist, winning European Parliament seats and growing even more prominent under leader Nigel Farage as the MPs’ expenses scandal engulfed UK politics. UKIP performed well in the 2009 European elections, gaining 13 MEPs.
David Cameron became Conservative leader in December 2005 and developed a highly antagonistic relationship with Farage, describing UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. However, UKIP’s continued electoral success would begin to scare Cameron.
Thatcher and the rise of Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party
The Conservative Party was not always implacably opposed to the EU or its predecessors. During the Commons vote in 1971 as to whether the UK should join the European Economic Community, the party’s MPs voted almost 90% in favour. The change started when Thatcher became first leader of the Conservative Party and then prime minister.
Thatcher herself had initially been supportive of European Commission President Jacques Delors and was happy to work with him towards the Single European Act (SEA). This was a European level amendment to the 1957 treaty which had established the European Economic Community (EEC) – the Treaty of Rome. The SEA was brought about because EEC business and political leaders had realised that their existing agreements were not sufficient to remove barriers to trade between them.
However, once she had signed the Act in 1988, Thatcher realised that it would lead to political integration, of which she was wary, and she converted to Euroscepticism. Her newfound ideology led her to oppose the Maastricht Treaty, which reformed the European Communities into the modern-day European Union.
Euroscepticism takes root
This Eurosceptic philosophy took root within the Conservative Party, nourished throughout the 1990s by the continuing adoration of Thatcher after she had left office, not least because Thatcher herself was still vocal on the matter, albeit from the wings.
As early as 1990, prominent Thatcherite and Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan had founded the Oxford Campaign For An Independent Britain which continues as of 2022 and is an early example of the belief in what later became far better known as ‘Brexit’.
Thatcher’s successor as leader, John Major, became highly frustrated at the intransigence of Eurosceptic members of his cabinet and famously referred to them as “bastards” in summer 1993 in the aftermath of his bitter parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Also in 1993, the European Research Group (ERG) was founded by backbench Eurosceptics including Michael Spicer and David Heathcoat-Amory. Their prime motivation was to formalise pan-European right-wing opposition to further European integration.
Euroscepticism and the Conservative ‘post-1997 years’
It was a given during John Major’s post-Black Wednesday premiership that the Conservatives were going to lose the next general election and the only question was the margin of the defeat, ultimately the party’s worst loss of the 20th century. Major resigned after the general election loss and was succeeded as party leader by William Hague.
Hague quickly moved the party in a much more Eurosceptic direction. Hague argued in his speech at the 2001 Conservative Party conference that:
“There is nothing that the British people can talk about that this Labour Government doesn’t deride… Talk about Europe and they call you extreme. Talk about immigration and they call you racist; talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders… I’m going to … campaign for a European Parliament with 100 fewer members, halve the number of political advisers, and abolish a huge swathe of Labour’s regional bureaucracies and agencies and their offices in Brussels … Within two years of winning [the next] election, Tony Blair would force this country into the euro…
“… I say to everyone who believes in our country: make no mistake about it, this election is your last chance to keep the Pound. And it’s your last chance to vote for a Britain that still controls its own destiny.”
Vague words and unbuttered parsnips
These words might have been meat and drink to the party faithful and the Eurosceptic backbenchers, but they cut little ice with the voting public. After the nadir of 1997 the Conservatives under Hague’s leadership only gained one additional seat in the 2001 general election. Hague resigned as Conservative leader immediately after this election defeat, to be succeeded by Iain Duncan Smith.
A key factor in Duncan Smith’s party leadership campaign was his strong Eurosceptic stance. It was telling that he won the vote of the party members by a 60:40 margin against the Europhilic Ken Clarke.
Ironically it was not divisions over Europe that brought down Duncan Smith so much as his fellow Conservative MPs’ doubts over his suitability for the job. He lost a confidence vote in October 2003 and Michael Howard was selected unopposed to be the new leader.
Michael Howard: the trend continues
A number of factors made it effectively impossible for any Conservative leader not to follow a Eurosceptic line: Thatcher’s Bruges speech; her vocal opposition to the Maastricht Treaty and her continued popularity within the Conservative Party; the party’s collective memories of Black Wednesday and how it removed them from power; and the continued rise of both the Bruges Group and the ERG.
Barely three months after becoming Conservative leader, Howard addressed the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Berlin with a speech entitled ‘A New Deal For Europe’ in which he lamented that “The EU was designed to free up our markets so that we could compete globally. But the weight and burden of the directives and laws it has introduced has had almost exactly the opposite effect – damming the flood of enterprise that should be sweeping across our continent”.
Howard told the Conservative conference in October 2004:
“People have been let down on Europe… In the 1970s, Britain joined a common market. That’s what the British people voted for. But it soon became clear our European partners wanted more. They wanted to build a country called Europe. The British people were told: ‘Don’t worry. France and Germany don’t really want a country called Europe. They’re coming our way.’ But they haven’t come our way.
“Power has gone from Britain to Brussels. And that’s not what the British people voted for … It is not enough to say No to the European Constitution – though a Conservative government will. It is not enough to say No to the Euro – though a Conservative Government will. It’s time we went further.
“We want out of the social chapter, which is a threat to British jobs. We want out of the common fisheries policy, which is destroying communities. And we want more British aid to be distributed from London and less from Brussels. It’s time to bring powers back to Britain. There’s a word for it – accountability. That’s what most people want.”
Opposition becomes irrational hatred
Howard’s speech sums up nicely exactly where blind Eurosceptic ideology was leading the Conservatives. Opposition to closer European integration was now turning into irrational hatred of the EU and the open airing of ‘Euromyths’ such as the 1975 referendum having only been about joining a common market and that the EU was going to turn into a superstate which the UK would be powerless to prevent.
Veneration of Eurosceptic icon Thatcher helped to foster the continued malignant growth in influence of such attitudes to Europe. Euroscepticism was now well set not just to create problems for the country but to “corrode” the Conservative Party itself.
Part three of this series on the decline and fall of the Conservative Party is available here: Brexit and beyond.
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