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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Brexit: Winning the Peace

Charting a new course

Monday, 3rd October 2016
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Charles Moore, a biographer of Margaret Thatcher and former Editor of The Telegraph will speak alongside Professor David Myddelton who is an economist, author and former Chairman of the IEA with James Delingpole. James is a well known journalist, columnist, novelist, political pundit and the Executive Editor of


Professor David Myddelton
James Delingpole
Charles Moore


Professor David Myddelton
James Delingpole
Charles Moore


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Charles Moore
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James Delingpole

Address of Event

Dickens Conference Room
Birmingham & Midland Institute
Margaret Street
Birmingham B3 3BS

Map of Event

Life After the EU

Manchester Meeting

5th October 2015
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An address and question time with Daniel Hannan MEP, Conservative Member of the European Parliament, and Jim Mellon, international billionaire investor and supporter of the campaign to exit the European Union.

Click here to view Jim Mellon's presentation on Britain leaving the EU.




Jim Mellon and Daniel Hannan MEP

Address of Event

The Banqueting Suite, Town Hall, Albert Square,  Manchester M60 2LA

Map of Event


Flickr Gallery 5th October 2015

The Conservative Conference & Euro-Sceptical Motions 1992-95

Paper No. 23

Martin Ball

In Memory of David Regan

Whose work lives on, in that of his students

Foreword by Jonathan Collett

Since our foundation in February 1989 Bruges Group publications have sought to demolish the collectivist and corporatist myths of post-war European politics. The notion of the inevitability of federalist ideas has been destroyed by outward, liberal and free-thinking arguments put forward by Brugistes. These have ably supported the political logic and intellectual coherence of Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech so that our present position is one of intellectual strength.

One particular myth advanced by the integrationists is that European political union is keenly favoured by the young in comparison to the supposedly tired old reactionary rhetoric of the "anti-marketeers". This myth too has been debunked and it is now apparent that the coming generation is more attracted by the ideas of individual liberty, democratic accountability and global trading links. Each new influx into Parliament (and the ranks of journalism and academia) brings freshly inspired Euro-realists in contrast to the remaining Euro-fanaties of the post-Second World War generation who cling to the discredited ideas of Monnet, Spinelli and Delors.

A recent high-profile Conference held by the National Association of Conservative Graduates (an official organisation under the wing of the Youth Department at Central Office) voted overwhelmingly for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union in the absence of a repatriation of powers at this year's Intergovernmental conference. This is increasingly the view of a new generation of Young Conservatives. Each year the Foreign Affairs debate at the Conservative Party Conference proves this to be the case as do the large number of fringe events held at the Conference on the European debate. The Bruges Group fringe meeting at the 1995 Blackpool conference attracted an audience of two hundred people to hear lain Duncan Smith MP.

Martin Ball's publication reflects this new realism in the Conservative Party. His paper shows the depth and range of Euro-sceptic opinion held at grass roots level. The sources of these views are shown not to be narrow or predictable but strongly held across all constituencies. The trend has been an ever-increasing tide of Euro-sceptical motions confirming the observations of those who attend the Conservative Party Conference. Indeed the strength of commitment to the nation state and the vigour with which this manifests itself is shown to have actually increased, by the author's excellent system of classification.

Not only has there been an absolute majority of Euro-sceptical motions over integrationist ones in the years studied by Martin Ball, but this has increased relatively in the last three years. A hardening of attitudes has occurred amongst a body that was already sceptical. Conservative Party members are now so disenchanted with the EU that they will settle for nothing less than a net retrieval of powers.

Conservatives have traditionally believed that Britain should be able to govern itself and that those who govern should be re-elected or thrown out according to how they perform. In the absence of a negotiating position designed to ensure that this becomes the case it is clear that Britain's withdrawal from the EU is an item increasingly on the agenda for the Conservative Party up to and beyond the next General Election.

The potential gulf between the two parties over Europe is of a magnitude which ought to be electorally decisive. It is now time for the Conservative Party to adequately reflect the deeply held and eloquently articulated views of the vast majority of its membership. Most Conservatives want at the very least to see a rejection of the single currency on economic grounds, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the curbing of the European Court of Justice, and a maintenance of the current veto powers held by nation states.

With a General Election looming within the next year, there has never been a better time for the Conservative Party to meet this challenge. Rhetoric is no longer enough and action must now follow. Britain’s democratic and constitutional future is at stake and the prize for courage and vision is an outward-looking but self-governing future of economic prosperity.

Jonathan Collett
Campaign Director, the Bruges Group
London, June 1996


This pamphlet seeks to assess the extent of Euro-scepticism amongst Conservative Party grassroots members by analysing the motions submitted to the Party's Annual Conferences of 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995.1 These conferences lie between the 1992 General Election victory and the imminence of another general election in late 1996 or early 1997. They cover almost a Parliament's worth of Annual Conferences, spanning the fabled mid-term blues period. Therefore any tensions of the time would be expected to be reflected in the policy demands of motions.

The pamphlet starts with an introduction to the Conservative Conference and goes on to explain the process by which the concerns of members become official motions for debate. It then groups the motions to determine the full extent of hostility to the European Community, and in particular what it is they are hostile to. In concluding it considers what the motions tell us about the mood of grassroots Tory members in relation to the government's European policy.

The Conservative Party Conference

Why study the motions
Of the alternative ways of measuring grassroots opinions, studying conference motions offers the best approach. They represent an easily accessible and identifiable source of opinions on a wide range of issues. Motions are important in relaying to the outside world the issues of most concern to party members; they are indicative of the very matters likely to be discussed at closed party meetings. Crucially they are a unit of measurement grassroots policy agitation. From them it is possible to gauge the opinions of ordinary members. The procedure to submit a motion is open to all qualifying associations regardless of whether they have an MP or whether they donate to central party funds. All members, not just the great and the good, can have their say on policy.

Conventional opinions of Conservative grassroots members have viewed them as passive, and servile to the party leadership. This portrayal developed as a consequence of two factors. One was the contemptuous dismissal of members by party leaders, most famously typified by Balfour's assertion that he would rather heed the advice of his valet than that of representatives to the Conservative Conference. The other is the legendary deferential obedience of the mass of Conservative Party mem bers. Nowhere has this dutiful respect more prominently been displayed than at the Annual Conference which constitutes the yearly gathering of the united faithful. If this stereotype holds true for the observed period 1992-5, then criticism by the conference faithful should accordingly be restrained and mild.

Understanding Conservative conferences
The first point which needs clearing up is that there is actually no such event as the Conservative Party Conference. The event is in fact the Annual Conference of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, the voluntary body encompassing all the local constituency organisations and the various specialist groups. As the 1995 Conference Chairman told that year's representatives, it is the 'conference of ordinary party members'.

The standard textbook opinion of Conservative Annual Conferences is to be found in Sam Beer's seminal work, Modem British Politics, and in Robert McKenzie's classic, British Political Parties. Conferences were regarded as powerless in terms of policy-making, with their purpose being to provide good "PR" for the Party. Simply put, the 'party's annual conferences exercise no decision-making capacity' (Norton & Aughey, 1981). In contrast the Labour Party Annual Conference constituted, at least until Blair, a real policy-making forum with the ability to make manifesto commitments. The downside of this power is that policy disagreements may be all too publicly aired.

This long-standing assessment of the Conservatives Conference has been challenged. Richard Kelly (1989) suggests that by judging the Annual Conference in isolation, commentators are misreading the interaction between members and the Party leadership. He claims that it is more revealing to look at the Annual Conference as the final event in a year-round series of conferences. He also considers that concentration on the formal business of the conference fails to take into account the influence that members have informally. Furthermore, Philip Norton has recently reasserted, in a publication distributed at the 1995 Conference, that the 'conference really does matter'.2 It does so because the mass of activities occurring outside the conference hall, the "fringe", comprising speaker meetings, and extensive socialising, allow an opportunity for members to express their concerns to Ministers, MPs, and senior Party officials. Writing recently in Government and Opposition, Dennis Kavanagh claimed the conference to be influential in terms of 'setting the parameters for party policy'.3

What is indisputable is that the debates are opportunities for party activists to discuss policy and air their views directly to the senior politicians present. Government Ministers (and Spokespersons when in Opposition) are guests of the conference and the relationship is underlined when they are invited to reply to the debate. Voting on the debated motion takes place after the debate and before the reply speaker, and is usually by a show of hands. A formal count of votes is very rare, and has only happened once in recent times; after the 1992 Conference debate on Foreign Affairs and Europe. The width of the winning margin is not recorded, except that the debate chairman has the discretion to describe whether the motion is carried "unanimously" or "by an overwhelming majority". In any case, the debated motions are so anodyne that few can think of reasons not to support them. Speakers often are opposed to the motion because it does "not go far enough'; which usually implies it was not sufficiently right-wing.

Observation of conferences in recent years might suggest that the situation has been completely reversed. Conservative divisions over Europe have shattered the pretence of unity in full view of the public. It is Labour's Conferences which are now held up as masterclasses in media-management. Recent conferences have coincided with an unprecedented anger from Conservative grassroots members over the government's performance, and dissension with the central planks of its policies. The increase in open dispute is due in part to the long tenure of the Conservative Party in government. All opposition, even from non-Conservative organisations, to the administration must locate its campaigning work within Conservative circles. In consequence, non-Conservatives find common cause with dissatisfied party members in attacking the government. These developments signify the changing role of activists and the part played by ideology in the Conservative Party.

t still holds true is that the Conservative Party establishment wishes to exercise control over the proceedings. The event is enormously important, being one of the key occasions when the Party is on display to a much wider audience. Newspapers devote much space to coverage and the BBC broadcasts the proceedings. Factional groupings therefore place great importance on obtaining exposure for their cause.

Jumping the motion hurdles
The mechanism for submitting motions is in accord with the corporatist nature of the Conservative Party's structures. Constituency Association motions have to be submitted through the relevant Area Offices, who then pass them on to the National Union for consideration by the Conference Motions Committee. The national specialist groups send their motions direct to the National Union.

The process operates on a tight schedule. Potential motions have to be presented and passed at a committee meeting of the sponsoring body before the deadline date in early summer. The discussion of motions has to be included in the notification of the meeting, thereby giving all committee members the opportunity to propose motions. To get this item on the agenda, it must have been requested at the previous committee meeting, usually some months previously. The potential motion writer has to be alert early in the year to create an opportunity to put forward an opinion on aspects of policy. The protracted nature of the process suggests that the intention is to make it as difficult as possible to submit a motion. Different practices operate for different groups, and some are more lax about the finer points of the constitution. Being successful can depend upon who you are and what position you hold, and, crucially, what you want to say. For example, a senior officer will find it easier to get his motion adopted than would a relatively new member. Critical motions are judged to be too controversial for the association to sponsor, for fear of being tarred with the brush of disloyalty. Supportive motions have an easier ride, especially if they are being 'pushed' by the professional section of the party.4

The origins of the wording of sponsored motions are varied. Sometimes they are written by individuals concerned about a particular issue. Alternatively they could be the product of consultation between several members. At the selection stage, when the submitting body determines which, if any, go forward, motions are liable to be amended. To proceed they have to be sponsored by one of the recognised bodies for submitting motions, although they go forward in the name of an individual. After all, somebody has to propose the motion to be selected for debate at the Annual Conference. The debated motions are, of course, not run-of-the-mill entries. Rather, they are often planted, even though this can go wrong.5 In addition to manipulation of the motions chosen, evidence of party stage-management is provided by the selection of prospective parliamentary candidates to propose the debated motions at the conferences prior to Westminster Elections.

It is useful is to have an understanding of the context in which motions were framed. The short period of opportunity for submission makes it possible to focus upon factors affecting the tone and content of motions. To be precise, motions reflect the views and concerns of members for the months of May to July each year. Therefore let us remind ourselves of the circumstances in which the 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995 motions were written, approved, and submitted. In 1992 the glow of electoral triumph was still bright. But by 1993 the local elections defeat and a downturn in popularity were sapping confidence. 1994 was the year of the double whammy of defeat in the May local elections and in the June European Elections. 1995 saw losses in local councils where defeat was previously thought unimaginable. Consequently, it was likely there would be a louder chorus of disgruntlement than usual.

All eligible sponsoring organisations may submit a motion, regards of the strength of their membership or the amount of quota payments made. No association or group is barred, unless proscribed. Some may be at a disadvantage for various reasons. For example, the association may not have the administrative back-up to keep the submissions within the set timetable. There is no hiding the fact, however, that the facility to submit motions exists. It is in the public domain; motions are displayed in the Conference Handbook, and the rules of procedure for submitting motions are laid down.

Those motions which are listed in the Conference Handbook are the ones which cleared all the hurdles having successfully negotiated the system. But how many were withdrawn? Or disallowed under the rules? Or never saw the light of day, because submitting motions is frowned upon by the local party establishment? Unfortunately any evidence of this aspect would be anecdotal and incomplete. The main cause of exclusion is the charge that the motion is ‘unhelpful to the government position’, particularly where it is made in sensitive areas of policies.

Appreciating the motion phraseology
Any analysis must take into account the phraseology of the motions submitted. The basic point is that motions will not be specifically critical of government policies, but will tend to couch opposition in terms of the need for better presentation of policies, of getting the public to understand the policy better. Throughout the 1980s it was the call for clearer presentation of government policy which indicated grassroots unease and became something of a cliché. Stuart Ball (1994) argues that coded criticism has become the standard practice chiefly because it 'avoids open conflict with the leadership, and a facade of unity is preserved by the pretence that nothing is fundamentally wrong with the policy which better publicity or Ministerial co-ordination would not solve'.

It would therefore be a pointless exercise to assess conference motions solely in terms of whether they expressed support for the government or not. Most motions begin by either 'congratulating', praising', 'welcoming' or another form of words to the same effect. It could hardly be otherwise when everybody is ultimately on the same side. Therefore the classic formula for a dissenting motion is to begin with a demonstration of support, which is then qualified with a warning about the future direction of policy, or which proceeds to put forward policy contradictory to that of the government. Only the really daring and bold fail to observe this false greeting, and jump straight in with their criticisms. However, the critical motions do not necessarily attack the government by name. It is as if there is a separation between the policy and those actually administering it.

Motion division and motivation
Before proceeding with the analysis, it should be pointed out that this is not a truly scientific dissection, although it does provide an attempt to relay faithfully the favoured policies of the Tory grassroots. Two factors which have bearing on the analysis, must be considered. The first relates to the ordering of the motions in the Conference handbook, which has already been decided upon before their release. The second concerns the motives of those submitting motions, which limits my ability to generalise about the views of individual grassroots members at large.

Firstly, the division of motions into the various subjects is arbitrary. Many motions could be plausibly included in other subject groupings. Of course, this reflects the inter-relationship of many policy issues, and in part, the multi-clause structure of many motions. It is the conference organisers who decide in which section motions are placed and in what order within those sections the motions are listed. Whether they use this privilege to create a misleading picture of grassroots' concerns and priorities is a question for discussion later.

To illustrate the difficulty over where motions should be placed, consider the following: Motion 48 submitted by Hendon states, 'This Conference believes that Britain should not join a single currency which would restrict our control over our own destiny'. It is included in the Economy and Taxation section, although it could be argued that a more suitable section would be Foreign Affairs and Europe. Whether the motion is concerned more with the economic practicalities of the changeover to a new currency, or with the political consequences of a loss of national sovereignty, is debatable.

Some of the subject sections remain constant over time, some undergo slight alterations from year to year, others come and go according to political fashion and external events. Four factors are at work in determining the choice of subject sections. Firstly, they mirror the structure of government departments. Secondly, new subject sections are created to reflect new government initiatives, such as the Citizen's Charter and Deregulation. Thirdly, large subject sections are occasionally split to highlight an area which, for political reasons, the government wants debated separately, such as Housing and Small Business. Fourthly, subject sections must accommodate issues where grassroots' agitation is strong, such as Sunday Trading and the Family.

While the Subject areas themselves are listed in alphabetical order, there are no hard and fast rules for the listing of motions within their subject sections. Motions are grouped according to their regional area, starting with English constituencies, followed by Wales and Scotland, and ending with motions from the specialist national groups and the Youth organisations. Another possible correlation is that the first half dozen or so motions invariably praise the government's performance or support its policy stance. Unhelpful and critical motions are placed lower down the list.

The second consideration is that the motions submitted may not be representative of the views of grassroots' members at large. Those who do not submit motions may be content with the government's performance, and not feel the need to voice their support. On the other hand, those with strong feelings on particular issues have the motivation to express themselves. Although the motions submitted may be unrepresentative of the views of the wider membership, they are important indicators of the mood of active members.

A closer look at the motions
The number of motions submitted in 1995 is slightly higher than in the three previous years. It is interesting to note that the total number of motions submitted for each of the past four Conferences hovers around the 1200 level. The actual figures are as follows: in 1992, 1190; in 1993, 1200; in 1994, 1160; and this year, 1236. That is a difference between the highest and the lowest of only 76, representing a fluctuation of around 5% of the total each year.

To compare with years outside my study: there were 1411 motions in 1991, and 1095 in 1986. The total in 1991 contained 168 on Foreign Policy, of which The Guardian (21/9/91), described 64 as being 'bristle towards Brussels'. Education, with 141, had the most in 1986. Economic Policy and Taxation was second, and in third place there were 90 motions on Party Policy and Public Relations (Kelly, 1989).

In terms of the overall 1995 distribution, the usual suspects attract the largest number of motions. Ahead of Economy and Taxation, and Foreign Affairs and Europe, are Home Affairs and Law and Order. For each of the past four years Home Affairs has numbered over 200, with the 1993 figure of 244 motions accounting for 20% alone of that year's total. Of all the other subject sections Education has the most, with 5-7%. The only pretender to the big three in recent years has been the Party Policy section, which peaked in 1994 with 124 motions, or 10% of that year's total. In accord with Stuart Ball's point above, anger arising from defeats in both the local and European elections was directed towards the party organisation in terms of the need for policy to be put across more clearly to the public.

The Foreign Affairs and Europe subject section
The subject billing of Foreign Affairs and Europe gives a misleading impression. The reality is somewhat different, with an overwhelming majority of motions in this section concentrating on European Community matters. These EC motions are motions which have a specific bearing on the policies and institutions of the European Community, either complaining about present practices or proposing new departures. Under this definition it is possible to disregard those motions which refer to Europe in passing and are not overtly directed towards the European Community. The non-EC motions are those not specifically concerned with the European Community.

The table below demonstrates the division on these criteria.

Figure 1
EC v. Non-EC breakdown of motions in Foreign Affairs & Europe Subject section
1992 1993 1994 1995
EC-specific 188 91 83 134
non-EC 8 9 4 5
Total 196 100 87 139
The non-EC motions have covered: (in 1992) a settlement in Yugoslavia, Overseas Development Aid, Hong Kong, strengthening the United Nations, World population, South Africa, spreading democracy, assisting democracy in Eastern Europe; (in 1993) the Israeli arms ban, troops in Yugoslavia, the UK’s permanent UN seat, the UK & peace-keeping forces, Overseas Aid & world poverty, the UK & UN Security Council, Hong Kong, violence in Yugoslavia, assistance to Eastern Europe; (in 1994) two motions on GB's permanent seat on the UN Security Council, advancing peace and human rights, and a call to cap foreign aid; (in 1995) Kashmir, Yugoslavia, the Christian community in Southern Sudan, Bosnia, and Overseas Aid.

The separation of Europe motions from Foreign Affairs motions reveals that there is little interest in foreign policy matters outside the European Community sphere. The main preoccupation of world wide foreign affairs is to preserve the UK’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and in particular to prevent it being converted into a European Community permanent seat, as was recently recommended by the Italian government.

Euro motions in other subject sections
As indicated earlier there are a number of motions which could have been included in different subject sections. Many of these are Euro- related motions and demonstrate the Euro-sceptical sentiments of many members across a range of policy areas.

The table below illustrates the showing of EC-specific motions in other subject sections.6

Figure 2
1992 1993 1994 1995
Animal Welfare 6 2 5 -
Citizen’s Charter & Public services 1 0 0 -
Defence 1 0 0 3
Deregulation - 14 9 7
Economy & Taxation 9 23 8 26
Education & Employment - - - 1
Electoral & Constitutional 0 - 0 2
Employment and Training 2 10 5 -
Environment 1 0 0 0
Food, Farming & Fisheries 20 16 16 30
Home Affairs 4 1 0 2
Misc 1 0 0 0
Small Business - - - 2
Trade & Industry 2 2 4 9
Transport 0 0 0 1
TOTAL 47 68 47 83
A dash (-) signifies that no section existed in that year.

It is clear that there are a defined number of subjects in which the European dimension of policy is of concern to members. These can be narrowed down to key themes: anger at EC Directives and bureaucracy; rejection of a single currency and EMU; opposition to the Social Charter; support for reform, if not abolition, of the Common Agricultural Policy; and preserving the sovereignty of British fishing grounds.

Euro-motions all together
Because all the motions concerned with the European Community's policies and institutions are spread among different subject sections it makes it difficult to see the wider picture of Tory members' disposition towards the EC. Creating a new section, called 'EC-motions', makes it possible to bring together all the motions concerned with the EC. By doing so the whole picture of both hostility towards and support for the government's European policy can be observed. Adding the number of EC-motions in the Foreign Affairs & Europe section to the number of EC-motions outside it creates the new 'EC motions' grouping.

Figure 3
1992 1993 1994 1995
In Foreign Affairs & Europe section 188 91 83 134
Outside Foreign Affairs & Europe section 47 68 47 83
TOTAL EC-MOTIONS 235 159 130 217
As % of Total Motions 19.8% 12.4% 11.2% 17.4%
Position is subject ranking 1st 2nd 2nd 1st
The full extent of grassroots members' interest in the question of Europe is thus revealed.

Having brought all the EC-motions together it is possible to begin the task of breaking them down to individual issues of concern. To do this requires that they are subdivided into individual policy positions. This is difficult. Many motions have a number of different parts, dealing with a variety of policies. How motions are labelled is obviously subjective.

If there is a list of points in the motion then the first item is taken to be its main concern. If it deals with just two issues, and concentrates more on one of them, then that is recognised as the motion’s main concern. Where the two issues are linked - for example the call for a referendum to demonstrate opposition to a single currency - then the chronological order has been considered, i.e. the referendum must come first so that the opposition can be demonstrated, in deciding what is the thrust of the motion. Where 'buzz phrases', such as "Europe of Nations" are used, that is the primary point raised. Motions should not be counted more than once. If the multi-part motions were broken down to their individual requests, from the part sentences and lists, then the end result would be a total far in excess of the actual number submitted. This would involve discussing about 500 'part-motions'. But, while this might be interesting, it would complicate any analysis.

The table of all Euro-motions [see figure 6 at end of text] shows the shape and extent of Tory members' multi-faceted opposition to the EC. They want a referendum about Europe in some form or other; most probably to rule out participation in a single currency. They no longer talk of the need to create a level playing field, but more of a straightforward repatriation of administration powers from EC institutions. Linked to this is an aversion to any further integration. Similarly there is hostility to Brussels directives and bureaucratic interference. Ranged against this widespread scepticism, there is little enthusiasm for the UK to be at the 'Heart of Europe', or for closer ties. Nor has support for a single currency or the Social Charter been forthcoming.

It is interesting to note how few of the motions actually demand party unity. Government spokespersons, Central Office media 'spin-doctors' and senior voluntary party figures may make frequent calls for Euro-rebels to heed the desire of ordinary members for the party to unite and stop squabbling over Europe. However, the table demonstrates that it is not a pressing matter with motion submitters. The Party hierarchy has not been able to generate a censorious grassroots opinion of the Euro-rebels. If anything, events such as the withdrawal of the whip from the 'Westminster Eight' demonstrate the opposite. The rebels are supported personally for their integrity, and for their policy stance.

Indeed some apparently innocuous motions appearance raise the possibility of the UK leaving the EC; and this important aspect deserves further scrutiny.

Proposals for withdrawal
The 1995 motions include two which advocate withdrawal from the European Community. Of these, motion 507, from Harborough, wants the Government to 'leave the European Union by the year 2000'; and the second, motion 558 from Woodspring, calls 'on the Government to withdraw from the European Union rather than concede any further loss of sovereignty'. The prospect of the UK leaving the EC has been very much a 'taboo' subject, even among most Euro-sceptics. Calls for withdrawal would in the past be eschewed in favour of the UK getting a better deal from membership through looser ties. In part this was a tactical decision; it prevented Euro-sceptics being side-lined by the alleged lack of contact with the realities of international politics. However, two instances of senior Conservative figures questioning the UK’s membership of the European union are Norman Lamont's speech to The Selsdon Group at the 1994 Annual Conference, and Jonathan Aitken's speech to the House of Commons in March 1996. Both have put the potential withdrawal on the agenda by saying publicly what many say in private. The option of leaving the EU is now a matter of public debate.

This policy option had been raised in 1994 by Bow and Poplar, who submitted a motion calling upon the Government to 'leave the European Union’. The impact of this was not serious and it is easy for the Tory party hierarchy to dismiss the urgings of Bow and Poplar - a safe Labour seat and an association giving little in the way of quota payments. However, the sponsors of the 1995 motions tell us something different; that deep-rooted antagonism to the European Community is not confined to the "lunatic fringe" or to the malcontent. Both the sponsoring constituencies, Harborough and Woodspring, are pillars of the grassroots' community. They have new, young MPs, both of whom were among the co-authors of the Bearing the Standard,7 which was published prior to the 1992 election. The MPs are loyalists, and one is a government whip.8 Far from being disgruntled 1992 election losers, or those facing huge Labour majorities, they are strong Conservative associations. Harborough met its 94/95 quota payment of just over £8,000, while Woodspring handed over a total of £15,000 for the quota years 91/2, 92/3, and 93/4.

But these two constituencies are not alone in raising the spectre of withdrawal. In 1995, Motion number 461, from Kensington and Chelsea, demanded the end of 'Britain's membership of the European Union, if our European partners are unwilling to abandon their plans to create a European state'. Motion 526, submitted by Rochford and Southend East, warned that if 'fundamental reform of the European Union is not secured' then there should be a referendum to determine the people's view on a ‘ separate relationship with the European Union’.

Something else of note is the battle by Proxy. Associations such as Worcester and Loughborough with pro-government line MPs, submitted motions defending the government's proposed tactics. Therefore the argument that only the disgruntled submit motions is tempered by the appearance of motions defending the government position. It appears that the Euro-phile lobby have adopted the tactics of the sceptics. In response, constituencies with Euro-sceptical Members, for example Billericay and Macclesfield, submitted motions backing the stance adopted by their MP.


The new classification
Previous academic studies by Richard Rose and Mike Wilson have assessed the role played by conference motions in the Conservative Party.9 Whereas Rose considered motions in terms of inter-party ideological division and convergence, and Wilson used motions to assess the strength of ideological factions within the Conservative Party, motions are better seen as an indication of intra-party strife. It is more revealing to assess motions based on the axis of whether they give qualified (if critical) support for the government's position or are openly hostile. This approach would allow for a clearer assessment of the motives of those submitting motions as a device to criticise the government's policy and performance. Therefore a new classification is required to assess the level of criticism of government policy.

Using this new classification with regard to the single currency, the following categories, fleshed out with examples of real motions, are derived. The first classification (Class 1) covers motions supportive of the government's policy over single currency of 'wait and see'. An example of this type is motion 136 (submitted in 1995): 'This Conference notes the single currency opt-out, negotiated by the Prime Minister at Maastricht, provides Parliament with the flexibility to decide whether joining a single currency is in Britain's economic self- interest when and if the time comes.'

The second classification (Class 2) covers motions which, while supportive of the government itself, are hostile to the government's single currency policy. An example of this type is motion 470 (submitted in 1995): 'This Conference, whilst supporting the Government's wish to play a part at the heart of Europe without accepting the federalist principle, calls on the Government to make a clear statement of opposition to the idea of a single European currency as a matter of principle.'

The third classification (Class 3) covers motions which are openly hostile to a single currency under any circumstances. An example of this type is motion 208 (submitted in 1995): 'This Conference calls upon the Government to recognise that since the price of membership of any European monetary union will be the abandonment of control by the British Parliament to the German Bundesbank over British interest rates, currency values and eventually taxation, conditions for entry will never be right.'

After dividing the 30 motions in 199510 which are concerned with policy over the single currency into these varying degrees of support and dissatisfaction, the outcome is shown in figure 4. The number opposing the single currency outright was double those supporting the government line of playing a long game of 'wait and see', with a small number opposed to the single currency but wishing to remain loyal. No motion opposed the government's single currency policy because it wanted monetary union now, irrespective of the terms of entry.

Figure 4
Breakdown of 30 motions concerned with the single currency
Class 1 9 [motions: 69, 84, 102, 125, 131, 136, 145, 196, & 239]
Class 2 4 [motions: 183, 188, 470, & 538]
Class 3 17 [motions: 48, 76, 91, 94, 141, 143, 155, 160, 208, 220, 236, 458, 478, 485, 495, 496 & 548]
Where are the Euro-sceptic noises coming from?
It would be useful to know which sponsoring organisations are submitting motions on EC-specific matters. That way it is possible to observe where concern about Europe originates. Figure 5 below illustrates the breakdown between Westminster Constituencies, Euro Constituencies, and other groups. The first figure given is the number of motions, and the figure in brackets is the number of individual sponsoring bodies.

Figure 5
A sponsors table for all EC-motions
Sponsor 1992 1993 1994 1995
Westminster Constituency 171 (142) 94 (84) 112 (93) 176 (147)
European Constituency 51 (23) 55 (22) 9 (7) 21 (10)
Other groups 13 (10) 10 (9) 9 (8) 20 (14)
Total 235 159 130 217
A better comparison between the figures requires a weighting system which takes account of the different number of Westminster and Euro- Constituencies. Thus a higher percentage of Euro constituencies submitted motions on Europe then did Westminster constituencies in 1992 and 1993. In 1994 and 1995 the Westminster Constituencies submitted a higher percentage. Euro Constituency motions are usually more supportive of government policy and less critical of the European Community than are those originating from Westminster constituencies. The cynical might claim no surprise in this; the EC, after all, is their raison d'être.

Figure 5 shows a decline in the number of motions sponsored by Euro Constituencies. One reason for the drop in motion submissions by Euro Constituencies is that their structures tend to hibernate after European elections, and only re-activate themselves in the build-up to an election. The Westminster constituencies have greater permanence because they are the prime focus of members' campaigning work and fund-raising activities. To determine whether this fall in submissions from Euro constituencies is the norm, would require an investigation of the corresponding years in the European Parliament election cycle.

A deeper analysis of the source of Euro-scepticism, using the example of the 17 motions opposing the single currency, would require a profiling of the sponsoring organisations: whether they have an elected representative or not; whether that representative is a rebel or a loyalist; and whether the sponsoring organisation meets quota payments or contributes little. A breakdown on these lines is not possible because of the Parliamentary boundary changes which come into effect for the next general election, which means that currently there are no MPs for the new seats. Furthermore, the new constituency associations which have been created have not yet been in existence for a full year; so the amounts of quota payments are unknown. The quota payments analysis is therefore impossible, but the MP analysis can be resolved using the work of Colin Railings and Michael Thrasher11 of Plymouth University who have calculated the notional results for the next General Election by 'distributing' the actual votes cast in the 1992 General Election into the new parliamentary constituencies. It is therefore possible to consider the new associations as though they were already existing constituencies. There are 8 current MPs standing in the 16 associations represented by the 17 anti-single currency motions. One of the motions has been omitted from this constituency based analysis because it is a Young Conservative Area Committee. Seven of the constituencies have notional majorities and in the remaining nine, the mean average notional Conservative vote is 30.6% of the poll.

A question of motion gerrymandering?
Does this hypothesis of motions suggest gerrymandering? Stuart Ball (1994) describes how constituencies have increasingly viewed submitting motions as 'filling the cup. Thereby, 'as resolutions are grouped under subject headings and the total number on each topic counted is taken as a measure of rank-and-file priorities, sending in a resolution in this way becomes a vote in an unofficial but none the less recognisable ballot'. In this sense a league table of grassroots' concerns is compiled. So, if motion submitters intend their motion to be seen in this way then there is a motive for motions being spread around: the aim is to reduce the saliency of particular issues by hiving motions off to other subject sections.

Suspicions are however aroused concerning the placing of motions in the Economy and Taxation section. It is reasonable to suspect that motions which rightly belong in the Foreign Affairs and Europe section are purposely put there, and there is definitely a European aspect to many motions included in the Economy and Taxation section. It can easily be argued that motions are being shifted into that section to mask the true strength of grassroots' unease with the Government's European policy. Something similar appears to be happening with demands for the preservation of the sovereignty of the UK’s fishing grounds. While motions on Fishing grounds are often included in the Food, Farming and Fisheries section, they frequently have little to do with the technicalities of the industry and are more preoccupied with issues of sovereignty and access. These motions arise from a greater realisation that one consequence of further integration into the European Community is a policy of equal access to common European resources.

Suspicions are further heightened by the fact that in 1993 the Home Affairs and Law & Order section also included Electoral and Constitutional Matters; the only year that they were grouped together as a subject. Why was that so? Possibly to ensure that the Foreign Affairs & Europe subject section was not the biggest? With Foreign Affairs & Europe coming a close second in 1992, the addition of around 30 motions on Electoral and Constitutional Matters to Law and Order provided that section with a safety cushion in the event of a strong showing by Euro motions, causing it to be displaced as the biggest.

By its nature the charge of gerrymandering is almost impossible to prove. The only confirmation would be an admission of such a practice, which is unlikely to happen. However, it has been demonstrated that motions are shifted around to diminish the number in the Foreign Affairs and Europe Subject section, by placing them in other sections. It is clearly the case that certain sections are occasionally bloated by the incorporation of other subject motions, to maintain that section’s status as the largest. Such a practice may reasonably be described as gerrymandering.

What does this tell us about the mood of members?
These Conferences occurred at a time of rising disenchantment with the government in general, and a vigorous campaign of opposition to greater European integration arising from Maastricht in particular. Therefore, a large number of motions would be expected to be openly critical in tone and in detail. So it is possible to account for the large number of motions expressing dissent as merely a sign of the times.

This study expresses something more significant. Hostility to the EC is being expressed openly, and motions are less likely to be coded. This rebelliousness is increasing, despite concerted appeals for unity designed to suppress it, and is all the more noteworthy for flying in the face of the strong pressure to silence dissension. Furthermore, motions are more pointed in their criticisms. There has been a move away from a vague all-embracing dislike of "Europe" to honed attacks on specific policies, such as the single currency. This analysis has revealed a wider group of sceptical constituencies than was previously thought the case. The Euro-sceptics' number has increased beyond the normal group of rebels. Previously loyal constituencies have broken ranks to go public with their policy concerns. It is significant that they are no longer reticent about declaring their Euro-scepticism. The inevitable conclusion is that Euro-scepticism runs deeper within the Conservative Party than was previously imagined, and enjoys the support of a large section of its members. The party establishment may attempt to mask grassroots unrest over the government's European policy, but the truth will out.


  1. I use the 'Euro-sceptic' terminology, although some sceptics object to this label and prefer to portray themselves as 'Euro-realists'. Whether they are sceptics or realists is a matter for the reader to decide, and such a discussion lies outside the purpose of this paper.
  2. 'Yes, the Conference really does matter' in Conservative Party Conference special edition of The House Magazine, No. 689, Vol. 20, October 9, 1995.
  3. Dennis Kavanagh, 'British Party Conferences' in Government and Opposition, Vol. 31, Number 1, Winter 1996.
  4. Public admissions of such practices are not ready to hand, although Conservative Party members will be familiar with what is described. One example comes from when Nottingham Euro Constituency was selecting motions to be submitted to the 1993 Annual Conference; tactics involving whipping-out loyalist members, and refusing to have recorded votes, were used to stop five Euro-sceptical motions from being adopted.
  5. The Charter Movement's newsletter Charter News, Issue 35, distributed at the 1993 Conference, delighted in relaying how it took two attempts for the Delyn Association to successfully plant a motion of acceptable wording for debate at that year's conference.
  6. In 1995 the Deregulation section was expanded to take in Competitiveness and Public Services. Environment has undergone several name changes, being coupled to and uncoupled from other subjects.
  7. The authors of Bearing the Standard were a group of prospective candidates, all of whom were subsequently elected. They were tipped as stars to watch, and a number have fulfilled that prophecy by entering the government.
  8. The MP for Harborough is Edward Garnier, and Woodspring is represented by Dr Liam Fox, an assistant government whip.
  9. See Richard Rose, The Problem of Party Government (MacMillan, 1974), and Mike Wilsor’s 'Grass roots Conservatism: motions to the Party Conference' in Neill Nugent and Roger King's The British Right (Saxon House, 1977).
  10. The 30 motions come from adding together the 9 motions supportive of the government line, with the 21 motions opposing.
  11. Notional results for all the new seats are to be found in the Media Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies (Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre, 1995), compiled and edited by Colin Railings and Michael Thrasher.


  • Ball, Stuart, and Seldon, Anthony (1994),
  • The Conservative Century, Oxford University Press
  • Beer, Samuel H. (1965), Modern British Politics, Faber
  • Kelly, Richard (1989), Conservative Party Conferences, Manchester University Press
  • McKenzie, Robert (1964), British Political Parties, revised 2nd edition, Heinemann
  • Norton, Philip, and Aughey, Arthur (1981), Conservatives and Conservatism Temple Smith

Table of all EC-motions
Figure 6
All EC-motions in one table
Motions concerned with:
1992 1993 1994 1995
A ban on live animal transport 1 2 4 6
Keeping British border controls 7 - - 2
Opposition to EC bureaucracy/directives 7 20 10 9
Agricultural & CAP reform/abolition 19 6 8 9
Opposition to Social Chapter 1 12 6 14
Anger at EC Court decisions - - 1 2
Opposition to Single Currency & EMU 5 1 6 21
Support for EMU/SC/ERM 3 1 1 -
Favour Enlargement 23 8 2 3
Anti-EPP Group - 1 2 -
Opposition to ERM 3 22 - -
Preserve fishing ground sovereignty 1 4 4 14
Support for government line on SC/EMU 1 - - 9
Opposition to greater EC integration 32 5 7 16
Wanting a level playing field 11 6 12 5
Wanting a Europe of Nation States 9 4 12 5
EC to be an open, looser Community 4 3 2 2
Government to play a positive role in EC 3 5 4 6
Better presentation & more info on EC 7 7 1 2
Criticism of euro-rebels 1 - - -
Wanting a national referendum 11 5 7 25
Calls to repatriate powers - 1 - 11
Preserving national sovereignty 24 10 11 20
Government to use subsidiarity 19 6 3 -
Wanting closer ties with EC - 1 1 -
Calls for party unity - 4 6 5
Use of veto and no to increased QMV - - 3 6
Britain to withdraw from EC - - 1 2
Miscellaneous 43 25 16 20
TOTAL 235 159 130 217


The publication of this paper is an appropriate occasion to say a number of thanks. From the academic world I must pay dutiful respect to the tutors on the MA course in Political Economy at Sheffield University for two years of stimulating teaching. I would like to thank the Department for allowing me the opportunity to flesh out a skeletal academic record. Dr Mike Kenny, in particular, has offered advice and support. Likewise, Peter Morris, now a Professor at Aston University, has given encouragement to my political involvement - on a personal non-partisan level, he would wish me to inform you - long after I ceased to be one of his troublesome students during his time at Nottingham University.

At the outset of this pamphlet tribute is paid to the work of David Regan, who was an inspirational figure for many of his students at Nottingham. I will remember his intellectual vigor, warm friendship, and the passion with which he fought for so many causes. Although he did not share many of my views, he would certainly have approved of this pamphlet. It is a privilege to have known him.

I would also like to express appreciation to Jonathan Collett for his initial warm response to my suggestion of an article, and later for helping to bring the idea to fruition. The Bruges Group is a widely respected organisation and it is an honour to join their distinguished list of authors.

Professor Pat Seyd made a number of helpful comments on an earlier draft, as did Mike Kenny; and Judith Hatton tidied up the English. Dr Martin Holmes made some final incisive suggestions regarding the structure and content.

As is usual inaccuracies remain mine.

Martin Ball,
May 1996.

The Conservative Party and Europe

Paper No. 17


Dr Martin Holmes 

The Origins of the EEC
It is axiomatic to regard the Conservative Party as split from top to bottom on the issue of British membership of the European Union. During the passage of the Maastricht Treaty through the House of Commons a year ago, open divisions created what was little short of a civil war within the party. Indeed it was one of those rare constitutional occasions when the government had to table a motion of confidence to ensure that the legislation to ratify the Treaty was passed; had the Conservative rebels not backed down, a general election would have ensued. In the end, the rebels did toe the party line, the Maastricht Treaty was ratified by the House of Commons, and only one rebel refused to vote in the Conservative Lobby, Mr Rupert Allason, who was subsequently deprived of the whip. But the issue has not gone away as Norman Lamont's 1994 party conference plea to contemplate withdrawal from the EU starkly demonstrated. Even federalists on the left recognised the validity of the question he posed. Peter Kellner writing in The Sunday Times admitted that:

'Before the end of this decade, Britain may have to decide whether to join a federal Europe (my choice) or become a distant spectator (Lamonts). One does not need to admire his record as chancellor, or his behaviour since, to acknowledge that Lamont has a powerful case when he argues that the choice is stark: there is no middle way.' 1

To understand how the Conservative Party has got itself into this situation of near permanent civil war on the issue of membership of the European Union, it is necessary to examine the history of this issue.

In 1957 the continental powers set up the European Economic Community with three essential objectives, none of which were shared by Conservatives at the time. Firstly, the Continentals had concluded that the cause of war, particularly between France and Germany (1870, 1914 and 1939), had been the nation state. They wanted to create a united federal Europe which would permanently preserve peace. From the start, the founding fathers of the European Community, Monnet, Schumann, Adenauer and de Gasperi, envisaged a form of federal political integration as a parallel development to economic integration. As a way of providing Germany with a political rehabilitation after the horrors of Hitler this project was particularly strongly supported by Chancellor Adenauer and, of course, it was personified in the close relationship between Adenauer and de Gaulle after de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. 2

Secondly were the economic origins of the EEC which dearly followed the Continental mercantilist tradition. Thus from the start the EEC was not a free trade area but a customs union in which there would be a reduction in internal tariffs between the member states, but where external tariffs would be imposed against non–members. Initially, those external tariffs were somewhat modest, except in the areas that were not covered by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), for example, agriculture The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was an exemplification of a customs union mentality, with notoriously high tariffs imposed on products from outside. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was incorporated into the European Economic Community, was essentially a European protectionist cartel involving a customs union approach.

Thirdly the Continentals in the 1950s hoped that its political growth would enable the European Economic Community to become an alternative to a world dominated by two non–European super–powers—the Americans and the Soviets. The European Economic Community was not a Cold War organisation. President Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and many other Americans were fundamentally wrong to regard the EEC as a Cold War organisation which one day would become the economic arm of NATO. The Europeans never intended that to be the case. All along the EEC was an alternative to the Cold War. In 1951 Jean Monnet had bemoaned that Europe was a pawn in the Soviet–American power struggle, a sentiment widely shared on the Continent. The global ideological struggle of the superpowers contrasted with the insular Euro–centrism of the EEC. Many Europeans resented the fact that, for the first time in 2,000 years, world affairs were not being decided in Europe. Indeed, on the contrary, they felt acutely the division of their continent, the great fault line of the Cold War, running through Europe. A popular belief, especially on the left, argued that the superpowers had much in common by sharing out the world between themselves in a cosy arrangement to allocate each other spheres of influence. As far as Europe was concerned, the Europeans were not in control of their own political agenda, not least because security policy was devised by the Americans through NATO. By 1957 the EEC aimed to secure peace in Europe between France and Germany ultimately through political union; it constructed a customs union based on mercantilist economic thinking essentially out of keeping with the spirit of GATT; and it envisaged an alternative to USSR/USA domination with a European voice equal to that of the superpowers.

Conservatives Reject Membership
Conservatives in the 1950s kept out of these arrangements because they did not share the continental analysis. Firstly British leaders, particularly Churchill and Eden, did not accept that World War II had been caused by nation states. If there was a lesson the British had learned from World War II, it was the vital importance of the strength and sinews of British patriotism which during the dark days of 1940 and beyond had kept fascist Europe at bay. World War II had been caused by fascism particularly its German manifestation, Nazism.

In contrast to the Continentals, a second lesson was to maintain the United Seates as a strong and close ally. The Conservatives in the 1950s were determined to keep the United States playing a dominant role in NATO, because they knew that peace would be imperiled if there was any return to American isolationism. One of Churchill's indictments of Chamberlain was that he had not taken seriously a secure treaty of friendship with the United States in the crucial years in which the Nazis were on the march leading up to the events in September 1939.

Thirdly the economic lessons which the British had learned from the 1930s and 1940s were quite different from those of the Continentals. At Bretton Woods the British negotiators strongly supported the removal of tariff barriers. Indeed both Labour and Conservative governments did not want to repeat the unhappy experience of the Ottawa conference of 1932, whereby Britain had imposed retaliatory tariffs around the British Empire in response to the Americans' own 1930 protectionist Smoot Hawley Act. In the discussions of the post– war international economy at Bretton Woods, John Maynard Keynes had agreed with Cordell Hull and Harry Dexter White who argued that if goods cannot cross borders, armies will. The British liked the post–war international economic settlement, which concentrated on keeping world trade moving. GATT was based on multilateral world trade, which suited Britain's global pattern of trade and world-wide economic interests in contrast to the continental preference for regional integration based on customs union theory. Indeed, the whole customs union regional bloc approach was exactly what the British and the Americans wanted to get away from in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Fourthly, again in contrast to the continentals, the British defence consensus, shared as much by Bevin as by Churchill, viewed the Cold War as a reality in which Britain had to be the leading European defender of the values espoused by the West. Governments of this period, particularly the Conservatives 195164, strongly supported a partisan approach in the Cold War, involving the possession of nuclear weapons, and fully supporting NATO strategy of locating American nuclear weapons in Britain. This pro–American policy represented deterrence against the Soviet Union which had then, as it did throughout the Cold War, a preponderant domination in terms of conventional forces. The British rejected the ambivalent Euro–centric view of the Cold War nor—outside the Labour left and CND—were they resentful of dependence on the United States when the Soviet Union was so obviously a formidable military threat. All Conservative statesmen approved of NATO membership and accepted with fortitude and no little pride the role of senior European partner of the Americans.

However while disagreeing with the Continentals, the Conservatives did not oppose or seek to prevent the process of integration on the Continent. European union was all well and good but Britain would not partake in it. Churchill had effectively argued this in his famous Zurich speech in 1946, and in May 1953 he stated:

'We are with Europe hut not of it. We are linked but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed. We do not intend to be merged in a European federal system.'

Churchill thus provided the authentic voice of British conservatism in the mid 1950s as the Continentals were openly discussing the moves towards greater integration which bore fruit with the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Anthony Eden, who succeeded Churchill in 1955, took an even more robust line, being quite clearly opposed to British participation. With brilliant prescience Eden predicted that:

'... the experiment of the six cannot succeed {without} federation and I think it most probable that if we join the six we shall be faced with that decision in a few years time... I am sure that it must be federation in the sense of one Parliament one foreign policy, one currency etc.. So far as I can judge events on the Continent of Europe, I do not want to become part of such a federation.' 3

Macmillan's U–Turn
So why then, by the early 1960s, did Macmillan, and his generation of Conservatives, change their minds? Why did a Conservative government make the application to join in 1961, which was rejected by de Gaulle in 1963? 4 There are three aspects which explain Macmillan's approach to the whole question of European integration. First Macmillan personified a generation of Conservatives who accepted the inevitability of the end of Empire and realised that Britain could no longer afford an imperial role. They accepted what Paul Kennedy later described as "imperial overstretch". With a few exceptions in the Monday Club they accepted what Macmillan himself called "the winds of change blowing through the continent of Africa". But many Conservatives were deeply traumatised by the loss of British global power as the process of decolonisation accelerated. Macmillan resented the fact that the British had been humiliated at Suez in 1956, which demonstrated both Britain's economic impotence and loss of diplomatic influence when the Americans and the Soviets voted together at the United Nations to condemn the British, French and Israeli action. Macmillan was acutely aware of the decline of British power which he did not accept as a corollary of decolonisation. He and his generation of Conservatives wanted to find a way in which British power could be rekindled, a way in which our influence could continue to spread beneficially beyond Britain's borders.

Substitute Empire?
Essentially the European Community was to that generation of Conservatives an ideal substitute Empire.

Why not join the European Community? Why not provide it with leadership? If Britain could join Europe, then surely our diplomatic experience, our skills in negotiation, our special relationship with the United States and with the successful transformation of Empire to Commonwealth as a model of peaceful evolution, we could provide the Europeans with political leadership? The Conservatives essentially saw the European Community as a fledgling, young organisation which British leadership could shape and mould. In the process British power would be revived and the trauma of the end of Empire and the Suez humiliation surmounted.

Economic Panacea?
Secondly, Macmillan and his generation of Conservatives saw in the European Community an economic panacea. Here was a way in which the British economy could overcome so many of its problems without resorting to a radical and painful domestic economic overhaul. In 1958 the Society of Conservative Lawyers argued for a radical change to Britain's industrial relations structure if the economy's performance was to be improved. The culture of management spending half the day on the golf course and the trade unions who would strike as a first resort, not a last resort, was already firmly embodied in the national consciousness not least because of Peter Sellers' brilliantly satirical film "I'm all right Jack". But the industrial relations jungle which was clearly visible in the fifties was too much of a tough challenge for Macmillan. Nor did the Conservative governments, with the exception of steel in 1953, tackle the vexed question of nationalised industries whose performance was already lamentable. Privatisation was not on the agenda. Macmillan and his ministers were not prepared, as Margaret Thatcher was a generation later to take on the forces of British socialism in a head–on clash. But what better way could there be of solving these economic problems painlessly than by joining a fast–growing continental customs union, in which Germany—with its Wirtshaftswunder created by Ludwig Erhard—was clearly the engine of economic growth; The European Community became a painless, easy panacea to a Conservative government frightened of confronting difficult problems of structural economic decline.

Barrier to Socialism?
The third of the reasons why the Conservatives changed their minds over EEC entry relates to the way the political wind in the early 1960s wind was blowing from the left. Conservatives feared that the return to power of the Labour Party would push British society further to the left, threatening the consumer–led affluence and social stability of the post–1951 era. The solid achievements of thirteen years of unbroken office were threatened by Harold Wilson's talk of the white heat of technological revolution and a modern, egalitarian, socialist Britain. The fear of Socialism was very important in pushing many Conservatives, not only in the early sixties but also in the early seventies, towards a European destination. They saw in the Treaty of Rome a capitalist club; they saw in membership of the European Economic Community a barrier to Socialism. That this view was expressed primarily in private makes it no less significant

It was not of course a barrier which would prevent Socialism completely, especially if the British people were to keep voting Labour, but at least it would slow down the process. The rules and regulations of the Treaty of Rome, for example on subsidies and nationalisation, would make it more difficult for Labour governments. Indeed, Labour's own doubts about the European Economic Community hastened Conservative enthusiasm. In 1962 Hugh Gaitskell, in his famous conference speech, opposed EEC entry castigated the CAP and spoke of the threat to parliamentary sovereignty so graphically that he feared the end of 1000 years of British history. The British parliament, he declared, would have no more power in relation to a federal Europe than California had in relation to a federal United States of America. 5 Those to the left of Gaitskell objected to the EEC as a "capitalist club" thus confirming the view among Conservatives that it must be a good thing. Many Conservatives from Macmillan to Heath, from Howe to Heseltine, were to link Labour's opposition to the EEC with Labour's ideological predilection for state control, nationalisation and planning. And when the Soviet Union attacked the EEC what more proof was required that Britain would be safer and more prosperous within it?

For these three reasons the Macmillan generation sought membership of the European Economic Community. In seeking to join for these reasons it is necessary to stress that the Continentals were not to blame. Macmillan deluded himself without any assistance from the original six. No–one can argue that the Continentals ever said to the British, 'Come and join us, because we lack leadership.' Indeed the European community, from the very start, was a mature organisation which had a clear focus of leadership in the Franco German friendship. The whole idea of the European Community was that a bed– rock of Franco–German friendship should make impossible the antagonism which had produced three wars in the previous seventy years. De Gaulle and Adenauer were colossal figures in European political history. No–one looking at the process of European integration, or at the way the Community developed between 1957 and 1962, could seriously have claimed that it lacked leadership. Leadership was already there, solidified in the Franco–German friendship and buttressed by the new political institutions, notably the EEC commission, of a supranational organisation. Nor did the Continentals ever at any stage offer to bail out the British economy. Nor, of course, did the Continentals ever claim that the European Economic Community would be a barrier to Socialism. On the contrary, the EEC was always based on a close consensus between Christian Democrats on the one hand and Social Democrats on the other. The fusion of Christian Democracy and Social Democracy produced a consensus which has lasted throughout the entire experience of European integration. Continental Socialists never saw the European Economic Community as an exclusively capitalist club, which would restrict social democracy, restrict the powers of the trade unions, and restrict interventionist governments in terms of welfare and public provision. From the start the Conservatives deluded themselves into believing that the European Economic Community would be a solution to the domestic problems which they faced.

Why De Gaulle's Veto Was Ignored
But the Macmillan government was unsuccessful in its quest for membership. De Gaulle in January 1963 vetoed Macmillan's application to join. It is instructive to look at exactly what de Gaulle said. So often de Gaulle is presented in federalist history books as some kind of nationalistic bigot, an unhinged, xenophobic, anti–British, anti–American ranter who had personal reasons of pure spite and vindictiveness in vetoing the British application. Indeed, sometimes just to mention de Gaulle in this context will draw a roar of hearty guffaws and laughter from a supposedly informed audience. In reality de Gaulle's veto was explained in a highly rational, intellectual and historically valid manner. He argued that:

'England, in effect is insular. She is maritime. She is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most distant countries. She pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities and only slightly agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions. In short England's nature, England's structure, England s very situation differs profoundly from those of the Continentals.'

What de Gaulle argued was not too dissimilar from what Churchill, Eden and the British Conservatives had said originally in the 1950s, that the continental tradition and the British tradition, both in politics and economics, are different and cannot be reconciled within the European Economic Community. In many ways de Gaulle's statement can be interpreted as a pro British back–handed compliment by highlighting those differences in trade, commerce and foreign policy which had traditionally been the source of British strength not weakness. Macmillan, however, ignored what de Gaulle said. In the House of Commons, just a few weeks later Macmillan feigned not to know the reasons why de Gaulle issued his veto. The Conservatives did not look carefully enough at the arguments de Gaulle used, which consequently led them over the next decade to the belief that the original reasons for membership were valid and that it was only a matter of time—until de Gaulle retired—before Britain could become the leading member of the European Economic Community.

Thus after de Gaulle's veto Macmillan was supremely confident enough to tell the Commons:

'As Europe's revival began to succeed the European outlook began to widen. There were some who have kept the narrow view, who still seem to regard a united Europe as a restricted or autarchic community on a protectionist basis; in other words they would like a community which would retain all the errors of high protectionism which had often been the policy of some of the constituent nations... One of the main reasons why there was such universal support for our entry was the belief of our friends, as well as many of our critics, that Britain, added to this company, would give as well as take, that she would contribute to the tradition of outward looking development.' 6

Instead of taking de Gaulle's arguments seriously, Macmillan persisted in his belief that Britain could change the EEC's essential character. Thus from 1961 onwards the reasons for membership which Conservatives advanced were always fatally flawed. Firstly, the belief that Britain could be a leader in Europe was always an unattainable aspiration. For the last thirty–two years every Conservative leader has argued that Britain needs to be in there to lead Europe; we need to be there at the conference table so that our case can be put; that if only the continentals will listen to the majesty of our argument, they will see that the British case is valid. The Cabinet Papers which are now available under the thirty year rule, clearly indicate how the British believed they could change the EEC from within.
In August 1961 the Cabinet suggested that:

'The United Kingdom can transform the EEC into an outward looking group of nations mindful of its responsibilities to the world as a whole.' 7

In essence this was the substitute Empire, with Britain leading, transforming, and changing the EEC as if the Community were not already a mature organisation with its own aims and objectives. For over 30 years Conservatives have cavalierly projected their own vision of Europe on to the EEC in an overeager anticipation that British leadership will prevail. Sir Richard Nugent, MP for Guildford, told the Commons in 1962 that:

'if Britain went in we should give a lead to those influences which are looking outwards and we should make them the dominating force within the Community...' 8

In June 1993, echoing the language and optimism of the 1960s, the then Employment Secretary Michael Howard predicted that:

'Over the next few years we have a chance to create a Europe in Britain's image. The flexibility, the competitiveness, the resistance to regulation which we prize so highly will he increasingly attractive to our European partners. The strait–jacket of uniformity will he recognised as intolerable. Common sense is on our side.' 9

Although the original aims of the EEC remain unchanged, Conservative leaders from 19G 1 onwards have argued that Europe is soon to go our way, that we should be at the "heart of Europe" to influence events not "standing on the sidelines" and that past failures to convince our European "partners" were bad luck not bad judgement. Essentially what Conservatives have done is to look at a Europe they would like to create, rather than at the European Economic Community as it really is. Virtually every John Major speech on Europe is a classic example of this genre. In October 1991 he told the Conservative conference that '. . . being at the centre of Europe means we are in a better position to influence the way in which it goes.' Similarly in September 1994 in the Netherlands he brimmed with optimism. Outlining his vision for Europe in the 1990s, he argued that the 1950s vision is no longer relevant. He urged a 1990s vision of Europe in which the nation state is the primary political unit. The Continentals, however, are not listening and were never amenable to that type of argument. Chancellor Kohl and M. Mitterrand have absolutely no intention of changing their agenda of European Federal Union on the Maastricht model to suit the agenda John Major outlined in his Netherlands speech. As Denis Greenhill, permanent under–secretary at the Foreign Office at the time of EEC entry has commented:

'Those British who were interested misjudged the extent to which they were able to shape the development of the Community, whilst the 'Founding Fathers' were careful not to disclose their ultimate federal objectives. History will record how we were steadily outsmarted between 1972 and 1992." 10

There are profound consequences for British policy as a result of this approach. Each failure to reverse the Federal trend has its own ratchet effect by which the powers of the British parliament are constantly being transferred to Brussels, albeit in a series of seemingly trivial incidents. But when taken together the loss of power is so extensive that a loss of sovereignty itself is now threatened by the full implementation of the Maastricht Treaty.

As well as seeking the "substitute Empire" Conservatives have always exaggerated the economic gains of EC membership and consistently failed to predict the drawbacks. We have laboured under the Common Agricultural Policy which is universally scorned and derided in Britain. It imposes a cost of £28 per week or £1,500 per year extra on the food bills of the average household. We found that the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System was a device which deepened and prolonged the recession, caused a massive number of bankruptcies, a sharp rise in unemployment, and destroyed the rates of economic growth successfully built up in the 1980s. In 1991 at the height of the ERM experiment Britain had –2.5% economic growth. In 1992 we still had –1% growth and the economy has only recovered since the £ was mercifully forced out of the ERM on "White Wednesday", 16th of September 1992. 11 Similarly the argument about trade has worked out to Britain's disadvantage. Britain requires global free–trade. 12 We need to be at the heart of GATT and the new World Trade Organisation. According to figures published in February 1994, 58% of our total exports are to the rest of the world compared to 42% to the EU. The European Community, because it is a Customs Union, is much too insular, mercantilist and protectionist to suit Britain's pattern of global trade. And the scandal of the budgetary contributions has plagued virtually every government since Britain joined in 1973. The threat to revoke the 1984 Rebate Agreement on budgetary contribution still hangs over British policy. Even with the rebate our projected net contribution to the EU in 1996/7 will be £3.6 billion or £G9 million each week, the equivalent of an extra 2p on income tax at the standard rate. Macmillan, Heath and their supporters were wrong to argue that EEC membership would be the great panacea for our economy. Far from it, our economy would have prospered far more outside the European Economic Community than it has done inside.' 13

But what of Macmillan's third argument that EC membership would be a barrier to socialism? One of the myths which Margaret Thatcher dispelled was that is was not politically possible for Conservatives to fight a head–on battle against Socialism. Previous generations of Conservatives had tried to take the rough edges off Socialism by conducting a series of compromises with it. The nationalised industries would be better managed than under Labour, for example. What Mrs Thatcher proved was that it was possible to defeat Socialism and to roll back those areas of the Socialist state, such as nationalisation and regulation, while maintaining electoral credibility and a broad appeal. The arguments before 1979 had been that a Conservative government, if it fought Socialism head–on, would forfeit electoral support in an age of consensus when voters tended to favour the centre ground. Mrs Thatcher proved that it was possible to win three consecutive elections on a right–wing platform aimed at dismantling the Socialist state—in her own words "banishing Socialism to the periphery of British public life". Yet the irony now is that European Union membership implies Socialist projects which threaten the Thatcher legacy. Under intense pressure from within the Party, John Major was forced to opt out of the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. But social and labour market regulations by the back door of the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system have been a repeated feature of the EU's attempt to circumvent the Social Chapter opt–out. There appears precious little that can be done about this while Britain remains an EU member. Viewed in the 1990s, when British Socialism has been domestically defeated, and when Tony Blair's Labour Party has adjusted itself to many of the changes Mrs Thatcher introduced, it is ironic that the greatest threat of renewed Socialism emerges from the European Union itself. This outcome is the very opposite of that predicted by Conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beyond Maastricht: The Conservative Choice
What then of the future? How can we assess the Conservative Party's VV European experience? It is clear that Conservatives, in the next couple of years, have to make some fundamental choices. It is no longer sufficient for a Conservative leader simply to paint a picture of the type of Europe that Britain would like to lead. This approach has been tested to destruction and the Continentals are mightily unimpressed by it. The Maastricht Treaty has been ratified but it has not yet been fully implemented. In 1996 the intergovernmental conferences will decide on the full implementation of that Treaty. This provides a golden opportunity, an heroic pretext, for John Major and the Conservative Party to look afresh at the whole relationship with the European Union.' 14 In 1996 John Major should renegotiate a free–trade deal with the European Community to safeguard Britain's economic interests and to ensure that we have a full and functioning single market with the European Union countries. But he also needs to remove any possibility of political union, a single currency and the moves towards integration that are the very essence of the Community, as pursued by the federalist troika of the Commission, the French and the Germans. If John Major can renegotiate a deal to this effect he will solve the 30–year–old problem of the Conservative Party and EEC membership. But if such a deal is not forthcoming John Major should cast aside the failures of those 30 years by leading his party and his country out of the federal superstate which the Continentals are determined to create. Britain should withdraw from the EU rather than acquiesce in a federal state which few in the Conservative Party welcome and which the vast majority fears. If the Conservative Party is not to tear itself apart—and possibly to split in two—over the issue of Europe, John Major has until 1996 to work out a strategy whereby Britain can be extricated from those parts of the European Union that we can never change and which do not suit us. The Prime Minister has two years to effect this diplomatic negotiation. If he can do it, then his leadership of his party will be transformed. He will become not only a successful politician, but also one of the great Conservative statesmen. What is clear is that the grim federalist future predicted in 1970 by Conservative MP Neil Marten is almost upon us:

'Where does it end up? It ends up quite clearly with a European Parliament—there is one now of course—but it will be strengthened . . . it will go on. It will get budgetary power and so on, it will he directly elected and in the end it will vote on a majority vote. It will have a common foreign policy, a common defence policy, common social, money and even now they're talking about a common education policy. So in the end this is what will rule this country and the British Parliament will be reduced, and I do not say that this is exaggeration, it will be reduced to the status of a County Council as we know it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is forever." 15

For John Major, the Conservative party, and the people of Britain time is running out.


1. Sunday Times 16/10/94

2. For an astute view of French participation see Alexander Werth, De Gulle, Pelican 1965, ch. 10

3. Quoted in David Dutton, Anticipating Maastricht: The Conservative party and Britain's first application to join the EC, Contemporary Record, Winter 1993, Vol. 7, No. 3

4. For an excellent account of Macmillan's negotiations with De Gaulle see Alan Sked, Time for Principle, Bruges Group publication, 1992

5. Like Anthony Eden, Gaitskell accurately predicted the federalist destination of the EEC. He told the Commons on November 7th 1962, Hansard Vol. 666, colt 1018:

"... The government are arguing more and more that the case for entry into the Common Market is political. The Prime Minister devoted almost the whole of a pamphlet to this. He spoke of the European Community 'with the ability to stand on an equal footing with the great power groupings of the world...' What do the government propose? They say that Europe is going to be the great new force standing equally with Russia and the United States. How can we conceive this happening unless there is a single Foreign Secretary to express that policy and a single Prime Minister, and therefore a single Legislature? This is federation. This is the logic of it. At least, if it is not that, it is the supranational majority decision Council."

6. Hansard Vol. 671, colt 957–8

7. Quoted in Contemporary Record May–August 1961 Cabinet review, Winter 1992, Vol. 6, No. 3

8. Hansard Vol. 666, colt 1029

9. Quoted in The Times 9/6/93

10. Quoted by Andrew Roberts, The European Journal, May 1994

11. For an accurate prediction of the outcome of ERM membership see Martin Holmes, Times Higher Education Supplement, 26/10/90

12. See Bill Jamieson's Britain Beyond Europe, Duckworth 1994, for an excellent discussion of Britain's global trade and export opportunities

13. See Christopher Booker and Bill Jamieson's article, Sunday Telegraph, 9/ 10/94, estimating a total cost of £235 billion since 1973

14. For further discussion of this theme see Martin Holmes, Beyond Europe: Selected Essays 1989–93, Nelson & Pollard Publishing, 1993

15. Neil Marten, speaking on the Thames Television programme, Europe the Great Debate, 11/8/70

John Major and Europe: The Failure of a Policy 1990-7

Paper No. 28

Dr Martin Holmes



As the Major era has now come to an end it is possible to consider his premiership in its entirety, to evaluate exactly what John Major’s European policy actually was. His term of office can be split into three distinct parts. Firstly, between November 1990 when he became Conservative party leader, and the General Election in April 1992, Major pursued a policy of compromise in order to hold his party together because the question of Europe threatened to split it apart. The second period was that of Euro–enthusiasm, between the victory in the April 1992 election and September 1993, which was characterised by Major’s enthusiasm for the ERM and by the passage through the House of Commons of the Maastricht Treaty. In the third period, from September 1993 up to and including the 1997 General Election, Major reverted to the policy of compromise. During the compromise Mark II the issue of Europe became a function of party management, as Major endeavoured to preserve a fragile semblance of party unity. Ultimately Major’s European policy contributed mightily to his election defeat.

Compromise Mark I

John Major became the Conservative party leader in 1990 because he was the ideal compromise candidate; someone who could unite the party; a healer not a warrior; a pragmatist not an ideologue; a person who would appeal to the Thatcherites but equally who would co–operate with the Heseltinies; a man who could rally the party with a General Election less than two years away. As John W. Young has argued, “with an election necessary by June 1992, and deeper division between pro– and anti–Europeans in the Conservative Party thanks to the leadership contest, he had to prevent EC issues upsetting domestic politics”. 1

It is not surprising, having become leader in circumstances of an internal civil war as bitter as anything which had occurred since 1975, that John Major’s strategy was to avoid ideological conflict within the party. He was, of course, temperamentally attuned to this approach, having stated in a somewhat neglected interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 1989, that he took his ideas from the ether, not from the written word, admitting that “I work almost by instinct; to me something either feels right or it feels wrong”. 2 It is in this internal party context that Major’s 1990–2 European policy should be assessed. In that eighteen months although Major stated that Britain should be at the heart of Europe, and although he made friends with Helmut Kohl—it was “my good friend Helmut” rather than “Herr Bundeskanzler”—he was careful not to offend the Thatcherites by making equally clear that he would be prepared to stand up for British interests just as had been his predecessor. According to his close political advisors Sarah Hogg and Stephen Hill:

The message of the “Heart of Europe” speech has been misrepresented since. It was never code for a federalist agenda. It was a signal that Britain was going to play an active part in the Maastricht negotiations. In the velvet glove of European sentiment, there were some iron messages. Accurately forecasting the year ahead, John Major warned that “Britain will relish the debate and the argument. That is the essence of doing business in today’s Community”. 3

This observation has been supported—albeit in politically posthumous terms—by Major himself, who told his biographer, Dr Anthony Seldon, that his choice of words had been a mistake and that he meant to say that Britain should be at the heart of the debate on Europe. 4 During 1991, therefore, Major appeared to face both ways on Europe, as the imperatives of party management demanded. Different and competing sentiments would coalesce in the same speech, indeed sometimes in the same paragraph of the same speech. Addressing the Conservative party conference on 11 October 1991, three consecutive sentences characterised this ambiguity:

“We can’t go on as we were in terms of Europe: we should be at the centre of Europe if we are going to properly protect our interests”.

“But being in the centre of Europe doesn’t mean we’ve sold out, doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly become Europhiles and adopt every fetish that emerges from the European Commission. Of course not”.

“What it does mean is that we are in a better position to influence the way in which Europe goes”.

While contradictory in terms of a consistent approach to European policy, this strategy of compromise was successful. Major held his party together. Although, as his sympathetic biographer Bruce Anderson admits, there was some confusion as to where exactly John Major stood on Europe, 5 this was still regarded by the continentals as an improvement on Mrs Thatcher’s open hostility. On the question of the ERM, Mr Major emphasised that although he strongly supported the Pound’s membership this did not necessarily imply an endorsement of a single European currency. Whilst the policy emanating from Europe unambiguously envisaged ERM membership as an integral part of the process outlined in the Delors Report and the Maastricht Treaty, this was not necessarily embraced by Major. According to the Prime Minister, “ERM entry does not mean that we are now on a road leading inexorably to a single currency”. 6 But the Delors Report and the Maastricht Treaty did imply exactly that, notwithstanding the Stage III opt–out. Similarly, Major’s preservation of party balance dominated the negotiations which led up to the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. Heseltine, Howe, Hurd, Heath—the Eurofanatics in the Conservative party—would have been happy with the Treaty lock stock and barrel. They had no substantial ideological objections to a Treaty which so inspired Britain’s “partners”. Indeed Mr Heath confessed that he had no objections to the Social Chapter, declaring that Major’s approach was music to his ears. The Thatcherites by contrast made clear that it was, in Mrs Thatcher’s own words, “a treaty too far”. They urged Major not to sign up and, if possible, to use the British veto. In her memoirs Mrs Thatcher argues that Major’s approach “although it won plaudits,…left the fundamental problems [of Britain’s relationship with Europe] unsolved”. 7

Major skilfully contrived a carefully crafted compromise between these two positions within his party. He signed up to the Treaty, including the commitments to Stages I and II of monetary union. However, he negotiated three qualifications to appease the Eurosceptics. The word “federal” was deleted from the Treaty, even though, to the continentals, this was a purely semantic change. Britain was exempted from the Social Chapter, which Mrs Thatcher had once characterised as Marxist. And thirdly, a decision in relation to monetary union was deferred for approval by the British parliament until Stage iii commenced. 8 The compromise over Maastricht effectively postponed the conflict within the Conservative party until after the 1992 election.

Whatever may be deduced from Major’s policy for lacking a consistent and coherent European strategy, it was successful in party political terms by demonstrating his ability as a party manager. As Butler and Kavanagh correctly observe, “Mr Major was able to claim Maastricht as a success; Mrs Thatcher stayed silent and Europe, seen by many as a rock on which the Conservatives would founder, ceased to be a political hazard — at least for the time being”. 9 Equally, Sked and Cook are right to argue that this temporary political peace was bought at the expense of the national interest in that “in order to prove his credentials Major had to agree to greater European integration. He had to endorse everything Mrs Thatcher had said no to including EMU and EPU”. 10 Not for the first time under Major, the national interest played second fiddle to internal party cohesion.

This was also the case during the 1992 campaign as Major discreetly persuaded his party to adopt a collective vow of silence on the issue of Europe. Maastricht was not an issue between the parties because Labour was just as divided. Neil Kinnock no more wanted to have internal divisions on Europe made public than did John Major. Between 1990 and 1992, Major’s strategy of compromise to win the election worked effectively, at the expense of disguising and postponing, rather than eliminating, internal party disagreement.

April 1992-September 1993: Siding with the Euroenthusiasts

Between April 1992 and the autumn of 1993, Major sided decisively with the supporters of European integration within his party. In this period there was no doubt that his principal political enemies were not on the Opposition benches but were the Conservative Eurosceptics. They were “bastards” who were “spreading poison”; and he was going to “flipping crucify them”. 11 On a more positive note he purred, in a foreword to a foreign office propaganda booklet issued to celebrate the July–December 1992 British EC presidency, that “for us, in Britain, Europe is part of our lives. As an island some of our traditions differ. But our history and culture are linked closely to those of other European nations”. 12 The Prime Minister even found time in his busy schedule to personally select the logo of the UK presidency, a rampant lion named Rory, who strutted purposefully among the EC flag of yellow stars on a blue background. 13 Moreover, Major developed a respect for Jacques Delors’ ability as an economist, to the surprise of the more economically literate British civil servants. 14

In particular, Major’s Euroenthusiasm focused on two policies on which he staked his reputation and the survival of his government. The first was adherence to the Pound’s membership of the ERM. The second was the passage of the Maastricht Treaty through the House of Commons. Major had long argued that the recession, which had been the longest and deepest since the 1930s, with minus 2.5% growth in 1991 and minus 1% growth in 1992, would be dispelled because of the successful strategy of the Pound’s membership of the ERM. This belief was central to government economic policy to the extent that it was a panacea. Membership of the ERM would be a guarantee of low inflation with the monetary discipline which had been the hallmark of the Deutschmark. Additionally, such stability would enable the European Single Market to succeed, and with it the prospect that when German interest rates came down, British interest rates would do the same, but without rekindling inflation. It would be the best of all worlds, with the Pound in the ERM’s proven zone of currency stability. Confidently the 1992 Conservative manifesto proclaimed that “in due course we will move to the narrow bands of the ERM”. 15

John Major’s belief in the ERM was long–standing. Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs recall his growing enthusiasm, from April 1990 to October, when the Pound joined, to the extent that “intellectually he was drifting with the tide”. 16 In Nigel Lawson’s view, Major was converted to the cause of ERM entry by the Treasury mandarinate. 17 This view is given added authority by what Major himself told to his biographer Nesta Wyn Ellis:

Every day I sat at the Treasury (as Chancellor) and I saw Sterling being kicked around by rumour. And when Sterling is being kicked around, the economy is being kicked around because it affects monetary policy, and monetary policy ripples through and affects everything else.

The more I realised, day after day, was that the most priceless gift you could offer British business over the medium term was a stable exchange rate and a stable inflation rate. And what was the best mechanism to achieve this, or the best and most proven mechanism to achieve it over the years would be an Exchange Rate Mechanism. 18

Indeed, so upbeat was John Major in the summer of 1992 that in one television interview he even speculated that one day, in the not–too–distant future, the Pound would be as strong as the Deutschmark and perhaps might even replace it as the anchor currency of the ERM. This was the high water mark of Major’s unequivocal belief in his ERM strategy. Thus on 7 September 1992, a matter of days before the Pound left the ERM, he confidently asserted that:

What lies at the heart of the Community is one very simple idea. It is the notion that by binding together the nations of Europe in a common economic framework it would be possible to build an inextricable network of shared interests that would render war between former enemies impossible…the Commission’s prescription for…changes in economic and monetary arrangements must reflect real changes in economic behaviour in the market place, and must work with the grain of the market and not against it. This is of course what the ERM does, and will continue successfully to do, whatever happens to the Maastricht Treaty. 19

Just three days later he told the Scottish CBI, on 10 September 1992, that:

…all my life I have seen British Governments driven off their virtuous pursuit of low inflation by market problems or political pressures. I was under no illusions when I took Britain into the ERM. I said at the time that membership was no soft option. The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option would be a betrayal of our future; and it is not the Government’s policy…All too often in the past the solution was the same —to let the exchange rate go. And every time–sooner or later—the result was the same: rising import prices, rising wages, rising inflation, and a long–term deterioration in Britain’s competitiveness which offset any short–term gain. 20

Right up to its collapse on 16 September, the ERM was the bedrock of John Major’s economic and European policy. Bernard Connolly has perceptively argued that this belief endured to the bitter end:

Major has shown himself time and again to be a keen supporter of the ERM—he used Mrs Thatcher’s political weakness to force Britain into the system in 1990; he attempted in the Maastricht negotiations to make membership a legally binding obligation; he was prepared to take the country to the brink of bankruptcy to stay in the system in September 1992. 21

Of equal importance in this period of Euroenthusiasm was the passage of the Maastricht Treaty. After the 1992 election Major could not defer decisions on Maastricht any longer. He needed to pass the Bill through parliament to ensure that the Treaty—in which he took such negotiating pride—was ratified. To that end he was prepared to wage war against the Eurosceptics within his own party. 1992–3 was a period in which Major preferred to be sustained in office by votes from the Labour party, which took a bipartisan view of the Treaty, or by votes from the Liberal Democrats, or by votes from the Ulster Unionists, rather than concede to the Eurosceptics on his own benches. In the last resort, John Major was even prepared to risk a General Election by making the passage of the Treaty a motion of confidence. Predictably, this led to the first of the disciplinary measures against the Eurorebels when the Member of Parliament for Torbay, Rupert Allason, was deprived of the Whip. Majors’ government was fortunate that like the Heath government in the 1970s which passed the Act of Accession—parliamentary deliverance was forthcoming from the Opposition benches. As Peter Riddell puts it:

Most of those involved knew the government would get its bill. Indeed, the Labour leadership privately accepted that all they could do was to delay passage of the bill and cause the government maximum embarrassment, which they duly did. But the Maastricht debate cannot merely be dismissed as a lengthy, and somewhat tiresome, charade which baffled ordinary voters outside the political world. The saga not only seriously weakened Mr Major’s authority and leadership but it showed that, on a few, rare issues, the executive can be constrained and restrained by the legislature. However this only applies on occasions when the government cannot rely on the full support of its own backbenchers. 22

The passage of the Maastricht Treaty, therefore, was legislative priority number one for the 1992–7 Parliament. It was not amenable to an internal party compromise which would have shredded or substantially amended it. This policy stance was all the more remarkable because there were three clear and heroic opportunities when John Major could have said, had he wished to, that the Treaty would be abandoned. Firstly, in June 1992 following the Danish referendum, Major could have argued that the “No” vote technically invalidated the Treaty and that therefore it would not proceed in the British parliament. But on the contrary he quickly took the view, favoured on the continent and advocated by the federalist minded Danish government, that the Danes should be made to vote again. Indeed according to the 1996 BBC programme “The Poisoned Chalice”, 23 Major and Hurd decided on the morning after the Danish vote, on the advice of the Whips and without summoning a Cabinet meeting, to force through the Maastricht Bill. Such a decision greatly assisted those who hoped that that such stoical resolution by the British government would help to buy sufficient time for a second, and successful, Danish referendum. John Major, by pursuing this zealous integrationist strategy, performed a signal service to the federalist cause.When the full extent of the implications of making the Danes vote again sunk in, party and press opinion had moved sharply in a Eurosceptical direction. The intellectual case against Treaty ratification was overwhelming but Major was determined not to relent. Thus William Wallace observed that:

The Daily Telegraph, the unofficial “house organ” of the Conservative party, had passed under the control of Conrad Black, a Canadian newspaper proprietor whose belief in the closeness of transatlantic Anglo–Saxon ties was matched by his admiration for both Reagan and Thatcher. In the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, which revived under his ownership to become the leading political weekly of the right, resistance to “Europe” and admiration for the USA were leading themes, often accompanied by suspicion of the “Europeanizing” Foreign Office. The Times and Sunday Times, and their popular tabloid stablemates the Sun and the News of the World, had become under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership both vigorously supportive of Mrs Thatcher and strongly anti–European. 24

The second opportunity to abandon the passage of the Treaty came after the Pound’s withdrawal from the ERM on White Wednesday, 16 September 1992. Major could have argued that the exit of the Pound from the ERM invalidated the Treaty because ERM membership was essential to the entire process of monetary union. He had every reason to argue that it would be inconceivable to contemplate the abolition of the Pound and the acceptance of the single currency without the Pound being inside the ERM. Moreover, the Treaty presupposed that countries such as Britain, who were at the time in the wide 6% band, would move to the 2.25% narrow band. Yet Major’s government had moved, albeit at the behest of the market, in the opposite direction. Here was another realistic opportunity when Major could have decided that the circumstances affecting the Treaty had materially changed and that therefore its passage would be terminated. But he chose not to do so. He made it clear that the Treaty would proceed in the House of Commons. Major preferred, as Edmund Dell has noted, to sacrifice his Chancellor of the Exchequer to disguise his own culpability:

On 16 September 1992, “Black Wednesday”, the Major government ignominiously suspended sterling from membership of the ERM after swearing on a stack of bibles that it would not devalue, let alone creep away from the ERM itself with its tail between its legs. Major’s great act of policy as Chancellor had collapsed. On Black Wednesday, it was not merely the credibility of sterling that was undermined but that of the Major government as well…Major is unique in that he was already Prime Minister when his credibility as Chancellor was so unmercifully drained. No one seriously expected him to resign as Prime Minister for what he had done as Chancellor. A sacrificial lamb was, after all, available in the form of his friend and successor as Chancellor, Norman Lamont, though he was allowed a short stay of execution before being despatched eighteen months later. 25

That Major was always unlikely to ditch the Treaty because of the ERM fiasco can be ascertained by his policy decision during White Wednesday itself to raise interest rates to 15%. If this decision, as Philip Stephens argues, 26 was the Prime Minister’s personal preferred option, it indicates a touching dedication to the ERM and an unwillingness to face the reality of its implosion even at that late stage. If Major was disinclined to blame the ERM—he spoke only of “fault lines” —he was also disinclined to drop the Maastricht Treaty in which the ERM featured with almost theological prominence.

Thirdly, came the extraordinary events at the Conservative party conference in October 1992, perhaps one of the most remarkable conferences since the 1963 resignation of Harold Macmillan. In speech after speech, the winds of change blowing in the party in a Eurosceptical direction were gale–force. Norman Tebbit and other Eurosceptics were cheered to the rafters. John Major at the end of that week could have said in his leader’s speech, “I have listened to you; I have heard you; I understand what you say; I will lead you; the Treaty will not pass”. Had he done so, it would in all probability have greatly united his party, with the exception of a small group of Heathite Eurofanatics. But he chose not to do so. He confirmed that the Treaty would proceed irrespective of the arguments which had prevailed and the strength of feeling in the party. If these three factors are considered together, it is apparent that John Major was a Euroenthusiast, loyal to the ERM and Maastricht, favouring greater integration with Europe. He staked his own authority on the passage of the Treaty which he saw as vital to Britain’s role in Europe, and he was prepared to take on and defeat, even attempting to humiliate, the Thatcherite Eurosceptics in his party to achieve that end. In so doing John Major revealed his true political plumage. Additionally in the glad confident morning of integrationist fervour the Prime Minister constantly asserted that the Maastricht Treaty decentralised power because of the concept of subsidiarity. 27 This pretence was maintained even after the European Commission’s own explanation of Maastricht as “conferring more powers on the Community”. 28 Later, as compromise Mark ii developed, the emphasis on subsidiarity was toned down.

1993–7: Compromise Mark II.

Between September 1993 and the General Election defeat in 1997, John Major reverted to the strategy of party management, or compromise Mark II. During those four years he uttered strong sentiments in favour of European integration, as strong as those which he expressed between 1992 and 1993. But equally in the same period, sometimes only weeks apart, Major could sound distinctly Eurosceptical. In pursuit of Euroenthusiasm, he deprived eight Conservative Members of Parliament of the Whip in November 1994. In a parliament characterised by many rebellions – pit closures, Value Added Tax, Post Office privatisation—not a single Member of Parliament lost the Whip for dissent on those issues. But when eight Members voted against increases in Britain’s budgetary contribution to the EC in November 1994 they were severely punished. A ninth Member, Sir Richard Body, voluntarily withdrew the Whip in sympathy with his colleagues. By any standards this was a draconian punishment which had not been hitherto regarded as conducive to the Whips’ management of the Conservative party, at least when it was in power. Indeed, withdrawing the Whip was usually associated with the ideological difficulties within the Labour party during the Bevanite era.

To many grassroots Conservatives this was an extraordinary and extreme reaction to the Eurosceptic rebels, who were transformed into instant martyrs. That the party hierarchy shamelessly pursued a “dirty tricks” campaign against the rebels only increased the admiration and sympathy for them. 29 The Whip was restored six months later as a result of the fact that they toured the television and radio studios of Britain, and were deluged with mail from Conservatives who regarded them as heroes. Some of the whipless rebels became better known to the general public than many members of John Major’s Cabinet who were, arguably, household names only in their own households. The withdrawal of the Whip was highly significant in assessing the extent to which Major was prepared to pursue the pro–integrationist line.

He also made clear that anyone who contemplated withdrawal from the European Union was living in “cloud–cuckoo land”. He reiterated that the increasingly serious heavyweight criticism of the European Union was incompatible with his policies. Addressing businessmen at the Ritz hotel in London on 7 December 1994, he emphasised:

I don’t have a shred of doubt that our interests are for us to be in the European Union, building the sort of European Union we want.

Where would so much of your trade be if we were not? What would be the position if we found ourselves outside real influence? What would happen in terms of the regulations and directives if we were not in there pitching?

I doubt there’s more than a handful of people in this room who don’t believe that our interests emphatically lie in Europe.

It is about time some of you got up and said that loudly and clearly. It is about time you stopped having this debate run by a handful of people who are fundamentally opposed to Europe and who seem to turn every part of the debate against what is happening in Europe. 30

However, calling on the business community to turn on the sceptics who had been over influencing the debate betrayed a growing anxiety at the growth of Euroscepticism. Accordingly, Major only considered the alternatives to European Union membership in order to rubbish them. As far as he was concerned Britain was an unconditional member of the European Union in which the benefits outweighed the costs. He even evoked the prospects of European integration to advance the Northern Irish “peace process”. During the secret negotiations with Republicans which preceded the August 1994 ceasefire Major’s representative told Provisional Sinn Fein:

The final solution is union [i.e. a united Ireland]. The historical train—Europe—determines that. We are committed to Europe. Unionists will have to change. This island will be as one.…Confidentiality was of the utmost importance. Only Major, Mayhew, Hurd and secretary to the cabinet [Butler] knew of all this. 31

Ironically, therefore, Europe could have a constitutional and political dimension for Northern Ireland but not for the vital matter of economic and monetary union. The Prime Minister obstinately refused to consider the question of the Single European Currency in the constitutional terms which the Eurosceptics urged. He refused to consider it as an issue with profound political as well as economic implications. He stuck to the view that there would be circumstances in which the Single European Currency would be beneficial to Britain if the convergence criteria were met. 32 And it was begrudged reluctance that he conceded that in the event of his Government recommending that course of action there would have to be a referendum of the British people. Thus between 1993 and 1997 Mr Major was still capable of categorically supporting the policy of European integration.

But equally, in the same period, Major was capable of espousing a different message. There are eight important examples of Eurosceptical pronouncements by Major between 1993 and 1997. The first of them, in September 1993, was the article he wrote in The Economist. Adopting a marked Eurosceptical tone he wrote that:

We take some convincing on any proposal from Brussels. For us, the nation state is here to stay… We counted the financial cost of our membership. Others counted their financial gain. We subjected each proposal to the scrutiny of Parliament. They relaxed in the sure knowledge that their public opinion uncritically endorsed the European idea. Hang the detail. Never mind the concession of power to Brussels.…The vision of the founders of the Community was a fine one. What we have seen in the last two years is not so much a swing against Europe as a demand for a different kind of Europe. The structures and strategies envisaged in the Treaty of Rome are the product of Europe in the 1950s. It is natural they should be clung to by a generation of European politicians whose views were moulded in the 1950s and 1960s. But the new mood in Europe demands a new approach. …The challenge to this generation of European leaders is to build a Community for the whole of Europe. That is a bigger vision. …It is for the nations to build Europe, not for Europe to attempt to supersede nations. I want to see the Community become a wide nation, embracing the whole of democratic Europe, in a single market and with common security arrangements firmly linked to NATO. 33

Such a Eurosceptical article begged the question of why Major had tortured and contorted his party over the previous eighteen months by passing the Maastricht Bill through Parliament. How could The Economist article be squared with the man of Maastricht which Major had so willingly become? As Lord Beloff has accurately pointed out:

It was not so much that the Euro–sceptics could not assent to the essentials of the Prime Minister’s position as set out in his celebrated article in The Economist…as that they doubted his ability to persuade the other countries of its wisdom and felt that he was neglecting the very different trends that were taking shape in the discussions elsewhere of the Union’s future, and the continued activity of the Community’s institutions in directions considered by them inimical to Britain’s interests. 34

But Mr Major’s scepticism never reached the intellectual point of departure from which such a fundamental first principle would have been considered.

Secondly there was a revealing and interesting interview which Major gave to Der SpiegelDer Spiegel mused that “London and Bonn seem…to share increasing doubts on monetary union”, to which Major replied:

My scepticism is about the economic impact of it. Let us presuppose we moved to a single currency in the sort of date specified before 1997, 1998, 1999. If we were to move to a single currency and it was to be successful, you would need proper convergence of the economies across Europe. They would all need to be operating at the same sort of efficiency. I know of no one who believes that is remotely likely, it simply is not going to happen. 35

A year later, during the leadership contest with John Redwood, Mr Major described the economic arrangements for monetary union as “Euro–crap” which was hardly the sort of language usually associated with acceptance of the principle of monetary union enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.

Thirdly, John Major turned his attention to the increasing volume of European regulation. In the 1980s it was believed that the European single market, the 1992 project, would produce something akin to the Thatcherisation of Europe. But by the mid 1990s it was clear that the single market was not based on Thatcherite deregulation, which the Conservatives favoured, but on what the continentals called standardisation and in Britain was better known as harmonisation. Many businesses, as Christopher Booker has revealed, experienced a whole welter of directives and regulations in contrast to the original expectation of reducing impediments to trade and enterprise. John Major addressed these fears in a speech on 27 July 1994, arguing that:

…we did not manage to stem the tide of European regulation during the 1980s. Now we have put up breakwaters: the principle of “minimum interference” we secured at Maastricht; and, of course, our opt–out from the Social Chapter, enshrined in a legally binding protocol. With the German government, we are working to reduce regulations across Europe.

The tide is turning. The number of proposals for new directives tabled by the European Commissions has fallen from 185 in 1990 to some 25 so far this year. 36

Fourthly, an even more more significant speech was delivered by John Major in the Netherlands in which he specifically attacked the whole concept of a federal Europe, and advocated a Europe of nation states. Such a vision was incompatible with Maastricht, and was scathingly rejected in virtually every European affairs speech made by Helmut Kohl or François Mitterrand. In his Leiden speech there was little doubt that Major was rattling the cage of the Franco–German axis, and the European Commission, by arguing that:

The vision of the Founding Fathers of the European Community was proved right for its age. But it will not do now…Popular enthusiasm for the Union has waned.

…The Maastricht Treaty strained the limits of acceptability to Europe’s electors. Europe’s peoples in general retain their favour and confidence in the nation state. I believe that the nation state will remain the basic political unit for Europe.

…I see real danger, in talk of a “hard core”, inner and outer circles, a two–tier Europe. I recoil from ideas for a Union in which some would be more equal than others. There is not, and should never be, an exclusive hard core of countries or of policies.

…Whatever one’s view of EMU Stage III—and I have thought it right to reserve the United Kingdom’s position—the introduction of a common currency without proper prior economic convergence would be a disaster.

…The European Parliament sees itself as the future democratic focus of the Union. But this is a flawed ambition, because the European Union is an association of States, deriving its basic democratic legitimacy through national parliaments. The task for 1996 it for the European Parliament to grow into its existing powers. 37

Such a speech of Eurosceptical ferocity put Major on a collision course with Chancellor Kohl, with Mitterrand and then Chirac, with the Commission, and with continental majority opinion which repudiated the whole concept of a Europe of nation states. Helmut Kohl had argued that the Europe of nation states had failed, that it had led to the world wars, and that such an outdated model of sovereign nations was incompatible with Germany’s vision for the future. 38

The fifth example of Major’s tilt towards Euroscepticism dealt with monetary policy and the single currency. Speaking at the “Conservative Way Forward” dinner, on 3 February 1995, the Prime Minister said:

We cannot accept that sterling should be part of a Single Currency in 1996 or 1997. We don’t believe anyone could sensibly want to go ahead then, but, if they do, we wouldn’t be with them. …What we will aim for is a more flexible European Union. That is the only way forward which makes sense as Europe enlarges.…Nor will we agree to a more prescriptive, centralist Europe, or removal of the nation states’ veto. The Cabinet are clear about that and our European partners know our views. Moreover, although they may only mutter it sotto voce, a number of our partners agree with us on these points. …We need to re–examine and review the institutions of the European Union. 39

Similarly, he told the 1995 Conservative party conference that “if Europe goes federalist a Conservative Britain will not”. 40 On another occasion the Prime Minister in ostensibly patriotic vein promised “the United Kingdom—the greatest cradle of culture and academic and scientific and political achievement in modern times—that’s not some trifle to be lightly set at risk…it is the highest cause this party knows—and we will defend it with every fibre of our being”. 41 But such robust language was not backed with action, either in the case of the beef ban or the crucifixion of the fishing industry.

The sixth example of Major’s Euroscepticism was his Brussels speech of February in which he attacked the Social Chapter, and the Continental model of a social Europe:

Europe is not winning. 181⁄2 million people are unemployed—the size of Denmark, Finland and Sweden put together. We are not creating enough new jobs. …Over the last 20 years America has created 36 million new jobs of which 31 million were in the private sector. In that time, the EU as a whole only created five million new jobs, of which only one million were in the private sector. …I believe the answer lies in the policies Europe has followed. …The European Social Model is fundamentally flawed. It deprives today’s companies of the chance to compete, and drives away tomorrow’s investment and new jobs. Over–regulation does not work. And,as a result, nor do millions of Europeans. The figures say it all. For every £100 paid in wages Germany n0n–wage costs add on an extra £31, in France £41 and in Italy £44. In Britain, it is only £15. 42

But the Prime Minister did not take his argument to the logical conclusion that only by leaving the EU could Britain avoid incorporation into the continental “Rhineland” model, which he again attacked at an election press conference on 16 April.

John Major’s seventh Eurosceptical intervention occurred in an interview in February 1997 with New Yorker magazine. 43 Having hitherto refused to contemplate the political and constitutional implications of monetary union, he confessed that “I wouldn’t like to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer who went to the despatch box and said ‘Well, I no longer have any control over interest rates, I am sorry they have gone up 3%, but it’s nothing to do with me, Guv’”. Alas, this promising Eurosceptical reasoning was not repeated during the election campaign, when Mr Major retreated back to his “negotiate and decide” bunker. 44

The eighth and final example of Euroscepticism was contained in the 1997 Conservative election manifesto which, reputedly, bore Mr Major’s imprint. This document promised that:

We believe that in an uncertain, competitive world, the nation state is a rock of security. A nation’s common heritage, culture, values and outlook are a precious source of stability. Nationhood gives people a sense of belonging.

The government has a positive vision for the European Union as a partnership of nations. We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. 45

Alas, such a noble vision was not on offer as the federal express of European integration gathered speed towards the Amsterdam summit. Such an aspiration remained a poignant wish–list.


In evaluating Mr Major’s European policy, 1990–7, there are two conclusions to be drawn. Firstly, when it mattered Major was a Euro–enthusiast. When a Bill was required to pass through the House of Commons, he was enthusiastic to support European integration. When a treaty needed to be ratified, when budgetary contributions had to be approved following a European summit, when it really mattered, Major supported European integration and was prepared to divide and discipline his party to the point of bitter conflict. But when it did not matter as much, when legislation was not necessary, Major made Eurosceptical noises to keep his party together. In that regard John Major followed the same policy in relation to his party and Europe as that which was pursued by Harold Wilson. He treated the issue as a function of party management and in so doing John Major neglected the national interest. He devised a strategy to keep his deeply divided party together especially in the period 1993–7 when the disputes over Europe reached a ferocious pitch. 46 Major did not want to offend either the influential senior supporters of European integration; Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Lord Howe, Ted Heath, Tristan Garel–Jones, John Gummer, Edwina Currie, Douglas Hogg, and the luminaries of the CBI. He wanted to keep them on his side. But equally he wanted to placate and appease the Eurosceptics, whose growing political and organisational influence he could not ignore. As Dr Keith Alderman has argued:

Political commentators habitually use hyperbole in describing intra–party disputes. In this case it was fully justified. Maastricht was a highly corrosive issue for the Conservative Party. Its 1992 conference was one of the most divisive in living memory. Exchanges within the parliamentary party were often vituperative. There was a tendency to blame the Eurosceptics for many, if not all, of the government’s numerous problems during the session…

Much of the animosity towards the rebels arose from the organised nature of their activities. Over the years, divisions over Europe had produced numerous groups critical of developments within the EC. The most prominent were the European Reform Group and the Bruges Group. But back–bench opposition to Maastricht was co–ordinated by a newly–formed grouping—the “Fresh Start” group. Its core comprised many of the 22 Conservatives who had opposed the Second Reading. Originally a fairly loose and informal grouping styling itself the “suicide squad” or “renegades” its organisation became more formal in September 1992. 47

The consequences of such profound division was that John Major was more a chief whip than a party leader. Yet it may be argued that his balancing act worked. He kept his party together by subordinating the national interest to party management. 48 A classic example was his approach to the Single European Currency. 49 That his government did not know enough about the Single European Currency to make a principled decision was a policy stance which lacked all intellectual and political credibility. 50 The Delors report of 1989 outlined the fundamental objective which was fully debated at the time. Indeed John Major came up with his own alternative, the “hard ecu” plan. The Maastricht Treaty additionally advocated attaining the Single European Currency through the convergence criteria, which was debated ad nauseam. Every single country in the European Union considered the issue in principle. Major’s policy of not making up his mind—“wait and see” or “negotiate and decide”—could not command respect from either Euroenthusiasts or Eurosceptics. In truth, there was nothing further to negotiate once the other countries had decided to go ahead with monetary union, on the assumption that they could meet, or indeed fudge, the convergence criteria. Major neglected the national interest—whether in favour of the Single Currency or against it—in order to procure a phoney party unity. Indeed, it is this dark secret that bound Major and his Euroenthusiast supporters together, blinding them to the impending electoral nemesis. The compelling irony is that Major did have sufficient political leeway to have ruled out the abolition of the pound for the duration of his premiership. David Smith, an astute critic of the government’s European policy from his vantage point at The Sunday Times has justifiably asserted, in the wake of White Wednesday, that:

The puzzle, the great “what if?” of the Major premiership, is why he did not rule out Britain’s participation in a European single currency for as long as he was prime minister. Had he done so, he would have met no opposition from his chancellor: Norman Lamont was an avowed opponent of Emu. The biggest pro–Europeans in his cabinet, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, both of whom wanted an early return to the ERM, were in no position to force through their views. Heseltine was weakened by his handling of the autumn 1992 pit closures, Clarke would have been a lone voice. 51

The second conclusion is that John Major, while successfully holding together his party, missed the opportunity to lead it in a genuinely Eurosceptical direction. He failed to adjust to the changed agenda of the inrushing intellectual Eurosceptical tide. Norman Lamont questioned the economic advantages of membership; 52 David Heathcoat–Amory questioned the whole validity of “wait and see” on monetary union; 53 and John Redwood raised the question of a renegotiated membership. 54 But all to no avail; Major pursued the politics of compromise and refused to consider European issues from first principles. A cunning and indeed Machiavellian politician, Major’s strategy of compromise to an extent succeeded. But the Conservative party became, behind the facade of unity, totally split from top to bottom over Europe. The different wings of the party—irreconcilably divided on this issue—in a rational world would have divorced one another long since. John Major kept the party show on the road at the expense of defying the Conservative instinct of Euroscepticism. Just as Harold Wilson kept the Labour party together on Europe in the early 1970s in opposition, this is no mean political feat. But there is a crucial difference between Major and Wilson. Wilson was able to achieve that feat of unity while working with the grain of the British people and in accordance with the mood of party opinion. By contrast, John Major defied public opinion during the period 1990 to 1997 as it moved decisively in a more Eurosceptical direction. Business opinion, opinion poll surveys, 55 even the pronouncements of Tony Blair (not least his March 1997 article in The Sun),56 all indicated the decline of Eurointegration and the emergence of a greater level of Euroscepticism. Consequently, Major successfully held his party together but at the cost of hastening its electoral defeat. Indeed, as Booker and North argue, Major’s European policy corroded the fabric of the Conservative party and eroded its ability to sustain its term of office:

So great was the frustration and bitterness felt by many of the normally loyal membership that this created a sense of grassroots alienation from the leadership quite without precedent in the Party’s history. Formerly diehard party workers departed in droves. Donations and subscriptions collapsed. Only the most ferocious efforts by Party managers to suppress public evidence of what was going on succeeded in obscuring the full scale of the Tory Party’s internal disaster from general view. 57

Similarly, as Sir Charles Powell has ironically pointed out, the Conservative party which ousted Mrs Thatcher as leader has never been more in tune with her Euroscepticism:

Six years ago the Conservative Party dispensed with Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister for saying No, No, No to a more federal Europe. John Major’s Government embarked instead on a “charm offensive” designed to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. That reflected a touching belief that being nice to our partners in Europe, after years of handbagging them over Britain’s budget contribution, would incline them to lower their sights and moderate their treasured goal of a single currency.

It also reflected the deep–seated delusion of British diplomacy that the gulf between Britain and the rest of Europe on the future shape and direction of the European Union is capable of being bridged…

Now the same Conservative Party which sacked Lady Thatcher is falling over itself to say No, No, No to Europe as vigorously as she once did. 58

Unconvincingly posing as a Thatcherite man of Bruges during the 1997 election her successor could not escape the legacy of a premiership built on Maastricht and the single currency “wait and see” equivocation.

The final verdict must be that John Major had the great opportunity to have led the country toward a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with continental Europe. He could have raised the possibility of outright withdrawal had he not been obsessed with the reaction of the Conservative Eurofanatics. He could have accepted the truth that Britain was incapable of changing the European Union from within, because continental interests and values are profoundly different from our own. He could have led his party rather than managed it. John Major had the chance to have broken free from the shackles of compromise which bound him in 1990. 59 He could have built on the foundations of his predecessor’s 1988 Bruges speech. But he did none of these things. On Europe, John Major blew it. As Neville Chamberlain is remembered as the Prime Minister of Munich, so will John Major be remembered as the Prime Minister of Maastricht. Major’s European policy was an unequivocal failure, the legacy of which the Conservative party will wrestle with in Opposition for perhaps too long.


1. J.W. Young, Britain and European Unity 1945–92 (Macmillan, 1992), p. 161.
2. For an interesting insight into Mr Major’s thinking see The Sunday Telegraph, 8/10/89.
3. S. Hogg and S. Hill, Too Close to Call (Little, Brown & Co., 1995), p. 79.
4. Sunday Telegraph, 30/3/97.
5. B. Anderson, John Major (Headline, 1992), p. 392.
6. Quoted in N. Wyn Ellis, John Major: a Personal Biography (Futura, 1991, p. 339).
7. M. Thatcher, The Path to Power (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 483.
8. Whether this opt–out was essentially negotiated by Major or by Chancellor Norman Lamont is discussed in “The Poisoned Chalice”, BBC2, 30/05/96.
9. D.E. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1992 (Macmillan, 1992), 20–1.
10. A. Sked and C. Cook, Post–war Britain 1945–1992 (Penguin, 1993), p. 561.
11. Mr Major used stronger, rather more industrial language, than the word “flipping”.
12. UK presidency of the EC (Foreign Office Publication, 1992), p.3.
13. Ibid., p. 20.
14. See C. Grant, Delors (Nicholas Brealey Publications, 1994), p. 170.
15. Conservative Party manifesto 1992.
16. M. Thatcher, Downing Street Years (Harper Collins, 1993), pp. 720–1.
17. N. Lawson, The View from No. 11 (Bantam press, 1992), p. 1008.
18. N. Wyn Ellis, John Major: a Personal Biography (Futura, 1991), p. 336.
19. Speech, 07/9/92, at Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, London.
20. Speech, 10/9/92, to Scottish CBI.
21. B. Connolly, The Rotten Heart of Europe (Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 376.
22. P. Riddell in A. Seldon and D. Kavanagh eds., The Major Effect (Macmillan, 1994), p. 53.
23. “The Poisoned Chalice”, BBC2, 30/05/96.
24. W. Wallace in A. Seldon and D. Kavanagh eds., ibid., p. 286.
25. E. Dell, The Chancellors (Harper Collins, 1996), p. 546.
26. P. Stephens, Politics and the Pound (Macmillan, 1996), pp. 250–1.
27. See Hansard, 20/5/92, vol. 208, p. 265–6.
28. EC Commission, Toward European Union (1992).
29. For an excellent analysis of “dirty tricks” against the Eurosceptics, see T. Gorman, The Bastards (Pan, 1993); for a powerful survey of intolerance towards Conservative backbench dissent see E. Nicholson, Secret Society (Indigo, 1996).
30. Speech at the Ritz hotel, London, 07/12/94.
31. Quoted in E. Mallie and D. McKittrick, The Fight for Peace (Heinemann, 1996), pp. 248–9.
32. Mr Major even made this the theme of a Conservative election broadcast on 16 April 1997.
33. The Economist, 25 September 1993, p. 27–9.
34. Lord Beloff, Britain and European Union: Dialogue of the Deaf (Macmillan, 1996), pp. 140–1.
35. Interview in Der Spiegel, 25/4/94.
36. Speech, 27/7/94.
37. Speech at Leiden, 07/9/94.
38. See “Nation state’s day is over, Britain told”, The Times, 3/02/96. Kohl had also told Le Monde, 11/05/95, that Maastricht laid the basis for political union in Europe.
39. Speech at “Conservative Way Forward” dinner, 03/2/95.
40. Speech to Conservative conference 13/10/95.
41. Quoted in S. Haseler, The English Tribe (Macmillan, 1996), p. 65.
42. Speech in Brussels, 04/2/97.
43. New Yorker, February 1997.
44. See for example his stonewalling interview with Dominic Lawson in Sunday Telegraph, 20/04/97.
45. Conservative Party manifesto, 1997, p. 45.
46. The extent of Mr Major’s strategy in relation to the party conference is revealed in M. Ball, The Conservative Conference and Euro–sceptical Motions (Bruges Group Publication, 1996).
47. Keith Alderman, “Legislating on Maastricht”, Contemporary Record, Winter 1993, vol., 7, no. 3.
48. See also M. Holmes, The Conservative Party and Europe (Bruges Group Publication, 1994).
49. For an insight into Michael Heseltine’s powerful role in policy making, see M. Crick, Michael Heseltine: a biography (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), pp. 432–4.
50. For further detailed discussion, see M. Holmes, From Single Market to Single Currency: evaluating Europe’s economic experiment (Bruges Group publication, 1995).
51. Sunday Times, 20/04/97.
52. See N. Lamont’s 1994 Selsdon Group speech reprinted in M. Holmes ed., The Eurosceptical Reader (Macmillan, 1996), chapter 7.
53. D. Heathcoat–Amory, A Single European currency: Why the UK must say No (Bruges Group publication, 1996).
54. J. Redwood, Our Currency, Our Country (Penguin, 1997), chapter 16.
55. A MORI poll in The Times, 17/04/97, indicated equal support at 40% for those wishing to stay in or leave the EU.
56. Tony Blair’s article on Europe, The Sun, 17/03/97.
57. C. Booker and R. North, The Castle of Lies: why Britain must get out of Europe (Duckworth, 1996), p. 183. For the statistical details of declining Conservative party membership, see M. Pinto–Duschinsky, The Times, 23/04/97.
58. The Sunday Telegraph, 27/04/97.
59. For an interesting consideration of the Thatcherite legacy, and Mr Major’s interpretation of it, see J. Charmley, A History of Conservative Politics 1900–1996 (Macmillan, 1996), chapters 11–13.

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