Sunday, 2 April 2017

A note on Conservative euroscepticism

There's a fairly common retort from those who still wish to remain in the EU when it's pointed out that we've had a referendum that voted to leave and parliament started that processs of leaving. It goes something like "Brexiteers had forty years of moaning about EU membership so they've no room to talk".

Now I'm sure we can probably find some few folk who, having opposed continued membership in 1976, continued to bang on about it from then onwards. Where you won't find them is in the Conservative Party. Aside from Teddy Taylor and a few unreconstructed Powellites, the Conservative Party was completely united in its support for our membership of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). What opposition there was to membership came from the left - indeed Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, John Prescott and other enthusists for EU membership fought and lost the 1983 General Election on a platform of leaving the EEC.

In that election I was agent for John Carlisle, MP for North Luton. I think it fair to say that John was as far to the right in the party as you could get but we still included support for EEC membership in the election address. Our membership simply wasn't an issue for Conservatives.

Between this time and the 2001 general election something happened. During the selection meeting for the parliamentary candidate in Keighley, I was asked a question about the Euro. My response was that membership of the Euro should only come following a referendum but that I didn't think we'd have one. I suggested that the next referendum would be about our membership of the EU not the Euro, and that I didn't know how I would vote come that day.

The something - well somethings really - that happened between 1983 and 2001 was all about money and the approach of government. Firstly we had the debacle of the UK joining and then leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, then the long drawn out Maastricht Treaty ratification process, and finally we had the creation of the Euro. Tory euroscpeticism was born. But even then it wasn't about leaving but rather that Britain should be less supine in its dealings with the EU and more assertive in opposing moves leading to federalism.

It wasn't until the mid-2000s when the Better Off Out campaign was launched with support from a few Conservative MPs like Philip Davies and Douglas Carswell that we saw a group within the Conservative Party committed to leaving the EU. The long war over ERM, Maastricht and the Euro had scarred the Party and the membership placed the blame squarely on the pro-EU leadership - men such as John Major, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke.

It is important, therefore, not to rewrite history as some sort of rationalisation for seeking to overturn the decision to leave the EU. There has not been a 40 year campaign to leave - UKIP wasn't formed until 1993 and James Goldsmith's Referendum Party campaigned for a referendum on further federalism (and did very badly) in 1997. Even then the media position on membership was overwhelmingly supportive and the Conservative Party remained committed to membership albeit with a somewhat grumpy attitude to the EU.

None of this is to suggest that Remainers should shut up but rather to observe that their claim of a long media campaign supported by the right of the Conservative Party is largely untrue. The important question to ask is how the Conservative Party transformed from an enthusiast for European economic cooperation firstly into a scpetical and questioning party and then, in large part, to an advocate of leaving. If we're looking for the reason we left, it happened on 7 February 1992 when the EEC stopped being a free trade alliance and became a nascent 'superstate', the EU.



Sackerson said...

Thanks for the useful contexting.

Anonymous said...

It was 1975.