Roger Liddle’s new book charts the return of the Conservative Euroscepticism that was just biding its time
In October 2011, 81 Conservative backbenchers defied a three-line whip to vote against a referendum, a far larger rebellion than Maastricht
In his first speech to Conservative party conference as leader, David Cameron could not have been more emphatic: ‘Instead of talking about the things most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life – we were banging on about Europe.’
After their defeat in 1997 the Conservatives had struck highly Eurosceptic positions. Cameron’s objection was apparently not to the substance of these positions, but to the priority the Conservatives had given them. Before 2010, his goal was helped by events. By the late 2000s, Europe had faded as a political concern. The Conservatives’ attempt to demand a referendum on the Lisbon treaty never really took off. Europe barely featured as an issue in the election campaign.
While the Conservative manifesto in 2010 had pledged to ‘repatriate’ limited powers from Brussels, this was abandoned in the coalition agreement, which merely committed the government to examine the ‘balance of competences’ between Britain and the European Union. Yet even before the election, allies of Cameron and William Hague had been briefing that the commitment to repatriation of powers would not be an ‘early priority’ for them. For the Conservative leadership the coalition with the Liberal Democrats was a convenient excuse for inaction.
The coalition’s major concession to Eurosceptic opinion was the European Union Act 2011, introducing a so-called ‘referendum lock’ on any future transfers of power to Brussels. The act reflected the prevailing received wisdom, shared by the leadership of all three main parties, that the Lisbon ratification should draw a firm line under any further EU treaty change. Such institutional navel-gazing, it was confidently asserted, would be unnecessary for a generation: Brussels already had more than enough power.
The explosion of the eurozone crisis overturned these complacent assumptions. Many Conservatives welcomed the prospect of a break-up of the hated currency. To his credit, George Osborne mounted a brave response: that it was in the interests of the British economy and banking system for eurozone cataclysm to be avoided. But the chancellor sought to sugar this pill for his Eurosceptic party by asserting that the ‘remorseless logic’ of the further eurozone integration, necessary to make the single currency viable for the long-term, would require the negotiation of a major new European treaty. This would establish a more fiscally federal and democratically accountable eurozone. However, as part of this process of inevitable treaty revision, Britain, as a euro-outsider, would then be able to negotiate a ‘looser relationship’ within the EU.
While the eurozone crisis had some short-term political upsides (principally by offering the government convenient cover for Britain’s continuing economic difficulties), the medium-term political effects were to shatter Cameron’s political goal of stopping his party ‘banging on about Europe’. Two principal and interrelated reasons lay behind this.
First, it brought back the European question with its full divisive force. In part this was because the eurozone’s handling of the crisis undoubtedly undermined public support for EU membership. The public saw on their television screens constant witness to a failing and divided Europe. The whole European project seemed on the point of collapse. Understandably, the British public were horrified and it was no surprise that support for EU withdrawal rose in opinion polls.
Second, the salience of Europe as a political issue offered the oxygen of publicity to the United Kingdom Independence party, which took full advantage of the opportunity. The rise of Ukip has had a profoundly disturbing effect on the Conservative party base. Conservative party membership has collapsed from 2.5 million in the 1950s to not much more than 100,000 today. As a result, Conservative MPs owe their position in parliament to a ‘selectorate’ of elderly, rightwing Conservative activists which is much less representative of ‘middle Britain’ than in earlier decades. Since the early 1990s it has become virtually impossible to win a Conservative constituency selection without striking a Eurosceptic posture.
Several reasons explain this strong hostility to the EU among Conservative activists. A minority opposed Britain’s European Economic Community membership from the very start. However, the major shift to Euroscepticism took place in the early 1990s. The severity of the recession of the early 1990s was blamed on British membership of the exchange rate mechanism. The lasting aftershocks of Margaret Thatcher’s deposition reinforced the view that she ‘had been right all along’ about Europe. This message was constantly reiterated by what political scientist Tim Bale describes as the ‘party in the media’ preaching an ideological Thatcherism in which the myth of her consistent hostility to Europe played a crucial part.
The gut instinct of the depleted Tory base is that Ukip is made up of natural allies and friends who should return to their true home. The Conservative party ‘base’ blames the absence of ‘sufficiently strong’ Conservative policies, particularly on Europe and immigration, for the success of the Ukip insurgency: the promise of an in-out referendum seemed the obvious panacea. Not only would it help the Conservatives ward off the undoubted Ukip threat in European elections, but the more considerable risk of vital votes in Conservative marginal seats draining away in a general election.
The explosion in Conservative Euroscepticism came in many shapes and sizes, both in motive and aim. The Conservative parliamentary party had always contained a group of anti-European ‘last ditchers’ who objected to our EU membership on grounds of sovereignty. Yet hostility to Europe brings together a number of different and broader ideological currents – from old-fashioned xenophobes, anti-immigration populists and ‘little Englanders’, to more sophisticated critiques from neoconservatives, libertarians, and ‘hyperglobalisers’, who see the EU as holding Britain back. These were joined by sceptics of many stripes and hues who wanted to see a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between Britain and the EU: many professed a desire to remain members of the EU, but there was a huge question mark over the realism of the conditions on which they imagined this to be possible. Their only point of unity was an increasingly vocal chorus in favour of an in-out referendum.
This rumbling volcano in an unmodernised Conservative party first erupted into public view in a House of Commons vote on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership in October 2011. No fewer than 81 Conservative backbenchers defied a three-line whip to vote against a referendum, a far larger rebellion than any there had been on Maastricht ratification in the early 1990s. And the ranks of the rebels extended well beyond what one might describe as the anti-European ‘last ditchers’. They included able young backbenchers from the 2010 intake, who one would normally expect to be loyal to the whip in the hope of future office. They may have acted from high motives of conviction or the low calculation of pleasing constituency activists in reselections to come. However, it also showed that many backbench Conservatives believed the momentum behind a referendum was unstoppable and that the leadership would eventually be forced to bend to this demand, or, if it did not, the party leadership itself would not survive.
The October 2011 vote gave the call for an in-out referendum irreversible momentum inside the Conservative party. Unable to resist it any longer, Cameron was forced within 18 months, in his January 2013 Bloomberg speech, to promise a referendum if the Conservatives win this May’s general election. That pledge has, however, not sated the appetite of the Tory Eurosceptics, who have argued that only by hardening the party’s stance on the EU can the threat of Ukip be headed off. Such has been the fear of Nigel Farage’s party that, by October last year, Cameron appeared to suggest that the free movement of labour – which he had barely mentioned in his Bloomberg speech – would be part of his renegotiation demands.
But, while he has since retreated a little from this position, the prime minister’s hopes of stopping his party ‘banging on about Europe’ now lie in tatters. In many ways he has only himself to blame for this turn of events. Cameron chose to avoid a direct challenge to the prejudices and assumptions of his activists: on Europe there was nothing to compare, for instance, with his pursuit of same-sex marriage. Cameron must always have been aware of – but opted to ignore – the risk he was running inside the Tory party on the European question: that at some point a development in the EU of some kind would cause Europe to come back as an issue to haunt the Conservatives.
Roger Liddle is a member of the House of Lords and chair of Policy Network. The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015 is published by Rowman & Littlefield
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