The subject of European integration has always troubled the Conservative Party, to the extent that it cost Thatcher her leadership. With the single currency and possibly the European Union itself teetering on the brink, how would its collapse affect the Conservative-led government, wonders Colin Marsden.
The debt crisis in the Eurozone may yet spell the end for the single currency, at least in its present configuration. The logic is that the currency area must fully intergrate economically or abandon the Euro. Will or can European political union survive the crisis? The Conservative Party and indeed “Conservatism” has tended to be seen as Euro-sceptical but, from Macmillan to Cameron, Conservative governments have led the process of ever closer union with our European nieghbours.
Ever since the Suez crisis of 1956 Britain has been on course for ever closer union with Europe. For all its anti Euro rhetoric and perceived scepticism the Conservative Party has been foremost a party of European integration (for good or ill depending on your point of view) Eden’s Euroscepticism faltered after the debacle of Suez and many in the Conservative Party believed Britain’s world power status could only be maintained through European co-operation.
Britain possessed, however, a divided attitude among its political classes and within the Conservative Party which has created the worst of all worlds. Britain remained unconvinced for much of the 1950s, was rejected for membership twice by De Gaulle in the 1960s (had we joined at this point we could have at least influenced the creation of the Common Agricultural policy) and by the 1970s that moment had passed even before Edward Heath secured British entry almost 40 years ago. Margaret Thatcher’s principled objection to the Delores proposals for closer European integration led to her being forced from office by the Europhile forces in the part. The resulting schism in the Conservative Party on the European issue tore apart the Major government in much the same way as the issue of free trade wrecked the Balfour government at the turn of the century.
The sudden change in Conservative attitudes to European integration in the early 1990s was interesting because it was a something of a departure from the position the party had taken for the previous 30 years. The new-found scepticism manifesting itself in the Tory Party was in fact the result of a new creation, an “ism” within an “ism”. Thatcherism was the newly formed ideology that championed all things Eurosceptical and not mainstream Conservatism.
Once removed from office the considerations of practical compromises in politics were no longer necessary. An ideology, a dogma, a rigid position of absolute principle was born, created by many in the Tory party whom lamented her demise. Thatcherism could be seen as a rejection of the European Union or at least a retreat from any further integration. The Conservative Party, seen traditionally as free from ideology, now had an ideology. The party that attacked the ideology of Socialism and had always adapted itself to the mood of the times, however tentatively, from Disraeli’s second reform act in 1867 to the adoption of the post war consensus after 1945, had now discovered a rigid belief system which subordinated practicality and elevated principle. Conservatism remained Euro-practical and adaptable but “Thatcherism” did not.
The divisions on the European Question within the Conservative Party are partly fuelled by the competing ideas of “Conservatism” versus “Thatcherism” – The latter seen as a rallying cry for Eurosceptics and even those in favour of withdrawal from the EU. However this is largely a myth, a retrospective creation. To her great credit Thatcher did stand almost alone in the final months of her premiership and express hostility toward the progress of political and monetary union. However the idea that her successor John Major was abandoning a eurosceptic policy agenda was not correct. Major’s negotiations at Maastricht were the logical follow-on from the Single European Act signed by Mrs Thatcher in 1986. The Single European Act introduced qualified majority voting and a move towards a “supranational” approach to European policy direction with the creation of a secretariat.
Major ensured Maastricht allowed for significant UK opt-outs, most importantly on the single currency. The resulting constant attacks on European policy only helped create the conditions for the arrival of Mr Blair, the most Pro-European Prime Minister since Heath, whose ambition for taking Britain into the Euro was well-known and ultimately only frustrated by the opposition of his chancellor. The Labour party was forced to abandon its own “ism” at least in its original form, socialism. Mr Blair arrived in Downing street ideologically light. Divisions on Europe only made the Conservative leadership appear week and unelectable, the size of the Labour majority in 1997 a tribute to this.
The Conservatives have marched toward closer European integration for more than 50 years, reticent at times, but prepared to remove or sideline political resistance to the EU project when necessary.The Conservatives are now back in office, their European policy not dissimilar to the one they inherited. It remains to be seen if the crisis in the Euro zone leads to default and exit from the single currency. In the case of some of the southern countries, it is looking possible. The situation with the Euro looks like a gigantic version of the European Exchange Rate mechanism situation. At least with the ERM, Sterling could (and did) eventually devalue by leaving it. It is just possible that such a crisis could have unforseen results for the governance of the EU and the UK’s relationship within it.