It was announced last week that the former Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, is to head ‘Conservatives for Britain‘ [CfB], which supports the possibility of British withdrawal from the European Union. 1 Lord Lawson of Blaby argues that it is necessary to state the case for ‘Brexit’ now, in advance of negotiations between EU heads of government, and also to prevent xenophobic voices dominating the referendum campaign.
But CfB is not the first Conservative organisation to express opposition to European Union: there is a long history of earlier Eurosceptics causing considerable discomfort for a succession of party leaders. And like its predecessors, Lawson’s organisation has to wrestle with dilemmas such as how far to go in challenging the party leader, and the extent to which it co-operates with rival parties and organisations. 2 But the biggest difference between older and more recent Conservative Eurosceptic campaigns is that they are now the dominant voice in the party and the right-wing press. 3
Conservative opposition to economic and political cooperation with continental Europe stretches back to the 1940s. 4 But it did not achieve a significant organisational form until the UK’s first application to join the EEC in 1961. Harold Macmillan’s decision alarmed sections of Conservative opinion. In parliament this coalesced around the Common Market Committee. Conservatives also established the Anti-Common Market League to recruit support beyond Westminster. 5
Reference to the EEC as the ‘Common Market’ was meant to delegitimise its ambitions for greater political union. 6 The Anti-Common Market League developed a strategy of agitating at Conservative party conferences and through constituency associations. Party managers perceived it as a threat. Yet in comparison to today’s Eurosceptics, the league had barely any support in the press. Both it and the 1970 Group of anti-market MPs struggled to sway Conservative opinion decisively to their cause. As a result, Edward Heath had his party’s backing in securing British membership of the EEC. 7
After losing the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the irrelevance of anti-Marketeers seemed to be confirmed by the Thatcher government’s support for the Single European Act in 1987. But having created a more effective internal European market, moves towards closer political union breathed new life into Conservative Euroscepticism.
John Major’s small majority from 1992 to 1997 left his government highly vulnerable to internal dissent. The 1992 intake of MPs included a younger generation of sceptics. Many joined the Fresh Start Group which called for a new approach to Europe. The right-wing tabloids also became more critical of the EEC. Both received a favourable hearing among the party grassroots. 8
Pro- and anti-EEC forces clashed in 1993 over the Maastricht Treaty on European Union. Major’s government narrowly survived, but at great cost to his authority and the party’s public standing. Despite Major’s promotion of Eurosceptics to senior positions, tensions with a hard core group of backbenchers led to a leadership challenge in 1995. John Redwood failed on that occasion to dislodge Major, but it was clear that the tide of Conservative opinion was turning.
Eurosceptics in the 1990s no longer harked back to the Commonwealth or unrealistic hopes of an Atlantic trading bloc. Instead, they claimed that the 1975 referendum result was no longer valid as it applied only to economic union. The call for a second referendum became a central plank of their demands.
But even the economic aspects of the EU came under attack. Eurosceptics had always claimed that the promised economic benefits of membership had not been realised. They had a new grievance in 1992 when the UK was forced into a humiliating withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Known as ‘Black Wednesday’, it converted more Conservatives to the sceptics’ cause. The disquiet unleashed by the ERM debacle became bound up with widespread frustration that Major had somehow squandered Thatcher’s political legacy.
In opposition between 1997 and 2010, the Conservative party turned increasingly Eurosceptic in tone. A succession of leaders (William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard) made Europe a focal point of their election campaigning. For some Conservative members and voters even this was not enough. A significant number switched their support to the UK Independence Party, a trend which gained greater momentum during the 2010−15 Liberal-Conservative coalition government. 9 Calls for an EU referendum grew louder, so that following the Conservatives’ unexpected victory at the 2015 general election, David Cameron bowed to the pressure.
The date of the EU referendum remains uncertain, as are the specific issues to be debated. But decades of Eurosceptic campaigns mean that it is practically impossible for Cameron to avoid fulfilling his commitment to hold an In/Out referendum. Euroscepticism has certainly made its mark on the Conservative party: yet opinion polls suggest that the public remains to be convinced. In this respect, Lawson’s Conservatives for Britain face the same uphill task as all their predecessors.
Neil Fleming is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester. He is the author of The Marquess of Londonderry: Aristocracy, Power and Politics in Britain and Ireland (London, 2005). His most recent publication is ‘Diehard Conservatives and the Appeasement of Nazi Germany, 1935−1940’, History, vol. 100, no. 441 (2015), pp. 412−435 [login required].
Image: ©Dave Kellam via Flickr
- The Times, 1 October 2015, pp. 1, 6, 25. ↩
- The earlier campaigns promoted alternatives to the European Economic Community such as the Commonwealth of Nations and a proposed North Atlantic Trading Area. Advocacy of these schemes has given way in recent decades to an emphasis on Britain’s economic and political sovereignty. ↩
- N.J. Crowson, The Conservative Party and European Integration since 1945: At the Heart of Europe? (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 152−187. ↩
- Sue Onslow, Backbench Debate within the Conservative Party and its Influence on British Foreign Policy, 1948−57 (London: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 24−32. ↩
- The league’s name evoked the nineteenth-century Anti-Corn Law League. ↩
- The league had an especially strong presence amongst Young Conservatives. Many of its members were also associated with the right-wing Monday Club, though the league contained a number of centrist Conservatives. The latter tended to regard the league as a means of distributing information, whereas those on the right felt that a more vigorous activist campaign was required. Initially restricted to Conservatives, the league’s membership remained overwhelmingly Tory even after dropping this requirement. ↩
- To address this, anti-Marketeers established in 1971 the Conservative Anti-Common Market Information Service. In advance of the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Anti-Common Market League merged with other anti-EEC groups to form the National Referendum Campaign. But it decisively lost the referendum, and struggled afterwards to remain viable. ↩
- Peter Snowden, Back from the Brink: The Extraordinary Fall and Rise of the Conservative Party (London: Harper Press, 2010), pp. 25−28. ↩
- Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 61−106. ↩