The Tories and Europe

15 Jul

 There is much to criticise when looking at our relationship within the EU, some of the faults are obvious, the remoteness of the EU institutions, the so-called “democratic deficit” the lack of any widespread legitimacy among the population in general for the EU and the complete failure of the political class to even bother to consult the people over its continued participation. How many people can name an MEP? How many can explain the role of the high representative? You get the picture?

However, ever since the Suez crisis of 1956 Britain has been on course for ever closer union with its European neighbours. 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 maintained, however, a schizophrenic attitude among it’s political classes and within the Conservative Party which has probably created the worst of all worlds. Britain remained unconvinced for much of  the 1950’s, was rejected for membership twice by De Gaulle in the 1960’s, (had we joined at this point we could have influenced the creation of the Common Agricultural policy, by the 1970’s that moment had passed) before Edward Heath secured British entry almost 40 years ago. Mrs 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 party and 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 government of Balfour at the turn of the century.

The sudden change in Conservative attitudes to European integration in the early 1990’s was  interesting because it was a complete 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 now had “Thatcherism” within its system.

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 Mrs 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 Mr 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 it.

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. 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.

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