Margaret Thatcher swept to power on 3 May 1979. The Conservatives were still the party of Europe, but she had a very different vision of Europe.
She was still unhappy with Britain’s membership terms, the huge system of farm payments, the perceived federalising and harmonising instincts of other member states. On the other hand, she saw the EEC as a vehicle to pursue capitalist ideals.
Her speeches on Europe, which were few, mentioned “liberty”, and a “vigorous free market”. Europe would help Britain expand its role in the world in a quasi-imperial way. She warned her German counterpart, Helmut Kohl, that she would be no “soft touch”, telling him: “I intend to be very discriminating in judging what are British interests and I shall be resolute in defending them.”
The mood in the country had, meanwhile, shifted on Europe. Opinion polls showed declining support compared to the 67% Yes vote in the 1975 referendum. No small number of Tory cabinet ministers were increasingly hostile to how the EEC was evolving, with some furious that the free market principles they believed were enshrined in the Treaty of Rome were being sacrified in favour of a bloated CAP system and an intrusive, overpaid bureaucracy taking root in Brussels.
An early challenge came with the first stirrings of Economic and Monetary Union. In opposition Thatcher had cryptically supported it, in the main to heap discomfort on Labour, which was divided on the issue. In government, however, there was strong opposition in her cabinet.
Following the advice of her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher charted a careful course, agreeing in principle with the idea, but hedging on when Britain would embrace it. She grabbed some political points in the process by claiming that one of the impediments to Britain joining was that the previous Labour government had left the economy in a shambles.
Against the backdrop of a torrid first two years in office, marked by inner city riots, soaring unemployment and increasing interest rates, Thatcher chose her battles in Europe carefully. But when she did, it was a bruising affair.
At an EEC summit in Dublin in October 1979, she launched an aggressive bid to lower Britain’s budget contributions which, according to a Treasury estimate, had amounted to £1 billion in 1979. She peremptorily rejected a rebate of £350 million causing the Taoiseach at the time, Jack Lynch, to describe her as “adamant, persistent and, may I say, repetitive.”
Despite a number of improved offers, Thatcher’s hostility to Europe deepened. She only accepted a rebate of £820m - more than twice what had been originally offered - when her foreign secretary threatened to resign if she didn’t.
For her party, Europe was becoming an awkward issue. It was still officially in favour of membership, but public opinion was still souring. With Labour electing a radical-left leader in Michael Foot, the party’s renewed euroscepticism was threatening to outflank the Tories electorally.
In the event, it was the unexpected advent of a colonial war that locked Thatcher solidly onto a eurosceptic path.
Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands provided a dream opportunity for a swift military victory, and a sweeping public opinion dividend. As a triumphant war time prime minister, Thatcher consolidated her rule, and with it, swept away most of the remaining pro-Europeans, or “wets” in her cabinet.
Six months after the end of the war, she set out her position on Europe, praising some of the Community’s achievements, but criticising what she considered its failures in the fisheries sphere and in the never-ending rebate issue.
Trust in the UK, however, was wearing thin on the other side. Britain tried to block a vote on farm prices until the rebate question was resolved, but was thwarted by an unprecedented majority vote. Although EEC governments had solidly supported Britain during the Falklands War, several – including Ireland – quickly resumed bilateral links with Argentina, including arms sales in France’s case, once hostilities ceased.
The British rebate scrap was dragging on over months, with Thatcher barely disguising her personal dislike for the provincial West German premier Kohl. Under her reign, the spectacle of British leaders appearing isolated and combative at European summits was firmly established.
British popular support for Europe was still lukewarm, but there was no outright appetite for withdrawal. Under its new leader Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had tacked back to the centre ground on Europe, and as a result gained 15 seats in the European Elections of 1984.
It was against this backdrop that Thatcher travelled to the Fontainebleau summit two weeks later. Following a bruising round of bilaterals with French President Francois Mitterand and Kohl on the rebate issue, Thatcher finally won a permanent concession worth 66% of Britain’s Community contribution. The Iron Lady had bludgeoned her way to victory, but at the cost of hollowing out the trust of her European counterparts.
The subsequent years saw a further decline in support for Europe both within the Conservative Party and the public at large. The arrival of Jacques Delors as the new European Commission president horrified eurosceptics; in his first speech he said internal borders within the Community - effectively some three hundred physical, fiscal and technical barriers to a single European market - could be lifted by 1992.
Thatcher attempted to sell the Single European Act, as it became in 1986, as a win for free-market capitalism. But the package came with increased powers for the European Parliament and a new system of qualified majority voting, meaning member states would no longer have a veto in every area.
Eurosceptics howled about a European megastate trampling over the centuries old prerogatives of Crown and Parliament. The Dutch and Germans lamented that it didn’t go far enough in a federalist direction.
But there was no doubt that Thatcher’s visions of both Europe and Britain were increasingly at odds with Brussels. While Jacques Delors in 1988 spoke of a “European government” in less than ten years, Thatcher was proclaiming a Britain reinvigorated and more outward looking thanks to a decade of Tory rule.
That restored self-confidence, harking back to the glory of empire, would be gone if Britain were to be subsumed into a European super state.
Thus, on 20 September 1988 Thatcher delivered, at the College of Europe in Bruges a fierce riposte to what she saw as Delors’ federalising vision. Britain, she said, had just as much right to European culture as anyone else, but the future of Europe could not be confused with the future of the European Community. The legacy she preferred was that of European colonialism which “…yes, without apology…civilised much of the world [with] talent, skill and courage.”
Europe had to be a community of “independent sovereign states” which could not be shoe-horned into a single identikit European personality.
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,” she declared, “only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
Her speech was hailed on the right as a defiant rejection of an over-reaching Brussels bureaucracy. Pro-Europeans in the cabinet were aghast, while one European foreign minister told Ted Heath that it had brought Britain back to where it was in 1950. One Foreign Office official described parts as “unnecessarily provocative”. That was John Kerr, the man who later in life would draft Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Within two years Thatcher’s reign was over. She was brought down by internal divisions over the Poll Tax and economic policy. She alienated many in Europe, and her own party, when she resisted to the very end any attempt to reunify Germany after the Berlin Wall fell. But it was the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, the Deputy Prime Minister, over her growing anti-European zeal, that finally triggered a leadership challenge.
Her successor John Major was an entirely different prospect. Courteous and pragmatic, he quickly forged much warmer relations with Mitterand and Kohl, promising in a speech in Bonn that Britain would be “at the very heart of Europe”. Tory eurosceptics were deeply alarmed.
His first big test was at the intergovernmental conference of member states in the Dutch city of Maastricht in December 1991. The summit was called to forge far-reaching integration through, amongst other bold measures, Economic and Monetary Union. Major promised MPs that Britain would demand an opt out on EMU, an exemption from the European Social Charter, the right to determine its own foreign, defence and immigration policy, and to resist any move towards federalism.
After two days of negotiation Major had secured virtually everything he had set out to achieve.
The British press was largely enthusiastic. The Daily Mail declared: “He went. He stood firm. And he prevailed.” The Spectator columnist Paul Johnson wrote:
“John Major’s Houdini-like escape from the toils of the Eurocrats at Maastricht is a personal victory which may well go into folklore.”
The Daily Telegraph gushed:
“In almost every sense, it was a copybook triumph for Mr Major, the stuff of Foreign Office dreams.”
The writer was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels, one Boris Johnson.
Major naturally received a hero’s welcome in the House of Commons. When parliament voted in the first reading of the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991, only seven conservatives rebelled, and three abstained.
When Major was re-elected in the general election of April 1992, the Conservative Manifesto proclaimed that “The Conservatives have been the party of Europe for 30 years… We have ensured that Britain is at the heart of Europe, a strong and respected partner.”
But John Major had only won with a majority of 21. In the months that followed, a hard core of Tory eurosceptics began to boil with a pent up sense of betrayal over Maastricht which had delivered, after all, a new entity with notions of European citizenship and solidarity: a European Union.
“The [election] result consigned him,” wrote the late political journalist Hugo Young in his book This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair “into the hands of politicians who, though they had mostly chosen him to be their leader, spent the next five years tearing his leadership to pieces. The beast was let loose. And an occasion appeared [the Maastricht Treaty] that brought into the open the pent-up rage which the years of surrender to Europe now, in feral eyes, required.”
The nature of the new European consensus, the fact that it had the full-blooded support of Kohl, who hailed Maastricht as a step towards a United States of Europe, the fact that it had birthed a currency which would appear to be a permanent thing: all of these inflamed a new and virulent strain of euroscepticism, one which came with dire warnings delivered in apocalytic literary tomes.
These were the blood and soil Tories, people like Bill Cash, Michael Spicer, Teddy Taylor, John Biffen. Those within his cabinet – Michael Howard, Peter Lilly, and Michael Portillo – John Major famously called “bastards” (his unwitting candour was because he thought an ITN interview was no longer on open mic).
The second reading of the Maastricht Bill passed with a larger number of Conservative dissenters. The third reading was due to be whipped through parliament by the Tory government in early June, when an external event cast an entirely new light on the situation: on 2 June Denmark voted by 50.7% to 49.3% to reject the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum.
The unexpected result pitched the Conservative government into a tailspin.
Unable to overlook the significance of the Danish vote, the Tories held back from whipping the measure through, and in the fatal space that opened up, the eurosceptics ploughed noisily in.
The vote was delayed until the autumn with the anti-Europe lobby gaining strength with every hesitation by the cabinet. The events of 16 September 1992, when Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, gave the eurosceptics the perfect opportunity to brand Europe as a disaster from which Britain must withdraw.
The Maastricht Bill was eventually passed after months of bitter infighting and parliamentary chicanery. All twelve members of the newly coined European Union ratified it, including Denmark after it held a second referendum on the promise of a string of opt-outs (which they enjoy to this day).
But by now euroscepiticism had taken hold of the Conservative Party. “By 1994,” wrote Hugo Young, “Euroscepticism was a, perhaps the, factor the Conservative leadership had to reckon with. It had become a term of art, as well as a famous force.”
According to academic research carried out at the time, some 56% of Tories wanted an act of parliament that was “establish explicitly the ultimate supremacy of Parliament over EU legislation.” 55% thought the European Court of Justice “a threat to liberty in Britain”.
“They wanted to turn back the tide of integration, with a reduction in qualified majority voting and an attack on the powers of the European Commission,” wrote Young.
From within this new breed emanated dark conspiracies and poisonous diatribes about a supposedly German-dominated European superstate. They railed against the choice of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the theme tune for Euro 1996 which England was hosting.
Talk of Britain’s “thousand year old identity” being extinguished by Brussels and virulent attacks on the “federalising” instincts of the European Court of Justice abounded, and not just on the fringes.
While these outbursts were visceral in nature, and delivered with profound conviction, hating Europe was not the same as wanted to quit the EU altogether.
Not, however, until Norman Lamont came along.
He was the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who had brought Britain out of the ERM and had fostered a well of resentment against federalist European figures during his 12 years attending Council of Ministers’ meetings. At the Tory Party Conference in Bournemouth in October 1994 he said:
“I do not suggest that Britain should today unilaterally withdraw from Europe.
“But the issue may well return to the agenda.”
Lamont’s speech coincided with the appearance on the scene of a man who would become synonymous with the drive to bring Britain out of the EU.
Sir James “Jimmy” Goldsmith was a millionaire businessman and publisher who articulated some of the tropes against globalisation and the “elite” that would so electrify the Brexit debate. He railed against “the political caste…the elite that begins to think it owns what it runs” in an interview with Young.
He founded the Referendum Party, promising to run candidates in every seat in the 1997 general election and spending £20m in the process (he said he would not run in seats if the sitting Tory candidate came out in favour of the UK leaving the EU). The Referendum Party, in the event, contested nearly 550 seats, but won only 3.1% of the vote.
He did, however, poll better than another newcomer on the scene. The Anti-Federalist League had been founded in 1991 by the historian Alan Sked to oppose the Maastricht Treaty and push Conservative MPs towards lobbying for a British withdrawal.
On 3 September 1993 the Anti-Federalist League renamed itself the UK Independence Party.
As the Major years drew to a close, the eurosceptics were full of sound and fury, but they had been unable to block ratification of the Maastricht Treaty or force anything close to a commitment to a referendum on Britain’s future in Europe.
But the Tory Party was deeply split. Having won the election in 1992 partly because of his apparent competence at the deal he had secured for Britain at Maastricht, Major found himself on the receiving end in the subsequent years of a poisonous revisionism which painted Maastricht as a piece of infamy.
Major himself had soured on Europe, bitter over the BSE-related ban on British beef and Britain’s departure from the ERM.
When he called a general election in 1997 the Tories were exhausted by four successive terms in office, and by the infighting over Europe. On 1 May the young new leader of the Labour Party Tony Blair ended 18 years of opposition by winning a landslide victory.
Blair’s attitude to Europe was significantly – though not radically – different from Major’s. After Thatcher had come to power in 1979, Labour had lurched hard to the left and with it a strongly anti-EEC posture.
From 1983 onwards, when he was first elected MP for Sedgefield, Blair had betrayed no desire to ditch Labour’s anti-Europe orthodoxy. Britain, however, could serve its own interests by being more constructive in Europe.
“The drift towards isolation in Europe must stop and be replaced by a policy of constructive engagement.”
Britain should be, he said, “at the centre of Europe”. Echoing some of the sentiment of Harold Macmillan decades earlier, if Britain was to maintain its global role, then it would have to accept Europe as its base. It was a patriotic case for EU engagement.
But while he felt Economic and Monetary Union had some merits that should be considered seriously, he was also sceptical about the disparities in member states’ economies that could mean the euro would be a non-starter for Britain.
In the 1997 general election Blair was spectacularly embraced by late 1990s Britain, and his positive-but-cautious approach to Europe was but one element of all the other parts of his appeal that catapulted him – and Cool Britannia – into power.
Once in power, his European credentials were given time and space to breathe and express themselves. Within weeks he attended a summit in Amsterdam and the mood music was radically different: gone was the sense of Britain “doing battle” in Europe, and in was the tone of respectful engagement.
Blair moved comfortably in the European space, delivering a speech in French to the National Assembly in Paris, preaching the virtues of the New Left, the embrace of enterprise, but the primacy of the state in helping people make the most of themselves.
Blair called it the “third way”, something of a Nordic rubric, but at least he was able to present himself as a European, and someone who saw the point about Europe.
But joining the euro was a bridge too far. He announced in the autumn of 1997 that Britain would not be signing up (although it could happen in the future), effectively kicking to touch and submitting, as Hugo Young put it, “to a tendency that was hallowed not only in the politics, but, one might say, in the culture and psychology of his country.”
As the new millenium rolled into Europe, the great project was being driven forward by the new single currency. There was a sense that Europe was the torch bearer for a liberal, western democracy in the ascendent, now that Communisms was dead, virulent nationalism had been traduced by the horrors of Yugoslavia, and the new free flow of global goods and capital could be managed by countries working together.
But it was going backwards by doubts over its ability to reform economically. Blair in his second terms became the great scolder of a Europe that, he claimed, refused to tackle its overburdened, sclerotic, welfare societies. Having refused to endorse the EU budget talks in June 2005 unless the Common Agricultre Policy was cut back, he came out fighting in a speech to the European Parliament.
He was a passionate believer in Europe, he told MEPs, and he saw the EU as a union of values, of solidarity between peoples and nations, and not just a common market.
Europe, he said, stood as a monument to the achievements made since the ruins of the second world war.
But only if Europe reformed could it build on those achievements.
Blair believed he was hitting home when he said: “What kind of social europe is it that has 20 million unemployed,” with falling productivity rates and fewer science graduates than India.
By this stage Britain under New Labour was uncomfortable about Europe, but not angst ridden. Britain had enthusiastically embraced the big bang enlargement of ten new members in 2004, assuming that the mostly former Communist countries would infuse the union with new, liberal, reformist thinking, and dilute the old school statist instincts of the French.
In hindsight, the Blair years were the last in which Britain had a moderately comfortable relationship with Europe. The grand, federalising ambitions of people like Delors and Kohl in the 1980s had dissipated. Europe’s sense of itself had been humbled by its failure to stop the bloodletting in the Balkans in the 1990s, and its sluggish economic growth in the 2000s.
Indeed, the last great European moment was the 2004 enlargement, ceremoniously launched at Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin during the Irish EU presidency.
Ironically, enlargement would provide the viral germ that partially led to Brexit. Britain, Ireland and Sweden were the only countries who allowed the citizens of the new Eastern European member states to work and claim benefits in their countries immediately.
The hundreds of thousands from Poland and other newcomers, as well as the next wave from Bulgaria and Romania, sowed the seeds of a virulent strain of anti-immigrant nationalism that would inflame working class urban centres in the north of England that were once Labour heartlands but were now falling under the spell of UKIP.
The general election of 2010 saw Tony Blair’s successor Gordon Brown beaten into second place by David Cameron, thus ending 13 years of Labour rule, and ushering in a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
The election saw the arrival of 148 new Tory MPs, many of whom were sceptical about the EU. The UKIP factor in working class communities, brutalised by the financial crisis of 2008-2010, meant Cameron was feeling the increasing heat of a revived eurosceptic rump. In 2009, as a sop to the far right of his party, he decided to pull out of the European People’s Party, the centre right family in the European Parliament whose members included the hugely influential CDU block of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But having achieved one scalp, the eurosceptics bayed for more. Cameron sought a bloc opt out of EU rules in the justice and home affairs sphere. He introduced the European Union Act, enshrining the promise of a referendum if any new powers were transferred to Brussels. He famously wanted to stop Tory MPs “banging on about Europe,” in the belief that voters had other things to worry about.
Outside the EPP, the Conservatives found themselves unable to read the prevailing European weather patterns or the private thoughts of Merkel, who had become the most powerful German leader in the post-War period.
Cameron attempted to polish his eurosceptic credentials by vetoing the fiscal compact treaty in 2011, thinking that he had Merkel’s tacit support and would win more concesssions.
Instead, Merkel arranged for all other 26 member states to sign up to a treaty just outside the EU framework, neatly isolating Cameron, and driving another nail into the coffin of Britain’s acceptance of Europe.
In 2013, 81 Tory MPs defied a three line whip on a backbench amendment calling for a referendum on EU membership. The euro crisis, the Greek debt calamity, calls for deeper eurozone integration in order to prevent a repeat of the debt crisis, as well as a deepening aversion to rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice all meant an unstoppable rise in euroscepticism across the political spectrum.
The three mainstream parties were soon forced into putting the free movement of EU citizens on to their agendas. Cameron pushed to limit the number of EU migrants, reduce access to in-work benefits and child benefit, and introduced a requirement that migrants from the EU should have a job offer before being given full residency rights.
Immigration was now an unwinnable political battle for the Tories. In 2013 77% of voters wanted immigration reduced, according to the British attitudes survey.
In January that year Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, promising a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, followed by an In/Out referendum within five years.
Cameron’s belief in the EU was tolerant at best, hostile and petty at worst. But like Blair he believed he had a crusading mission to get the EU to reform - but to do so in Conservative Britain’s image.
"With his promise of a referendum,” write Dáithí Ó Cealaigh and James Kilcourse in Britain and Europe: the Endgame, “the Prime Minister was trying to seize control of the EU debate and to stifle the opposition of his own backbenchers, but pushing the referendum button only served to raise the stakes on all sides and to ratchet up the intensity of the debate."
Cameron won a series of modest concessions at a special summit of EU leaders in February 2016. But it was not nearly enough to win over broad swathes of the British population who had grown sceptical, hostile or simply indifferent to the European Union.
A polarising, bitter referendum campaign saw the Remain lead whittled down in the weeks running up to the vote on 23 June 2016.
Amid claim and counter-claim about falsehoods by the Leave side, and “Project Fear” by the ruling political class, Britons voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union in the most shocking electoral upset in generations.
Looking back over 43 years of membership, and decades of prevarication and tortured ambivalence before that, it is in some ways, surprising that Britain didn’t withdraw earlier.
Britain dragged itself through numerous painful contortions to get into Europe, all the while agonising over whether it could bestride the world on its own merits, or whether it needed Europe as an economically reassuring foundation to retrieve a lost glory.
In the event of its eventual entry, there was rarely a prolonged period of acceptance, whether by the public, the newspapers, or the political class, that Britain’s European destiny was a settled, serene policy.
Her own history, and her own conflicted inner dialogue, created a fuzziness that prevented the British public from seeing the benefits of a pragmatic cooperation across borders, without being overwhelmed by those latent eurosceptic demons which rose up at moments of financial or historical stress.