After the second world war, Winston Churchill spelled out his vision “to recreate the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.
WHAT PATH FOR EUROPE,
We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” But he did not see Britain as being at its heart. “France and Germany must take the lead together,” he said in 1946. Successive British governments, Labour and Conservative, then stood back as those two nations led the way, forming the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and then the European Economic Community six years later. The UK sent a middle-ranking trade official as a mere observer to the signing of the Treaty of Rome that year.
SECOND THOUGHTS, LEADING TO ENTRY IN 1973
It was a Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who put Britain on course for entry, applying for membership in 1961. He believed that continued exclusion would be harmful. At the time, Labour had the more prominent Eurosceptics, notably Hugh Gaitskell, who said a year later that joining a federal Europe would be “the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history”. Macmillan’s application was vetoed for a decade by French president Charles de Gaulle, who feared that the UK would torpedo the grand projet. It was not until 1973 that Edward Heath’s Tory government took Britain in, with Labour hugely split.
LABOUR’S 1975 REFERENDUM – THE PEOPLE VOTE TO STAY IN
In 1974, Labour PM Harold Wilson had promised to put the issue of membership to the people after renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms. He allowed Eurosceptic cabinet ministers, led by Michael Foot and Tony Benn, to campaign against (his ministers were so split, he had little option). Most of the Tory press backed staying in, and the result was 67% in favour. The Labour cabinet came together, but its Eurosceptics did so with trepidation. The pro-Europe home secretary, Roy Jenkins, said: “It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.” Benn, the anti-EEC industry secretary, was humbled but fearful. “When the British people speak, everyone, including members of parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum.”
TORY AND LABOUR ATTITUDES TO EUROPE SHIFT IN THE 1980S
Margaret Thatcher had campaigned to stay in the EEC in 1975, four years before becoming prime minister, and signed the Single European Act in 1986. But she came to despair of the European project. Her Bruges speech of 1988 became a template for a new generation of Tory sceptics. It was not given to put the country on course for an exit, but to limit Europe’s ambitions. “To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve,” Thatcher said. Tory Eurosceptics were inspired. Increasingly, they believed the original vision of a trading area had been supplanted by Franco-German ambitions for political and economic union. As the centre of gravity shifted in both main parties, Labour under Neil Kinnock embraced a social Europe, albeit with resistance from unions and the left. Thatcher’s increasingly strident scepticism put her at odds with key members of her cabinet, including Michael Heseltine, and hastened her downfall.
JOHN MAJOR, THE ‘BASTARDS’ IN HIS CABINET AND HARDCORE SCEPTICISM
The ousting of Thatcher, the UK’s traumatic experience inside, and exit from, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, followed by rows over the Maastricht treaty, which created the EU and paved the way for economic union, ensured that Europe dogged John Major’s premiership. In 1993, he described Eurosceptic members of his cabinet (the likes of John Redwood and Michael Portillo) as “bastards”, as exclusively revealed by the Observer. With a tiny working majority, his government was crippled by division. The Tory war raged just as Tony Blair arrived as Labour leader in 1994, promising to lead a British government committed to the EU and which would even consider joining the euro if conditions were right.
BLAIR AND BROWN
FALL OUT OVER EURO AS TORIES BEGIN TO TALK OF LEAVING
Like Blair, Gordon Brown was a strong pro-European, but unlike him he had severe doubts about the euro. Towards the end of Labour’s first term, the issue was causing real tension, as Brown, the chancellor, and his economic adviser, Ed Balls, insisted on strict tests being met. The Tories, under their anti-EU leader, William Hague, made little progress, and less under the more hardline Iain Duncan Smith. But as more European treaties, from Amsterdam to Lisbon, brought ever deeper integration, Tory Eurosceptics began to talk openly of EU exit. When David Cameron put himself forward as a prospective Tory leader in 2005, it was on a promise to lead the party out of the centre-right federalist grouping, the European People’s party (EPP), as a signal of intent.
UNDER PRESSURE FROM THE EUROSCEPTICS, CAMERON PROMISES IN/OUT REFERENDUM
The prime minister said he wanted his party to stop “banging on about Europe” – a vain hope. Having honoured his EPP pledge, his Eurosceptics wanted far more. He went to Brussels to cut the EU budget and veto integrationist plans, but it was not enough. They wanted a referendum on whether to stay or leave. In 2013, he gave them one and said he would try to renegotiate a better settlement for the British people before holding a vote before the end of 2017. Now, as that renegotiation concludes and his Eurosceptics say nothing but “out” will do, it is decision time. If he gets a Yes, he could have settled the Europe question for a generation.
But if it is a No, he will be known as the prime minister who lost the final battle to the Eurosceptics and took Britain out of the EU.
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