The British Conservatives and Europe

By Kikas, Gabriel | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The British Conservatives and Europe


Kikas, Gabriel, Contemporary Review


In 1997, John Major's Conservative Party lost to Tony Blair's New Labour Party. The former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke attributes the Tories' electoral demise to the fact that they were 'tired, publicly split on policy, and scandal-ridden.' The more significant element of the Conservative Party's political disarray was (and is), however, its continued political strife over the concept of European unity. While Stuart Reid of the American Spectator notes that it was this particular debate which made the Tories 'unelectable' in the 1997 General Election, it was (and is) nevertheless a very much needed and fundamental one. This is because this debate revolves round a major rethinking of how Europe is to govern itself at the end of the twentieth century. The argument concerns itself, as Lady Thatcher made very clear at the 1997 meeting of the International Conservative Congress, with the 'threat to our traditional institutions of government'.

If politics at the end of the Cold War is now simply about the 'administration of things' and the 'solving of technical problems' it would seem reasonable for the British - albeit Conservative or Labour - to assert an economic strategy which emphasizes a firm commitment (with Europe) to the single market. It was in this context, for example, that the 1992 British presidency of the European Union (EU) made the completion of the single market its central goal. The British presidency, concluded at the Edinburgh European Council in December 1992, identified measures 'to ensure that the internal market works fairly and effectively and without undue burdens on business, notably small and medium-sized enterprises'.

After all, the advantage of the single market is, according to Michael Heseltine, a leading Europhile, that Britain can 'achieve more' for its people 'within a more competitive European market than [it] can hope for within a collection of purely national markets.' At the time of the Maastricht ratification process, then Prime Minister John Major wanted to be active in the EU not 'to reduce the number of currencies, but to increase the number of jobs'. Like Mr. Major, another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, believed that Britain's relationship to the EU is not only about 'shaping our role in the world,' but also about solving the 'practical, everyday concerns of ordinary people'. Britain's economic interests can be achieved, the pro-European Tories argue, if British companies maintain their 'vital' links in the European market.

The above tasks can only be accomplished, however, if Britain 'plays a leading role' in the EU. Indeed, Mr. Major is an excellent student of Anglo-European relations because he, like his predecessors, did not believe it 'credible' for the UK 'to sit on the sidelines of Europe and let other people determine policies. That is frankly no way for the United Kingdom to behave'. Mr. Major explained in the House of Commons that by taking 'a leading role,' Britain would have the opportunity to 'build the sort of [EU] that we believe in'. According to the leftish journalist Hugo Young, Mr. Major perceives the EU to be 'an inescapable framework for real life [and Mr. Major wants] to put Britain at the heart of it'.

While Major supported the need for the single market, he did seek to protect (as Tony Blair did after he became Prime Minister in 1997) the UK's economic and political interests by securing (and later retaining) an opt-out clause to the single currency. In following this line of thinking, Major wished to retain Britain's vote on the single currency because he wanted to ascertain whether such a central banking scheme could yield financial benefits for the UK. At the December 1995 Madrid Conference, for example, Major noted that he would like to see the EU launch a study that would not only analyze the 'impact a single currency would have on the EU's single market,' but the '"cohesiveness" of the EU in the event of a handful of countries breaking away to launch a single currency'.

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