It has been 900 days since Britain voted to leave the European Union and the country remains bitterly divided about the future relationship the UK should have in the years to come. However, this is not the first time that politicians, parties and the public have been at loggerheads over the European Union. In this latest blog, as part of an ongoing series about the UK’s turbulent relationship with Europe, I look at the emergence of modern Euroscepticism under Margaret Thatcher and the start of the Conservative Party’s obsession with the European question.
Thatcher entered Downing Street as a pro-European Prime Minister, having only recently campaigned for Britain to stay in the Common Market in the 1975 referendum. However, after only a short time in government, she began to clash with her European counterparts.
In 1980, she began a battle to reduce the UK’s contributions to the European Communities, even threatening to withhold VAT payments. After four years, a financial rebate was agreed but caused a rift with other member countries. Despite this, Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1986, the first major EC treaty revision.
Labour, up until the early 1980s, remained the more eurosceptic party, contesting the 1983 election under Michael Foot with a manifesto promising to take the country out of the EC without a referendum. Following a great defeat in that election, with the manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’, the party changed its policy under Neil Kinnock; instead, the party now favoured greater integration into the European Economic and Montary Union (EMU).
The Conservatives became increasingly Eurosceptic in the latter half of Thatcher’s premiership. Pro-Europeans in the party became concerned over the Prime Minister’s actions in the Westland affair in 1985/86, in which Thatcher turned down attempts to save the British helicopter company by a European consortium in favour of a merger with American company Sikorsky. Thatcher’s insistance led to Defence Secretary Michael Hestletine, who had supported keeping the company in European hands, resigning from the Cabinet.
However, the moment that made Thatcher into the eurosceptic figure she is today was in 1988 with her ‘Bruges speech’. In this speech, she criticised the continued centralisation of power by the EC and objected to the prospect of a pan-European government. She said:
We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.
The speech was roundly criticised by her European partners.
Meanwhile, Labour were becoming increasingly pro-European. In the same year, a speech at the TUC Conference by European Commission President Jacques Delors, who Thatcher indirectly attacked in her speech, helped weaken eurosceptic views in the Labour Party by saying efforts for greater intergration always included co-operation and solidarity on a European level.
Over the years, the rift between Thatcher and Delors grew wider, and in October 1990, she criticised his plans for a more federal Europe in a statement in the House of Commons.
Yes, the [European] Commission does want to increase its powers. Yes, it it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers against this House. So of course we are differing! The President of the Commission, Mr Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate.
No, no, no.
She went on to criticise plans to create a single European currency, suggesting there is no point in being elected to Parliament if upon taking office you hand over control over the country’s currency and the powers of the House of Commons to Europe.
This statement to Parliament marked the final straw for Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, the last remaining member of her original 1979 cabinet, and in a speech in Parliament after his resignation, openly criticised Thatcher’s dismissive attitude to the plans for a European single currency. With many in the Cabinet disagreeing with the Prime Minister on this issue, Howe said:
I believe that both the Chancellor and the Governor are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope that there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors. It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.
Shortly after, Michael Hesletine launched a leadership challenge against Thatcher and, although she got the majority of votes in the first ballot, she was four votes short of the majority required to avoid a second ballot. After her Cabinet convinced her to withdraw from the contest, Margaret Thatcher resigned after over a decade in office and left Downing Street in tears.
Thatcher’s eurosceptic legacy outlived her time in office, however. The concerns she expressed in the later years of her premiership are the same as those espoused by many of the key figures in the Brexit camp; calling for Britain to regain sovereignty from the creeping grip of legislation and regulation from the European Union.
Major’s time in office saw an initial shift on Europe, but like the current political situation, his party soon became riven by division on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.