A previous referendum on the subject in 1975 had endorsed membership, and one might have thought that the question was settled. The 'Yes' votes in 1975 secured a margin of about two-to-one over the 'Noes'. Here is an excerpt of one speech in support of the 'Yes' cause.
It is not surprising that I, as Leader of the Conservative Party, should wish to give my wholehearted support to this campaign, for the Conservative Party has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party....The speaker was the future Baroness Thatcher, on 16 April 1975, exactly forty years before 2015's anticipated British general election. Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher was in her first year as leader of the Conservative Party, the party that had taken Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, and the party which had first applied for the United Kingdom to join the Common Market, in 1961.It is absolutely key to understanding my topic in this post to recall that
We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community.
By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community.
But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us.
(a) the Conservative Party was, prior to 1997, the more Europhile of Britain's two main parties; and,
(b)Margaret Thatcher, given an opportunity to vote against Britain's membership in the European Community/European Union, rejected it.
It is clear, therefore, that something dramatic changed. Baroness Thatcher became the ringleader of Euroscepticism until she retired from public life, while the Conservatives became increasingly sceptical in outlook towards the European project, at least until David Cameron was elected leader. To what can we attribute this change?
Thatcher on several occasions was quite explicit about her reasoning, even before her resignation.
There are some things for which there was majority voting within the Community when we went in, and we accepted that, and for the specific objective of achieving the Single European Act only, there have been more matters. Now there is an attempt to get far more things passed by majority voting. That means that we would have more laws imposed upon us, even if the House was flatly against them. We expect our people to obey the law, mainly because it has gone through all the legislative processes in this House, and we should be very slow to add to any majority competence on the part of the Community.Mrs Thatcher's statement to the House of Commons, 30 October 1990, the occasion of the famous 'No, no, no' line which precipitated the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe.
The point of that kind of Europe with a central bank is no democracy, taking powers away from every single Parliament, and having a single currency, a monetary policy and interest rates which take all political power away from us. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson ) said in his first speech after the proposal for a single currency was made, a single currency is about the politics of Europe, it is about a federal Europe by the back door.Mrs Thatcher's speech to the House of Commons, 22 November 1990
[The Maastricht Treaty] takes us over the top to a new political entity, a European union, which we have never had before. Before that, we had never gone that way but had kept quite a bit of sovereignty, and it is the last lot that we are in danger of losing.Baroness Thatcher's speech to the House of Lords, 7 June 1993
For the European Union not only wishes to take away our powers; it wishes to increase its own. It wants to regulate our industries and labour markets, pontificate over our tastes, in short to determine our lives. The Maastrict Treaty, which established a common European citizenship and greatly expanded the remit of the European Commission, shows the outlines of the bureaucratic superstate which is envisaged. And Maastrict is the beginning, not the end of that process....the inaugural Keith Joseph lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in 1996
Indeed, we are increasingly seeing the emergence of a whole new international political class. Some of them are politicians who have failed in their own countries, and so have tried their luck overseas. Some are officials who understand nothing of our British distinction between the legitimate powers of the elected and those of the unelected.
These selections from Thatcher's speeches are consistent in their theme. According to them, the Maastricht Treaty fundamentally altered the EEC, symbolised by the change of name to European Union. The Referendum Party specifically addressed this, by arguing that such a fundamental change required a renewal of the promise made by the British people in 1975. The problem was, however, that the bulk of Conservative MPs during the government of John Major believed that Britain could achieve some kind of accommodation with the European Union. In this they continued the Conservative Party's postwar traditions. Thatcher, meanwhile, played a duplicitous game of at times seeming to support rebels against the Major government, and at others declaring her loyalty. The result was the creation of a cadre of Conservative MPs opposed to further changes in the nature of the European Union. The defeat of the Major government in 1997 (which in no way can be attributed to the Referendum Party) thus marked a turning point in the history of not just Britain, but the European Union. It is conceivable that a Conservative government elected in 1997 would have been much less enthusiastic about the arrangements in the Nice Treaty, and thereby slowed the rate of European political integration during the time of the Blair government (1997-2007). We shall, of course, never know.
That Nice treaty included some articles governing EU citizens' freedom of movement within the Union. Today's British politics sees immigration as an important issue, and concerns about asylum-seekers (who would have been non-European) featured strongly in the Conservative election manifestos in 2001 and 2005. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, immigration had also been a significant political issue, although the nature of that immigration was very different. In January 1978, over a year before the 1979 election, Mrs Thatcher addressed the topic in a television interview:
...there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples' fears on numbers. Now, the key to this was not what Keith Speed said just a couple of weeks ago. It really was what Willie Whitelaw said at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, where he said we must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration because at the moment it is about between 45,000 and 50,000 people coming in a year. Now, I was brought up in a small town, 25,000. That would be two new towns a year and that is quite a lot. So, we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration except, of course, for compassionate cases.
Mrs Thatcher further addressed the matter in her memoirs, when she wrote:
Ever since Enoch Powell's Birmingham speech in April 1968 it had been the mark of civilised high-mindedness among right-of-centre politicians to avoid speaking about immigration and race at all, and if that did not prove possible, then to do so in terms borrowed from the left of the political spectrumm, relishing the 'multicultural', 'multi-racial' nature of modern British society. This whole approach glossed over the real problems that immigration sometimes caused and dismissed the anxieties of those who were directly affected as 'racist'. I had never been prepared to go along with it. It seemed both dishonest and snobbish.The Path to Power, pp 405-6, my italics.
Mrs Thatcher's gift for populism is much in evidence here. It is curious to see a Conservative politician use the word 'snobbish' as snobbery is at the root of the Conservative party. It historically has been very much what the Marxists would call 'a class party'. It exists to defend the interests of the propertied (which for much of its history meant those who owned the land), but at the same time it has been rooted in the defence of key institutions of the British state — the monarchy, the Church established, the armed forces. By contrast, its nineteenth-century rival, the Liberal Party, was more of an alliance of groups who needed to protect their own interests against the core represented by the Conservatives. The stresses of modernity broke up the Liberal coalition during the first three decades of the twentieth century, while leaving the Conservatives largely intact. However, many traditional Liberal voters drifted over to the Conservatives during the 1920s, among them an Alfred Roberts, a grocer in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and the father of Margaret Roberts, later Baroness Thatcher. (Mrs Thatcher's official biographer, Charles Moore, is quite explicit about this, p.15 of the first volume.)
During the nineteenth century, it was the Liberal party that in Britain supported a programme of cheap, small government, that regarded the 'Establishment' with suspicion and supported free trade over protectionist economic management. These are all approaches that we have come to associate with the late twentieth century's archetypal British Conservative, Baroness Thatcher. But they weren't the attitudes of the Conservative tradition. And in the twenty-first century, it is UKIP, not the Conservatives, who are loudest on themes of Euroscepticism, controlling immigration, suspecting the Establishment and wanting to reduce government intervention in the economy and society. In many ways, UKIP represents the real descendant of Mrs Thatcher, and are part of the continuous reinvention of the British political system that has been going on since the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the 'New Liberalism' of the 1906-15 Liberal government.
During the nineteenth century, it was the Liberal party that in Britain supported a programme of cheap, small government, that regarded the 'Establishment' with suspicion and supported free trade over protectionist economic management. These are all approaches that we have come to associate with the late twentieth century's archetypal British Conservative, Baroness Thatcher. But they weren't the attitudes of the Conservative tradition. And in the twenty-first century, it is UKIP, not the Conservatives, who are loudest on themes of Euroscepticism, controlling immigration, suspecting the Establishment and wanting to reduce government intervention in the economy and society. In many ways, UKIP represents the real descendant of Mrs Thatcher, and is part of the continuous reinvention of the British political system that has been going on since the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the 'New Liberalism' of the 1906-15 Liberal government. European integration exposed the fault lines in the Conservative movement that had been hidden by a common opposition to Labourism on the part of traditional Conservatives and what might be called Gladstone Liberals. We could well have entered a period in British political history like that of a hundred years ago, when the main parties remade themselves, leaving the rump of one to be pushed to the margins. And at the end of the process, where will Baroness Thatcher's party be?