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The British conservatives and Europe.

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'.

Major looked at the political difficulties of the single currency from a functional perspective. This perspective is considerably different from that of the Euro-sceptics which, as will be discussed later in this paper, emphasizes the constitutional implications of the single currency. For current purposes, Mr. Major did not believe it prudent for Britain to abandon the single currency altogether. The Euro-sceptics' course of action would, as the Maastricht agreement suggests, sacrifice Britain's 'right to participate' in selecting the President, Vice President, and Executive Board of the European Central Bank. 'The worst possible outcome', Geoffrey Howe, a former Foreign Secretary, once commented to the House of Commons, is for Britain to 'scramble"to join the [single currency] later, after the rules have been set out and after the power has been distributed by others to our disadvantage'.

In negotiating the Maastricht treaty, then, John Major took a business-like approach to Britain's understanding of European unity by pushing for the completion of the single market and, as the scholar Earl A. Reitan phrased it, by 'adopting a "wait and see" policy' to the single currency. Mr. Major's approach to the latter, as quoted in a December 1997 interview with the Spectator, appears to be 'vindicated'. While Blair is 'personally committed' to the single currency, for example, Labour politician Ron Davies notes that Mr. Blair wishes nevertheless to make sure that 'the terms on which the single currency is to be developed are themselves sound. . . and sustainable'. In an attempt to confirm public approval, Davies also notes that the Blair government has firmly committed itself to a referendum, which 'will seek. . . specific consent before entering the single currency'.

The Euro-sceptics of the Conservative Party would definitely concur with the Blair government's strategic use of the referendum. For Euro-sceptics like Michael Spicer and Lady Thatcher the use of a referendum in this instance is sound because of the single currency's constitutional implications. After all, the European debate is not merely about the quest for economic maximization, but about 'our choice'. As Lady Thatcher further notes in the second volume of her autobiography Path to Power 'either we exercise democratic control of Europe through co-operation between national governments and parliaments . . . or we transfer decisions to a remote multilingual parliament, accountable to no real European public opinion and thus increasingly subordinate to a powerful bureaucracy. No amount of misleading language about pooling sovereignty can change that'.

For the Euro-sceptics the crucial argument they had over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty centred on Mr. Major's 'wait and see' approach to the single currency. To reiterate, the monetary dimension of the EU is a controversial one because it 'involves agreeing to irrevocably fixed exchange rates or the establishment of a single currency'. For Mr. Spicer, the word 'irrevocable' is objectionable because it 'means unalterable, gone beyond recall, in other words, forever'. For him the word 'irrevocable' is 'what sets Maastricht apart' from other international treaties for it 'would, indeed, quite literally be the point of no return'. The crucial point Mr. Spicer wished to make was the Tory leadership's complete misunderstanding of 'the whole thrust of this treaty and the Treaty of Rome'. Once the transfer of state power to coin currency is relinquished, Spicer argues, Britain 'has taken the essential step towards giving away sovereignty and the control of its economy'. 'That', he warned, 'has profound implications for the sovereignty, rights, and history of this parliament'.

If the UK were to decide to join a single currency, the Euro-sceptics argue, it would have to adhere to the decisions of the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB, as the Maastricht Treaty stipulates, does not 'have to take instructions from Community institutions or bodies, or from any government of a member state or from any other body'. Lady Thatcher understood the establishment of a single currency to be a 'conveyor belt to federalism' because its implementation would require the establishment of a single tax structure. 'It is logical as night follows day', Mr Spicer noted in the House of Commons, 'that the establishment of a single currency should involve the establishment of a single taxation authority and a single economic authority. If that is not the foundation, the makings and the essence of a new sovereign state, I do not know what is'.

The next question, however, is this: if Tories led by the likes of Lady Thatcher are opposed to the creation of a federal Europe, why did they support the ratification of the Single European Act (SEA) of 1986? In the House of Commons, the Europhile Tory MP Ian Taylor pointed out that it was in the SEA that one could find reference to the single currency. Taylor also observed that when the UK joined Europe in the 1970s, '(w)e knew that the Community's ambitions covered a range of issues and could not be achieved by free trade alone. The institutional structure had been apparent since we joined, and we knew what we were in for'.

According to Conservative MP David Willetts, Tories like Lady Thatcher underestimated the 'constitutional significance' of the SEA. Lady Thatcher, like Mr. Major, took a favourable position to the single market, thus hoping to revive the Community's 'liberal, free trade, deregulatory purpose'. While the signing of the SEA marked 'the first time British law could be changed by a majority of other countries', Lady Thatcher agreed to qualified majority voting because it was perceived at the time to be the optimal approach in bringing about the single market's successful completion. After departing from No. 10 Downing Street, however, Lady Thatcher observed that one of the few things she regrets was her failure to come 'to grips with the rapidly changing scene in Europe'. In leaving office, Lady Thatcher perceived, 'the groundwork was being laid for what would be the Maastricht Treaty, designed to set in place the framework for a federal United States of Europe'. The Exchange Rate Mechanism was 'being used for a purpose of which I not only disapproved but which I made clear within government I would never implement'. Her only hope in leaving office was 'in those (in the Party) who still carried on the battle of ideas'.

What emerged from the analysis is this. The Tory leadership (under John Major) placed emphasis on an economic assessment of the UK's relationship to the European Union. This article has demonstrated that Mr. Major believed it was not in Britain's national interest to isolate herself from the EU framework because of the financial benefits that Britain would enjoy under its domain. Mr. Major's vision of Europe was about the widening of consumer markets. His understanding of Europe flows from economic charts, rather than from an 'ideological' vision of what Europe can or should be. The Euro-sceptic's fundamental complaint about the Maastricht Treaty, on the other hand, is not about the need for free trade. In their minds, the concept of free trade is essential. What they do have a problem with is that the Treaty has the potential of being detrimental to parliamentary sovereignty. For them, this is epitomized by the proposed introduction of a single currency, which Lady Thatcher continues to oppose.

Having said that, however, how can the Tories (now under the leadership of William Hague) find political unity over the concept of Europe? Hague won an overwhelming vote from ordinary members of the Conservative Party to support his policy that the UK should stay out of the single currency for at least two parliaments. In opposing the New Labour government, the Conservatives should voice their unity by pointing out how Mr. Blair continues to retain his socialist thinking. Blair talks about the advantages of the 'Anglo-Saxon Model' of free trade and limited government; however, as Lady Thatcher predicted back in 1996, he nullified those assertions by joining the Social Chapter, which epitomizes the 'European Social Model'. As a cause for fear, the Conservatives perceive the Social Chapter as a basis of 'imposing' on the UK a set of 'European social' guidelines over issues such as the minimum wage and new trade union powers. Such a guideline 'threatens much of what Margaret Thatcher and John Major have achieved since 1979'. By 'signing up' to the Social Chapter, Blair essentially asserted his 'instinct [as] a man of the left' and, as Mr. Willetts concludes, started an 'intellectual and ideological battle' over Britain's economic and political future in which its constituents must make a 'real choice'.

The point here is that the 'battle of ideas' does not necessarily have to result in political party disarray. In case of the Social Chapter, the Conservatives can utilize the 'battle of ideas' as a 'fresh start' in asserting the type of Europe they would like Britain to belong to. What the issue of the single currency signifies, however, is the Euro-sceptics' willingness to assert (no matter what) their political convictions. What this article demonstrated is why the Euro-sceptics did what was necessary to preserve what they courageously believe is part of Britain's historic foundations.

Dr. Gabriel Kikas tutors political science at Oakland University's Academic Skills Centre in Rochester, Michigan (USA).
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Author:Kikas, Gabriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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