Conservatives should stop holding their nose and regain a passion for the European project

During the launch of the ‘Conservative Group for Europe’ in 1975 Margaret Thatcher said ‘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 avowed pro-European Edward Heath in the 1960’s had talked of his passionate desire for working towards ‘the true unity and strength of this continent’. After the war in 1945 Churchill famously said ‘I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible. What unites all these statements, from a free market liberal, avowed Imperialist and one nation wet is both their broad positive vision and their membership of the Conservative party. They spoke of a great civilising project, partnership between states and economic unity as a matter of ideological conviction not merely a balance sheet of pounds, shillings and pence.

I am not criticising the current remain campaign, I actually applaud their common sense for pursuing a campaign that focusses on the negatives of leaving the EU. It has been proven that you are far more likely to remember this type of campaigning. There has also been a recent case study in the Scottish referendum, where it was largely the mixture of uncertainty and the failure of the opposing side to come up with a plausible alternative which won the day. I suspect this combination will likely prove effective again. My principal concerns are for what happens after the referendum, particularly in the Conservative Party. I personally identify as a Conservative, admittedly of the very ‘wet’ variety, my political heroes are former cabinet ministers like Ken Clarke and Douglas Hurd rather than the usual Thatcherite suspects common amongst my generation.  Certainly those ‘wetter’ voices have become more hushed in the new breed of tory politician who are all too eager to show their Eurosceptic credentials, even if they grudgingly campaign for a remain. I don’t consider it inevitable that the Tory party has to be like this in the future. Many who ‘hold their nose’ and vote for remain will have to realise that no matter how they feel, their vote is an endorsement of the European project. Simply criticising the EU after you have publicly backed it will no longer wash with voters, who in turn will expect change and results.

If it is not going to be an absolutely agonising relationship, the Conservative party has to regain its vision for Europe even if it cannot fully harness its former love and passion for the project. It needs to stop throwing up problems and come up with some solutions, stop criticising and start embracing. Douglas Hurd in 2013 noted that the Conservative party had become too ‘backward-looking’ in its view of the EU and this analysis is absolutely correct. If it is to move forward in the new relationship Tories may have to even accept a further degree of the dreaded ‘integration’ somewhere down the line. This puts David Cameron in a difficult situation. It was arguably inadvisable for Cameron to make ‘ever closer union’ a focus of his renegotiation and puts his successors in an akward situation if they have to go back on this promise. There has never been anything mandated by this statement (it has always been subject to treaties that governments have to sign up to). Cameron’s attack on ‘ever closer union’ is pure short-termism, for the political landscape of 2016 not 2116 or even 2066. He forgets the old mantra that you should ‘never say never’. Cameron can no more predict the political, economic or cultural weather in the decades to come than he can divine the outcome of his own policies.

IF BRITAIN AND THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY STOP BANGING ON ABOUT ‘REPATRIATION OF POWERS’ AND START THINKING ABOUT HOW WE CAN MAKE THE EU WORK FOR ALL

A new acceptance of the inevitability of some form of integration does not necessarily mean a United States of Europe or even membership of the Euro, although again we cannot say what things will be like in the near or far future (I do not believe the Euro is subject to immediate collapse). It will certainly not be bad for Britain’s interest. One example that is frequently ignored is the current plans for a Capital Markets Union, a huge initiative that will see lower costs and a huge freeing up of capital, most of which will of course go through the City of London and Britain’s massive financial services sector. This is undeniably appealing to Conservatives yet will also mean further integration into the European project. Despite being ridiculed for talk of a ‘European Army’ Richard Branson is right about the need for a more efficient use of defence forces. Greater co-operation between member states may mean more countries can actually meet the 2% NATO target for defence spending and actually be able to engage in peacekeeping missions. As well as integration, what also needs to be looked at is a new attitude, one that is in keeping with Lord Hurd’s views of being both positive and forward looking. What it will mean is getting stuck into the European project and trying to sort out its problems, build alliances on things like agricultural reform and the EU budget as well as making the commission and EU parliament more accountable and efficient. If Britain and the conservative party stop banging on about ‘repatriation of powers’ and start thinking about how we can make the EU work for all members, this may not be as hard a task as it first seems.

Will the Conservative party accept this vision of the future? I am inclined to say that those who cannot accept the situation if we vote to remain on June 23rd should merely just leave the party altogether and go to UKIP. The Peter Bones of this world will never accept a pro-EU agenda, Ken Clarke himself has claimed that those types ‘should be in UKIP’. After all they are the historical aberration, not the ‘Europhiles’ who have traditionally been on the mainstream of the party. As for the vast majority that ‘hold their nose’ and vote remain, they will also need to have a think about where the land lies after June 23rd I sincerely hope that this means the party shall once again return to its roots and positively engage in Europe, not just because it is in their interest but because they also believe in the idea. 

Stewart Tolley

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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