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All hail the Euro-sceptic heroes of the Maastricht Treaty rebellion

In the current political climate Tory MPs fall over each other to demonstrate their Euro-sceptic credentials to the public. Two believe it so imperative Britain leaves the EU that they have switched their political allegiance to UKIP. Yet it is easy to forget just how confined to the political fringes Euro-scepticism was only 25 years ago, writes Luke Stanley.

Whilst Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech woke many Conservative MPs up to the dangers of European integration, it was not until she was forced from office that the ruptures in the Conservative Party became apparent. Replaced by the pro-European John Major, Thatcher left the backbenches of her party determined to thwart the “ever closer union” of the European Economic Community.

The divide between the increasingly Euro-sceptic backbenches and Major’s government came to a head in 1992 over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The treaty transformed the European Economic Community into today’s European Union, bringing political union into the European project.

Between 1992 and 1993 a loose grouping of 43 Tory dissidents defied the government in their attempts to sink the bill. Despite the Maastricht rebels’ principled stand, a myth has grown that rebels were motivated by careerism and bitterness arising from loss of office rather than conviction. This is a hangover from Major’s own comments in 1993 when he denounced them as “the dispossessed” and “the never-possessed”, and described his Euro-sceptic Cabinet Ministers as “bastards”.

As my paper for The Bruges Group sets out, this myth has no basis in truth. By voting against the government, the rebels knew they were forsaking their political advancement, but chose to do so anyway. Indeed, at the beginning of the rebellion the government attempted to bribe several rebels with offers of political office, including veteran Euro-sceptic Bill Cash. These offers were spurned.

The true Euro-sceptic careerists were the majority of the 1992 intake. Of the 52 Conservatives entering Parliament for the first time in 1992, 37 were Euro-sceptics. Yet only six dared defy the party whip to vote against the Maastricht Treaty. Amongst the 31 who sided with the government are some of the party’s leading Euro-sceptics today, including Liam Fox and David Lidington.

When dangling the carrot of political advancement or honours failed to persuade the recalcitrant Euro-sceptic rebels, the whips used less respectable methods to get them in line. The threat of a general election would usually get the Euro-sceptics in marginal seats to side with the government. However, blackmail, constituency pressure and even sexual harassment in one case were also used.

Reprisals after the rebellion were also unduly harsh. In many cases rebels faced an attempted ousting in their constituency associations, although this only succeeded in the case of Reigate MP George Gardiner. In 1994 the party whip was withdrawn from eight of the rebels over their continued opposition to Major’s Europe policy. Whilst it was later returned, it was an unprecedented move to expel MPs from the party, even temporarily.

The whips’ tactics can be expected to be seen again in the debate over whether we should leave the European Union. If they are to resist the rigorous whipping from the frontbenches, true Euro-sceptics must look to how much more the Maastricht rebels achieved than those that sided with the government.

Although they failed in their attempts to sink the Maastricht Treaty, the Tory rebels did begin the process of turning the party towards Euro-scepticism. Their stand won the support of the press and the public, laying the ground for a whole host of Euro-sceptic campaign groups, including my organisation, the Get Britain Out campaign.

The few ministers of John Major’s government that chose to resign over the European issue also achieved far more than those that chose not to. When John Redwood resigned in 1995 and ran against Major for the leadership of the party, he put his opposition to joining the Single Currency at the centre of his campaign. By doing so he forced Major and later Blair to commit to a referendum over joining the euro.

As such, it is largely thanks to Redwood we are not now one of the economically-doomed eurozone countries. By comparison, ministers who chose not to resign have accomplished far less. Edward Leigh was dismissed from office mere days after the Maastricht rebellion, whilst Michael Portillo spectacularly lost his seat in the 1997 general election.

The Euro-sceptic backbenchers who sided with the government did eventually reach high office. However, none as of yet have been able to fundamentally change our relationship with Brussels. Fox for example lasted as a cabinet minister for less than 18 months, and as Defence Secretary was not chosen to implement sweeping reforms to Britain’s membership of the EU.

Whichever government is formed in 2015, there is sure to be unprecedented arm-twisting over the Europe question on both sides of House. MPs and ministers of all parties should remember to campaign in line with their convictions, not their career aspirations. As the Maastricht Rebellion has shown us, those that choose heart above head will not regret doing so.

Luke Stanley is a Research Assistant at Get Britain Out

 

Comments
  1. I voted against joining because it was apparent then that:-
    1 EU is corrupt (Accounts qualified every year)
    2 EU countries are too disparate both economically and idealogically to sustain a single currency over decades (just wait)
    3 EU is undemocratic – No European parliament can ever be properly representative because of need for continual political trade offs to obtain a majority
    4 When centrist politicians denounce BOTH these on the left and those on the right you should be suspicious of them – you may disagree with left or right but they tend to have principles at their heart rather than desire for power
    5 EU is not reconcilable with monarchy controlling both army and judiciary to prevent politicians doing so – but in EU both the judges and generals are political appointees

    Comment by j d innes on October 7, 2014 at 11:17 am
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