In the wake of a fresh Tory backbench revolt, Chris Bambery traces the history of debate about Britain’s relationship with the European Union

For the whole of my life, the British elite have been split over the question of Europe. It’s likely to remain so after I’ve shuffled off my mortal coil.

Once more the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union threatens to tear the Conservative Party apart. Last week David Cameron lost a vote on the EU budget after Tory rebels were joined by Labour in voting against the government.

Labour leader, Ed Miliband, gleefully compared Cameron to the hapless John Major, Thatcher’s heir, whose government was virtually wrecked by acrid arguments over Europe. Major famously described his Euro-sceptic colleagues as “bastards.”

This followed the 1992 devaluation of the pound after Britain, faced with a run on sterling, was forced to quit the European Exchange Mechanism, which linked together the value of European currencies in preparation for the launch of a common currency.

The issue of Britain’s membership exercises the emotions of a large number of Tory MPs and party members. These are not an entirely representative sample of the UK population given the aged age profile of this declining party and the fact that so many of its MPs, councillors and activists are strong Thatcherites.

For them the EU represents some state interventionist force, alien to British society, and determined to capture control of this island. Their fixation with Europe borders on the irrational, given that the EU project centres on imposing a neo-liberal and militarist agenda supervised by an unelected elite responsible to no-one. You might think that might chime with Tories yearning for the smack of firm government.

Ruling class tensions

Right-wing Tories’ obsessions reflect the historic divisions in the British ruling class. At the end of World War Two, the USA was urging Britain to take the lead in constructing a European alliance. Washington saw this as a way of blocking the Russian “threat” and the war time radicalisation. Churchill seemed to be in favour but it was opposed by the rest of the Tory leadership and the incoming Labour government of Clement Attlee.

They took the position that having fought a war to maintain Britain as an imperial power, why subsume that into some common European alliance. Attlee was vehement about that – as was his successor, Hugh Gaitskell.

As the original European Economic Community of six nations (Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg) came into being, the British government tried to construct a rival ‘free trade’ area with the Scandinavian states, Ireland and others. By the 1970s this was a dead duck and all its members, including Britain, were queuing up to join the EEC.

In 1973 Britain was taken in under Ted Heath’s Conservative government, having asked to join in 1963 and 1967 and been refused.

Up until Thatcher, it was the Tories who were the more pro-Europe of the two main UK parties. By now the argument within the ruling class did not concern Britain’s imperial ambitions; they had been knocked back with the debacle of the Suez Canal invasion in 1956. It reflected the divide between those who saw Europe, Britain’s biggest trading partner, as the future, and those who looked to global trade and investment, particularly with the USA (until the rise of China, the UK was the biggest overseas investor in the USA).

After Ted Heath was kicked out in 1974 the Labour government of Harold Wilson staged a referendum on Britain’s membership as a way of bridging the divisions between pro and anti members of the Cabinet. The 1975 referendum voted by 67 percent in favour of staying in.

The majority of big business sided with the Tories, Liberals and Wilson in urging a Yes vote. The opposition was, in the main, a fairly seedy alliance of the racist ex-Tory Enoch Powell, Labour figures like Michael Foot and the Communist Party. The radical left stayed out of that and urged rejection of a bosses Europe on an internationalist basis.

Thatcherism and Europe

That seemed to be that. But two things happened. In the course of the 1980s the Tory Party moved to become increasingly anti-EU under Thatcher’s leadership. She had ousted Heath and they loathed each other. The battle between the hard line Thatcherites and the “wets”, pro-Heath and pro-European, fuelled this.

Meanwhile the Labour Party and a section of the trade unions moved the other way, seeing the EU as offering a restraint over Thatcher and her attacks on workers’ rights. In 1988 the EU president, Jacques Delors, addressed the TUC congress promising a “social Europe.” This only further inflamed the Thatcherites.

That section of the British ruling class focused on cross-Atlantic trade and investment found a firm friend in Thatcher, busy forging her alliance with US president, Ronald Reagan. Thatcher claimed to be out to reverse Britain’s decline and that centred on a very Anglo-Saxon free-market agenda.

To add spice, the EU was seen as being disloyal in the 1982 Falklands War and Thatcher and much of the ruling class were deeply apprehensive over the reunification of Germany which followed the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall.

When Thatcher went, the very weakness of the John Major government, caused by the car crash of the “Iron Lady’s” rule over the Poll Tax and the weakness of the British economy, plunged the party into a faction fight which ensured it lost the 1997 election and which only the advent of David Cameron seemed to have resolved.

Cameron and Europe

Under Cameron, the Tories sought election in 2010 by distancing themselves from Thatcher and pushing forward their social conscience. The only trouble was that Cameron did not deliver a clear victory and only entered Downing Street in tandem with the Lib-Dems. That failure has meant there has been constant rebellion on the Tory backbenches and resentment at the coalition with Nick Clegg and company.

That reflected the fact that the parliamentary party is in reality Thatcherite and not inclined to follow “Dave” in “hugging a hoodie” or being nice to gay people.

As the Eurozone was dragged into economic and political crisis it was only going to be a matter of time before the European question burst to the fore in the Tory Party. The bloodletting has begun. Critics of Cameron are driving for a new referendum on Europe. He’s half conceded. Labour has sided with the Eurosceptics simply to get one over on Cameron and Clegg.

If a referendum takes place one question not being asked is what happens if Scotland and Wales vote to stay in the EU and England votes to quit?

This question provokes a final thought on Euroscepticism in the Tory Party – that it is fundamentally an English issue. A large section of the English petty-bourgeoisie has found it difficult to reconcile themselves to their reduced position in the world. That’s particularly true among the ageing ranks of the Tory Party where many can still recall the fag end of Empire.

Their Scottish and Welsh counter-parts have been able to move on in large part because they always have been part of a bigger set up so being part of the EU is kind of natural. The Jim Sillars ‘Scotland within Europe’ sort of argument is more of a neat fit for a modest nationalism of small countries.

The left should oppose the European Union. But we do not oppose Europe.

The EU is totally undemocratic, run by the European Commission which is not answerable to the European parliament, and the European Central Bank. It has a vicious neo-liberal agenda and the current crisis has acted to push that agenda further forward. Today the EU is virtually at war with the people of Europe, especially in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

We want to build pan-European resistance to austerity, reject NATO and European support for wars and imperial adventures – and create a different Europe, a Europe of the peoples based on equality, welfare and peace.

That’s a real argument elsewhere in Europe. Here we are stuck in discussing the need to defend pounds and ounces. As part of both our fight against austerity and for a radical Yes vote in 2014, let’s work to get a real and radical debate on Europe underway, free from ‘little Englandism’.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.