The Making of Eurosceptic Britain

Chris Gifford

No longer on the margins and extremes of party politics, Euroscepticism’s ‘coming in from the cold’ (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2013) has significant implications for how we approach the subject. Sofia Vasilopoulou (2013) argues that it is time to re-think the history of European integration, viewing Euroscepticism as central to its history rather than as an aberration. Simon Usherwood and Nick Startin (2013) have called for more holistic, nuanced and interdisciplinary approaches that can address Euroscepticism’s persistence and complexity. While I was writing my new edition of The Making of Eurosceptic Britain (Ashgate 2014), I became increasingly aware that I was working in an emerging field (Eurosceptic Studies?) in which the conceptual and theoretical landscape was changing. The book hopefully contributes to this widening of the Eurosceptic lens by exploring British Euroscepticism historically, as an embedded and structural feature of British politics. Such an approach, while arguably sacrificing depth, examines and evidences continuities across time as different actors encounter situational contexts that lead them to make and remake Eurosceptic Britain.

Many of the difficulties surrounding Britain’s relationship with the EU I believe have their roots in the political struggles over membership in the 1960s and 1970s. For much of the 1950s, British elites encountered European integration as antithetical to Britain as a global power, operating in partnership with the US in pursuit of a liberal economic order. For all of the changes brought about by the post-war settlement, the state retained an outlook that was cosmopolitan and imperial rather than national and corporatist. A post-imperial crisis was a consequence of the closing stages of this regime, characterised by absolute political and relative economic decline in the face of global Fordism under Pax Americana. It was in this sense a crisis of modernisation and the ‘turn to Europe’ represented a highly contested and problematic response to this situation. It contrasted with post-war European reconstruction that successfully linked national projects of modernisation with the political and economic organisation of Western Europe.

Post-Suez the Europe option was therefore an elite strategy associated with decline and failure. For the Macmillan government it emerged as the only option for retaining some degree of British influence in the world and economic survival, as the Commonwealth option receded. When the Wilson government decided to renew the British application, it was a response to its own governing crisis in the wake of the collapse of its plan for national modernisation. Following the failure of the second application, the fragile consensus on membership that had been established across the political class fractured. By the time that the Heath government successfully negotiated membership, Britain faced chronic economic problems, industrial strife and civil war in Northern Ireland. Europe was as much about crisis management as it was about a new direction, and both main parties entered the 1970s divided on the issue. A central argument of the book is that the governing position on Europe has been as much about continuity as it has about change. In particular, it has been important in maintaining the UK as a globalised economy, re-assuring large-scale capital and the City and providing an entry point to Europe for US multinationals.

The 1970s signalled the rise of populist Euroscepticism as a political phenomenon; politicians on both the left and right were prepared to sacrifice party unity for an issue they considered to be fundamental to ‘the British people’. The first period of Eurosceptic mobilisation took place from the 1971 ‘Great Debate’ on membership, to accession and the 1975 referendum. Populist Euroscepticism is a central theme running throughout the book. I consider it to be an outcome of the post-imperial context and conceived as a broad-based, albeit fragmented, movement mobilising and configuring national and political identities. As such it transcends the mainstream party system to include: populist protest and anti-establishment parties; policy, pressure and interest groups; civil society organisations independent of political parties; and, importantly, a large segment of the national press. EU membership could not be debated without invoking the nation and ‘the people’. Europe was re-imagined by Eurosceptic forces as the ‘other’ of British political identity and interests. It was symbolically constituted as a threat to Britain’s exceptional social and political development.

Once Europe had become a populist political issue, what we find is that it was no longer contained by the party system and the capacity to establish the kind of political consensus on the issue that was evident in other member states proved impossible. This was evident in the relationship between Thatcherism and Euroscepticism. The early Thatcher governments successfully de-politicised the European issue. They exploited the budgetary issue and the drive for the single market. The Conservative leadership faced little opposition from within the party and was able to occupy the political mainstream in the face of Labour’s left-wing Euroscepticism. However, in the face of the drive for economic and monetary unification, Thatcherism was reconfigured as a right wing populist Euroscepticism that asserted a globalised free market nationalism in opposition to a regulated social Europe. The issue became fundamental and divisive within the Conservative party. The Major government struggled to maintain governing autonomy in the face of party rebellions and Eurosceptic mobilisations. Moreover, Britain’s ejection from the exchange rate mechanism reasserted a national approach to monetary policy that put paid to joining the Eurozone in the first wave. The consolidation of Thatcherism in Britain effectively marginalised the European cause in Britain. It was consistent with the identification of British patriotic and national interest with an unstable US global hegemony. The Tory Europeanism of Macmillan and Heath, also associated with a new wave of modernisers such as Heseltine and Clarke, was the main casualty of the Conservative party’s 1990s European wars.

The dominance of Euroscepticism was also evident in the failure of Labour under Blair and Brown to establish its European credentials, and the Eurosceptic nationalism that came to typify its dealings with the EU. While Labour was prepared to Europeanise policy and accept a reduced role for national governments in decision-making, this was legitimated on the belief in British leadership and influence. This was an attempt to renew the governing strategy on Europe in the guise of Third Way modernisation. While it affirmed Britain’s continued membership of the EU, it was also complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. This was illustrative of how British governments have not just expressed distinctive national interests in the process of European integration, but have been a vehicle for international and global projects that represent an alternative model of politico-economic development.

Labour’s attempt to remodel British-Europeanism depended upon constructing an Anglo-Europe rooted in its project of a financially-driven but progressive globalisation. This proved increasingly difficult to sustain outside of the Euro and in the face of new integrationist developments, particularly the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties. Such developments provided new opportunities for Eurosceptic mobilisations, backed by the virulent anti-Europeanism of large sections of the press, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch, which fuelled the scepticism of British public opinion. In the end the financial crisis swept away Labour’s European vision, discrediting its Third Way political economy. Meanwhile, the Eurozone crisis was successfully constituted as a threat to British economic recovery, and a dangerous experiment from which Britain must be kept apart. The ‘sinner’ states of the Eurozone provided a justification for the austerity measures of the new Coalition government.

The final substantive chapter of the book explores the Coalition government’s failure to de-politicise the European issue and turn it into a pragmatic issue of government. For the Conservative leadership, the hope was that the European Union Bill would placate Eurosceptics by putting a halt on any further integration without a referendum. This was not the case and the Eurosceptic surge that followed was consistent with the pattern that was seen in earlier mobilisations. It was an extra-parliamentary populist movement, constituted in opposition to the governing position and provided with new ammunition as the Eurozone crisis unfolded. It was particularly successful in mainstreaming the possibility of British withdrawal as a legitimate position. Notably, the low salience of EU issues for domestic public opinion was challenged by high profile concerns about immigration, as controls on the free movement Bulgarians and Romanians came to an end.

The rise of UKIP in polls and elections signalled the coming of age of an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic populism to which the Conservative leadership struggled to find a response to. The concession by Cameron of a future referendum on membership left the Conservative leadership in the unenviable position of having to achieve significant EU reform in line with British ideas of an open and flexible EU. This looked increasingly unlikely in the face of other member-states’ resistance to treaty change. Moreover, a competences review designed to provide the basis for a possible reform agenda largely supported the status quo. It demonstrated the extent to which British governance and policy had become transnational and Europeanised largely in line with the ideas of functional integration that the European founding fathers had envisaged. Nevertheless, Eurosceptic arguments for a post-exit Britain along the lines of Switzerland and Norway began to enter the public debate as serious alternatives to the governing position. British political and economic power could not be ignored by the EU, so the argument went, and would enable a successful re-negotiation on favourable terms. On this view, freed from the constraints of the EU, Britain would be able to revive its global mission by building on its connections with the Anglosphere and fully exploiting global economic opportunities. Most importantly sovereignty and British democracy would be reclaimed. The arguments were reminiscent of the reasons for keeping out of the EC in the 1950s, and implied a return to Britain’s true vocation before the fateful wrong ‘turn to Europe’.

The story of Britain and Europe perfectly illustrates the dilemmas of a post-war, post-imperial state and society that, while experiencing considerable change, remains institutionally continuous in key respects. Since the 1950s, governing elites have been suspicious of the integrationist project, largely basing their arguments for British membership on pragmatic and economic arguments. Europe only fits the British governing narrative as long as it is in line with, yet subordinate to, more fundamental strategic concerns such as Atlanticism and securing global finance. Elites have regularly asserted British exceptionalism from Europe, and have been complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. An instrumental Europeanism has been an insufficient basis on which to secure legitimacy in a context of declining support for mainstream parties and growing distrust of elites. A pragmatic elite strategy has therefore faced sustained attack on the basis that it is antithetical to fundamental national values and identity.

The traditional institutions of British parliamentary democracy have proved ineffective in containing the European issue, particularly when ‘the people’ are invoked against Europe. Euroscepticism has therefore been concomitant with, if not the catalyst for, a revival in the idea of popular sovereignty, evident in the campaigns for referenda. There is a certain irony that this challenge to parliamentary sovereignty has come from those on the right, who see themselves as the guardians of British institutions. Cameron’s decision to support a referendum on membership represented the success of a Eurosceptic mobilisation that had been underway since Maastricht, it also signalled the exhaustion of elite attempts to accommodate Britain to European integration as a progressive project. It provided a fitting context on which to end my book. 

Dr Chris Gifford is a political sociologist at the University of Huddersfield. His research and writing explores the impact of global and trans-national conditions on states, citizenship and politics.

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