If John Major came into office as a genuine, if pragmatic, pro-European, Tony Blair saw himself as the fully fledged article. To be a fully fledged Europhile fitted Blair’s politics. An EU that saw itself as the bastion of free markets and free trade, of human rights and democracy, of international cooperation, of a new post-Cold War Europe, and also of workers’ rights, fitted with Blair’s New Labour project. It was as much a symbol of modernisation as the abandonment of Clause IV, for example. It was also good politics. By the 1990s, the European issue was tearing the Conservatives apart. In contrast, bar what could be seen as a few eccentrics and the hard left, Labour was now united in their support for the EU.
Looking beyond the EU, the Europe of the 1990s was one wholly transformed from that of the 1980s. Most of all, by 1997, most of the old Eastern bloc states, and the old Soviet republics, had now won independence and most were establishing democracies. The Conservatives had argued for the widening rather than the deepening of the EU. Now it could tie those nations in to a Europe of free markets, free trade, democracy and human rights.
Thus it was that Blair went to Brussels brim full of Euro-enthusiasm: in this case, a literal Euro-enthusiasm. By the time Blair came to power, the Euro was in its birth pangs. Its true believers, across the EU, looked forward to a brave new European dawn with pretty unabashed hope in their eyes.
There were many in Britain who feared that, once again, Britain was missing the European boat, just as it had done in 1957. On the Conservative side, genuinely heavyweight figures such as Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke strongly believed that Britain should not take its Maastricht opt-out and should, instead, join. Like Blair, they saw the Euro as the future, here all three at the launch of Britain in Europe in 1999.
It fitted Blair’s view of Labour politics to similarly believe that Britain would best placed by joining the Euro. Who, after all, opposed it? On the Labour side, bar the aforementioned mavericks, it was the old Bennite left: Blair detested them, and they returned that feeling with interest. On the other side it was the Tory right, as they were seen. It was centrist, modernising and radical. It fitted.
The idea also caused not unwelcome convulsions in a Tory party that was now turning increasingly Euro-sceptic or, more truthfully, Europhobic. Had he not lost Enfield Southgate in 1997, it was quite likely that Michael Portillo, the de facto leader of the party’s Euro-sceptics, would have won the election as Conservative leader. Ken Clarke, in many ways the most credible and electable candidate, was rendered unelectable by his Europhile views. William Hague won the leadership in 1997 by coming at Clarke from a Euro-sceptic position. He fought the following election on the slogan ’24 hours left to save the pound’.
He lost another landslide. The party, having gone for one Euro-sceptic leader that lacked electoral appeal, learned its lesson. The time had come to go for a wholly unelectable candidate who was, however, the Europhobe’s Europhobe. If Michael Howard could seem a credible candidate against Blair, even an Iraq damaged one, by comparison to IDS, it tells you something. The party had been doing its best to commit political hari-kari. Iain Duncan-Smith was the Tory Party’s Jeremy Corbyn.
When the proposed constitutional treaty failed, thanks to the French and the Dutch, the Euro-sceptic reacted with something close to apoplexy, but to little avail. Ironically, if Brexit were to come, it would be the Lisbon treaty that would provided the legal route for British withdrawal. At the time, Conservative anti-Europeans could rail, comfort themselves with a n increasingly Euro-phobic press, put pressure on their leader, but do little else.
What saved the Conservative Party was a mixture of the Iraq war, David Cameron and Gordon Brown.
Arguably, though, it was Gordon Brown that saved the pound. If Blair had really been unstoppable, then Britain might well have joined the Euro. The Conservative Party of Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard could do nothing. Gordon Brown was another matter.
Blair and Brown were the architects of new Labour. Blair was the one with the electoral appeal, in party desperate to win again. That electoral appeal was always a stronger suit than his hold over his own party, many of whom doubted Blair’s Labour credentials (let alone his socialist ones). It is certainly true that Tony Blair had no deep-set roots in the Labour movement. That could never be said of Gordon Brown. That, when allied to Brown’s central role in New Labour, and his longevity, made Brown the most powerful chancellor of modern times.
Gordon Brown’s motives for putting the kibosh on any plans to join the Euro were probably borne of both political and economic motives. His famous five tests were, in all reality, a no. The most powerful chancellor had vetoed the political ambition of one of the most powerful of prime ministers.
In time, it might be felt, Brown’s reputation will rise from seemingly bottomless pit it found itself in around 2010. For all his manifold faults, brooding ambition and inevitable missteps, Brown took two of the key decisions taken by a politician in recent times. It can be argued that one was to lead the way in rescuing Britain and the western world from financial catastrophe in the aftermath of Lehmann Brothers. There can, now, surely be even less argument about the service Brown did for his country by keeping Britain out of the single currency.
He also did David Cameron, and the Conservatives, a favour. Cameron won the Conservative leadership, coming from an ostensible Euro-scepticism, true, but just as much as the man who could finally lead the Tories out of the wilderness. For Cameron et al, merely to wait for Labour to blow it was not enough. The party had to modernise, lose its tag of (in Theresa May’s words) the nasty party and reconnect with the centre. Part of that was to cease to be seen as the party that, in Cameron’s words, spent all its time just ‘banging on about Europe’.
Cameron’s problem was, and is, that a substantial part of his own party wanted to do just that. By now, the European dragon had grown, in their eyes, into a Leviathan. For some, no other issue really mattered and it was always threatening to split his party down the middle. The press piled on the pressure too. Cameron gave in: an in-out referendum became party policy.
Just as for Harold Wilson (a figure Cameron resembles in some ways) in 1975, the solution was a referendum consequent upon a small dollop of renegotiation. He was saved from that necessity in 2010 by his failure to win an outright majority. For the Liberal Democrats, such a referendum was a non-starter. In short, the will of parliament would prevail.
The frustration felt by the Europhobes was immense, and did boil over in a Commons rebellion. More threatening though, was the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP. In 1997, James Goldsmith’s short-lived Europhobic Referendum Party inflicted minor damage as part of the Blair landslide. For a goodly while, the same looked to be true of UKIP.
It was not. UKIP may yet prove to be ephemeral after all; it may not. What it certainly did is help the Conservative right exert immense pressure upon Cameron: hence the pledge he had made, for the sake of party unity, to hold and in out referendum. When he won his outright majority, surprisingly, last year, it was suddenly a reality.
But now are entering current politics, which are not for this blog.
If you want to peruse my view on it all, got to my blog here.