For decades we have grown used to reading endless articles and listening to constant broadcasts telling us that the Conservative Party is deeply divided on Europe. But, in the last few months, that has changed completely. Suddenly, it is Labour politicians, not the Tories, who are hopelessly divided. And what is more, the Tories’ new found unity is in support of a policy which, until 23rd June last year, was derided by most of the Conservative Parliamentary Party as being either evil or stupid or both. How on earth has this come about?
In order to understand this remarkable transformation one has, I think, to go back several years.
In the 1960s and early 1970s there were many Conservatives who genuinely thought that Britain would benefit enormously from membership of the Common Market. They saw it as a way of preventing Labour governments from imposing socialism on us. It was an organisation wholly committed to free trade, to the abolition of restrictive practices and to the end of monopolies (both state and private). Yes, there were some Tories, I admit I was one of them, who predicted that the EEC would become a political union which would deprive Parliament of its sovereignty, but most thought such an outcome a far-fetched notion.
And then there was the theory that the Common Market, by bringing the continental powers together in a peaceful joint enterprise, would prevent a future European war. That was certainly Churchill’s opinion, though he didn’t think we had to be part of it (Britain was never, since we gave up our territorial claims over France, and never would be, the problem when it came to European belligerence). Some Tories, misunderstanding European history, thought it essential we should join the Common Market in order to preserve European peace.
In those days, therefore, the consensus view amongst Tories was that British membership of the EU would be a good thing, though there was a sizeable minority of us which was opposed.
Labour politicians were not so sure. They feared, for the very reasons Tories supported our membership, that the Common Market would prevent future British governments from imposing progressive, Socialist policies. Some of the wiser of them (Tony Benn was an obvious example) also foresaw the end of Parliamentary sovereignty and deplored it.
We then joined the EEC. By the time of the 1974 general elections it could fairly be said that, broadly speaking, the right was keen on our membership and the left was opposed. But the Wilson government, which had bought a bit of peace and quiet from its left wing supporters by promising a referendum (remind you of anything?), was not all that keen on upsetting the apple cart. It successfully joined with the Conservatives in the 1975 referendum to ensure a resounding vote in favour of our continued membership of the EEC (I have to confess I was on the losing side).
And so the years of Tory bickering began. By the 1980s it had become clear that those of us who had said the EEC meant it when it declared it wanted ever closer union had been right. At the same time it also became apparent that, far from being a bastion of liberty and opponent of needless regulation, the EU, as it became, hated freedom and adored regulation.
It was, I think, in the 1980s that people like Nigel Farage, an early supporter of the Common Market, saw the error of their ways and joined those of us who had never been taken in. At the same time it began dawning on Labour politicians that the EU was not the evil champion of capitalism which they had always assumed it to be. It took a few years for the young Tony Blair, for instance, to change from being a convinced opponent of our membership to becoming an ardent supporter. But he made the transformation, as did most of the Labour Party.
By the end of the 1980s Labour was getting very keen on the EU, but the Tories were having doubts. Those doubts, however, could not be voiced by MPs unless they were prepared to give up all hopes of advancement. That was because, even under Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives remained, officially, avid supporters of our membership of the EU. John Major took over and he, I am sure, really did think, which Mrs Thatcher no longer did, that the EU was the best thing since sliced bread. Anyone who disagreed with him was dismissed as being a “bastard”. Any ambitious Tory MP knew he or she had to claim a love of the EU.
But there were some Tory MPs who did not allow ambition to prevent them from saying what they really thought. There weren’t many, but there were enough to enable the newspapers and the BBC to report, day after day, that the Conservative Party was hopelessly split on Europe.
There is no need to dwell on those long years of discord. They continued right into David Cameron’s leadership. He assumed that the growing, by then, opposition of grass root Conservatives to our membership of the EU could be managed by promising a referendum which he was sure would result in a remain vote. He knew that Labour, by now almost all convinced champions of the EU, and the Liberal Democrats would support the remain campaign. And he also knew that his own MPs, whatever their private misgivings, would mostly support him. He was right, up to a point. The overwhelming majority of MPs of all parties told us to vote remain. But he was wrong to think that we, the electorate, would do what we were told to do by the great and the good. We voted to leave.
This is when we get to the astounding unity of the Conservatives. They chose an allegedly remain leader. She dithered for a while but then opted for what is known as a “hard Brexit”, resisting the temptation to go for a soft option (leaving the EU but remaining subject to all its restrictive practices and regulations). Almost none of those hundreds of Tory MPs who had dutifully campaigned to stay in the EU objected to the policy. Yes, Ken Clarke has stuck to his guns. But he is alone. In a few months almost the whole of the Conservative Parliamentary Party has changed from apparently adoring the EU to longing for our departure from it. That, surely, is remarkable.
The truth is, of course, that a great many of those MPs who claimed to want us to remain in the EU were secret leavers. They were not, understandably, prepared to sacrifice their political futures by upsetting Mr Cameron (whom they assumed would win the referendum). But their relief on discovering they could come out of the closet and reveal which side they were really on was obvious. At last, they can support an official policy with which they actually agree.
In the meantime, Labour is in a desperate state. Most Labour MPs, unlike Tories, do honestly love the EU. It has become a source of masses of directly enforceable left wing laws which would be highly unlikely to be passed by any Parliament elected by British voters. They are horrified that we are leaving. But they also know that opposing democracy is not, generally, thought to be a good way of winning elections. Most of them have accepted they must go along with the “will of the people”, but quite a few of them don’t agree. So, though the story is not one which appeals to the BBC, the Tories are united on Europe and Labour is hopelessly divided.
I must make it clear that I do know that there are many Conservative voters, as opposed to MPs, who remain convinced that we have made an awful mistake in voting to leave the EU. It is not easy to work out their reasoning, but my guess is that, being conservative (with a small c) they are opposed to change. Those I know, and I know quite a few, don’t say they love laws being made by bureaucrats. They don’t say they detest the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. They are, I suspect, just frightened of the economic consequences of Brexit (with Lord Mandelson they think that money is vastly more important than abstract notions of sovereignty). It is my genuine belief that they will eventually be won round. I am quietly confident that the Conservative Party is now entering a long period of unity on the thorny subject of Europe.