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Britain and Europe – PM John Major and the Maastricht Treaty

When John Major took over as Conservative Prime Minister he sought to end the confrontational style in meetings with EU partners and talked about “putting Britain at the heart of Europe”, although he always saw limits to integration and had to be cautious to restore party unity after the departure of Thatcher.

With Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister, Kenneth Clarke as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Douglas Hurd as Foreign Secretary he had pro-Europeans in key positions and, in Europe, the French President François Mitterand and the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl were pushing for a new treaty to advance integration.

The French-German axis had become the centre of power in the EU. Thatcher had been forced to join the ERM just before her resignation when Major was Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Major now saw monetary integration as going ahead and wanted to influence it.

Major took part in the discussions leading to the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 but secured concessions to satisfy the Eurosceptics in his party:-

  • The word ‘federal’ was removed from the Treaty
  • Britain secured an ‘opt-out’ from the Social Chapter which covered area such as employment rights and health and safety
  • Britain was not committed to monetary union
  • Major was also able to argues that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level

Heath said that he approved of the Treaty, with or without the Social Chapter. Mrs Thatcher said that it was a ‘treaty to far’ but did not criticise Major in public. Aware of the potential divisions, Major persuaded the Conservative Party to ignore the European issue in the 1992 general election, which gave him a small majority.

Major now had to get the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament in the face of potential Conservative rebellions. Labour supported the Treaty and might help vote it through, but wanted the Social Chapter.

The Danish people rejected the Treaty in a referendum and 91 Conservative MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the Commons, in June 1992, asking Major to now abandon the Treaty.  Major wanted to carry on expecting, correctly, that the Danes would later reverse their decision.

When the French also announced a referendum, currency traders, in anticipation of the ERM collapsing, began to sell currencies, such as the £, trading at the bottom of the ERM band.

Major and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont intervened to try to prop up the £ and even raised interest rates to 12% and threatened to go to 15% but even this failed and, for the first time, a Conservative Government was forced to devalue the £ and Britain left the ERM on 16th September 1992 (Black Wednesday). The Conservative Party went down to below 30% in the opinion polls and stayed at about that level until David Cameron took over as leader.

The Conservative Party had now suffered two major traumas related to Europe – the loss of Mrs Thatcher who many saw as their greatest ever leader, and the loss by the party of the lead in economic competence that it had always had over Labour.

Divisions now spread through the Parliamentary Party and the Party in the country. At the October Conference Norman Tebbitt’s speech attacking Maastricht was loudly applauded by about a third of the delegates.

The Thatcherites who had united to support free market policies in her first two Conservative governments now divided over Europe. Constituency parties became more Eurosceptic choosing anti-Maastricht candidates.

The battle spread to Parliament over Maastricht. In November 1992, 20 Conservative MPs voted against a paving motion introducing the Maastricht Bill and the Government only won by 3 votes. Major would have resigned if he had lost. The rebels, who included Iain Duncan-Smith, were now calling for a referendum, and opposed the Bill throughout its passage, which took a whole year.

In July 1993 an amendment by Labour incorporating the Social Protocol was passed and Major had to call a vote of confidence the next day to restore Government authority. Problems continued to surface.

The Government had to make the European Communities (Finance) Bill a matter of confidence in 1994 but, even so, 7 Conservative MPs voted against the Government. They had the whip withdrawn, even though this meant that the Government no longer had a majority, but then began to act as an independent party and the Government took them back in after six months.

In 1995, with party disunity continuing, Major was forced to resign and fight a leadership election which he won against John Redwood who took the anti-European line, but Redwood won 89 votes and Norman Lamont helped his campaign.

Major began taking a more critical line on Europe to try to heal divisions but without success. In the 1997 election many Conservative candidates adopted a much more anti-European line in their local election manifestos than the national party. (Matthew Sowemimo chronicles the Conservative divisions especially in the Major period Party Politics Vol. 2 No 1, 1996)