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Britain and Europe – The Development Of Euroscepticism

After all the problems of entering Europe, the difficulties of adjusting to it, and a major role in developing many areas of integration the UK voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016.

A number of factors led to this:-

European Integration

European integration is now well developed and affects more areas of policy.  There has been a reaction against this and Euroscepticism has increased, even in the core states of Western Europe that began the process.  The economic depression and the Euro crisis have accentuated the reaction as economic growth was one of the main arguments for economic integration. The EU has also been found wanting against international crises when it shoudl pull together most notably the Russian annex of Crimea, Ukraine and the migration crisis.

The Awkward Partner Thesis

A number of writers have argued that Britain had special problems in adapting to Europe because of its imperial heritage, the desire of political and administrative elites to continue to play s world role, the special relationship with the United States, Britain’s adversarial party system and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. This has made Britain a difficult partner in negotiations and a reluctant integrationist.

Stephen George’s book sets out some of these arguments An Awkward Partner: Britain and the European Community,1990 while John Young takes a similar view seeing  Britain’s involvement in Europe as a reaction to British economic and Imperial decline  Britain and European Unity 1945-1999, 2000.

There have been criticisms of the Awkward Partner idea. Jim Buller (Politics Vol. 15 No 1, 1995) points to the problems of defining awkwardness and whether it is merely a style or really means that Britain prevented any particular policy from coming about.  Other writers point out other countries have equally had a national agenda which they bring to European negotiations and that Britain has actually been one of the most consistent countries in actually implementing EU directives.

The Conservative Party’s Euroscepticism

John Redwood recently commented, “People used to call me an extreme Eurosceptic, now I’m a moderate”.  The change in Conservative MPs’ views on Europe has been considerable. A survey found that of Conservative MPs after the 1997 election, 66% were Eurosceptic and 90% were against Qualified Majority Voting.  A 2005 survey found 80% of party members to be Eurosceptic. The European Mainstream pro-Europe group of MPs set up in 2013 now number about 50 but with little influence in the Party.

William Hague as leader after 1997 ruled out joining the Euro for two Parliaments and made saving the £ a campaign issue in the 2001 election and pushed the sovereignty issue. Iain Duncan-Smith as leader after 2001 ruled out joining the Euro at all.  Howard as leader for the 2005 general election did not discuss Europe much but was committed to restoring the Social Chapter opt-out. David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party, whilst pro-EU himself, has not seen less interest amongst his MPs on this issue prompting manifesto commitments to offer a referendum on UK membership.

Labour and Liberal Democrats

The Labour Party has shifted its position to move closer to the Conservatives on Europe without actually adopting any strongly Eurosceptic positions and without supporting a referendum. Douglas Alexander, the former Shadow Foreign Secretary, in a speech to Chatham House, the international affairs think tank, in January 2013, was cautious and mainly talked about the need for EU reform. The Liberal Democrats have remained pro-Europe, though Nick Harvey is an exception and voted against the Maastricht Treaty. Current leader Jeremy Corbyn is criticised for being inconsistent on his approach to the EU and for his lacklustre efforts during the campaign. The Liberal Democrats have now placed themselves as the party for the “Europe” that will help to guide the government through Brexit without harming the UK.

The Growth and Decline of UKIP

The Referendum Party fought the 1997 general election on the single issue of a referendum and gained 3% of the vote and UKIP, already in existence in 1997, gained 1.5% of the vote in 2001, 2.5% in 2005 and 3.1% in 2010.

Its main success had been in European elections with 16.5% of the vote in 2009. After the 2010 general election there was a step change in UKIP support largely due to the strong leadership of Nigel Farage, up to December 2016. A relentless and popular figure he organised the party to local, national and european electoral success gaining over 4 million votes in 2015.

At that time, Europe was not necessarily the issue attracting voters to UKIP.  MORI found that they saw immigration, crime and unemployment more important and a general disengagement from established parties, accentuated by the expenses scandal, as important.  The current leaders of UKIP will need to find a new role for UKIP since the UK voted to leave the EU. The party has also been damaged by infighting and saw it’s support collapse in the 2019 European Elections following the creation of The Brexit Party, led by their old leader Nigel Farage.

The Press

A large part of the press, including all the Conservative supporting newspapers, has moved to a Eurosceptic position, not found among the press of other European countries.

The EU is largely presented as a foreign state that is threatening to control Britain or as a negotiating forum which is dominated by German and French interests.

The London Office of the European Commission has had to set up a service countering what it calls Euromyths pushed by the newspapers such as the one that the Commission is about to rename the English Channel. One British Minister faced with having to renegotiate a directive which would change the composition of some British sausages, showed his European counterparts a file of cuttings from the tabloid press on the issue and they immediately gave way. (Benjamin Hawkins develops these themes in his analysis of press coverage of treaty reform Journal of Common Market Studies Vol. 50 No 4, 2012   The article by Sean Carey and Jonathan Burton is also very useful Political Studies Vol. 52 No 3, 2004)

During the 2016 referendum the press began to be seen as part of the ‘establishment’ in particular the BBC with some believing intense bias in trying to manipulate voters.


Eurosceptic thinktanks are now well established and well funded with support from prominent people such as Nigel Lawson. The Bruges Group, the European Foundation set up by Bill Cash MP, Civitas and Open Europe. They play an important role in providing stories for the press to pick up.

Public Opinion

Public opinion in Britain has been 10 to 15% less in favour of integration than the EU average.  Opinion polls showed clear support for a referendum by over 60% of voters but opinion on whether Britain should stay in Europe was always more divided. The way in which public opinion is reflected through polling companies has been hugely called into question over recent years. This began during the General Election where polls were predicting another hung parliament. In the end a Conservative majority was returned to the shock of everyone including the pollsters. On the night of the EU referendum, although there was no exit poll, polling companies still called the vote for remain. They were wrong again. On a separate note they were also wrong about Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential election.

****This page is under review following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and Brexit process****