The UK and the Conservative Party after the 2016 referendum: the “cursed child(ren)” of Europe

24 October 2016 /

On the international scene, the pro-European Union campaign flopped on the 23rd June. Over the years, United Kingdom seemed to doubt its sense of belonging to the EU by opting-out of the major project of the EU for instance. Thus, qualifying the UK as an “awkward partner” (Stephen George, 1998) or a “cursed child” of Europe is not farfetched. Churchill summarized Britain’s ambivalence toward Europe, by saying: “We are with Europe. But we are not of Europe.” A brief overlook on EU-UK historical relationship and the impact of the 2016 referendum on the UK and the British political landscape highlight the special EU-UK link.

A bit of History

British governments stayed out of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, prioritising links with the Commonwealth. This position was undermined by the rapid expansion of the EEC’s wealth and power in the 1960s, while the UK’s clout waned. Later, Britain concluded that only EEC membership would thwart this decline. After two refusals, Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973, despite evident controversies in the population.

Euroscepticism grew and, very early, tensions appeared. Indeed, a year after British entrance in the EEC, Labour’s leader Harold Wilson, promised a referendum on whether to remain in the EEC or not. Finally, the public endorsed the UK’s continued membership of the EEC, with 67% of people voting to stay in. Thus, the Conservatives who were in favor of “Brexit” had to join the party line i.e. a pro-European stance. Only a few Conservatives like Enoch Powell still supported “Brexit”. Uk already had an “awkward” relationship with the EU.

“Europe is the one issue upon which the Tories can… go walkabout and be unable to function properly”

The political priorities shifted at the end of the 1980s. While Labours became advocates of EEC due to its newly acquired social dimension under Jacques Delors’s presidency at the European Commission, Conservatives were divided. Thus, an “inversion of the anti-European polarity” (Mischi) occurred i.e. euroscepticism moved from Labours to Conservatives. Thatcher’s euro-pessimism peaked during her Bruges Speech (1988) where she denounced European Economic Community as being a “superstate”. Yet, the pro-European wing of the Tories was still present. Indeed, by the 1990s the Conservative divisions on Europe were attracting attention, amidst speculation that they might lead to a split in the party (Baker, Gamble & Ludlam, 1993). The 1989 resignation of Thatcher left the Conservatives with internal divisions over the European question, with no real solution to fix them.

 The damaging impact of Europe on the Tories and British political landscape

The EU rose considerably in the UK’s political discourse and media in the 1990s. The anti-European stance of the Conservatives in the late 1990s became extreme but it proved to be unsuccessful: they lost both the 1997 and the 2001 general elections. With the choice of Iain Duncan Smith -a pro-Brexit- as their leader in 2001, the hypothesis of a Conservative radicalization was confirmed. The divisions inside the party became also more extreme.

In the words of the UK newspaper The Guardian “The prime minister’s uncomfortable experience showed how he needs to tread with care. One former minister says: “Europe is the one issue upon which the Tories can… go walkabout and be unable to function properly.” Europe has weakened British political landscape, particularly the bipartisan system. The anti-European discourse frees itself from the two main parties.Political parties in Britain have de facto encouraged their ambivalence on the EU by downgrading Europe to a second-order issue.In this way, transpartisan organisations are more successful, for instance, UKIP gathers eurosceptics. UKIP is one of the main causes of the Conservative Party weakening: a significant number of Tories switched their support to UKIP, a trend which gained momentum during the 2010-2015 Liberal-Conservative coalition government.

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A competition between the Conservatives and UKIP is now arising about Europe. Finally, Cameron bowed to the pressure. In January 2013, he said that if the Conservatives won the next election they would seek to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and then give the people the “simple choice” between staying in the EU under those terms or leaving the EU. In May 2015 the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons in the general election and immediately pledged to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet, the  British and the Conservatives were fairly divided.

The UK has every reason to think that “Brexit” will lead to a Scottish referendum; a thorny issue that could, once again, spark divisions within the Conservatives

Before the referendum, according to James Kirkup, the only way to “avoid the referendum placing parts of the Conservatives on opposite sides of the divide (was) for Cameron to find a position on which the entire party (could) agree. That is to say, to resolve the Tory split over Europe that has persisted for more than 40 years”. It was impossible, even if Cameron tried to avoid the Conservatives division by giving a free vote to cabinet ministers ie suspending “collective responsibility”: ministers were allowed to vote with their consciences. Famous Conservative figures, such as Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Justice), Iain Duncan Smith and the careerist Boris Johnson who benefited from the referendum were players in the Conservative Out campaign. Thus, the Tories “(might) lose people who (may) never come back” to the party one Cabinet minister frets. Kirkup draws a conclusion: a vote to leave the EU could decapitate the leadership of the Conservative Party. It can now be seen, in the light of the 23rd of June referendum, that Kirkup was headed in the right direction: the polemic and controversial ex-mayor of London is now part of the British government, which means he has to follow the party line and has to be more discrete than in the past, and Cameron left the 10 Downing Street in July as he promised during the election campaign in case of Brexit. The destiny of the Conservative party now lies in the hands of Theresa May, a pro-EU who has now to pave the way toward Brexit. She will have two choices: a soft or a hard Brexit. Her decision might bring back together the Conservatives or divide them even more.

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After the ambivalent position of the UK on the European project throughout History, the competition over Brexit between the Conservatives and Ukip in 2015-2016, the inherent divisions between the Tories over Europe, and the beheading of the party, the UK has every reason to think that “Brexit” will lead to a Scottish referendum; a thorny issue that could, once again, spark divisions within the Conservatives; one more proof that the UK and the Conservatives are the “cursed child(ren)” of Europe.

Blandine Malvault est étudiante en Master 2 Sécurité extérieure et sécurité intérieure de l’UE à Science Po Strasbourg

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