John Major and Europe: The Failure of a Policy 1990-7
Dr Martin Holmes
As the Major era has now come to an end it is possible to consider his
premiership in its entirety, to evaluate exactly what John Major’s European
policy actually was. His term of office can be split into three distinct
parts. Firstly, between November 1990 when he became Conservative party
leader, and the General Election in April 1992, Major pursued a policy of
compromise in order to hold his party together because the question of Europe
threatened to split it apart. The second period was that of Euro–enthusiasm,
between the victory in the April 1992 election and September 1993, which was
characterised by Major’s enthusiasm for the ERM and by the passage through the
House of Commons of the Maastricht Treaty. In the third period, from September
1993 up to and including the 1997 General Election, Major reverted to the
policy of compromise. During the compromise Mark II the issue of Europe became
a function of party management, as Major endeavoured to preserve a fragile
semblance of party unity. Ultimately Major’s European policy contributed
mightily to his election defeat.
John Major became the Conservative party leader in 1990 because he was the
ideal compromise candidate; someone who could unite the party; a healer not a
warrior; a pragmatist not an ideologue; a person who would appeal to the
Thatcherites but equally who would co–operate with the Heseltinies; a man who
could rally the party with a General Election less than two years away. As
John W. Young has argued, “with an election necessary by June 1992, and deeper
division between pro– and anti–Europeans in the Conservative Party thanks to
the leadership contest, he had to prevent EC issues upsetting domestic
It is not surprising, having become leader in circumstances of an internal
civil war as bitter as anything which had occurred since 1975, that John
Major’s strategy was to avoid ideological conflict within the party. He was,
of course, temperamentally attuned to this approach, having stated in a
somewhat neglected interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 1989, that he took
his ideas from the ether, not from the written word, admitting that “I work
almost by instinct; to me something either feels right or it feels wrong”.
2 It is in this internal party context
that Major’s 1990–2 European policy should be assessed. In that eighteen
months although Major stated that Britain should be at the heart of Europe,
and although he made friends with Helmut Kohl—it was “my good friend Helmut”
rather than “Herr Bundeskanzler”—he was careful not to offend the
Thatcherites by making equally clear that he would be prepared to stand up for
British interests just as had been his predecessor. According to his close
political advisors Sarah Hogg and Stephen Hill:
The message of the “Heart of Europe” speech has been
misrepresented since. It was never code for a federalist agenda. It was a
signal that Britain was going to play an active part in the Maastricht
negotiations. In the velvet glove of European sentiment, there were some iron
messages. Accurately forecasting the year ahead, John Major warned that
“Britain will relish the debate and the argument. That is the essence of doing
business in today’s Community”. 3
This observation has been supported—albeit in politically posthumous
terms—by Major himself, who told his biographer, Dr Anthony Seldon, that his
choice of words had been a mistake and that he meant to say that Britain
should be at the heart of the debate on Europe. 4 During 1991, therefore, Major appeared to face
both ways on Europe, as the imperatives of party management demanded.
Different and competing sentiments would coalesce in the same speech, indeed
sometimes in the same paragraph of the same speech. Addressing the
Conservative party conference on 11 October 1991, three consecutive sentences
characterised this ambiguity:
“We can’t go on as we were in terms of Europe: we
should be at the centre of Europe if we are going to properly protect our
“But being in the centre of Europe doesn’t mean we’ve
sold out, doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly become Europhiles and adopt every fetish
that emerges from the European Commission. Of course not”.
“What it does mean is that we are in a better position
to influence the way in which Europe goes”.
While contradictory in terms of a consistent approach to European policy,
this strategy of compromise was successful. Major held his party together.
Although, as his sympathetic biographer Bruce Anderson admits, there was some
confusion as to where exactly John Major stood on Europe, 5 this was still regarded by the continentals as
an improvement on Mrs Thatcher’s open hostility. On the question of the ERM,
Mr Major emphasised that although he strongly supported the Pound’s membership
this did not necessarily imply an endorsement of a single European currency.
Whilst the policy emanating from Europe unambiguously envisaged ERM membership
as an integral part of the process outlined in the Delors Report and the
Maastricht Treaty, this was not necessarily embraced by Major. According to
the Prime Minister, “ERM entry does not mean that we are now on a road leading
inexorably to a single currency”. 6 But
the Delors Report and the Maastricht Treaty did imply exactly that,
notwithstanding the Stage III opt–out. Similarly, Major’s preservation of
party balance dominated the negotiations which led up to the signing of the
Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. Heseltine, Howe, Hurd, Heath—the
Eurofanatics in the Conservative party—would have been happy with the Treaty
lock stock and barrel. They had no substantial ideological objections to a
Treaty which so inspired Britain’s “partners”. Indeed Mr Heath confessed that
he had no objections to the Social Chapter, declaring that Major’s approach
was music to his ears. The Thatcherites by contrast made clear that it was, in
Mrs Thatcher’s own words, “a treaty too far”. They urged Major not to sign up
and, if possible, to use the British veto. In her memoirs Mrs Thatcher argues
that Major’s approach “although it won plaudits,…left the fundamental problems
[of Britain’s relationship with Europe] unsolved”. 7
Major skilfully contrived a carefully crafted compromise between these two
positions within his party. He signed up to the Treaty, including the
commitments to Stages I and II of monetary union. However, he negotiated three
qualifications to appease the Eurosceptics. The word “federal” was deleted
from the Treaty, even though, to the continentals, this was a purely semantic
change. Britain was exempted from the Social Chapter, which Mrs Thatcher had
once characterised as Marxist. And thirdly, a decision in relation to monetary
union was deferred for approval by the British parliament until Stage iii
commenced. 8 The compromise over
Maastricht effectively postponed the conflict within the Conservative party
until after the 1992 election.
Whatever may be deduced from Major’s policy for lacking a consistent and
coherent European strategy, it was successful in party political terms by
demonstrating his ability as a party manager. As Butler and Kavanagh correctly
observe, “Mr Major was able to claim Maastricht as a success; Mrs Thatcher
stayed silent and Europe, seen by many as a rock on which the Conservatives
would founder, ceased to be a political hazard — at least for the time being”.
9 Equally, Sked and Cook are right to
argue that this temporary political peace was bought at the expense of the
national interest in that “in order to prove his credentials Major had to
agree to greater European integration. He had to endorse everything Mrs
Thatcher had said no to including EMU and EPU”. 10 Not for the first time under Major, the
national interest played second fiddle to internal party cohesion.
This was also the case during the 1992 campaign as Major discreetly
persuaded his party to adopt a collective vow of silence on the issue of
Europe. Maastricht was not an issue between the parties because Labour was
just as divided. Neil Kinnock no more wanted to have internal divisions on
Europe made public than did John Major. Between 1990 and 1992, Major’s
strategy of compromise to win the election worked effectively, at the expense
of disguising and postponing, rather than eliminating, internal party
Between April 1992 and the autumn of 1993, Major sided decisively with the
supporters of European integration within his party. In this period there was
no doubt that his principal political enemies were not on the Opposition
benches but were the Conservative Eurosceptics. They were “bastards” who were
“spreading poison”; and he was going to “flipping crucify them”. 11 On a more positive note he purred, in a
foreword to a foreign office propaganda booklet issued to celebrate the
July–December 1992 British EC presidency, that “for us, in Britain, Europe is
part of our lives. As an island some of our traditions differ. But our history
and culture are linked closely to those of other European nations”. 12 The Prime Minister even found time in his busy
schedule to personally select the logo of the UK presidency, a rampant lion
named Rory, who strutted purposefully among the EC flag of yellow stars on a
blue background. 13 Moreover, Major
developed a respect for Jacques Delors’ ability as an economist, to the
surprise of the more economically literate British civil servants. 14
In particular, Major’s Euroenthusiasm focused on two policies on which he
staked his reputation and the survival of his government. The first was
adherence to the Pound’s membership of the ERM. The second was the passage of
the Maastricht Treaty through the House of Commons. Major had long argued that
the recession, which had been the longest and deepest since the 1930s, with
minus 2.5% growth in 1991 and minus 1% growth in 1992, would be dispelled
because of the successful strategy of the Pound’s membership of the ERM. This
belief was central to government economic policy to the extent that it was a
panacea. Membership of the ERM would be a guarantee of low inflation with the
monetary discipline which had been the hallmark of the Deutschmark.
Additionally, such stability would enable the European Single Market to
succeed, and with it the prospect that when German interest rates came down,
British interest rates would do the same, but without rekindling inflation. It
would be the best of all worlds, with the Pound in the ERM’s proven zone of
currency stability. Confidently the 1992 Conservative manifesto proclaimed
that “in due course we will move to the narrow bands of the ERM”. 15
John Major’s belief in the ERM was long–standing. Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs
recall his growing enthusiasm, from April 1990 to October, when the Pound
joined, to the extent that “intellectually he was drifting with the tide”.
16 In Nigel Lawson’s view, Major was
converted to the cause of ERM entry by the Treasury mandarinate. 17 This view is given added authority by what
Major himself told to his biographer Nesta Wyn Ellis:
Every day I sat at the Treasury (as Chancellor) and I
saw Sterling being kicked around by rumour. And when Sterling is being kicked
around, the economy is being kicked around because it affects monetary policy,
and monetary policy ripples through and affects everything else.
The more I realised, day after day, was that the most
priceless gift you could offer British business over the medium term was a
stable exchange rate and a stable inflation rate. And what was the best
mechanism to achieve this, or the best and most proven mechanism to achieve it
over the years would be an Exchange Rate Mechanism. 18
Indeed, so upbeat was John Major in the summer of 1992 that in one
television interview he even speculated that one day, in the not–too–distant
future, the Pound would be as strong as the Deutschmark and perhaps might even
replace it as the anchor currency of the ERM. This was the high water mark of
Major’s unequivocal belief in his ERM strategy. Thus on 7 September 1992, a
matter of days before the Pound left the ERM, he confidently asserted
What lies at the heart of the Community is one very
simple idea. It is the notion that by binding together the nations of Europe
in a common economic framework it would be possible to build an inextricable
network of shared interests that would render war between former enemies
impossible…the Commission’s prescription for…changes in economic and monetary
arrangements must reflect real changes in economic behaviour in the market
place, and must work with the grain of the market and not against it. This is
of course what the ERM does, and will continue successfully to do, whatever
happens to the Maastricht Treaty. 19
Just three days later he told the Scottish CBI, on 10 September 1992,
…all my life I have seen British Governments driven off
their virtuous pursuit of low inflation by market problems or political
pressures. I was under no illusions when I took Britain into the ERM. I said
at the time that membership was no soft option. The soft option, the
devaluer’s option, the inflationary option would be a betrayal of our future;
and it is not the Government’s policy…All too often in the past the solution
was the same —to let the exchange rate go. And every time–sooner or later—the
result was the same: rising import prices, rising wages, rising inflation, and
a long–term deterioration in Britain’s competitiveness which offset any
short–term gain. 20
Right up to its collapse on 16 September, the ERM was the bedrock of John
Major’s economic and European policy. Bernard Connolly has perceptively argued
that this belief endured to the bitter end:
Major has shown himself time and again to be a keen
supporter of the ERM—he used Mrs Thatcher’s political weakness to force
Britain into the system in 1990; he attempted in the Maastricht negotiations
to make membership a legally binding obligation; he was prepared to take the
country to the brink of bankruptcy to stay in the system in September 1992.
Of equal importance in this period of Euroenthusiasm was the passage of the
Maastricht Treaty. After the 1992 election Major could not defer decisions on
Maastricht any longer. He needed to pass the Bill through parliament to ensure
that the Treaty—in which he took such negotiating pride—was ratified. To that
end he was prepared to wage war against the Eurosceptics within his own party.
1992–3 was a period in which Major preferred to be sustained in office by
votes from the Labour party, which took a bipartisan view of the Treaty, or by
votes from the Liberal Democrats, or by votes from the Ulster Unionists,
rather than concede to the Eurosceptics on his own benches. In the last
resort, John Major was even prepared to risk a General Election by making the
passage of the Treaty a motion of confidence. Predictably, this led to the
first of the disciplinary measures against the Eurorebels when the Member of
Parliament for Torbay, Rupert Allason, was deprived of the Whip. Majors’
government was fortunate that like the Heath government in the 1970s which
passed the Act of Accession—parliamentary deliverance was forthcoming from the
Opposition benches. As Peter Riddell puts it:
Most of those involved knew the government would get its
bill. Indeed, the Labour leadership privately accepted that all they could do
was to delay passage of the bill and cause the government maximum
embarrassment, which they duly did. But the Maastricht debate cannot merely be
dismissed as a lengthy, and somewhat tiresome, charade which baffled ordinary
voters outside the political world. The saga not only seriously weakened Mr
Major’s authority and leadership but it showed that, on a few, rare issues,
the executive can be constrained and restrained by the legislature. However
this only applies on occasions when the government cannot rely on the full
support of its own backbenchers. 22
The passage of the Maastricht Treaty, therefore, was legislative priority
number one for the 1992–7 Parliament. It was not amenable to an internal party
compromise which would have shredded or substantially amended it. This policy
stance was all the more remarkable because there were three clear and heroic
opportunities when John Major could have said, had he wished to, that the
Treaty would be abandoned. Firstly, in June 1992 following the Danish
referendum, Major could have argued that the “No” vote technically invalidated
the Treaty and that therefore it would not proceed in the British parliament.
But on the contrary he quickly took the view, favoured on the continent and
advocated by the federalist minded Danish government, that the Danes should be
made to vote again. Indeed according to the 1996 BBC programme “The Poisoned
Chalice”, 23 Major and Hurd decided on
the morning after the Danish vote, on the advice of the Whips and without
summoning a Cabinet meeting, to force through the Maastricht Bill. Such a
decision greatly assisted those who hoped that that such stoical resolution by
the British government would help to buy sufficient time for a second, and
successful, Danish referendum. John Major, by pursuing this zealous
integrationist strategy, performed a signal service to the federalist
cause.When the full extent of the implications of making the Danes vote again
sunk in, party and press opinion had moved sharply in a Eurosceptical
direction. The intellectual case against Treaty ratification was overwhelming
but Major was determined not to relent. Thus William Wallace observed
The Daily Telegraph, the unofficial “house organ” of the
Conservative party, had passed under the control of Conrad Black, a Canadian
newspaper proprietor whose belief in the closeness of transatlantic
Anglo–Saxon ties was matched by his admiration for both Reagan and Thatcher.
In the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, which revived under his ownership
to become the leading political weekly of the right, resistance to “Europe”
and admiration for the USA were leading themes, often accompanied by suspicion
of the “Europeanizing” Foreign Office. The Times and Sunday Times, and their
popular tabloid stablemates the Sun and the News of the World, had become
under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership both vigorously supportive of Mrs Thatcher
and strongly anti–European. 24
The second opportunity to abandon the passage of the Treaty came after the
Pound’s withdrawal from the ERM on White Wednesday, 16 September 1992. Major
could have argued that the exit of the Pound from the ERM invalidated the
Treaty because ERM membership was essential to the entire process of monetary
union. He had every reason to argue that it would be inconceivable to
contemplate the abolition of the Pound and the acceptance of the single
currency without the Pound being inside the ERM. Moreover, the Treaty
presupposed that countries such as Britain, who were at the time in the wide
6% band, would move to the 2.25% narrow band. Yet Major’s
government had moved, albeit at the behest of the market, in the opposite
direction. Here was another realistic opportunity when Major could have
decided that the circumstances affecting the Treaty had materially changed and
that therefore its passage would be terminated. But he chose not to do so. He
made it clear that the Treaty would proceed in the House of Commons. Major
preferred, as Edmund Dell has noted, to sacrifice his Chancellor of the
Exchequer to disguise his own culpability:
On 16 September 1992, “Black Wednesday”, the Major
government ignominiously suspended sterling from membership of the ERM after
swearing on a stack of bibles that it would not devalue, let alone creep away
from the ERM itself with its tail between its legs. Major’s great act of
policy as Chancellor had collapsed. On Black Wednesday, it was not merely the
credibility of sterling that was undermined but that of the Major government
as well…Major is unique in that he was already Prime Minister when his
credibility as Chancellor was so unmercifully drained. No one seriously
expected him to resign as Prime Minister for what he had done as Chancellor. A
sacrificial lamb was, after all, available in the form of his friend and
successor as Chancellor, Norman Lamont, though he was allowed a short stay of
execution before being despatched eighteen months later. 25
That Major was always unlikely to ditch the Treaty because of the ERM
fiasco can be ascertained by his policy decision during White Wednesday itself
to raise interest rates to 15%. If this decision, as Philip Stephens argues,
26 was the Prime Minister’s personal
preferred option, it indicates a touching dedication to the ERM and an
unwillingness to face the reality of its implosion even at that late stage. If
Major was disinclined to blame the ERM—he spoke only of “fault lines” —he was
also disinclined to drop the Maastricht Treaty in which the ERM featured with
almost theological prominence.
Thirdly, came the extraordinary events at the Conservative party conference
in October 1992, perhaps one of the most remarkable conferences since the 1963
resignation of Harold Macmillan. In speech after speech, the winds of change
blowing in the party in a Eurosceptical direction were gale–force. Norman
Tebbit and other Eurosceptics were cheered to the rafters. John Major at the
end of that week could have said in his leader’s speech, “I have listened to
you; I have heard you; I understand what you say; I will lead you; the Treaty
will not pass”. Had he done so, it would in all probability have greatly
united his party, with the exception of a small group of Heathite
Eurofanatics. But he chose not to do so. He confirmed that the Treaty would
proceed irrespective of the arguments which had prevailed and the strength of
feeling in the party. If these three factors are considered together, it is
apparent that John Major was a Euroenthusiast, loyal to the ERM and
Maastricht, favouring greater integration with Europe. He staked his own
authority on the passage of the Treaty which he saw as vital to Britain’s role
in Europe, and he was prepared to take on and defeat, even attempting to
humiliate, the Thatcherite Eurosceptics in his party to achieve that end. In
so doing John Major revealed his true political plumage. Additionally in the
glad confident morning of integrationist fervour the Prime Minister constantly
asserted that the Maastricht Treaty decentralised power because of the concept
of subsidiarity. 27 This pretence was
maintained even after the European Commission’s own explanation of Maastricht
as “conferring more powers on the Community”. 28 Later, as compromise Mark ii developed, the
emphasis on subsidiarity was toned down.
Between September 1993 and the General Election defeat in 1997, John Major
reverted to the strategy of party management, or compromise Mark II. During
those four years he uttered strong sentiments in favour of European
integration, as strong as those which he expressed between 1992 and 1993. But
equally in the same period, sometimes only weeks apart, Major could sound
distinctly Eurosceptical. In pursuit of Euroenthusiasm, he deprived eight
Conservative Members of Parliament of the Whip in November 1994. In a
parliament characterised by many rebellions – pit closures, Value Added Tax,
Post Office privatisation—not a single Member of Parliament lost the Whip for
dissent on those issues. But when eight Members voted against increases in
Britain’s budgetary contribution to the EC in November 1994 they were severely
punished. A ninth Member, Sir Richard Body, voluntarily withdrew the Whip in
sympathy with his colleagues. By any standards this was a draconian punishment
which had not been hitherto regarded as conducive to the Whips’ management of
the Conservative party, at least when it was in power. Indeed, withdrawing the
Whip was usually associated with the ideological difficulties within the
Labour party during the Bevanite era.
To many grassroots Conservatives this was an extraordinary and extreme
reaction to the Eurosceptic rebels, who were transformed into instant martyrs.
That the party hierarchy shamelessly pursued a “dirty tricks” campaign against
the rebels only increased the admiration and sympathy for them. 29 The Whip was restored six months later as a
result of the fact that they toured the television and radio studios of
Britain, and were deluged with mail from Conservatives who regarded them as
heroes. Some of the whipless rebels became better known to the general public
than many members of John Major’s Cabinet who were, arguably, household names
only in their own households. The withdrawal of the Whip was highly
significant in assessing the extent to which Major was prepared to pursue the
He also made clear that anyone who contemplated withdrawal from the
European Union was living in “cloud–cuckoo land”. He reiterated that the
increasingly serious heavyweight criticism of the European Union was
incompatible with his policies. Addressing businessmen at the Ritz hotel in
London on 7 December 1994, he emphasised:
I don’t have a shred of doubt that our interests are for
us to be in the European Union, building the sort of European Union we
Where would so much of your trade be if we were not?
What would be the position if we found ourselves outside real influence? What
would happen in terms of the regulations and directives if we were not in
I doubt there’s more than a handful of people in this
room who don’t believe that our interests emphatically lie in Europe.
It is about time some of you got up and said that loudly
and clearly. It is about time you stopped having this debate run by a handful
of people who are fundamentally opposed to Europe and who seem to turn every
part of the debate against what is happening in Europe. 30
However, calling on the business community to turn on the sceptics who had
been over influencing the debate betrayed a growing anxiety at the growth of
Euroscepticism. Accordingly, Major only considered the alternatives to
European Union membership in order to rubbish them. As far as he was concerned
Britain was an unconditional member of the European Union in which the
benefits outweighed the costs. He even evoked the prospects of European
integration to advance the Northern Irish “peace process”. During the secret
negotiations with Republicans which preceded the August 1994 ceasefire Major’s
representative told Provisional Sinn Fein:
The final solution is union [i.e. a united Ireland]. The
historical train—Europe—determines that. We are committed to Europe. Unionists
will have to change. This island will be as one.…Confidentiality was of the
utmost importance. Only Major, Mayhew, Hurd and secretary to the cabinet
[Butler] knew of all this. 31
Ironically, therefore, Europe could have a constitutional and political
dimension for Northern Ireland but not for the vital matter of economic and
monetary union. The Prime Minister obstinately refused to consider the
question of the Single European Currency in the constitutional terms which the
Eurosceptics urged. He refused to consider it as an issue with profound
political as well as economic implications. He stuck to the view that there
would be circumstances in which the Single European Currency would be
beneficial to Britain if the convergence criteria were met. 32 And it was begrudged reluctance that he
conceded that in the event of his Government recommending that course of
action there would have to be a referendum of the British people. Thus between
1993 and 1997 Mr Major was still capable of categorically supporting the
policy of European integration.
But equally, in the same period, Major was capable of espousing a different
message. There are eight important examples of Eurosceptical pronouncements by
Major between 1993 and 1997. The first of them, in September 1993, was the
article he wrote in The Economist. Adopting a marked Eurosceptical tone he
We take some convincing on any proposal from Brussels.
For us, the nation state is here to stay… We counted the financial cost of our
membership. Others counted their financial gain. We subjected each proposal
to the scrutiny of Parliament. They relaxed in the sure knowledge that their
public opinion uncritically endorsed the European idea. Hang the detail. Never
mind the concession of power to Brussels.…The vision of the founders of the
Community was a fine one. What we have seen in the last two years is not so
much a swing against Europe as a demand for a different kind of Europe. The
structures and strategies envisaged in the Treaty of Rome are the product of
Europe in the 1950s. It is natural they should be clung to by a generation of
European politicians whose views were moulded in the 1950s and 1960s. But the
new mood in Europe demands a new approach. …The challenge to this generation
of European leaders is to build a Community for the whole of Europe. That is a
bigger vision. …It is for the nations to build Europe, not for Europe to
attempt to supersede nations. I want to see the Community become a wide
nation, embracing the whole of democratic Europe, in a single market and with
common security arrangements firmly linked to NATO. 33
Such a Eurosceptical article begged the question of why Major had tortured
and contorted his party over the previous eighteen months by passing the
Maastricht Bill through Parliament. How could The Economist article be squared
with the man of Maastricht which Major had so willingly become? As Lord Beloff
has accurately pointed out:
It was not so much that the Euro–sceptics could not
assent to the essentials of the Prime Minister’s position as set out in his
celebrated article in The Economist…as that they doubted his ability to
persuade the other countries of its wisdom and felt that he was neglecting the
very different trends that were taking shape in the discussions elsewhere of
the Union’s future, and the continued activity of the Community’s institutions
in directions considered by them inimical to Britain’s interests. 34
But Mr Major’s scepticism never reached the intellectual point of departure
from which such a fundamental first principle would have been considered.
Secondly there was a revealing and interesting interview which Major gave
to Der SpiegelDer Spiegel mused that “London and Bonn seem…to
share increasing doubts on monetary union”, to which Major replied:
My scepticism is about the economic impact of it. Let us
presuppose we moved to a single currency in the sort of date specified before
1997, 1998, 1999. If we were to move to a single currency and it was to be
successful, you would need proper convergence of the economies across Europe.
They would all need to be operating at the same sort of efficiency. I know of
no one who believes that is remotely likely, it simply is not going to happen.
A year later, during the leadership contest with John Redwood, Mr Major
described the economic arrangements for monetary union as “Euro–crap” which
was hardly the sort of language usually associated with acceptance of the
principle of monetary union enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.
Thirdly, John Major turned his attention to the increasing volume of
European regulation. In the 1980s it was believed that the European single
market, the 1992 project, would produce something akin to the Thatcherisation
of Europe. But by the mid 1990s it was clear that the single market was not
based on Thatcherite deregulation, which the Conservatives favoured, but on
what the continentals called standardisation and in Britain was better known
as harmonisation. Many businesses, as Christopher Booker has revealed,
experienced a whole welter of directives and regulations in contrast to the
original expectation of reducing impediments to trade and enterprise. John
Major addressed these fears in a speech on 27 July 1994, arguing that:
…we did not manage to stem the tide of European
regulation during the 1980s. Now we have put up breakwaters: the principle of
“minimum interference” we secured at Maastricht; and, of course, our opt–out
from the Social Chapter, enshrined in a legally binding protocol. With the
German government, we are working to reduce regulations across
The tide is turning. The number of proposals for new
directives tabled by the European Commissions has fallen from 185 in 1990 to
some 25 so far this year. 36
Fourthly, an even more more significant speech was delivered by John Major
in the Netherlands in which he specifically attacked the whole concept of a
federal Europe, and advocated a Europe of nation states. Such a vision was
incompatible with Maastricht, and was scathingly rejected in virtually every
European affairs speech made by Helmut Kohl or François Mitterrand. In his
Leiden speech there was little doubt that Major was rattling the cage of the
Franco–German axis, and the European Commission, by arguing that:
The vision of the Founding Fathers of the European
Community was proved right for its age. But it will not do now…Popular
enthusiasm for the Union has waned.
…The Maastricht Treaty strained the limits of
acceptability to Europe’s electors. Europe’s peoples in general retain their
favour and confidence in the nation state. I believe that the nation state
will remain the basic political unit for Europe.
…I see real danger, in talk of a “hard core”, inner and
outer circles, a two–tier Europe. I recoil from ideas for a Union in which
some would be more equal than others. There is not, and should never be, an
exclusive hard core of countries or of policies.
…Whatever one’s view of EMU Stage III—and I have thought
it right to reserve the United Kingdom’s position—the introduction of a common
currency without proper prior economic convergence would be a
…The European Parliament sees itself as the future
democratic focus of the Union. But this is a flawed ambition, because the
European Union is an association of States, deriving its basic democratic
legitimacy through national parliaments. The task for 1996 it for the European
Parliament to grow into its existing powers. 37
Such a speech of Eurosceptical ferocity put Major on a collision course
with Chancellor Kohl, with Mitterrand and then Chirac, with the Commission,
and with continental majority opinion which repudiated the whole concept of a
Europe of nation states. Helmut Kohl had argued that the Europe of nation
states had failed, that it had led to the world wars, and that such an
outdated model of sovereign nations was incompatible with Germany’s vision for
the future. 38
The fifth example of Major’s tilt towards Euroscepticism dealt with
monetary policy and the single currency. Speaking at the “Conservative Way
Forward” dinner, on 3 February 1995, the Prime Minister said:
We cannot accept that sterling should be part of a
Single Currency in 1996 or 1997. We don’t believe anyone could sensibly want
to go ahead then, but, if they do, we wouldn’t be with them. …What we will
aim for is a more flexible European Union. That is the only way forward which
makes sense as Europe enlarges.…Nor will we agree to a more prescriptive,
centralist Europe, or removal of the nation states’ veto. The Cabinet are
clear about that and our European partners know our views. Moreover, although
they may only mutter it sotto voce, a number of our partners agree with us on
these points. …We need to re–examine and review the institutions of the
European Union. 39
Similarly, he told the 1995 Conservative party conference that “if Europe
goes federalist a Conservative Britain will not”. 40 On another occasion the Prime Minister in
ostensibly patriotic vein promised “the United Kingdom—the greatest cradle of
culture and academic and scientific and political achievement in modern
times—that’s not some trifle to be lightly set at risk…it is the highest cause
this party knows—and we will defend it with every fibre of our being”. 41 But such robust language was not backed with
action, either in the case of the beef ban or the crucifixion of the fishing
The sixth example of Major’s Euroscepticism was his Brussels speech of
February in which he attacked the Social Chapter, and the Continental model of
a social Europe:
Europe is not winning. 181⁄2 million people are
unemployed—the size of Denmark, Finland and Sweden put together. We are not
creating enough new jobs. …Over the last 20 years America has created 36
million new jobs of which 31 million were in the private sector. In that time,
the EU as a whole only created five million new jobs, of which only one
million were in the private sector. …I believe the answer lies in the policies
Europe has followed. …The European Social Model is fundamentally flawed. It
deprives today’s companies of the chance to compete, and drives away
tomorrow’s investment and new jobs. Over–regulation does not work. And,as a
result, nor do millions of Europeans. The figures say it all. For every £100
paid in wages Germany n0n–wage costs add on an extra £31, in France £41 and in
Italy £44. In Britain, it is only £15. 42
But the Prime Minister did not take his argument to the logical conclusion
that only by leaving the EU could Britain avoid incorporation into the
continental “Rhineland” model, which he again attacked at an election press
conference on 16 April.
John Major’s seventh Eurosceptical intervention occurred in an interview in
February 1997 with New Yorker magazine. 43 Having hitherto refused to contemplate the
political and constitutional implications of monetary union, he confessed that
“I wouldn’t like to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer who went to the
despatch box and said ‘Well, I no longer have any control over interest rates,
I am sorry they have gone up 3%, but it’s nothing to do with me, Guv’”. Alas,
this promising Eurosceptical reasoning was not repeated during the election
campaign, when Mr Major retreated back to his “negotiate and decide” bunker.
The eighth and final example of Euroscepticism was contained in the 1997
Conservative election manifesto which, reputedly, bore Mr Major’s imprint.
This document promised that:
We believe that in an uncertain, competitive world, the
nation state is a rock of security. A nation’s common heritage, culture,
values and outlook are a precious source of stability. Nationhood gives people
a sense of belonging.
The government has a positive vision for the European
Union as a partnership of nations. We want to be in Europe but not run by
Alas, such a noble vision was not on offer as the federal express of
European integration gathered speed towards the Amsterdam summit. Such an
aspiration remained a poignant wish–list.
In evaluating Mr Major’s European policy, 1990–7, there are two conclusions
to be drawn. Firstly, when it mattered Major was a Euro–enthusiast. When a
Bill was required to pass through the House of Commons, he was enthusiastic to
support European integration. When a treaty needed to be ratified, when
budgetary contributions had to be approved following a European summit, when
it really mattered, Major supported European integration and was prepared to
divide and discipline his party to the point of bitter conflict. But when it
did not matter as much, when legislation was not necessary, Major made
Eurosceptical noises to keep his party together. In that regard John Major
followed the same policy in relation to his party and Europe as that which was
pursued by Harold Wilson. He treated the issue as a function of party
management and in so doing John Major neglected the national interest. He
devised a strategy to keep his deeply divided party together especially in the
period 1993–7 when the disputes over Europe reached a ferocious pitch. 46 Major did not want to offend either the
influential senior supporters of European integration; Douglas Hurd, Michael
Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Lord Howe, Ted Heath, Tristan Garel–Jones, John Gummer,
Edwina Currie, Douglas Hogg, and the luminaries of the CBI. He wanted to keep
them on his side. But equally he wanted to placate and appease the
Eurosceptics, whose growing political and organisational influence he could
not ignore. As Dr Keith
Alderman has argued:
Political commentators habitually use hyperbole in
describing intra–party disputes. In this case it was fully justified.
Maastricht was a highly corrosive issue for the Conservative Party. Its 1992
conference was one of the most divisive in living memory. Exchanges within the
parliamentary party were often vituperative. There was a tendency to blame the
Eurosceptics for many, if not all, of the government’s numerous problems
during the session…
Much of the animosity towards the rebels arose from the
organised nature of their activities. Over the years, divisions over Europe
had produced numerous groups critical of developments within the EC. The most
prominent were the European Reform Group and the Bruges Group. But back–bench
opposition to Maastricht was co–ordinated by a newly–formed grouping—the
“Fresh Start” group. Its core comprised many of the 22 Conservatives who had
opposed the Second Reading. Originally a fairly loose and informal grouping
styling itself the “suicide squad” or “renegades” its organisation became more
formal in September 1992. 47
The consequences of such profound division was that John Major was more a
chief whip than a party leader. Yet it may be argued that his balancing act
worked. He kept his party together by subordinating the national interest to
party management. 48 A classic example
was his approach to the Single European Currency. 49 That his government did not know enough about
the Single European Currency to make a principled decision was a policy stance
which lacked all intellectual and political credibility. 50 The Delors report of 1989 outlined the
fundamental objective which was fully debated at the time. Indeed John Major
came up with his own alternative, the “hard ecu” plan. The Maastricht Treaty
additionally advocated attaining the Single European Currency through the
convergence criteria, which was debated ad nauseam. Every single country in
the European Union considered the issue in principle. Major’s policy of not
making up his mind—“wait and see” or “negotiate and decide”—could not command
respect from either Euroenthusiasts or Eurosceptics. In truth, there was
nothing further to negotiate once the other countries had decided to go ahead
with monetary union, on the assumption that they could meet, or indeed fudge,
the convergence criteria. Major neglected the national interest—whether in
favour of the Single Currency or against it—in order to procure a phoney party
unity. Indeed, it is this dark secret that bound Major and his Euroenthusiast
supporters together, blinding them to the impending electoral nemesis. The
compelling irony is that Major did have sufficient political leeway to have
ruled out the abolition of the pound for the duration of his premiership.
David Smith, an astute critic of the government’s European policy from his
vantage point at The Sunday Times has justifiably asserted, in the
wake of White Wednesday, that:
The puzzle, the great “what if?” of the Major
premiership, is why he did not rule out Britain’s participation in a European
single currency for as long as he was prime minister. Had he done so, he would
have met no opposition from his chancellor: Norman Lamont was an avowed
opponent of Emu. The biggest pro–Europeans in his cabinet, Kenneth Clarke and
Michael Heseltine, both of whom wanted an early return to the ERM, were in no
position to force through their views. Heseltine was weakened by his handling
of the autumn 1992 pit closures, Clarke would have been a lone voice. 51
The second conclusion is that John Major, while successfully holding
together his party, missed the opportunity to lead it in a genuinely
Eurosceptical direction. He failed to adjust to the changed agenda of the
inrushing intellectual Eurosceptical tide. Norman Lamont questioned the
economic advantages of membership; 52
David Heathcoat–Amory questioned the whole validity of “wait and see” on
monetary union; 53 and John Redwood
raised the question of a renegotiated membership. 54 But all to no avail; Major pursued the politics
of compromise and refused to consider European issues from first principles. A
cunning and indeed Machiavellian politician, Major’s strategy of compromise to
an extent succeeded. But the Conservative party became, behind the facade of
unity, totally split from top to bottom over Europe. The different wings of
the party—irreconcilably divided on this issue—in a rational world would have
divorced one another long since. John Major kept the party show on the road at
the expense of defying the Conservative instinct of Euroscepticism. Just as
Harold Wilson kept the Labour party together on Europe in the early 1970s in
opposition, this is no mean political feat. But there is a crucial difference
between Major and Wilson. Wilson was able to achieve that feat of unity while
working with the grain of the British people and in accordance with the mood
of party opinion. By contrast, John Major defied public opinion during the
period 1990 to 1997 as it moved decisively in a more Eurosceptical direction.
Business opinion, opinion poll surveys, 55 even the pronouncements of Tony Blair (not
least his March 1997 article in The Sun),56 all indicated the decline of Eurointegration
and the emergence of a greater level of Euroscepticism. Consequently, Major
successfully held his party together but at the cost of hastening its
electoral defeat. Indeed, as Booker and North argue, Major’s European policy
corroded the fabric of the Conservative party and eroded its ability to
sustain its term of office:
So great was the frustration and bitterness felt by many
of the normally loyal membership that this created a sense of grassroots
alienation from the leadership quite without precedent in the Party’s history.
Formerly diehard party workers departed in droves. Donations and subscriptions
collapsed. Only the most ferocious efforts by Party managers to suppress
public evidence of what was going on succeeded in obscuring the full scale of
the Tory Party’s internal disaster from general view. 57
Similarly, as Sir Charles Powell has ironically pointed out, the
Conservative party which ousted Mrs Thatcher as leader has never been more in
tune with her Euroscepticism:
Six years ago the Conservative Party dispensed with Lady
Thatcher as Prime Minister for saying No, No, No to a more federal Europe.
John Major’s Government embarked instead on a “charm offensive” designed to
put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. That reflected a touching belief that
being nice to our partners in Europe, after years of handbagging them over
Britain’s budget contribution, would incline them to lower their sights and
moderate their treasured goal of a single currency.
It also reflected the deep–seated delusion of British
diplomacy that the gulf between Britain and the rest of Europe on the future
shape and direction of the European Union is capable of being
Now the same Conservative Party which sacked Lady
Thatcher is falling over itself to say No, No, No to Europe as vigorously as
she once did. 58
Unconvincingly posing as a Thatcherite man of Bruges during the 1997
election her successor could not escape the legacy of a premiership built on
Maastricht and the single currency “wait and see” equivocation.
The final verdict must be that John Major had the great opportunity to have
led the country toward a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship
with continental Europe. He could have raised the possibility of outright
withdrawal had he not been obsessed with the reaction of the Conservative
Eurofanatics. He could have accepted the truth that Britain was incapable of
changing the European Union from within, because continental interests and
values are profoundly different from our own. He could have led his party
rather than managed it. John Major had the chance to have broken free from the
shackles of compromise which bound him in 1990. 59 He could have built on the foundations of his
predecessor’s 1988 Bruges speech. But he did none of these things. On Europe,
John Major blew it. As Neville Chamberlain is remembered as the Prime Minister
of Munich, so will John Major be remembered as the Prime Minister of
Maastricht. Major’s European policy was an unequivocal failure, the legacy of
which the Conservative party will wrestle with in Opposition for perhaps too
1. J.W. Young, Britain and European Unity
1945–92 (Macmillan, 1992), p. 161.
2. For an interesting insight into Mr Major’s thinking
see The Sunday Telegraph, 8/10/89.
3. S. Hogg and S. Hill, Too Close to Call
(Little, Brown & Co., 1995), p. 79.
4. Sunday Telegraph, 30/3/97.
5. B. Anderson, John Major (Headline, 1992), p.
6. Quoted in N. Wyn Ellis, John Major: a Personal
Biography (Futura, 1991, p. 339).
7. M. Thatcher, The Path to Power (Harper
Collins, 1995), p. 483.
8. Whether this opt–out was essentially negotiated by
Major or by Chancellor Norman Lamont is discussed in “The Poisoned Chalice”,
9. D.E. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General
Election of 1992 (Macmillan, 1992), 20–1.
10. A. Sked and C. Cook, Post–war Britain
1945–1992 (Penguin, 1993), p. 561.
11. Mr Major used stronger, rather more industrial
language, than the word “flipping”.
12. UK presidency of the EC (Foreign Office
Publication, 1992), p.3.
13. Ibid., p. 20.
14. See C. Grant, Delors (Nicholas Brealey
Publications, 1994), p. 170.
15. Conservative Party manifesto 1992.
16. M. Thatcher, Downing Street Years (Harper
Collins, 1993), pp. 720–1.
17. N. Lawson, The View from No. 11 (Bantam
press, 1992), p. 1008.
18. N. Wyn Ellis, John Major: a Personal
Biography (Futura, 1991), p. 336.
19. Speech, 07/9/92, at Queen Elizabeth II conference
20. Speech, 10/9/92, to Scottish CBI.
21. B. Connolly, The Rotten Heart of Europe
(Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 376.
22. P. Riddell in A. Seldon and D. Kavanagh eds.,
The Major Effect (Macmillan, 1994), p. 53.
23. “The Poisoned Chalice”, BBC2, 30/05/96.
24. W. Wallace in A. Seldon and D. Kavanagh eds.,
ibid., p. 286.
25. E. Dell, The Chancellors (Harper Collins,
1996), p. 546.
26. P. Stephens, Politics and the Pound
(Macmillan, 1996), pp. 250–1.
27. See Hansard, 20/5/92, vol. 208, p. 265–6.
28. EC Commission, Toward European Union (1992).
29. For an excellent analysis of “dirty tricks” against
the Eurosceptics, see T. Gorman, The Bastards (Pan, 1993); for a
powerful survey of intolerance towards Conservative backbench dissent see E.
Nicholson, Secret Society (Indigo, 1996).
30. Speech at the Ritz hotel, London, 07/12/94.
31. Quoted in E. Mallie and D. McKittrick, The Fight
for Peace (Heinemann, 1996), pp. 248–9.
32. Mr Major even made this the theme of a Conservative
election broadcast on 16 April 1997.
33. The Economist, 25 September 1993, p. 27–9.
34. Lord Beloff, Britain and European Union:
Dialogue of the Deaf (Macmillan, 1996), pp. 140–1.
35. Interview in Der Spiegel, 25/4/94.
36. Speech, 27/7/94.
37. Speech at Leiden, 07/9/94.
38. See “Nation state’s day is over, Britain told”,
The Times, 3/02/96. Kohl had also told Le Monde, 11/05/95,
that Maastricht laid the basis for political union in Europe.
39. Speech at “Conservative Way Forward” dinner,
40. Speech to Conservative conference 13/10/95.
41. Quoted in S. Haseler, The English Tribe
(Macmillan, 1996), p. 65.
42. Speech in Brussels, 04/2/97.
43. New Yorker, February 1997.
44. See for example his stonewalling interview with
Dominic Lawson in Sunday Telegraph, 20/04/97.
45. Conservative Party manifesto, 1997, p. 45.
46. The extent of Mr Major’s strategy in relation to the
party conference is revealed in M. Ball, The Conservative Conference and
Euro–sceptical Motions (Bruges Group Publication, 1996).
47. Keith Alderman, “Legislating on Maastricht”,
Contemporary Record, Winter 1993, vol., 7, no. 3.
48. See also M. Holmes, The Conservative Party and
Europe (Bruges Group Publication, 1994).
49. For an insight into Michael Heseltine’s powerful
role in policy making, see M. Crick, Michael Heseltine: a biography
(Hamish Hamilton, 1997), pp. 432–4.
50. For further detailed discussion, see M. Holmes,
From Single Market to Single Currency: evaluating Europe’s economic
experiment (Bruges Group publication, 1995).
51. Sunday Times, 20/04/97.
52. See N. Lamont’s 1994 Selsdon Group speech reprinted
in M. Holmes ed., The Eurosceptical Reader (Macmillan, 1996),
53. D. Heathcoat–Amory, A Single European currency:
Why the UK must say No (Bruges Group publication, 1996).
54. J. Redwood, Our Currency, Our Country
(Penguin, 1997), chapter 16.
55. A MORI poll in The Times, 17/04/97,
indicated equal support at 40% for those wishing to stay in or leave the EU.
56. Tony Blair’s article on Europe, The Sun,
57. C. Booker and R. North, The Castle of Lies: why
Britain must get out of Europe (Duckworth, 1996), p. 183. For the
statistical details of declining Conservative party membership, see M.
Pinto–Duschinsky, The Times, 23/04/97.
58. The Sunday Telegraph, 27/04/97.
59. For an interesting consideration of the Thatcherite
legacy, and Mr Major’s interpretation of it, see J. Charmley, A History
of Conservative Politics 1900–1996 (Macmillan, 1996), chapters 11–13.