Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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.

Compromise Mark I

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 politics”. 1

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 interests”.

“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 disagreement.

April 1992-September 1993: Siding with the Euroenthusiasts

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 that:

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, that:

…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. 21

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 that:

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.

1993–7: Compromise Mark II.

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 pro–integrationist line.

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 want.

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 there pitching?

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 wrote that:

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. 35

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 Europe.

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 disaster.

…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 industry.

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. 44

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 Europe. 45

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 bridged…

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 long.


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. 392.
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”, BBC2, 30/05/96.
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 centre, London.
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, 03/2/95.
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), chapter 7.
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, 17/03/97.
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.

Contact us

Director : Robert Oulds
Tel: 020 7287 4414
Chairman: Barry Legg
The Bruges Group
246 Linen Hall, 162-168 Regent Street
London W1B 5TB
United Kingdom
Founder President :
The Rt Hon. the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG, OM, FRS 
Vice-President : The Rt Hon. the Lord Lamont of Lerwick,
Chairman: Barry Legg
Director : Robert Oulds MA, FRSA
Washington D.C. Representative : John O'Sullivan CBE
Founder Chairman : Lord Harris of High Cross
Head of Media: Jack Soames