October 6, 2021

Thirty years ago, on 8 October 1991, a slightly bewildered Conservative Party gathered in Blackpool. There was an election due the following year, when a Tory government would seek a historic fourth term, but there was an unsettled, uncertain mood about the place.

This was also the first conference since Margaret Thatcher had been ousted as leader and — after sixteen years — many of the party faithful were far from reconciled to their loss. It should have been a tub-thumping, morale-boosting rally to send her successor, John Major, out on the campaign trail. Instead it saw the opening shots fired in a civil war that would go on to wreck that fourth term, drive the Tories out of power, and put the country on the road to Brexit. Because this was the conference when talk of a referendum on Europe began to take hold of the Right.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

At the time, the European Economic Community (EEC) was entering a state of transition. In December 1991, the leaders of the twelve member-states would meet in Maastricht to negotiate the future path, and the following February meet again to sign the treaty that was to create the European Union (EU). This was a new incarnation of the great project, designed, as it said, “to advance European integration”.

The bit of that “integration” that was causing concern among some at Blackpool was the near-certainty that it would include a commitment to a single currency across all the EU nations. And the person most concerned was Thatcher herself. It was she who led the call for a referendum on the subject of what would one day become known as the euro.

In fact, she’d floated the idea before, nearly a year earlier, in the last throes of her premiership; it was part of her pitch against the leadership challenge of the Europhile Michael Heseltine. Amid the personal psychodrama of those final days, however, something as mundane as monetary union made little impression, and the referendum proposal wasn’t a big story. But if the public didn’t notice, her colleagues did, and it was one of the reasons why some cabinet colleagues turned against her; in characteristic fashion, she hadn’t consulted any of them about the proposal before announcing it.

Apart from anything, it was out of political character for Thatcher. One of her first tasks as Tory leader had been to respond to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, called by Harold Wilson’s government in 1975. She had been forthright in her condemnation of the vote, accusing Wilson of trying to “pass the buck” and seeking to “bind and fetter” parliamentary democracy. And she stayed true to her word: during her eleven-and-a-half years in Downing Street, she did not hold a single referendum.

But now, the scale of the changes being suggested in the European negotiations, and in particular the spectre of a single currency, had banished those reservations. This was too big a step, too much of a threat to parliamentary democracy itself, to be undertaken without the approval of the people.

That was the message she brought to Blackpool. She didn’t address the conference directly — she didn’t need to: just her presence on the platform ensured a five-minute standing ovation. But she did speak to the press to make her position clear. And Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson, two of her most loyal lieutenants in the glory days, publicly supported the idea.

“If the decision is a case of changing the relationship between parliament and the people then there is a case for the people to be consulted,” argued the latter. Most significantly, Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, also hinted that he was in favour of a referendum. “I will not allow a single currency to be imposed on this country,” he insisted . “We don’t want laws to be made and taxes to be raised in Brussels for which the British people have not voted.”

The clamour became so great that the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, felt obliged to intervene. “It is not on,” he said. “It is simply not a subject for a referendum.”

Yet a split opened up at that Conservative Party conference, and in the following months it widened further. The headlines in the build-up to the Maastricht negotiations were dreadful: “Maggie blasts ‘arrogant’ PM”; “Thatcher urged to back Premier and halt Europe feud”; “Tebbit fans the flames in civil war over Europe”. This had become a personal and open fight between the Prime Minister and his predecessor: “Iron Lady v Quiet Man,” as the Daily Mail summarised it.

It was against this background that Major insisted on Britain not participating in two of the key elements of the Maastricht Treaty. There was the Social Chapter — which set out common employment protections — and there was the single currency.

Even with Britain’s half-hearted involvement, Maastricht was a big deal. It conferred citizenship of the EU on all those within it, ensuring the right to live, work and vote equally in any of the member states. It strengthened the European Parliament, extended co-operation on policing, justice and foreign policy, and reduced the need for unanimous decision-making. It created the European Central Bank. This was “a new and decisive stage,” said Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, “which within a few years will lead to the creation of what the founding fathers of modern Europe dreamed of after the last war: the United States of Europe”.

The Conservative manifesto at the 1992 election boasted that “The Maastricht Treaty was a success both for Britain and for the rest of Europe”, and even if many Tory MPs didn’t agree, the fact that Major won an unexpected victory meant that he had a mandate; the calls for a referendum receded.

Instead, the fight was resumed in the Commons, where the treaty had to be ratified and where the Conservative majority of 21 was far from comfortable. Major faced opposition not only from Labour, demanding he sign up to the Social Chapter, but from those on his backbenches who objected to the whole thing. In a long series of votes, extending through to the summer of 1993, there were repeated rebellions by Tory MPs against their own government.

Thatcher’s private response to the treaty was that “the country is being sold down the river,” and although she had stepped down as an MP at the election, she was now in the Lords and still commanded much support. She spoke out against Maastricht in public, and urged on rebel MPs in private. Meanwhile, her predecessor Edward Heath, who was still in the Commons, weighed in on Major’s side, and the ensuing bitterness soured the party for years to come.

“In the voting lobbies it was not unknown for one Conservative MP to spit at another,” remembered Michael Spicer, one of the rebel MPs. “Physical violence occurred during the course of one or two crucial votes.” He also recalled a senior MP being dragged by his hair into the government’s lobby. Nicholas Soames, a Major loyalist, was particularly unimpressed by the married rebels Ann and Nicholas Winterton: “You’re cunts,” he told them after yet another vote, “and ugly ones to boot.”

In scenes of great excitement, the final vote to ratify the treaty was lost in July 1993 by eight votes and Major responded by calling a vote of confidence in his own government. This was an unmistakeable sign of weakness and failure, the first time since the war a government had resorted to such a desperate measure. But Major was weak, and he was failing.

As a procedure, however, it was clever. If he lost the vote, Major said, he would call a general election, and there was a strong chance that the Tories would lose over a hundred seats. The rebels had little choice — “The PM’s got the Party by the goolies,” as one of them, Teresa Gorman, put it — and the confidence vote was won with relative ease. The Government was to limp on impotently for another four years.

But the party was badly damaged. And the unsatisfactory ending of the episode failed to bring closure.

As the Maastricht debate approached its end-game, a by-election in Newbury saw a safe Tory seat fall to the Liberal Democrats on a massive 28-point swing, a reflection of how low Major’s government had fallen. Little noticed was the fourth-place finish of Alan Sked, representing the Anti-Federalist League. He got just 600 votes, but this was the first stirring of what became UKIP, launched by Sked later in 1993.

And this was also the by-election where veteran anti-European Enoch Powell made one of his last-ever public appearances. He was driven to a rally at Newbury Racecourse by a young city trader named Nigel Farage, who later cited the experience as the moment that inspired his own political career. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but that European referendum floated by Margaret Thatcher was destined to return.