Sunday, 3 May 2015

Tory Euro-sceptic rebels

The consequences of the two-year British ERM membership experiment were three million unemployed and countless businesses going to the wall. It was perhaps the worst self-inflicted economic disaster since Churchill joined the gold standard in 1926. John Major was still dismissing out of hand any alternative to ERM membership just days before 'Black Wednesday' when he declared that his government would 'never take the devaluer’s option.' Fortunately by then the markets had reached a different conclusion, and since Britain’s forced withdrawal from the ERM on Black Wednesday Britain enjoyed a period of solid and sustained economic growth, coupled with low inflation and falling unemployment, which continued until the banking crisis of 2008. In other words the supposed 'discipline' that pegging a currency to others is supposed to bring was comprehensively disproved. As a result of 'Black Wednesday' the Tories lost their credibility for economic management and this remained the case until the 2010 general election.

The second euro headache for John Major was the parliamentary difficulties he was caused by a rebel group of euro-sceptic backbench Tory MPs who carried out a systematic and principled campaign to thwart the legislation required to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. There is no doubt that by this time most grassroots members of the Conservative Party had been converted to the euro-sceptic cause, as shown by the level of applause received at the 1992 conference by those speakers who denounced the Maastricht Treaty. However, Major was determined to prove his European credentials, and since ordinary Tory members have traditionally had little influence over their leaders, he was able to ignore their views and press ahead with the Maastricht legislation. Major was also being lent on by still more euro enthusiastic cabinet colleagues such as Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke and Douglas Hurd. During this period Major agreed to hold a referendum in the event that Parliament legislated for entry into the Euro. The leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties later agreed to make a similar commitment. Major also expressed his opposition to the concept of a federal Europe. After the Maastricht ratification process was completed the change of name to European Union (EU) took place.

The Major years were a period of confusion for the Tory Party not just on Europe but also on many other issues. Major failed to give firm leadership - he was clearly never a fully fledged euro-enthusiast in the same mould as Kenneth Clarke - yet he failed to grasp the logic of the euro-sceptics who had by then won the hearts of grassroots party members. His 'wait and see' policy on the Euro was criticised from all sides. He placed the search for a spurious party unity and management above both principle and leadership and paid the price following the huge defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 general election.

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