The (Second) British Rebellion : Is this the end of Britain in the EU ?

By Florian Chevoppe | 24 October 2011

To quote this document: Florian Chevoppe, “The (Second) British Rebellion : Is this the end of Britain in the EU ?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 24 October 2011,, displayed on 22 March 2023

And here we go again, we're back the Major years. It has been 38 years, 9 months and 24 days since the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), together with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. But recent events have proved that to the British public, it is still a date which will live in infamy. Amid the financial crisis and a European Council incapable of finding adequate answers to Greece's (and soon Italy's), some have mentioned a change in treaty. Originally a meaningless debate triggered only through petition, the issue of a referendum on Britain's membership in the EU has erupted into a full-scale Conservative rebellion defying the Prime Minister while 70% of Britons are demanding a referendum. Just like John Major did, David Cameron's leadership is under heavy threat, and his premiership could end abruptly. Why is Britain's relationship with Europe so difficult and what did Major face ? What are the stakes in this rebellion and what does it mean about the current state of mind of politicians and public opinion ?


Britain sets sails towards Europe

It was the Conservative Party which took Britain into the EEC, but not after many failed attempts. While Britain refused to take part in both the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the EEC at first, by the end of the 1950s figures brought up the obvious : with the crumbling of the old British Empire and the loosening of economic ties with the old Dominions, most of British trade was now with the European continent, and in particular the founding members of the ECSC. Relegating this, Britain formed the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), along with Austria, Denmark, Norway and Sweden on 3 May 1960.

Although EFTA stimulated foreign trade, the growth rate was often twice bigger in EEC countries than it was in the EFTA, and trade with the bloc increased. So, on 2 August 1961, Harold Macmillan, a conservative, made official Britain's application for membership to the EEC. Negotiations led by Edward Heath longed through 1962 and eventually failed with president de Gaulle vetoing the application on 29 January 1963 afraid that Britain would turn the EEC into a "a colossal Atlantic Community dependent on America".

Nevertheless, just like they did at El Alamein, the British tried again but this time under a Labour government. On 2 May 1967, Harold Wilson made a second application, but this time is party was deeply divided, as it was at the time of the first application. But on 27 November 1967, de Gaulle used his veto again. But in 1969 the Général left power and in 1970 Edward Heath, a conservative again, was elected : the tables had turned. Heath convinced Pompidou to let Britain in, and on 1 January 1973 the first enlargement of the EEC took place.


To leave or not to leave ?

But Heath's premiership was short-lived, and in 1974 Wilson came back power. Heath had conducted the negotiations himself, touring Europe and personally meeting EEC heads of states and governments In its 1974 manifesto, Labour had promised to renegotiate Britain's membership in the Common Market. So, on 5 June 1975, the first nation-wide referendum in the history of the United Kingdom was held. This is were our first parallel with the present lies. Both the Conservative and Labour parties were divided. Newly elected Leader of the Opposition Margaret Thatcher led the "yes" campaign in the Conservative party, but some famous MPs such as Enoch Powell famous for his "Rivers of Blood" speech stood in the "no" camp. But for Wilson things were far worse. Because divisions were so deep between the left wing and the right wing of Labour, the Prime Minister suspended the constitutional convention (an unwritten constitutional custom) of Cabinet collective responsibility. For the first time, some Cabinet members such as the Secretaries of State for Employment, Industry and Social Services spoke out against government plans.

Nevertheless, to the question "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community ?", 67% of the voters answered "yes". Only did the Shetland and Outer Hebrides islands majoritarily vote "no". From this point on and through the premierships of James Callaghan (5 April 1976 – 4 May 1979, Labour), Margaret Thatcher (4 May 1979 – 28 November 1990, Conservative) positions about Europe remained clear. The Conservative party opposed, as Thatcher put it, "a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels" but  favoured continued membership. Only after 1983 under the leadership of Neil Kinnock did Labour drop its opposition to membership, going as far as to favour entering the European Economic and Monetary Union, laying ground for a common currency, which Thatcher had adamantly refused.


Europe brings a Prime Minister down

When he became Prime Minister, John Major promised to bring Britain "at the very heart of Europe", hoping to herald a new Tory vision of Europe. While the Single European Act (1986) establishing the Single Market was acceptable to Thatcher, the Maastricht Treaty (1993) however was not. John Major, having negotiated opt-outs from the social chapter of Maastricht, claimed to have won "game, set and match for Britain" : but this would not please his party and his electorate : opinion polls plunged to 23% and the Tories lost a by-election in the Christchurch constituency. In July 1993, during the ratification process, the Conservative party and the Cabinet imploded. Members of Parliament and of the Government rebelled (the so-called Maastricht Rebels led by Bill Cash) and on 22 July 1993 sided with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to impose a debate on the social chapter on the government, forcing the Speaker of the House of Commons to cast his vote, and in accordance with Speaker Denison's rule, against the government. The next day, he called another vote, which he also took as a vote of confidence : he won it only by 40 votes.

This crisis destroyed Major's leadership, which never recovered and the Conservative party remained deeply divided over Europe. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had persuaded Thatcher to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), but when he became Prime Minister, this plan backfired. On 16 September 1992 ("Black Wednesday"), the pound sterling crashed, and having having spent £6 billion to keep the pound within the criteria of the ERM, the UK was forced to withdraw. This fuelled anti-Europe hatred within the Conservative party and the electorate, sending Tory poll-ratings to an all-time low. Although he resigned as leader of his party, and won the re-election, Major's popularity was further damaged over Britain's failure to get the ban on British beef exports lifted during the "Mad Cow Disease" crisis. In the 1997 general election, Labour won by a landslide and the Tories lost 178 seats.


Will David Cameron share similar fate ?

Tony Blair took a relatively pro-Europe stance, being reportedly privately in favour of a European defence policy and joining the single currency and tacitly agreeing to the Amsterdam and Nice treaties (1997 and 2001), but maintained a rather tough stance about the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Brown, slightly less pro-European, nevertheless angered the public after refusing to hold a referendum about the Lisbon Treaty (the 2005 Labour manifesto had promised to hold a referendum about the failed European Constitution), arguing that it differed too much from the 2005 treaty. While there was relatively little protest from Labour MPs, the Conservative opposition maintained a tough eurosceptic position. David Cameron, while Leader of the Opposition, expressed rather radical opinions. He expressed his desire to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, opposed the Single currency, announced that he would take his MEPs out of the European People's Party (EPP) and would introduce a law to "repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster". While he did take his 25 MEPs into the European Conservatives and Reformists group and introduce through Bill Cash (former leader of the Maastricht Rebels) a "United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill", he did not revoke the Lisbon Treaty.

Cameron has so far maintained an ambiguous position about the European Union, which is today culminating into a full-blown rebellion, comparable to the one John Major faced. His Foreign Minister, William Hague, has also been criticized, with some backbenchers going as far as to say that "there is a feeling that he is no longer Eurosceptic". The rebellion has been sparked by several factors. First, it is because Europe is spiralling into a financial crisis and failing to come up with decisive answers, as demonstrated during the last European Summit, on 23 October 2011. To many, the European Union has too much control over Britain's national policies, and the financial mismanagements and mistakes made by many Eurozone countries are costing more every day to Britain, notably through its IMF membership. This belief is also supported by a recent poll, which has probably helped fan the flames : 70% of Britons are now asking for a vote and 49% say they would vote to leave the EU. This adds yet another dimension to the rebellion : this polls shows that there is an increasing drifts between a Prime Minister which seems to play down his Euroscepticism. Besides, there are only four years before the next general election - the same amount of time in which John Major faced a rebellion and humiliating electoral defeat. One of the reasons of this dissent may probably be the effects of being in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the fear that voters may turn away from the Conservative towards the more vocally anti-European parties such as UKIP, which has gained seats in the European Parliament in 2009.


What does all this mean for Britain ?

In English law as in very few others there is one founding principle, as upheld in 2005 during the R (Jackson) v Attorney General case : The bedrock of the British Constitution is […] the Supremacy of the Crown in Parliament. Parliament, in the United Kingdom, is sovereign. It is so important that for a very long time, it has been the centre of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Indeed, members of Her Majesty's Government are first elected to the House of Commons, then the leader of the party in majority is asked by the Sovereign to form a government. The appointed Prime Minister then draws his Cabinet from elected Members of Parliament. In 2009, the House of Lords ceased to be the "final arbiters of judicial disputes" when the Supreme Court came into existence. So what referendums do is that they undermine the power of Parliament : they imply that the parliament does not clearly understand the people and that its actions must be bound by public consultation. The powers of the parliament are further diminished because this debate about Europe originated from a new system under which petitions which are signed by more than 100,000 people must be discussed in the Commons.

One has to see this vote as carrying a lot of symbolism. MPs in the Commons abide by the traditional authority of party whips, and in particular of the Chief Whip which acts for the ruling party. They issue instructions to party members, the toughest of which are three-line whips, issued on key votes and votes of confidence and mean that the MP must attend, and face serious consequences of it challenges party instructions. This is what happened today : 43% of Tory MPs, totalling 82 backbenchers (not members of the Cabinet), directly defied the Prime Minister. While the vote failed because Labour and the Lib Dems voted against a referendum, the coalition no-longer held a majority of votes in the Commons, meaning that if Labour had chosen to abstain, the vote would have succeeded. This vote has many implications, it is a wake up call for Cameron and others. For the Prime Minister, it is the sign that many are growing impatient about his promised repatriation of powers and see the announced EU treaty revision as a way to either renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU, or leave altogether. 

Some advocate leaving the EU : but wouldn't that finish-off Britain's exports industry ? The EU would probably not agree a free-rider Great Britain being a member of the common market but not abiding by Communautary rules and legislation, and not contributing to the budget. What would that mean for Britons working for EU institutions and/or living overseas ? Would we face a wave of British immigration similar to the French wave after the independence of Algeria ? Could the economy take it ? Others want to go back to the EFTA : but again, would Britons adopt rules they had no say about and pay for a budget they can't get anything back from like the Swiss or the Norwegians do ? United or bickering, consenting or not, Europe is a large family where some choose to attend family diners and some don't. There is indeed a lot to criticize and say about how this family is run, but is it really conceivable that Britain slam the door on this family yet still get to decide whether paella or sauerkraut will be served, let alone sit at the table ? Nevertheless all of this shows that history repeats itself as the Conservatives yet again face a dividing crisis on Europe with lasting consequences, and that the European Union is more and more becoming a major electoral issue in the United Kingdom.






Image credits : toastbrot81/Jonud