The Conservative Party and Europe
London: John Harper Publishing, 2011
Paperback. xii+404 p. ISBN 978-0956450876. £17.76
Reviewed by Richard Hayton
University of Leeds
Ben Patterson is one of an increasingly rare breed: a pro-European British Conservative. In this thoughtful and erudite book he skilfully maps out the shifting terrain of the debate about European integration in his party since the end of the Second World War. Given the prominence of the issue of Europe in Conservative Party politics over the past few decades this is somewhat well trodden terrain. As well as being the focus of numerous journal articles, the subject matter has received dedicated book-length treatment by academics (most notably Crowson, 2009; and Turner, 2000) and looms large in other studies of the politics of the party more generally. Patterson is familiar with this corpus and utilises it effectively in his history of the Conservatives’ handling of the European question. However, he also infuses his analysis with personal reflections derived from his own career in European politics: researching and teaching the subject in the 1960s; working for the European Parliament’s London office in the 1970s; serving as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1979 until 1994; and then, following the loss of his seat, working for the parliament as a researcher for a further decade.
Patterson’s personal devotion to the European project is self-evident throughout the volume, as is his disquiet with the firmly Eurosceptic direction of travel his party has assumed since the 1980s. As he notes in the preface, when he won his seat in the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, he did so as a representative of ‘the party of Europe’ [xi] and on a manifesto which advocated ‘commitment to the Community’s true ideals and purposes’ . In the words of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke who penned the book’s foreword, Patterson’s pro-integration standpoint consequently ‘represented the mainstream majority’ [ix] in the Conservative Party at the time. By the time the Conservatives lost power in 1997 however, the ‘militant Eurosceptic tendency, having captured the castle, was more interested in doctrinal purity than in winning the next general election’ . Even under the modernising leadership of David Cameron, when the Conservatives sought to ‘return to the centre ground of politics in the field, in particular, of social policy, there was no similar call for a move away from Euroscepticism’ .
In seeking to explain this radical shift in his party’s position Patterson’s analysis traverses a range of plausible factors, but three in particular stand out. One is the sentiment that he suggests has driven many formerly pro-European voices with the Conservative Party to switch to a more hostile position – namely the belief that they only signed up to join a ‘Common Market’, not a political union [273-278]. And yet, as his book usefully reminds us, ‘it is just not true that the European Community was presented to the British people as nothing more than an economic project’ . On the contrary, ‘it was generally accepted that EEC membership involved a trade-off: economic benefits and greater Western unity on the one hand, limitations on national freedom of action on the other’ . Due to a combination of circumstances, notably the end of the Cold War and the perception that the European social model is increasingly at odds with their preferred Anglo-American one, this is a trade-off many Conservatives no longer wish to accept. Secondly, public and media opinion in Britain (no doubt with the former being influenced in part by the latter) has been markedly more Eurosceptic than the norm in the rest of the EU [299-303]. Thirdly, Patterson suggests that positioning on European integration in Britain has been defined in part by party competition, with the Conservatives seeking to differentiate themselves from Labour by being more pro-European from the 1960s-1980s, and more sceptical since the 1990s.
While his analysis is fair-minded it does not disguise Patterson’s hope that the Conservatives might once again embrace a positive attitude towards the European Union. The fact that the positions of both the UK’s major political parties have changed substantially indicate to him that they could do so once again. As he puts it: ‘the current stance of the Conservative Party in relation to the European Union is therefore susceptible to change, as was its pro-European stance in the 1960s, the 1970s and early 1980s’ . Yet to reach such a conclusion Patterson must downplay the transformative effect of Thatcherism on the party’s ideological outlook, which etched Euroscepticism into the Conservatives’ philosophical DNA (Hayton, 2012). Indeed, following the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010 Patterson concluded that ‘the most likely outcome’ was a return to pragmatic engagement with the EU by the Conservatives . He concluded that David Cameron meanwhile, ‘while possibly still mildly Eurosceptic at heart’ would prove to be ‘enough of a pragmatist to adapt to his political environment’ . The return to office after a 13-year absence and with a pro-European coalition partner does not however, appear to have tempered Conservative attitudes towards the EU – if anything the opposite appears to be the case. The Prime Minister has vetoed treaty changes and wishes to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, and his party is pledged to hold an in-out referendum in 2017. Patterson’s views consequently appear more distant from the current of opinion in his party than ever. In its desire to make a positive Conservative case for European integration this volume will therefore fall largely on deaf ears.
Crowson, N. (2009) The Conservative Party and European Integration since 1945 : At the Heart of Europe? London: Routledge.
Hayton, R. (2012) Reconstructing Conservatism? The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997-2010, Manchester: University Press.
Turner, J. (2000) The Tories and Europe, Manchester: University Press.
Cercles © 2014
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.