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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

A Case of British Resistance to EU Membership: Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party

Agnès Alexandre-Collier

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1This conference invites us to consider the relationship between territory and the nation state. It suggests that one might not perceive the issue of federalism and devolution as incompatible. For the British Conservative and Unionist Party, this certainly cannot be considered true. Disraeli's principle of "One Nation", on which the party has relied since the nineteenth century, both stresses the unity of the British nation inside the country and the promotion of British interests abroad.

  • 1 See Rose, 1964, for a distinction between tendencies and factions in British political parties.

2Although it has always played the patriotic card, the Party was also known as the party of Europe, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. With Margaret Thatcher's premiership, the Conservative Party shifted to a more sceptical stance, showing some forms of opposition or at least resistance to European integration. This phenomenon culminated in the emergence of a separate tendency within the parliamentary Conservative Party after 1988 when Margaret Thatcher delivered her Bruges speech which set out the main principles of contemporary Euroscepticism.1

3In conceptual terms, this paper suggests that British Euroscepticism can be understood by using the concept of the "centre" as an analytical tool to shed light on the process of resistance to the European Union. Eurosceptics argue that the EU threatens the loyalty, identity and commitment of British citizens to the centre which is the nation-state. For them, the European process will lead to another centre which challenges the existence of nation-states. In general, the idea of a multiplication of centres and plural identity (region/nation/Europe/world) is perceived by Eurosceptics as incompatible with their British identity.

4This article examines the flashpoints between nationalism – which I would define here as a strong commitment to the nation-state – and supranationalism, i.e. transferring powers to a higher authority. I wish to analyse the tensions between the primacy of nationhood in the arguments of some Conservative backbenchers, i.e. the Thatcherite MPs who opposed the Maastricht Treaty despite the Party's instructions, and the necessary adjustment to European integration in the official strategy of the party in the early 1990s. The conflict in the Conservative Party during the premiership of John Major, to which I am alluding, illustrates a British paradox between a rhetorical resistance to the EU and an actual involvement in the process of European integration, which has never failed. Indeed, since the referendum in June 1975, the membership of the EC has never been questioned by the successive Conservative governments.

5From an empirical point of view, this paper is based on the results of a survey conducted in 1992-94 by a team at the University of Sheffield on the attitudes of Conservative backbenchers towards European integration (Baker et al., 1995, 221-233). It also draws on twenty-four interviews carried out from February 1994 to March 1996 with Conservative MPs.

6As we have already seen, a leading thread in British resistance to the EU is a commitment to the dominant role of the nation state as the central organising concept. To justify the primacy of the nation, we will see that the interviewees resort to several rhetorical strategies. Often, they focus on the major symbols of the centre, such as Parliament and the currency. Sometimes, fearing the erosion of national sovereignty, they try to identify the threats to it. Eurosceptical MPs therefore reject federalism and subsidiarity as a means of reconciling the existence of two centres, or the dominance of an alternative centre to that of the nation-state. We can also notice that threats to the nation-state lead to a rejection of infra-nationalism – the devolution of power from the centre to the regions in the UK. In short, with the rejection of infra- and supra-nationalism, it seems that Euroscepticism is not simply synonymous with nationalism but it reveals primordialem – loyalty to the nation as being one, single, predominant locus of power.

Britain as/at the centre

7Many Conservatives consider the nation-state as the "only viable way in a democracy" (William Walker MP, personal interview). Nationalism appears to be firmly fixed in the parliamentary party. The Sheffield survey confirmed both the rejection of supra-nationalism and the primacy of national sovereignty: 62% of the respondents thought that sovereignty could not be pooled. 88% thought that the supranational powers of EU institutions should not be increased and 80% that the Council of Ministers should be the supreme institution in the EU.

8Actually, the prevalence of the nation-state has different meanings for Conservatives. To some of them, it means that only Britain is the centre of loyalty. Many MPs, especially the well-known Eurosceptics, regularly "wrap themselves in the flag". One of them, John Carlisle, unambiguously expressed his attachment to his country in these terms: "I am incredibly patriotic. I respect other people's patriotism but to me Britain always comes first" (personal interview). To others, this means on the contrary that Britain should play a central part in the European process. This was the view expressed by Prime Minister John Major in the early 1990s. In a famous speech delivered in Bonn in March 1991, he declared: "My aims for Britain in the Community can be simply stated. I want us to be where we belong. At the very heart of Europe".

Defending symbols of the centre

9Eurosceptics also hint at national sovereignty by referring to what they identify as its core symbols. First, the British Parliament remains the very symbol of national sovereignty, especially for people who work as MPs: "I think that if you serve in the British Parliament, having gone through four general elections as I have, and all that that implies, and the history of this place, you're very anxious to preserve the sovereignty" (John Carlisle MP, personal interview). The Sheffield survey noted that the majority of Conservative backbenchers share this opinion: 82% of the respondents agreed with the following statement: "the key to closing the 'democratic deficit' is strengthening the scrutiny by national parliaments of the EU legislative process". 56% of them even considered that an "Act of Parliament should be passed to establish explicitly the ultimate supremacy of Parliament over EU legislation".

  • 2 House of Commons (Hansard), Parliamentary Debates, 6th Series, vol. 207, col.87, 06/05/92.

10Secondly, the currency is the central focus of Conservative Euroscepticism. For these Euro-rebels – as they were called by the Press – the idea of creating a single European currency which would replace the national currencies is the best illustration of the fact that nationalism and European supranationalism cannot be simply superimposed. They cannot be considered as two levels of identity. Actually, the majority of the Conservative MPs who took part in the Sheffield survey even expressed the fear that with the creation of a European single currency, the nationstates will not only weaken or become obsolete but are bound to disappear: 51% of them thought that "the establishment of a single EU currency would signal the end of the UK as a sovereign nation". As MP Patrick McNair-Wilson said in the House of Commons: "People used to laugh at the words 'loss of sovereignty' but if we cannot issue our own money, we have no control over our destiny".2 For some Eurosceptics, the single currency not only threatens the sovereignty of the nation but also its very existence: "A Single Currency will destroy the economy, destroy the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and destroy the Conservative Party" (Gill, 1995, 6).

Defending the centre against threats

Continental Europe and history

11Eurosceptics also list various threats to national sovereignty as a means of refining their definition of the nation-state. First and foremost, their excessive use of the word "continent" to refer to Europe underlines the physical and mental separation between them/their island and the rest of Europe.

12Germany is the centre of attention here. Standing alone against Nazi Germany in 1940, the British still have strong reservations against the Germans and some of them fear that Germany might gain excessive strength in the European Union. This view is expressed by the majority of the Conservatives. 58% of the Conservative respondents agreed with the idea that "a federal EU would be German dominated". In particular, the reluctance of some Eurosceptics who belong to the post-war generation is determined by their personal experiences, for example William Cash, one of the leading Eurosceptics, whose father was killed by the Germans during the war. A source of anti-German feeling is the idea that the EC is a "German racket to take over Europe", an expression used by Nicholas Ridley, a former Industry Secretary in one of Margaret Thatcher's governments, in the interview he gave to The Spectator in July 1990.

13Eurosceptics also suggest that British democracy is a model which the EU threatens because it is composed of countries which, unlike Britain, experienced authoritarian regimes during or even after the war: "We didn't have an authoritarian regime or a coup d'Etat like the Greeks, the Spanish or the Portuguese" (Andrew Robathan MP, personal interview). As a rule, history and geography are also used to express the specificity of the British nation as opposed to the "continent":

Our whole background, our society, is that we are an island of independent people. Still, we have a great affinity for it [Europe] if you look at our history with the French and Germans.... So we have very strong European ties but our independence is something which we hold very dear. (Nicolas Bonsor MP, personal interview)

We've got a very different way of looking at things and we are geographically and physically on the edge of Europe... and we also have a very different history revealed in our links with the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. (Andrew Robathan MP, personal interview)

14For the staunchest opponents of the EU, British identity and European identity are not only different and incompatible, but also mutually exclusive: "We want good relationships with Europe but we don't want to be part of a European nation. Our identity is British. Our identity is not European" (Tony Marlow MP, personal interview).

The European Commission

15What is also striking is that the notion of the centre is a recurrent theme in Eurosceptical arguments. This is brought to life through words like "centralisation" or "centralism" which are pejoratively associated with the European Commission. As the majority of Conservative MPs argue that the centre of decision-making can only lie in London and more precisely in Westminster, they simply refuse the idea that central authority could also derive from Brussels. Therefore, 61% of them think that the Commission should lose the right to initiate legislation, not only because the Commission is unaccountable to Parliament, but also because commissioners are considered as "foreigners". The Eurosceptics' obsessive fear of being ruled by the European Commission is a leitmotiv in their statements:

I don't think there is anything controlled by national states at the moment that should in fact be controlled by the Commission or by Brussels". (Warren Hawksley MP, personal interview)

"I am very sceptical about anything being done in a centralist way in Brussels" (Michael Lord MP, personal interview)

"My view is that if we think that something is desirable, it should be brought into effect by the British Parliament and not imposed upon us by foreigners in Brussels". (Peter Tapsell MP, personal interview)

Federalism and subsidiarity

16The rejection of federalism, which is sometimes mentioned to define the political set-up of the European Union, is in keeping with that view. For the majority of the Conservative Party, federalism equals centralisation. The word "federal" itself sums up so many nightmares that in 1991, Prime Minister John Major had to promise that any reference to the "F-word" – as some Eurosceptics called it – would be removed from the Maastricht Treaty. There are many reasons for this fear. First, according to John Butterfill, a pro-European Conservative MP, there seem to be competing interpretations of this notion: "'Federal', in English, means a relatively decentralised state with most decisions being taken locally and it is understood wrongly in England to mean a unitary and centralised state" (personal interview). However, for many Eurosceptics, there is no misunderstanding of the word:

There should be no equivocation about the word 'federal'. Some like to claim that the word 'federal' means 'centralising' in the UK but it means 'decentralising' in Germany or France. On both sides of the Channel, a federal state is a state in which the members subordinate their national responsibilities to a higher authority. (Duncan-Smith et al., 1994, 33)

17In this respect, even the notion of subsidiarity is questioned although it was defended by John Major's government as a way to prevent the European Commission's encroachment on the national states. This is all the more surprising as John Major has never acknowledged the relevance of this notion as applied to the regions. Article 3B of the Maastricht Treaty specifies that: "Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaty". According to the Sheffield survey, 31% of the respondents think that "subsidiarity reinforces the federalist tendency of the EU". One of the Eurosceptics said: "Subsidiarity is a nonsense. It's wrong in theory. Let's compare it to the federalism of the US.... In America when you had the constitutional conference, you gave things to the centre, so subsidiarity is wrong in principle" (Sir Rhodes Boyson MP, personal interview).

"Primordial" centre

18The majority of Conservative Eurosceptics address the question of loyalty to the centre/nation indirectly, i.e. either through its symbols or its threats. This means that they have difficulty defining this centre, although they focus all their attention on it. Indeed, the nation-state remains, for them, the only source of all political power and the very centre of legitimacy. Their arguments show that the "nation", whether it means national sovereignty or national identity, unconditionally prevails.

19This view refers to primordialism, a theory of nationalism which states that there are "primordial ties" (Geertz, 1963, 109) which emotionally bind human beings to certain values such as their nation or their ethnic group. According to Anthony Smith (1995, 32),

[the extreme version of this theory] holds that we have an ethnic identity as we have speech, sight or smell.... Primordialism regards human beings as belonging 'by nature' to fixed ethnic communities, in the same way as they belong to families.... No distinction is made between nations and ethnies. Both are seen as equally part of the natural order, and nationalism is a naturalistic attribute of humanity.

20Eurosceptics view cultural identity as the precipitate of generations of shared memories and experiences which can only be expressed in terms of national identity. In this respect, European identity is not only a threat but also an artefact. It has therefore no legitimate existence.

21Since the late 1980s, the Conservative Party has suffered from the discrepancy between their unconditional attachment to their nation and the inevitable process of European integration, which illustrates again the British paradox I have already referred to. Indeed, if Europe is a centre of decision-making, how can Britain benefit from it without acknowledging its legitimacy?

22In the name of the nation, John Major's government was even prepared to devote all its energy to defending the principle of subsidiarity although he was unwilling to transfer powers to the regions. Under William Hague's leadership, it seems that this gap has widened. With the possibility of a referendum on a single currency, it is bound to become a real problem as the European single currency both symbolises the surrender of national sovereignty and represents a means of coping with growing interdependence in the future.

23But beyond this crisis, it seems that Euroscepticism has helped to launch a debate on the nature of the European Union and it has also cast new light on the identity of a country which is clinging to its past while moving towards the third millennium. Britain is confronted with the dilemma between tradition and modernity but to most Conservatives, accepting the latter necessarily implies renouncing the former. Whether this is also true of Tony Blair's new Labour government is an open question. In this respect, the decision over whether to join the Euro will be an acid test.


Works Cited

Baker, David, Imogen Fountain, Andrew Gamble and Steve Ludlam, 1995. "Backbench Attitudes to European Integration." Political Quarterly 66.2: 221-233.

Disraeli, Benjamin, 1845. Sybil or the Two Nations. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, The World's Classics, 1st edition.

Duncan-Smith, Iain, Bernard Jenkin, Barry Legg, John Whittingdale and Walter Sweeney [The 'No Turning Back' Group of Conservative MPs], 1994. A Conservative Europe, 1994 and Beyond. London: The European Foundation.

Geertz, Clifford, 1963. "The integrative revolution – primordial sentiments and civil politics in the new states." In C. Geertz, ed., 1963. Old Societies and New States. London: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Gill, Christopher, MP. 1995. Speaking Out on Europe. Bruges Group Occasional Paper n ° 18.

Major, John, 1991. The Evolution of Europe. London: Conservative Political Centre & Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Ridley, Nicholas, 1990. "Saying the unsayable about the Germans." The Spectator 14 July 1990.

Rose, Richard, 1964. "Factions and tendencies in Britain." Political Studies 12. l: 33-46.

Smith, Anthony D., 1995. Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era. London: Polity Press.


1 See Rose, 1964, for a distinction between tendencies and factions in British political parties.

2 House of Commons (Hansard), Parliamentary Debates, 6th Series, vol. 207, col.87, 06/05/92.


Université de Bourgogne

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