Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Election special: Day of reckoning

Gareth Jenkins

The Tories are now a demoralised rump of 165 in the Commons and they are as divided as ever. The squabbling and backstabbing are likely to get worse the long Tory agony over Europe shows no sign of abating.

Divisions over Europe erupted as an issue early on in the election. John Major's painstakingly constructed compromise of wait and see over the question of joining a single European currency was an attempt to keep the cabinet and the wider party united but reflected the real dilemma facing different sections of the British ruling class and in turn the political tensions within the Tory Party itself. On the one hand, as the party of big business, it has a vital interest in opening up to Europe (which led to Britain signing the Treaty of Rome under Edward Heath). On the other, its traditional base of flag waving jingoists is pathologically suspicious of any kind of foreign interference.

So Major's compromise could be all things to all people. One classic example was the chancellor and the foreign secretary emerging from 10 Downing Street to reiterate how united the cabinet was on Europe. Kenneth Clarke said that Britain could join if the terms were right, while Malcolm Rifkind stated that Britain would not join unless the terms were right.

It was a compromise that might have held had it not been for the growing crisis over Maastricht itself (which had earlier led Major to agree to a referendum over a single currency, were the government ever to propose joining). When Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party declared it would stand against Tories perceived as 'soft' on Europe, the pressure to move further to the right led to a grassroots rebellion against the official party line.

Hundreds of Tory candidates, many in marginal constituencies, and many with funds from ex scrap iron millionaire Paul Sykes, substituted their own anti-EMU message. Even members of the government got away without punishment. They hoped that waving the flag might save them from disaster at the polls and allow them to emerge as the dominant faction in the party. Euro-traitors, such as Clarke and Heseltine, would be isolated and John Major or his successor forced to move decisively against the common currency.

In practice Eurosceptics were no better at hanging onto their seats than Europhiles. Nor was the Referendum Party a decisive force. David Mellor, a bitter opponent of Euroscepticism, narrowly lost at Putney and angrily denounced his Referendum Party opponent, Sir James Goldsmith, at the declaration. Edwina Currie, also a high profile pro-European, was another casualty. Yet Dame Angela Rumbold, a former chairman of the party, who 'came out' against the party line, was trounced at Mitcham and Morden. Goldsmith himself only got 1,518 votes and the average across the London seats where the Referendum Party stood was only about 1,100.

The truth is that Europe was not an issue in deciding the election.


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