Earlier this week we delved in to our oral history archive to discover the divisions within the Labour Party over Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1970s. In today’s blogpost, we’ve returned to our archive to uncover memories of the struggle to ratify the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and the resulting impact on the Conservative Party.
The Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992. It created the European Union out of the previous European Economic Community and put in place the infrastructure for a single currency. John Major, Prime Minister and Conservative leader, agreed the Treaty on the understanding that the UK could opt out of particular sections, such as the ‘Social Chapter’ agenda for workplace legislation and the Euro itself. It was only after the 1992 General Election – a surprising victory for the Conservatives – that the split over the treaty became evident. September’s ‘Black Wednesday’, when currency speculation forced the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism at an estimated cost of £3.4billion, made the situation worse. The Treaty itself came under increasingly scrutiny, and opposition emerged from the Conservative back benches.
John Major’s government was determined to ratify the treaty through legislation in the House of Commons, and during 1992 and 1993 faced an uphill struggle from a group of Conservatives determined to block UK agreement. Several of these rebels, including Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Rochford and Southend East, and James Cran, MP for Beverley, had opposed British entry into the EEC in 1975. As the government geared up to pass the Maastricht legislation, opponents began to organise, as described here by James Cran:
Indeed, the Whips knew that they had a significant battle on their hands, especially as the Conservative majority in the Commons was only small and reduced further thanks to by-election defeats. To pass the legislation the government was forced to take tough measures, including classing some parts of the legislation as votes of confidence, some of which were only narrowly won. There were plenty of stories about the whips bullying people to support the government on the bill. In his interview, Timothy Kirkhope, who was a party whip at the time, argued that in his view the MPs had agreed to party discipline when they had accepted the Conservative party nomination for Parliament.
The tactics worked on enough Conservative MPs to pass the legislation, after some close shaves, but not after an uphill battle, as described here by rebel and MP for Stroud Roger Knapman:
Although the legislation passed, later rebellions saw nine Conservative members either having the party whip withdrawn or resigning it. For Sir Richard Body, MP for Holland and Boston, this was a period he enjoyed:
Whilst opinions were mixed, several of the Maastricht rebels we have interviewed were proud of their stand. James Cran argued: “It certainly stunted one’s political career…but you’re not there to become an unremembered, anonymous Parliamentary secretary. I was proud of all of that.” For many others in the party, however, sympathy for the rebels was in short supply. Timothy Kirkhope described other Conservatives becoming “progressively irritated” by the “antics” of the rebels, and others simply stated that they could not have voted against their party, as described here by James Couchman:
It turned out, as Roger Knapman said above, to be a “terrible” time for the Conservatives, and had a significant impact on their electoral chances in 1997.