Why Has Britain’s Membership In The EU Been So Divisive In British Politics?

Why Has Britain’s Membership In The EU Been So Divisive In British Politics?

By Jacob Guilherme

To understand the controversial nature of Britain’s membership within the EU in British politics, one must first understand its controversial nature within European politics, and its perceived status as an “awkward partner”. George (1998) (p5 - 41) explains that the European Economic Community was created after World War II, both to prevent any one European nation gaining excessive power, and also to help rebuild the shattered economies of Europe after the war. Initially, Britain was uninterested in joining; it had its sights firmly set on the Atlantic Alliance, and its trade aligned towards the Commonwealth. The 1957 Treaty of Rome was perceived to have not been observed with any seriousness by the British, and thus from the very earliest stages there was friction, however slight, between the European countries and Britain.

Honeyman (2017) suggests that as the ‘60s dawned, British trade began to shift towards the European countries, and the Tory government decided that the sensible decision was to join the E.E.C. However, the historic friction resurfaced, De Gaulle, of France, vetoed the Britain’s application twice over the coming decade. However, by 1973 De Gaulle had been replaced by Pompidou, and Britain was accepted into the E.E.C. under Ted Heath. Honeyman further explains that after his 1974 election, Wilson (who had initial concerns about the Common Agricultural Policy) held a referendum on E.E.C. membership. After private renegotiations with E.E.C. leaders in Dublin, 1975, Wilson informed the public that the government would suggest a ‘yes’ vote.

Though the referendum had a clear result (67% ‘yes - ‘33% no’), it – for the first time – publicly unveiled the political voice (however small) of Euroscepticism. Wikipedia explains that the referendum promise on Labour’s 1974 manifesto itself had been largely due to pressuring from a faction within the Labour party, led by Tony Benn, one of the first voices of Euroscepticism. This prompted another long-standing Eurosceptic, Conservative Enoch Powell, to openly encourage his voters to pledge allegiance to Labour in the 1974 election.

It is here, I argue, that the European relationship really became divisive in British politics. In this period, there was division in both the Labour and Conservative parties; indeed, the referendum itself had come from conflicting stances within the Labour party (Benn’s and Wilson’s). Wikipedia further suggests that the Conservative party were also somewhat divided, with some believing that membership of the E.E.C. would affect Britain’s relationship with America and the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, they assert that the Labour party in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was the predominant hive of Euroscepticism in the U.K. In 1979, the party manifesto even declared it would “oppose any move towards turning the Community into a federation”.

However, Kinnock’s leadership of Labour in 1983 resulted in a changed stance towards Europe, and instead advocated for further integration. A 1988 speech by European Commission President Jacques Delors further quelled the Eurosceptic wing of the party. Thus, as the B.B.C. reports in 2013, the next significant division over Europe was catalysed by the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Despite having campaigned for the ‘yes’ campaign in the 1975 referendum, she quickly lost patience with the E.E.C. upon her election, and campaigned from 1980 until 1984 to lower U.K. contributions to the E.E.C. - she succeeded. There was further tension created between Europe and Thatcher after the 1988 Bruges speech. Thatcher, whose ideal state was small, had a clear ideological conflict with the increasingly federalist E.E.C., stating- “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state”. However, her stance caused divisions in her party, with the B.B.C. adding: “It delighted the right of her party but horrified those more wellinclined towards Europe. All of this came against a backdrop of a government split over whether to join the [European Exchange Rate Mechanism].”

The Europeans would prove to be Thatcher’s undoing. After Delors suggested a European model in which national sovereignty would be diminished, Thatcher spoke out against the plan in the House of Commons, as well as against the single currency (Wikipedia, 2017). Within days, the government itself was actively divided – deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe resigned. And though Thatcher was not beaten in the ensuing leadership contest, she too resigned on the 22nd November 1990.

It was the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which, in my opinion, marked the beginning of the most divisive period in British politics over Europe. The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and the Euro currency, and began the process of further political integration between the European countries. However, throughout the ‘90s into the beginning of the 21st century, the issue was of minor importance to the general public, with Wikipedia stating “[m]any commentators believe overinterest in the issue to be an important reason why the Conservative Party lost the General Election of 2001. They argue that the British electorate was more influenced by domestic issues than by European affairs.”

In my opinion, the primary catalyst for the intense division in British politics regarding the E.U. in the 21st has been the arrival of the United Kingdom Independence Party (U.K.I.P.) onto the political scene. As stated on their Wikipedia page, U.K.I.P. was formed in 1993 by Professor Alan Sked from the ashes of the Anti- Federalist league, a one-issue Eurosceptic party, but was initially insignificant in the broader political scene. Sked was pressured to resign by a group led by Nigel Farage in 1997; however, it was not until 2006 that Farage was elected leader of the party. By this time, U.K.I.P. has become more significant; in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, it had secured 2.6 million votes (16.1%) winning it 12 seats. Farage set about turning his party into more than just a single-issue entity, and adopted a plethora of socially right-wing stances in the party’s rhetoric, including immigration reform, which would become a controversial topic of debate over the coming years.

Indeed, by 2014, when U.K.I.P. had received 26.6% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections, Farage was being attacked by both politicians and the media. That year, Labour MPs Dianne Abbott, Yvette Cooper and David Lammy branded him a “racist” (Mason, 2017). Farage would later speak on the immigration stance of fellow Eurosceptic Enoch Powell, saying of the latter’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech: “it... allowed that liberal media elite to make immigration a banned subject.” (You Kipper, 2016) As U.K.I.P. gained popularity, they began to pose a threat to the officially pro-European Conservative and Labour parties. As early as May 2013, David Cameron was under pressure to hold a membership referendum in order to halt the progress of U.K.I.P. (Walters and Lawson, 2013). Again this showcases significant division over the European issue, though this time in the form of the underdog against the establishment. That a recently-fledgling political entity could rise within two decades to pressure the Conservative party into promising a referendum in its manifesto – referendums themselves scarce in British history – was unprecedented. When the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, the ideologues on both side of the E.U. issue quickly formed their campaigns, with “Britain Stronger in Europe” and “Vote Leave” both formed within days of each other (Wikipedia, 2017). This resurfaced in-party division once again, with Vote Leave becoming a cross-party campaign including all three parties, whilst the leaders of both Labour and the Conservatives encouraged voters to remain within the E.U. As the B.B.C. politics website suggests, the key points of debate quickly centred around immigration and national sovereignty, and became (as Tim Stanley for the Telegraph writes) “a contest between the establishment [on the side of Remain] and the people [on the side of Leave]”, adding “half their effort is ‘project fear’” about the Remain campaign.

In my opinion, the results of the referendum showcased the most worrying divide in British politics over the E.U.; the 51.9% of the population who voted to leave the Union proved that the masses’ vision of Britain’s future was not that of the ruling elite. Machiavelli said that no king may rule without the support of his people, whereas he may do it without the support of his nobles; Cameron had made the mistake of accepting the will of the elite, and not the people. As such, he did not have the latter’s support, and so could not longer “rule”, shortly after tendering his resignation. Wikipedia suggests this effectively put an end to the era of the “Notting Hill Set” of the Conservative party – yet another division caused by the debate on Europe.

To conclude, I argue that the European relationship has been amongst the most divisive issues in British politics in the last century. From its inception, where it was opposed by factions within both Labour (for its federalist visions) and the Conservatives (for its damaging effect on U.K.-Commonwealth relations), the European Union has become a fiercely dividing topic of debate. As the federalist goals of the project became clearer, Euroscepticism became a more common phenomenon, with even Thatcher declaring her opposition to the Euro and further political integration; the referendum showcased that the division, largely over national sovereignty and immigration, had become most defined between the masses and the political class.


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Brit Politics. 2017. Why is the EU such a divisive issue in the UK? [Online] [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from http://www.britpolitics.co.uk/a-level-guide-eu-divisive-issuebritish-politics

George, Stephen (1998) An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community, Oxford University Press

Honeyman, V. 2017. British Politics lecture. 28th February, Leeds University.

Mason, R. 2017. Yvette Cooper and David Lammy attack Nigel Farage over ‘racist’ comments. [Online] [Accessed: 4th March 2017] from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/19/nigel-farageracist-yvette-cooper-david-lammy .

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Walters, S. and Lawson, H. 2013. David Cameron under pressure to hold ‘mandate referendum’ on EU to halt UKIP rise as Nigel Farage says he may ‘consider’ working with a different Tory leader. [Online] [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2319717/DavidCameron-pressure-hold-mandate-referendum-EU-halt-UKIP-riseNigel-Farage-says-consider-working-different-Tory-leader.html

Wikipedia. 2017. Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euroscepticism_in_the_united_kin gdom

Wikipedia. 2017. Maastricht Treaty [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maastricht_Treaty

Wikipedia. 2017. UK Independence Party [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_Independence_Party

Wikipedia. 2017. Notting Hill set [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notting_Hill_set

You Kipper. 2016. Nigel Farage on Enoch Powell. [Online] [Accessed 2nd March 2017] from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fvn6tpo0-vI

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