Michael Heseltine: how the Conservative Party turned its back on Europe

The former deputy PM says the Tories have thrown away their record of leadership on the continent

February 04, 2019
Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

Britain’s departure from Europe is owned by the Conservative Party. It was a Tory PM who called the referendum in 2016 and another will likely implement the result. The most vocal Leavers are found on the Tory benches, some of whom literally view the EU as a hostile foreign power. Yet it was not always so. It was a Conservative leader, Harold Macmillan, who first sought British membership of the European Communities, another who took us in (Edward Heath), and another who pioneered the single market (Margaret Thatcher).

Michael Heseltine has watched the saga unfold for the better part of a century, having joined the party at 18 when Churchill was leader. As an MP he rose to cabinet rank under Thatcher and later played a part in her downfall, before climbing to deputy PM under John Major—though he never got the top job. Famously a passionate pro-European, Heseltine has roared back to life since the referendum and now makes withering interventions in the Lords. At 85 he remains an impressive performer.

When I caught him on the phone he told me how the Conservative Party helped build Britain's place in Europe. So what changed, I asked him. And was it now trashing its own legacy?

“I remember Neville Chamberlain announcing the Second World War, so I have lived through all the circumstances that in modern terms explain the European movement… you have to appreciate the devastating effect of the war on the British position as leader of the Empire and Commonwealth.” The response was delivered in the familiar Heseltine drawl. “The country required a massive rebirth industrially and commercially, which involved a reorientation... it is a great tribute to the Conservatives that they faced the pain of these adjustments and told the truth about them, and reoriented Britain's position into realism with our European relationships.”

It was not until the start of the 1960s that Britain formally asked to join the European Community, which then comprised six countries. A Conservative PM, Harold Macmillan, took the lead. He “had a vision that Britain should take its place within the logic of the European family,” Heseltine said. The bid was unsuccessful, but by 1972 another Conservative, Edward Heath, had secured a British spot at the top table. This was ratified with the 1975 referendum. Of course “once we went into the European communities, over time it became the European Union and changed from being just a common market, it developed and became the single market.” In this development it was yet another Tory, Margaret Thatcher, who played a principal role. Heseltine and Thatcher famously had their differences—he challenged her for the leadership, leading to her downfall—but on this point he was firmly supportive.

“When we joined… what Margaret knew and all of us knew… was that if we didn't play a full and leading role in the creation of that single market then the French and the Germans would, and they would set standards that suited their industry and not ours… and so quite rightly Margaret played the formative role. All of that was within the Conservative logic that began, you could say, with the great speeches of Churchill that we should create a kind of ‘United States of Europe’.”

The single market was an astonishing achievement. It eliminated trade barriers in a way not found anywhere else in the world. All Europe’s members reaped the economic rewards and a Tory PM paved the way. “Certainly all the way through it has been my party that has led and formed this evolution from imperial grandeur to European partnership,” Heseltine said.

Yet today Britain is leaving that very same market and a Conservative leader is enacting the policy. What happened? For Heseltine the root cause can be traced back to the 1980s.

“There is another longer-term issue here and Margaret must carry responsibility for this. Because signing the Single European Act was visionary, was in British interests and was a considerable political achievement. What perhaps was not taken into account was the consequence of the changes that would follow, when some 400 new specifications and standards were agreed to create the single market, and each one of those had to go to the British parliament and be implemented.”

But “instead of Margaret explaining that this was yes painful, yes boring, but the inevitable consequence of creating a single market with all its opportunity, she did the cheap and easy thing. She blamed the Europeans. And of course there were newspapers in this country only too anxious to latch onto that grievance and put the blame on to Europe.” The narrative of EU interference in British affairs took off. It would grow louder as integration pressed on, but “that's where the rot started… we've never fully recovered from it.”

That rot did for Thatcher in the end and has shaped the story of the Conservative Party ever since, from John Major’s “bastards” in the 1990s through to the present day. “John Major had a problem, of course we did, but there were limited numbers of them.”

The tipping point came in the aftermath of the financial crisis. “The electorate wanted a scalp,” he said. Immigration was deeply unpopular and “the fact that more people come from outside the European Union was lost.” By this point Europe had become a “whipping boy” for everything that was going wrong in society. The hardliners had their opportunity to secure a referendum. Cameron promised a vote to hold his party together, but the final result was a profound shock. The party that had done so much for Britain in Europe would now be taking us out.

The Tories now “seem to be throwing it away” said Heseltine. “Unbelievably the Conservative Party is leading a conscious process, diminishing the stature of this country on the world stage. We are substituting delusions of unspecified opportunities for the realism of the only market on our doorstep of real size, in which we have a stake that is essential for prosperity.”

“How can any political party lead a nation into a circumstance where its people will be poorer as a result of that leadership? And how above all else can a Conservative Party do that?”

It is a question many pro-Europeans on the Tory benches are now asking. The party is bitterly divided. Remainers and Leavers are waging parliamentary war and each side accuses the other of out and out treachery. Some believe there is a risk of permanent rupture.

On this point Heseltine urged calm. “There will always be factions within the Conservative Party as there are in every party. But the party has been historically successful in putting the national interest into the mix which has secured a cohesion…one of the reasons for its success is its ability to come together.”

It may reunite once this sorry episode is over. But there is no escaping the fact that UK departure “will be seen as a Tory government decision.” The Conservatives once helped to establish Britain’s place in Europe. Brexit has changed all of that. The simple truth, said Heseltine, is that “my party owns it.”