The former deputy PM says the Tories have thrown away their record of leadership on the continentby Alex Dean / February 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…