Conservative Prime Ministers  Legacy on Europe

David Cameron entered Number Ten 11th May 2010 the youngest Prime Minister in 198 years and will have the largest legacy in history as it pertains to Conservative Party and European Union (EU) history. Past Conservative Prime Ministers Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Thatcher and Major similarly had contributed to this complicated relationship. Moreover, 4 of the 6 Prime Ministers were defeated by the European issue through elections, or resignations. This article will aim to give a brief overview of the attitudes of these Prime Ministers and Europe.

Winston Churchill

Churchill had initially floated the idea of a European Community in 1946 as he stated in Zurich:

‘We must build a sort of United States of Europe.’[1]

This did not reflect the view of the Conservative Party there were three strands of thinking regarding Europe in the Conservative Party. The first were the ‘Europeanists’ who supported closer relations with Europe. The second group were the ‘Sceptics’ who were more ambivalent towards Europe they believed Britain should have a limited role in Europe and have strong ties to the United States. The last group were the ‘Anti-Marketers’ who felt that Britain had an independent leading world role to play with the Commonwealth and Empire. Churchill however, as the ‘man who won the war’ was not satisfied with being leader of the opposition in the late 1940s and wanted a world role to play. A European Community offered such a platform – however as Churchill became Prime Minister in 1951 he became less interested in Europe. This change in attitude did show that Churchill used Europe as a tool to win a general election.

Anthony Eden

Eden had been groomed to take over from Churchill – he had been foreign secretary under Churchill 1951-55 – his largest legacy being the Suez Crisis. Eden was part of the Sceptics stating that:

‘Britain was broke Europe was broker’[2]

He remained sceptical of a supranational organisation having the ability to take powers away from Parliament. He even rejected a plan proposed by French Prime Minister Guy Mollet. Mollet suggested that Britain and France create a political and economic union which was rejected by Eden. This did mean in the future France would look towards Germany as a natural ally. This is seen throughout the history of the Community as its foundations were built on a Franco-Germen relationship.

Harold Macmillan

Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden and had an immense task as Prime Minister to re-establish Britain’s role in the world after the Suez crisis had damaged the Anglo-US relationship. Macmillan had pro-European instincts and was vital in the creation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960. EFTA was a British response to the European Economic Community (EEC) as the economies of the EEC members were developing rapidly and leaving Britain behind.

With a damaged relationship with the US, decolonisation, and a poor economy Macmillan decided in 1961 to apply for EEC membership. This was quickly rejected by De Gaulle the French President he argued that Britain would be the United States Trojan Horse in the EEC. Macmillan had worked extensively on Europe since 1945 and had proposed various plans for intergovernmental frameworks that Europe could have developed towards. However, these plans were ultimately rejected and the EEC was created which Macmillan wished to join by 1960 though this would not occur until 1973.

Edward Heath

Edward Heath came into power in 1970 and was the most pro-European Prime Minister post World War Two. It was under Heath in which Britain entered the Community in 1973 on their third bid for membership (a second attempt after Macmillan was made by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1967). Britain’s application was accepted namely due to France’s internal political situation. De Gaulle had died and the country was led by Georges Pompidou who was more sympathetic towards British entry. This was greatly assisted by Heath who had similar views to the six member states that comprised the EEC. He would go onto lose the election in 1974 to Labour’s Harold Wilson and Europe was a reason for Heath’s departure.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Community is the most well covered of the 6 Conservative Prime Ministers. She is well remembered for her scything attack on the Community in her Bruges Speech in 1988. Thatcher had wanted to reduce Britain’s contribution to the Community which she had succeeded in by 1984. She had also wanted to reform the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) of the Community. This was an area that Thatcher had failed in. The Community under her tenure had greatly reformed and deepened integration. This was because of the French President of the European Commission Jacques Delors. Delors wanted the Community to become more streamlined, and set about the completion of the Single Market. Thatcher agreed to the Single European Act in 1986 which aimed to reform the Community and set a date for the completion of the Single Market by 1992, but Thatcher would later regret agreeing to the SEA. Thatcher was left frustrated by the Community and the fact that the SEA had reformed the Community but left the CAP untouched.  Party divisions over Europe eventually led to her resignation and she became the first Conservative PM that was a direct casualty of the Community.

John Major

Major emerged as the unlikely leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister in 1990. He had two large moments with the Community. The first was at the Maastricht negotiations in 1992 which wanted deeper economic integration and many member states had even agreed on a common currency. Major was able to obtain opt-outs for Britain on various aspects of the Treaty, the most vital was that Britain would be able to agree to the Treaty without committing to the Euro

His second large moment came on 16th September 1992 when Britain was forced to exit the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) a date remembered as Black Wednesday. Britain was forced to exit the ERM as they could not keep Sterling above the agreed bottom band of the ERM. This was a humiliating moment for the Major administration and his popularity also was severely damaged by this, only 4 months after the 1992 general election. ERM had damaged the party beyond repair as Blair would win the next election in 1997. It also sent the Conservative Party into an increasingly Eurosceptic position.

David Cameron

Cameron’s legacy in the near future will be closely examined due to Brexit. He had successfully managed a coalition from 2010-2015 an aspect overlooked his tenure. However, his legacy will be that of a risk taker, as seen by taking Britain into Libya in 2011, the Scottish referendum of 2014 and the European referendum 2016 – which resulted in his resignation. His legacy will be dominated by Brexit and his European policy – a policy that had been reached in a Chicago pizzeria in 2012.


Overall, the Conservatives have had a long and complicated relationship with the Community. It had been intricately linked to Britain’s position in the world which Conservative opinion differs on. This made the matter of party management difficult for the Conservative leadership as they had to appease various wings of the party. Cameron had wanted to put the matter to rest via a referendum. This is important as it illustrates the use of a referendum as a tool for party management.

[1] UOP,European Integration Archive, Winston Churchill’s speech [on a Council of Europe]. Zurich, 19 September 1946

[2] The National Archive, HS 8/901, Correspondence with Eden, December 1942

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