The Conservative Party's history with Europe

Published on December 06, 2018

I have been studying the history of the Conservative Party and its attitude to the European Union and it is fascinating.

In 1946, Winston Churchill, who also founded the European Movement, made a speech in Zurich in which he was one of the first people to propose a ‘United States of Europe’. He also went on to say that: "Men will be proud to say: 'I am a European' We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being European as belonging to their native land".

The European Union includes Winston Churchill as one of the eleven ‘founding fathers’ of the Union.

In 1961, during the premiership of Harold Macmillan (Conservative), Britain first applied to join the European Union; and in 1973, during the premiership of Edward Heath (Conservative), Britain succeeded in joining the European Union. A referendum was held in 1975 in which voters were asked to confirm Britain’s membership. 67% voted ‘Yes’ to Europe and only 33% voted ‘No’. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Leader at the time was a leading campaigner for a ‘Yes’ vote and she was supported by the vast majority of Conservative MPs.

As Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher often clashed with other European leaders, but she also proposed creating the ‘single market’ and never suggested that Britain should leave. During the 1975 referendum campaign, Thatcher said “We can play a role in developing Europe or we can turn our backs on the community. By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us." And in 1988 she said that: “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

All Conservative leaders from Churchill’s day to 2016 (apart from Sir Anthony Eden who was leader from 1955 to 1957) have supported Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is therefore interesting that it is a Conservative government that is attempting to take Britain out of the European Union, even though many Conservative members and some Conservative MPs support a People's Vote on the Brexit deal. 


Adrian Waite is a member of European Movement and originally sent an version of this article as a letter to the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald where it was published. 

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