Opinion Articles

The Conservative Right, Europe and Anti-Americanism

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Barack Obama’s visit to the UK is to include a public reaffirmation of his support for British membership of the European Union. The president’s position is in line with his predecessors, but it frustrates many in the ‘leave’ camp, and especially the Conservative Right. Most of them still carry a torch for Margaret Thatcher and share her admiration for the USA. It is therefore ironic that the Conservative Right’s forebears tended to believe that British membership of the EEC was the best means of making the UK ‘independent’ from the USA.

Not unexpectedly, leading Conservative ‘Brexiteers’ condemn Obama’s intervention. Yet an enduring admiration for America is still evident in claims that Britain should have the same ‘independence’ as the USA. And chastising Obama is hardly a dangerous sport for British Conservatives: his term of office is drawing to a close and it pales when compared with criticisms of the president emanating from the American right. In any case, however much they might scold the president, the Conservative Right today welcomes the USA’s leading global role and regards Britain as a partner in that endeavour.

The situation could not have been more different in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, right-wing discontent in the Conservative party organised itself as the Monday Club. Established in 1961, the club grew in the late sixties to a highpoint in 1971, boasting ten thousand members and thirty MPs, including six ministers in Edward Heath’s government. The club was best known for opposing non-white immigration to the UK and supporting white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa. Few at the time were aware of its stance on Europe, in part because the club’s leaders did not want to expose tensions amongst the membership. Nevertheless, the club’s public position up until the early 1980s supported membership of the EEC.

Anti-Americanism was an important component of the Monday Club’s rationale. This drew on an old strain of hostility to America evident in imperialist rhetoric going back to the nineteenth century. But it was also bound up with very contemporary concerns about American-led globalisation.

In A Europe of Nations (1965), the club’s Cambridge University branch lamented the lost opportunities to influence European development. The booklet argued that Britain ‘should aim to create a confederation of independent states in Western Europe’, which, to be ‘truly European’, must not become ‘a more efficient way of organising an American hegemony’.

The continued subjugation of our continent to outside influences, Soviet and American, is not a recipe for orderly co-operation but a stimulus to divisive nationalism.

In defence, Europe no longer required American protection as British and French collaboration could produce its own nuclear deterrent. On economic co-operation, the UK must not ‘become merely handmaidens to American technology’, especially in ‘strategic goods’ such as weapons, aircraft and computers. The booklet’s authors opposed GATT and the Kennedy round on tariffs for favouring the USA, asserting that American companies only worked for their own country’s interests. Britain’s failure to co-operate economically with other Western Europeans, they warned, had already ‘led to substantial erosion of our economic sovereignty.’ The booklet nevertheless took care to distance itself from ‘Socialist anti-Americans who see a capitalist conspiracy in every American policy’, declaring that if Britain had to be a satellite of a great power, it would opt for the USA ‘without a moment’s hesitation.’

These themes are evident also in the club’s 1967 pamphlet on Europe, penned by John Biggs-Davison MP. The dilemma facing Britons, he argued, was between being ‘first-class Europeans’ or ‘second grade Americans’. He highlighted the need to compete with America in technology, and declared that Europe could not again be the victim of a second ‘Yalta’ decided by the USA and USSR. In 1970 the Monday World contained an article by the sociologist David Levy in which he claimed that delays in joining the EEC meant that Britain’s real independence was being ‘whittled away’. Closer co-operation with ‘European equals’, Levy asserted, was preferable to ‘slavery’ to the USA.

The Monday Club experienced considerable difficulties either side of the UK’s 1973 accession to the EEC, including accusations of National Front infiltration, expulsions, resignations, and rows about the club’s stance on Europe. Overt anti-Americanism disappeared from its public statements, but the need for an alternative to American hegemony in Europe remained. In 1974 the veteran diehard MP, Sir Victor Raikes, declared in the Monday News that with the empire gone Britain ‘must give a lead to Western Europe as part of the Community … With the gradual withdrawal of American troops it is incumbent upon Western Europe to defend herself against the ever-growing threat from the East.’ This position was reiterated in a 1977 pamphlet published by the Monday Club’s European Policy Group.

The Monday Club’s position on the EEC changed markedly in the early 1980s, citing concerns about sovereignty and economic effectiveness. The club had become marginal, however, having been displaced by the ‘New Right’. And the club’s ongoing preoccupation with racial politics led in 2001 to its expulsion from the Conservative party. This overshadowed its contribution to the survival and growth of Conservative Euroscepticism, even if, by the 1990s, that outlook had become strongly flavoured with Thatcherism. This shift in emphasis, from imperialist to Thatcherite, no doubt accounts for the Conservative Right’s amnesia about its former stance on Europe and America. Nevertheless, recent criticisms of Obama by Conservative Brexiteers have unwittingly rekindled at least some of the anti-American rhetoric.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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