I can’t quite believe that towards the end of this year, we will be celebrating – if that is the right word – the 20th anniversary of John Major’s initialling of the Treaty of Maastricht (signed on 9 December 1991). Arguably, this sparked the most serious split in the Conservative Party since the debacle of the Corn Laws in 1846.

Although one or two of us, including Margaret Thatcher (by then out of office), abstained on 19 December 1991 in the vote in parliament which took note of the signing, most observers would, I think, agree that the real crisis began immediately after the Danish people had voted against the treaty in a referendum on 2 June 1992. The schism in the Conservative Party in the summer of 1992 emerged when the government effectively refused to accept, let alone to exploit, the opportunity to block the treaty which the Danish referendum created.

The Treaty of Maastricht was an amendment to the Treaty of Rome, to which the United Kingdom had become a signatory by terms of the Treaty of Accession of 1972.

Maastricht required to be ratified by parliament. Its major deficiency, in the eyes of its critics, was that it removed the power of sovereign states to manage their own economies. It did this in a number of ways – in particular by giving the European Central Bank the power to set and police monetary policy including interest rates; by making provision for federal controls of public spending through deficit constraints; and, crucially, by merging the currencies of the member states into a single euro.

The latter was to be done ‘irrevocably’, which would, for instance, have totally destroyed the British constitutional principle that each parliament is sovereign in its own time, and cannot therefore bind a future parliament.

Britain secured an opt-out from the single currency, and one demand of the rebels was that there should be a commitment by the Conservative government to protect and preserve the independence of sterling into the future. One reason why the government refused to make such a deal with us – and it would have defused the rebellion – was that the belief existed, and still does, that the European Court would ultimately find Britain’s position outside the euro to be illegal.

My objection to a single currency, expressed at the time in various letters to the Times, in parliament and in my book A Treaty Too Far, was part political and part economic. I do believe that control over one’s money is the essence of independence and of nationhood. And I do believe that a permanently fixed exchange rate – which is the characteristic of a currency merged with others – is distortive and debilitating for an economy.

In the early morning of Wednesday 3 June 1992, the news broke that in a referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht the day before, the Danish people had voted ‘No’, knowing that ratification of the treaty required a unanimous vote by all member countries. I immediately put my name at the top of Early Day Motion number 174. I had previously agreed its wording with a small group of colleagues. It read as follows:

‘That this House urges Her Majesty’s Government to use the decision to postpone the passage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill as an opportunity to make a fresh start with the future development of the EEC and in particular to concentrate its efforts on the chosen agenda of the British presidency which is to extend the borders of the EEC and to create a fully competitive common market.’

This came to be known as the Fresh Start Motion. Together with one or two parliamentary friends, I proceeded to scour the House of Commons for the names of more supporters. Within a few hours, 91 Conservative backbenchers had signed.

John Major in his autobiography has this take on the event:

‘Early Day Motions are often the parliamentary equivalent of graffiti… But not this one. They (the eurosceptics) knew its capacity for damage the moment they saw it’.

In A Treaty Too Far, I tried to describe the mood of my colleagues on the afternoon of Wednesday 3 June:

‘The sense of relief that the Danes had let us all painlessly off the Maastricht hook was immediately replaced by despondence at the government’s response… government whips began to huddle together in the Members’ Lobby and elsewhere, like American football players in a scrimmage, to plan the retrieval process…. I and a few others, who only that morning had begun to look forward to a peaceful summer ahead, swiftly concluded that we must make some gesture of our own.’

For reasons which have never been entirely clear to me, Major’s main response to the Danish vote – besides claiming (accurately) that it would be reversed – was to commit himself to an hors d’oeuvre vote on the treaty, to be debated in advance of the proper ratification Bill. This was termed a ‘paving’ vote, and served merely to put the Bill at risk before it had even reached parliament.

The paving vote was scheduled for 5 November and became the focal point for members of the Fresh Start Group, the government itself, and the media.

The build up to this vote on all sides was feverish. Everyone knew that it was critical. John Major has confirmed in his autobiography that, had he lost the vote, he would have immediately resigned.

On Tuesday 3 November 1992, the night before the crucial paving debate, I chaired a meeting attended by more than 30 colleagues – more than enough to overturn the government’s majority, given that Labour would vote with us.

The response of the government whips was understandably brutal, even physical. One senior colleague, having been caught in the men’s cloakroom, was pulled by his hair into the government voting lobby.

The net effect of all this was that when the result of the vote was announced at 10.15pm on 4 November, the figures were 319 for the motion, 316 against: a government majority of three.

In my view, this was the single most decisive event in a rebellion which stretched many months ahead. Had we won this vote as, the night before, it looked as if we would, history would have moved in a different direction. John Major would have resigned, and the process of ratifying the Maastricht Treaty would have ground to a halt.

In his autobiography, Major confirms this view:

‘As I took my place on the Treasury bench, I still did not know whether we were about to win or lose the division. I did know that defeat could not be brushed aside. If we had lost I would have risen in my place and announced my resignation; the combination of Black Wednesday and the inability to proceed with the Maastricht Bill would have made my position untenable. I would not have gone on.’

The fate of ‘Maastricht’ was indeed sealed almost a year before the ratification Bill became law. On the only other occasion when theoretically the opportunity to block the Bill re-presented itself, the government did lose, but immediately brought forward almost the same motion with a vote of confidence attached to it.

The denouement came on Thursday 22 July 1993 when the rebels combined with Labour to defeat the government on a critical motion activating the Bill to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. With doubtful legality (which the rebels considered taking to the High Court) the government reintroduced the motion the next day, stating that it would be a vote of confidence. This meant that the prime minister would call a general election if he lost.

Under my chairmanship the rebels decided at this point to call it a day. We had done our best to defend the integrity and sovereignty of the United Kingdom, short of bringing down our own government and replacing it with one committed to the eurofederalist cause, virtually without qualification.

My personal aim all along – easily misunderstood – was to do what I could to block the ratification of the Treaty of Maastricht while at the same time to maintain the credibility of my point of view on Europe within the mainstream of the party. In so far as the enshrinement of the  treaty into British law was the objective of the government, this did mean that I was on a rebellious collision course with those leading my party at the time. However, and this was the difficult bit, I was also intent on bringing the party and the future leadership back to the path on Europe from which I believed it had strayed after the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

The civil war within the Conservative Party on Europe continued for the remainder of Major’s time as prime minister. It was fought bitterly and at the time created much mutual enmity. It resulted, for instance, in his resignation and re-election in 1995.

The question as to which side won is for historians to decide. Clearly the Treaty of Maastricht itself was ratified, but in the process the so-called eurosceptics arguably captured the soul of the Conservative Party. Certainly it is true that those who subsequently won elections within the party, myself included as chairman of the 1922 Committee, did so in large measure on the basis of their eurosceptic credentials. Whether this continues into the future I cannot forecast.

What I do believe is that any future moves on Europe, especially a campaign for a referendum, will require the formal compliance and involvement of the Conservative Party. Without this the effort would be marginalised. In that sense, it is ‘Maastricht’ all over again.

Lord Spicer was an MP from 1974 to 2010 and a former chairman of the 1922 committee

Tags: Conservative Party, Europe, Issue 33, John Major, Maastricht Treaty, Michael Spicer, Total History