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The never-ending story? The Conservative Party, the EU and universities

  • 12 April 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

Back in 2015, when the referendum on UK membership of the EU was approaching, I attended an event on it at the University of Westminster. While there, I heard a former (pro-EU) Tory MP argue that, while high-falutin’ arguments were all well and good, there was only one surefire way to stop Brexit: getting other EU countries to say they wanted the UK out. Bloody-minded people keen to annoy Brussels could then have done it by voting for the UK to remain.

Churchill, Macmillan and Heath

This incident came to mind while I was reading the fascinating new book by former Conservative MP, former European Commissioner and former University of Bath Chancellor (1998-2013), Christopher Tugendhat.

The Worm in the Apple: A History of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron starts by suggesting recent debates on EU membership stem from seeds planted when the Second World War finished.

The author reminds us, for example, that Attlee’s Government was sceptical about involvement in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) due to the likely loss of control: ‘the deal-breaker was the federal nature of the plan.’

Meanwhile, on the other side of politics, Churchill, Macmillan and Heath urged Labour to participate in the talks on setting up the ECSC, though back in office from 1952, the Conservatives chose not to sign up – providing an early reminder that both major political parties have flipped and flopped in their attitudes towards European cooperation. In the 1950s, one traditional Conservative view was represented by Lord Salisbury (Chancellor of the University of Liverpool from 1951 to 1971), who wanted ‘UK producers first, Commonwealth second and foreigners last’.

Once the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) was signed in 1957, the Conservative Government helped establish the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) with six other countries. But it received lukewarm support from its own MPs. Just half (183 out of 365) of them voted in favour, while Labour abstained.

Two years on, after seeing the relative economic success of the EEC countries, Macmillan came knocking. Tugendhat puts huge weight on the prescience of Lord Kilmuir, the Lord Chancellor (1954-62), who (as David Maxwell Fyfe MP) had helped in the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Kilmuir wanted policymakers to admit the consequences of EEC membership for UK national sovereignty or else ‘those who are opposed to the whole idea of joining the Community will certainly seize on them with more damaging effect later on’.

De Gaulle famously vetoed Macmillan’s application because, in the memorable words of one French Minister, UK membership of the EEC would have meant shifting from ‘cinq poules et un coq’ to ‘sept ou huit poules. Mais il y aura deux coqs’. Nonetheless, in 1965 De Gaulle predicted Heath would successfully take the UK into the EEC if he became PM, as eventually happened. But contemporary debate on the consequences was limited: Tugendhat condemns as ‘extraordinary’ the fact that ‘Heath of all men’ should be ‘so neglectful of what his great project involved for the future governance of Britain’.

Thatcher and Cameron

In a telling aside buried in an endnote, Tugendhat notes Thatcher’s dislike of Germany was so strong that, after losing office, she once pointed at Parliament and said to him, ‘Your Germans tried to destroy that, Christopher. Don’t ever forget it.’ So it is unsurprising that Tugendhat blames Thatcher for Brexit, while simultaneously noting some people who were close to her believe she would have voted Remain had she been alive in 2016. Either way, arguments for European-wide social policies and monetary union, plus the reunification of Germany, pushed Thatcher’s Conservative Party away from the European mainstream.

As the book’s sub-title suggests, this is a story of high politics. Set-piece speeches take centre stage, including Jacques Delors’s speech to the TUC in 1988, which persuaded Thatcher to provide a riposte in her Bruges speech nearly a fortnight later and also helped slowly convert the Labour Party to the European cause. It makes for an interesting tale but, while politicians take centre stage, the people who voted Leave in such large numbers – now the target for the Government’s Levelling Up agenda – barely merit a mention.

Tugendhat saves some ammunition for David Cameron, who he notes ‘was in favour of [the UK] staying [in the EU], but as a Eurosceptic himself he had failed to construct a compelling case for doing so.’ (After reading Cameron’s autobiography, which has page-after-page about his frustrations with the EU, I was left wondering how he had ever expected to be a truly persuasive leader for Remain.) But Cameron was not alone in failing to find a path that enabled him to oppose policies emanating from the EU while concurrently supporting continued EU membership. 


As Tugendhat notes, Cameron’s failure to outline the ‘complexities of leaving’ meant Whitehall was all at sea when 51.9 per cent voted to come out of the EU. Yet, failing though this clearly was, even the finest minds in Whitehall would have struggled to predict that, six years on from the referendum, we would still be seeking a resolution to one of the seemingly simplest and least divisive issues: UK association with Horizon Europe.

There is a walk-on part for the current Chair of the Office for Students, James Wharton. After topping the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in 2013, his proposed legislation to enshrine David Cameron’s referendum commitment in law won strong backing from Tory MPs. It fell after opposition from their own Coalition colleagues and the House of Lords but was still a precursor to events after the 2015 election. Few would have foretold that, eight years on, English universities would become answerable to Lord Wharton for so much of what they do.

Back in 2016, at the time of the referendum, universities faced in one direction. Vice-chancellors travelled en masse to Brussels to support EU membership, set up a Universities for Europe group and spoke out strongly in support of EU membership, while also providing a forum on campus for open debate. It was a notably different stance to the quieter response of Scotland’s university leaders to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Only one vice-chancellor I am aware of has said they voted Leave.

Right or wrong, it was impressive to see the majority of university leaders stand up for what they believed in – even as the experienced political journalist and university governor Michael Crick asked them if it was ‘bogus’, ‘unhealthy’ or ‘un-academic’. Incidentally, Crick is due to speak on the current state of politics at this year’s 2022 HEPI Annual Conference on 9 June 2022. Do come along and hear him.

In the end, it seems likely that the vice-chancellors’ activities had little impact on the result. But given the direction the country has gone in since 2016, with the leading Brexiteers now in charge, did they perhaps inadvertently make life that little bit harder for the higher education sector when they articulated their genuine concerns so clearly?

You can watch Policy Exchange’s event on the book, with speeches from Lord Tugendhat, the Rt Hon Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston, the Rt Hon Lord Frost and the Rt Hon Lord Clarke of Nottingham CH QC here.

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