Former UK PM John Major’s cabinet considered having an EU referendum in 1994, papers reveal

  • Declassified records show officials considered a vote about leaving the bloc due to rising scepticism about Europe
  • A top sceptic was Margaret Thatcher, who described the EU as ‘an enormous and unacceptable transfer of responsibility away from national parliaments’
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:44am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:44am

John Major’s ministers considered holding a referendum about the European Union in 1994 but could not decide what the question would be, official cabinet records reveal.

Faced with mounting Eurosceptic pressure, the prime minister at the time moved to prevent opposition to Brussels from building up. His officials even tried rewriting some of Margaret Thatcher’s increasingly critical speeches.

According to files released at the National Archives in Kew, the cabinet met on December 1 that year and noted: “Attention was drawn to the need for government to take a consistent line in response to renewed speculation about a referendum on European Union issues.

“Suggestions had been made that referendums should be held on two issues, the 1996 intergovernmental conference and adoption of a single currency. A referendum should not be ruled out. New guidance would be circulated in the near future to ensure that cabinet members spoke consistently on the question of a referendum.”

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Frustration at the complexity of the subject, even within Whitehall, is evident from a comment left by an unnamed official or minister on a Foreign Office note explaining the reasons for the name European Union being used instead of European Community. “Clear as mud,” it read.

In 1993, ministers battled each other over proposals to move on to what was known as “single/double summer time” to align with the central European time zone.

Michael Heseltine, the former trade and industry secretary, supported the proposal. But William Waldegrave, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the time, warned it might strengthen Eurosceptics.

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“This is a classic example of a second-string issue where a quietly favourable majority public view will be drowned out by a long and strident minority campaign against the change,” Waldegrave wrote. “And for good measure, the anti-Maastricht lobby will also be given a new platform,” referring to the Maastricht Treaty, officially known as the Treaty on European Union.

Wales secretary at the time John Redwood and then Scotland secretary Ian Lang, who worried about the effect of reduced daylight on drivers, were strongly opposed. Facing unresolved infighting, Major sent out a note in October 1994 cancelling an economic study on the impact of switching to continental hours and concluding: “There is no likelihood of reaching consensus amongst colleagues.”

Margaret Thatcher, who went to the House of Lords in 1992, proved harder to discipline. “To aim for a continent without nations because nations disagree is thoroughly illiberal and it flies in the face of history,” she told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations during a tour of the US.

To aim for a continent without nations because nations disagree is thoroughly illiberal and it flies in the face of history
Margaret Thatcher in 1992

At a lunch in Elysee Palace with Francois Mitterand, the former British prime minister pressed home her attack. “After one of Mrs Thatcher’s recurrent explosions about Delors, the European Community, federalism etc,” an accompanying diplomat noted, “Mitterrand … said he thought that a federal Europe, as portrayed by Mrs Thatcher, was just not possible.”

A memo by Gus O’Donnell, Major’s press secretary, records an incident when Thatcher declined to deliver a speech on Europe drafted by Charles Powell, the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser.

“The draft she has at the moment is not too bad in Charles’ view,” O’Donnell warned the prime minister, “but Messrs Hamilton, Cash and Tebbit were all visitors last night and were likely … to try and toughen up the language”.

Powell told Thatcher her claim that the latest EU initiative was “an enormous and unacceptable transfer of responsibility away from national parliaments” was “something of an exaggeration”. He doubted she would accept his amendments.

Thatcher visited George H.W. Bush at the White House in September 1992. She was accompanied by Robin Renwick, the British ambassador to the US at the time, who sent an account of the meeting back to London.

Thatcher, he observed, said “she thought Maastricht was dead and certainly hoped it was. The president gave me a large wink, apparently unnoticed by his visitor, but otherwise did not comment.”