By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the groups of Tory MPs continues with a look at a pioneering Eurosceptic group which helped backbenchers cause significant headaches for Prime Minister John Major during the early 1990s. The Bruges Group is a well-established forum for advocating looser ties with Brussels, and it has gone from a relatively small collection of Tories to one of the groups that best represents mainstream Conservative thinking on its particular policy area.
Origins of the group
The Bruges Group was founded in February 1989 to promote and uphold the ideas Margaret Thatcher expressed in her famous Bruges Speech in late 1988. Mrs Thatcher argued that the tide of opinion on the continent was towards centralising the structure of the European institutions – and this would be unsuitable for Britain's national identity and democracy. In the most famous passage of the speech, Mrs Thatcher said:
"I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world. But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy. … We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."
The group was set up by Patrick Robertson and Lord Harris of High Cross, ie Ralph Harris, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs from 1957 to 1988. Lord Harris' work promoting free-market economics at the IEA was instrumental in the creation of Thatcherism.
The Bruges Group captured the spirit of the increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party of the late 1980s and early 1990s, becoming a rallying point for Conservative Maastricht rebels. However, it also had a lasting influence on other parties: one member, Alan Sked, was expelled by the Bruges Group and subsequently formed the Anti-Federalist League in November 1991, which planned to stand candidates at the 1992 general election. The AFL became the United Kingdom Independence Party in 1993. Patrick Robertson also left the group, and later became a key player in the Referendum Party.
Role of the group and current activities
The Group's mission statement is:
"The Bruges Group aims to promote discussion on the European Union and to advance the education of the public on European affairs. The Bruges Group's research also explores alternative international relationships and policies. Equipping politicians, key opinion-formers and the media with the information needed for a complete restructuring of Britain’s relationship with other European countries."
The Bruges Group holds regular public events promoting looser ties with Brussels and a independent way forward for Britain. The Group regularly discusses possible alternative arrangements for Britain in a post-EU world, and analyses how an exit from the European institutions might be achieved. In this way the Group provides valuable and informative ammunition for Eurosceptics. Notable recent papers published by the Group include one comparing membership of the EU with membership of EFTA/EEA, and another detailing Britain's "risks and exposure to the EIB and other European financial mechanisms".
Yesterday, the Bruges Group reacted to David Cameron's long-awaited EU speech, and had reservations about his approach to a referendum, criticising his speech for being "laden with pro-EU rhetoric". The Bruges Group's press release said:
"Whilst welcoming the promise of a referendum it is disappointing that he will not push for it now. It also needs to be noted that the only way that the Prime Minister can seize the initiative and force the EU into negotiations is by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. David Cameron’s strategy, seeking to hijack discussions on a future EU treaty, failed in December 2011 when he sought the return of the national veto on financial services regulation and will not succeed again. Only exiting the EU can deliver meaningful change."
Bruges Group meetings, debates and conferences have featured notable parliamentarians, as below, and other speakers – academics and experts including Professors Tim Congdon, Kenneth Minogue, David Myddelton, and Anthony Coughlan, and Dr Ruth Lea. Other speakers include journalists such as Simon Heffer, Charles Moore, Christopher Booker and Peter Hitchens and writers Robin Harris and David Starkey.
Recent events have included a dinner celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht rebellion, a cross-party conference on "How Britain Can Exit The EU", a speech by President Václav Klaus on "European Integration Without Illusions", an "international conference" to "advocate the dismantling of the Single Currency", and speeches from Labour figures on "Britain Beyond the EU".
The Bruges Group will be kicking off 2013 with a February meeting on "How to deliver a UK free of the EU", featuring long-serving Eurosceptic backbencher and Maastricht rebel Sir Richard Shepherd MP (Aldridge-Brownhills), as well as Peter Bone MP (Wellingborough) and Dominic Raab MP (Esher and Walton).
Supporters of the group
Baroness Thatcher is the Honorary President of the Bruges Group, and former MP Barry Legg is the Chairman. Other notable parliamentarians who sit on the board include Lord (Michael) Howard, Lord (Norman) Lamont, Lord (Stanley) Kalms, Lord (David) Young, and UKIP's Lord (Malcolm) Pearson.
Many influential Conservative parliamentarians have addressed the Bruges Group. In recent events, these have included Cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson, and other Conservative MPs include Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell MP (Louth and Horncastle), Bill Cash MP (Stone), John Redwood MP (Wokingham), Mark Pritchard MP (The Wreckin), David Nuttall MP (Bury North), Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Somerset South West), Zac Goldsmith MP (Richmond Park), and Mark Reckless MP (Rochester and Strood).
While the Group is primarily associated with the Conservative Party, and, as mentioned above, its Honorary President is Baroness Thatcher and its Chairman is the former Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South West and Conservative Party Chief Executive, Barry Legg, the Bruges Group is independent of the party, and considers itself a cross-party group. Labour politicians who have addressed the Bruges Group include Frank Field MP, Gisela Stuart MP, Kelvin Hopkins MP, Kate Hoey MP, former MP Lord (David) Stoddart, and the late former Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Peter Shore. UKIP politicians to have addressed the Group include Gerald Batten MEP, Nigel Farage MEP and Roger Helmer MEP. The Czech President, Václav Klaus, has also addressed the Group several times.