Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
Forty years ago, on 7 June 1979 – a point equidistant from our own time and Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives in 1934 – there was a historic but now barely-remembered election in Britain. It was historic in the sense of being the first direct election to the European Parliament, which is important in the history of the European Union, and notable in itself, since direct elections to supra-national bodies are very unusual (the author cannot think of another example in recent history, although perhaps the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire might count). The Euro-election of 1979 is also noteworthy in British electoral history as being the only post-war occasion in which a party has won more than 50 per cent of the vote in Great Britain. Let us, therefore, spare a thought for this curious occasion, which took place barely a month into the Thatcher era.
Before 1979, there had been an indirectly elected European Assembly, comprising of members of the legislatures of each country, but it had been agreed in 1976 that there would be direct elections, and the then Labour government legislated for this in 1978.
The electoral system was not standardised in each state; Labour, as part of the then Lib-Lab pact, offered a free vote on using proportional representation, but Parliament voted to use First Past the Post. Over the winter of 1978-79, large single-member constituencies were assembled from groups of Westminster seats along sometimes eccentric boundaries (Wellingborough, for instance, was in ‘Cambridgeshire’ for these purposes).
The election campaign in Britain was a perfunctory business, despite the historic nature of the event. Coming so closely after the May 1979 general election, the voters were suffering from a touch of ‘election fatigue’ and the campaign was lacklustre – the big decision had been made (European elections in Britain were overshadowed even by local elections until the two polling days were combined in 2004).
The feeble nature of the Labour campaign was an early indication of the party’s fatal divisions. The National Executive Committee (NEC) voted to pulp most of the party’s leaflets because the slogan ‘Labour for Europe’ (which could be interpreted as pro-European) appeared on them. Labour was ambivalent about membership and demoralised by defeat in May, while the Conservatives were optimistic and confident about Britain and Europe. The Conservative manifesto is worth some quotation:
“The Conservative Party believes that the best hope for Britain’s future peace and prosperity lies in continued and successful membership of the European Community. We know that changes are needed; but we are more likely to achieve them if we seek allies within the Community rather than making enemies. We shall not attempt to convince our partners of our case by the strength of our threats but by the force of our arguments.”
The result of the election, on a low turnout (32.1 per cent, less than in 2014 and the lowest other than in 1999) when Labour supporters in particular opted out, was a Conservative landslide.
It was the highest purely Conservative share of the vote in a national election in the democratic age, other than in 1931. Improbably, the Conservatives won the European Parliament seat of Liverpool, sending Gloria Hooper to Strasbourg and Brussels. Among her Conservative colleagues were a group whose names evoke the past and future of the Conservative Party. A mixture of politicians, industrialists, farmers, idealistic Euro-federalists and pragmatic deal-makers were elected under the Conservative banner in 1979.
In those days :double jobbing” (to use the Northern Ireland term) was not discouraged among MEPs, and a few of the British MEPs were also MPs – namely Tom Normanton, Elaine Kellett-Bowman and Brandon Rhys-Williams, reflecting the legacy of the appointed assembly that existed before 1979. There were also some members of the House of Lords, such as Lady Elles and Lord Bethell. Several of the Conservatives elected in 1979 subsequently became MPs, including Eric Forth, David Harris, John Marshall and David Curry, and a few joined the upper House, including Baroness Hooper and Lord Kingsland (Christopher Prout).
The Conservative delegation of 1979 was by modern standards, and even by those of the time, astonishingly pro-European. The Conservative MEP for Sussex West was Madron Seligman (whose photo illustrates the headline of this article on ConservativeHome’s front page). Seligman was a close friend to Edward Heath, and had travelled with him on his perilous journey across Nazi Germany during August 1939, despite the personal danger that his German-Jewish surname put him in.
Like many of the Conservative MEPs then, Seligman came from a business background and was of the generation that had seen service in the Second World War. Both of these experiences – as well as his friendship with Heath – made him a fervent European, a commitment he maintained until his death in 2002. He was in favour of joining the Euro at its inception, as were a significant number of his 1979-era colleagues, such as Anthony Simpson and the economics journalist and writer Adam Fergusson.
At least two of the Conservatives first elected in 1979 subsequently joined the Liberal Democrats, including Peter Price and Bill Newton Dunn, whose electoral defeat at the head of the Lib Dem list in the 2014 European Parliament election extinguished the last of the class of 1979 from the Parliament’s British membership. (Newton Dunn had been out of office in 1994-99, and defected to the Lib Dems in 2000. In return, the Conservatives picked up one member of Labour’s original 1979 intake, Richard Balfe). Richard Cottrell, elected for Bristol in 1979 and defeated in 1989, is now an unconventional investigative writer and author of Gladio: NATO’s Dagger at the Heart of Europe (2012).
A few of the Conservative MEPs were less pro-European than federalists such as Seligman or Brandon Rhys-Williams, but this would not qualify them as being Eurosceptic by modern definitions: even Eric Forth, in those days, was a moderate on European matters. Labour, however, was divided between a handful of pro-Europeans, a larger group of dedicated ‘Anti-Marketeers’ and a middle group which included the former Cabinet Minister and erstwhile anti-European Barbara Castle.
The British MEPs rubbed shoulders with some exotic colleagues. Salvatore Lima, Christian Democrat of Italy, was widely regarded as Giulio Andreotti’s ambassador to the Sicilian mafia (or vice versa), and was assassinated in 1992 allegedly for failing to ensure that a mafia trial in Rome was properly fixed. Otto von Habsburg, representing Germany, was the notional holder of the Austro-Hungarian throne, in abeyance since 1918, and one of the last Central European aristocrats who belonged to every country between the Dniester and the Piave, and yet none. Habsburg died in 2011, a link between the confused, tolerant, bureaucratic imperium in which he was born and the modern European Union.
The 59 Conservative MEPs (one MEP, Shelagh Roberts, had been technically ineligible for election and had to re-contest her London South West seat in a by-election) who arrived for the inaugural meeting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 17 July 1979 were in at the birth of a new sort of institution. The Conservatives – with the fig leaf of three Danish MEPs from the Conservative People’s Party and the Centre Democrats – were the basis for the European Democratic Group (ED) in the new Parliament. Because there were only nine member states, and the Conservatives had polled such a high vote in a large state that used the First Past the Post electoral system, the ED became a powerful force, holding the balance between the centre-right and the rest.
The Parliament had very few powers in those days, but it could veto the budget, and it flexed this muscle in December 1979. A European Court judgement (Isoglucose) made in 1980 ensured that the Parliament’s consideration and scrutiny was a necessary part of the process. Relations between the Conservative MEPs and the Thatcher government were distant throughout the long struggle over agricultural payments and the British rebate that dominated discussions in 1979-84, with the MEPs being consistently more communautaire. In 1984, 22 of the Conservative MEPs voted in favour of a proposal to abolish the ‘veto’.
Subsequent treaties have greatly expanded the powers of the Parliament within European government, transforming an institution with weak advisory powers into something more like a legislature. The electoral system, as was always intended, has been harmonised with the adoption of proportional representation by the UK in 1999. Over the years, the ED failed to grow and, as the Conservative delegation dwindled, the logic of linking up with the main centre-right group, the European People’s Party (EPP) became overwhelming, and in 1992 the ED and EPP concluded a formal alliance.
In different circumstances, the Conservatives left the EPP alliance in 2009 and formed a separate centre-right group, mostly with parties from countries that had been communist dictatorships at the time of the first European Parliament elections (in the 1980s Adam Fergusson had proposed keeping a symbolic empty chair for future member states from Eastern Europe once communism had ended). The Conservative MEP group has become more and more Eurosceptic with every successive election, although it remained something of a haven for embattled pro-EU Tories until the early 2000s. It is safe to say that there is very little, politically, that unites the group of 1979 and the group of 2014, despite the superficial similarity of the 1979 manifesto to David Cameron’s approach to Europe.
David Butler and David Marquand European Elections and British Politics (Macmillan, 1981)
The Times Guide to the European Parliament (Times Books, 1979)
David Judge and David Earnshaw The European Parliament (Palgrave Macmillan 2008)