Former Conservative Member of the European Parliament Ben Patterson explores the complex relationship between the Conservative Party and what started out as the Common Market and has ended up as today's European Union. He shows a relationship with Europe that was always ambivalent - Churchill famously called for a "United States of Europe" but the counter-pull of Empire and alliance with America were strong in the post-war period - but ultimately led to Macmillan applying to join the EEC. Edward Heath faced down residual anti-Common Market sentiment in his own party and the country at large, leading Britain to membership in 1973, a result convincingly confirmed by referendum in 1975. The party's relationship with Europe was frequently abrasive under Margaret Thatcher, but support for Britain's actively engaged membership remained strong within Tory ranks, buoyed by Thatcher's success on the British rebate and the progress to the single market, much favoured by all strands of opinion in the party.
Over the last two decades, however, there has been a steady erosion of the old mainstream centrist pro-Europeanism of the party as Euroscepticism has moved from the disruptive fringe, which so undermined the Major premiership, to influence ever more sections of party opinion. In the process relations with what would otherwise be allied centre-right parties in Europe have become frayed and Britain a more peripheral player in the formulation of EU policy.