Major pondered Atlantic trade zone, files reveal

British government officials considered eye-catching foreign policy gambits in the mid-1990s, including linking the EU and North American single markets, as they sought to revive the Conservatives’ appeal in the face of Labour leader Tony Blair’s rise.

The idea of linking the EU’s single market to that of the US, Canada and Mexico was one of a series of ideas that came out of a seminar held at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, in January 1995 on “Britain’s place in the world”, according to Cabinet Office papers released on Tuesday. The process was meant to produce a pre-election policy document, but it never materialised.

A follow-up seminar in February 1996 noted that UK public opinion remained consistently pessimistic about the country’s direction, despite the government’s efforts to project a positive image.

In a memo to John Major, the prime minister, after the follow-up seminar, Michael Heseltine, then deputy prime minister, wrote that the image-burnishing process had been started because the UK was widely viewed as “a somewhat old-fashioned country, in continuing decline”.

“To remedy that, it was felt, we needed to sharpen up our image, in order especially to stress in every possible way the modernity of our approach and the United Kingdom’s inherent strengths in a world increasingly without frontiers,” Mr Heseltine wrote.

Nevertheless, attendees at the event sensed that the public mood remained downbeat.

“Public opinion in the United Kingdom was at present marked by surliness, gloom and pessimism,” according to a record of the February 1996 meeting.

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The efforts reflected the desperate political predicament that Mr Major faced as his government approached the 1997 general election. Having unexpectedly won a narrow House of Commons majority in 1992, Mr Major had been humiliated by the pound being forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992. He had then fought a long battle with MPs on his own backbenches during 1993 and 1994 over ratification of the Maastricht treaty, which deepened EU integration.

The government also faced a series of embarrassments over so-called “sleaze” allegations that Mr Blair, who won the Labour leadership in 1994, exploited to build his party’s opinion poll lead. Relations with the EU were difficult, particularly after Mr Major embarked on a policy of non-cooperation with many of Brussels’ decisions in protest at the bloc’s ban in March 1996 on British beef after the government accepted that humans could fall ill by eating meat infected with “mad cow disease”.

Documents related to the 1995 Chequers seminar suggested that cabinet ministers thought closer integration between the EU, with the UK as a member, and North America could address some of the challenges.

Among the follow-up points were an instruction to officials to explore the feasibility of establishing a new “Atlantic community” to bring together the three countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) area and Europe in a merged free-trade zone.

The “Atlantic community” would ensure a “broader base for transatlantic solidarity than purely defence and security issues,” one document said. On the free trade area idea, the memo asked officials to investigate “the feasibility of linking the European Union and Nafta in a common free-trade area”. Neither plan was pursued.

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The government instead resorted to attacking Mr Blair as an insincere opportunist.

A briefing note from October 1995 to Mr Major ahead of the debate on that year’s Queen’s Speech, during which the government sets out its legislative agenda for the new parliamentary session, advised him to take the battle to Labour.

“You will wish to contrast the government’s willingness to take tough decisions for the long-term benefit of the country with the unprincipled and opportunistic short-termism of the opposition,” Mark Adams, one of Mr Major’s private secretaries, wrote.

He added that Mr Major should describe Mr Blair’s speech in the Queen’s Speech debate as a “typical failure by Labour to accept the need for tough decisions”.

Adams referred both to Labour’s support for the then-controversial idea of a national minimum wage and to sign up to the Social Chapter of EU-mandated protections for workers, from which Mr Major had opted out.

“You will also wish to expose the realities of ‘New Labour’ — they say they are in favour of business and enterprise, but they support the minimum wage and Social Chapter,” Adams wrote.

Leader of the Labour Party Tony Blair addresses a rally outside the Royal Festival Hall in London this morning. 2nd May 1997. The Labour Party achieved a landslide victory in the General Election.
The government decided to attack Tony Blair as an insincere opponent: but it backfired and Mr Blair won a 179-seat Commons majority © Rebecca Naden/PA

Adams also noted that the Queen’s Speech included nothing on the difficult subject of the European Union and that if he left it out, he would be accused of burying the issue to avoid “exposing any cracks” in the Conservative party.

The memo suggested that, if Mr Major decided to address Europe in the debate, he should “make a virtue” of how the government was pursuing Britain’s interests in Europe and “increasingly winning the argument”.

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“You could contrast this with the opposition parties’ willingness to sell out Britain’s interests,” Adams wrote.

Adams’ advice was in vain, however. Mr Major’s Conservatives suffered one of their heaviest-ever defeats in the 1997 election, with Mr Blair winning a 179-seat Commons majority.

This year, Adams was sentenced for two rape offences he committed in 2015 and 2017, and jailed for seven years for each offence.

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