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As the referendum debate rages on, Conservatives can make an argument to remain in the EU based not on fear for the consequences of Brexit, but on a passionate attachment to the principles at the heart of the Union – conservative principles.

The tie-up between British conservatism and the dream of a European community of nations was widely recognised for much of the twentieth century. Speaking in 1975 Margaret Thatcher looked back to Disraeli’s aspirations for trans-European diplomacy to argue that “the Conservative Party has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party.” It was the Conservatives that led the In campaign for that referendum, and campaigned  as the party of Europe for the ensuing decades – as proclaimed in the 1992 manifesto “the Conservatives have been the party of Britain in Europe for 30 years”.

This pro-European stance wasn’t restricted to the party leadership – the 1971 Conservative Party Conference saw party members endorse the decision to join the then European Community by 2,474 votes to 324. Throughout the referendum campaign of 1975 it was Conservative activists that formed the bulk of the In campaign’s front line troops, handing out leaflets and knocking on doors in the name of European unity.

Leaders and party members alike felt that the European vision was a natural cause for Conservatives to fight for. In an age where Conservative views on Europe are more conflicted, it is important to understand why.

Pragmatic reasons played a part of course. Then, as is now, the business case for Europe was strong and the Conservative commitment to helping Britain’s businesses thrive helped determine party allegiance.

Crucially however there were also deeper threads of connection, discernible both in the Conservatives’ long past and in dreams of a European future.

As the Conservative and Unionist Party Tories were quick to pick up on the advantages of neighbours with shared strategic interests making common cause, in order to fare better in an increasingly competitive world. Just as the beginning of the colonial age acted as the catalyst for union of Scotland and England in the early 18th century, so the rise of globalisation in the 1960s acted to spur for British Conservatives to look towards a new union with Europe. Harold MacMillan, when making the first effort to secure Britain’s entry into the EC in 1963, spoke of nations being “forced by the pressures of the modern world  to realise that we are now all inter-dependent”, and proposed the ‘“new European Community, bringing together the manpower, the material resources and the inventive skills of the most advanced countries” as the solution to ensuring Britain’s “equal footing with the great power groupings of the world.”

As well as a new unionism, the European vision spoke to the conservative predilection for embodying the past into the institutions of the present. The Conservative who brought Britain into Europe, Ted Heath, argued back in 1963 that “we are a part of Europe, by geography, history, culture, tradition and civilisation … There have been times in the history of Europe when it has been only too plain how European we are; and there have been many millions of people who have been grateful for it.” The centrality of Europe to Britain’s history was on the few things Heath and his rival Margaret Thatcher could agree on, with the latter describing in a 1988 speech how “our links to the rest of Europe, the continent of Europe, have been the dominant factor in our history.”

The political recognition of these historical links through a series of Europe-wide institutions is a distinctly Conservative way to appreciate the past. The links between Britain and Europe form part of the root structure of civilisation itself, from the role the Yorkshireman Alcuin played in Charlemagne’s creation of the first European state, to the Anglo-French-German creation of the Romantic Movement that forms the base note of modern European culture. The weaving of these historical and cultural connections into modern political power structures is a profoundly Conservative attempt to perpetuate shared heritage and traditions, a la Burke.

A unionist belief in the value of neighbouring nations working together, and a Burkean desire to embody the patterns on the past in the power structure of the present, both contributed to the Party’s consistent advocacy of Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

Times change, and it easy to forget that Conservative arguments for Europe can extend to more than least-worse-option-ism. However, obscured slightly by the dust and debris of the last two decades, there is a strong and distinctly Conservative argument to be made for the principle of Britain being a partner in a community of European nations. It has been made before, by some the leading figures in the Party’s history. And as the clocks ticks down towards 23rd June the principled Conservative case for Europe can be made again.

Matt Browne is an associate of Bright Blue and a regular contributor to our Centre Write blog.