Is Britain part of Europe?

A quick glance at any atlas or geography text will tell you that the answer is yes. But when Britain's Conservative Party gathered for its national convention last week, the matter was considerably less clear-cut than the maps suggest. Many Tories seemed to feel, as more than one speaker put it, that "the English Channel is as wide as the Atlantic."

Conservative delegates cheered lustily during Europe-bashing speeches. They turned out in large numbers at seminars that suggested that Britain drop out of the European Union and join NAFTA instead. A petition that was passed around argued-- apparently not in jest--that Britain should become the 51st state of the United States. The party's chief spokesman on economic issues, Francis Maude, electrified the crowd when he declared: "The simple fact is that our economy is aligned with North America, not with the continent."

The Conservatives--the party that dominated British politics for most of the century, but lost to the Labor Party in the 1997 election--have long been split between "Europhiles" and "Euroskeptics." For two decades, the party's annual convention has featured rich battles between those who think Britain should get closer to the continent and those who think Britain should keep a distance.

But this year's conference saw the full flowering of a new species of Tory: the Europhobe. "The party is moving. You can feel it," said Matthew Parris, a former conservative member of Parliament who has been attending these gatherings for 25 years. "There is a shift away from the old consensus that this country has to remain in the EU."

The change was reflected in official party pledges. The spokesman on foreign policy, John Maples, said that Britain should demand a change in the EU charter, giving each member country the right to opt out of any decision or regulation it doesn't like. Maples did not say what Britain should do if this demand were refused--which it most likely would be--but the implication was that the Tories would be ready to have Britain withdraw from the EU.

The shift was more obvious, though, in the delegates' conduct. When Michael Heseltine, a respected veteran of many Conservative cabinets, warned that it would be "incalculable folly" to turn against the EU, most of the audience laughed and hooted, throwing peanuts at the few who cheered the remark. In contrast, delegates lined up by the hundreds for a handshake from former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who made herself the darling of the Europhobes when she declared Tuesday that "in my lifetime, all the problems have come from mainland Europe."

In policy terms, the Tories' drift away from Europe may have little impact on Britain. The Conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat in 1997 in large part because the voters were tired of their internal battles over Europe. Hardly anybody expects them to regain control of the government any time soon.

The political impact of growing Europhobia is unclear.

It's obvious the Tories have to do something different. In the last election, the party won a meager 31 percent of the national vote, and their support has declined since; last week's Gallup Poll gave them 29 percent, against 52 percent for Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party.