20 March 2015

What Margaret Thatcher really thought about Brexit


In his thought-provoking  piece for CapX, former Economist editor Bill Emmott wrote that Margaret Thatcher “understood the pro-market case for Britain staying in the EU.” Citing her Bruges speech, Emmott argued that Thatcher believed that Britain’s destiny lay within the European Union. I beg to differ. Having worked with Lady Thatcher in her private office, serving as her researcher on her final book, Statecraft, I am in no doubt that the Iron Lady saw Britain’s future as being outside of the EU. For Lady T, as her staff called her, British sovereignty was always paramount, and in her view Britain’s interests on the world stage were best advanced through the US-UK Special Relationship, the Anglosphere, and the NATO alliance, not through the EU. Transatlanticism, rather than Euro-parochialism, drove Thatcher’s thinking on international affairs.

Charles Moore, the official biographer of Lady Thatcher, drew the same conclusion. As Moore noted in a piece in The Spectator, by the time of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, Thatcher was firmly of the view that Britain should exit the European Union. In addition, Robin Harris, Mrs. Thatcher’s chief political adviser for more than two decades, wrote in his powerful biography Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher, that “she was convinced that Britain should leave the European Union.”

As prime minister, and in the years after she departed Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher fought against the growing powers of the European Union. Many of her greatest battles were waged on European soil, as she worked tirelessly to retain British sovereignty in the face of the Brussels juggernaut, which increasingly sought to usurp the powers of national governments. She was at times openly mocked by other European leaders angered by her determination to stand in their way, though she was never underestimated. French president Jacques Chirac (successor to Francois Mitterrand), who was nicknamed ‘le bulldozer,’ notoriously dismissed her as a “housewife” at a Brussels summit in 1987. Thatcher made it clear, however, that “the lady was not for bulldozing.”

In Europe, Thatcher was driven by one thing only – the defense of the British national interest. She once remarked of her negotiations with the European Economic Community (EEC): “I know nothing about diplomacy, but I just know and believe that I want certain things for Britain.” Her biggest political win in Europe was securing Britain’s annual budget rebate at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984, which amounted to over £28 billion between 1985 and 2000. On numerous occasions she stood alone in Europe, rejecting calls from many in her own party to cede ground, battling for Britain’s survival as a sovereign nation state. This is what leadership is all about – fighting for principles, beliefs and ideals no matter how loud the protests and the pressure for compromise.

The victory over the rebate was, however, one of the very few the British have been able to secure in four decades of European Union membership. As someone who had originally supported Britain staying in the EEC when a referendum was held on the issue in 1975, in the latter stages of her premiership Thatcher became, in her own words, “profoundly disillusioned with and suspicious of all that is done in the name of ‘Europe.’” By the late 1980s Thatcher had become convinced that the course that Europe was then taking was completely disastrous. Her response was to lay down the gauntlet to Europe’s political elites, especially the Socialist and deeply Eurofederalist president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. Delors had called for “the beginnings of a European government,” and predicted that within a decade Brussels would provide “80 percent of our economic legislation and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well.”

In September 1988, Thatcher delivered one of the most important speeches of her political career, at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. Her Bruges speech was a game changer that sent ripples throughout the Old World, and is today widely recognised as a hugely influential intervention in the European debate. It challenged conventional wisdom across the continent, and was an example of bold leadership in the face of a deeply entrenched status quo.

Thatcher’s Bruges speech was a rallying call for a new kind of Europe, one which looked outward to the world instead of inwards, a Europe that embraced economic freedom as the cornerstone of growth and prosperity, and a Europe anchored closely to the United States through the NATO alliance. Above all, it was a cry for freedom, both in terms of individual liberty, as well as self-determination at the nation state level. She rejected the idea that a centralized bureaucracy in Brussels could be entrusted with decisions that should be the preserve of elected officials in nation states, pointing to the fact that the centralisation of political power had been a huge failure in Eastern Europe, as had the rise of big government in Britain in the 1970’s. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,” noted Thatcher, “only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

As Margaret Thatcher frequently pointed out, Europe is not America, and the notion that a collection of (now) 28 different nations with their own languages, cultures and history can be artificially welded together into a United States of Europe is pure fantasy. In a speech in Washington in 1991 – the first Clare Booth Luce lecture – she reminded her American audience that “the United States is a glorious example of how a common language, culture and institutions have made one people out of immigrants from every corner of the globe.” That is clearly not the case with the European Union. Indeed, as Thatcher pointed out, “‘Europe’ in anything other than a geographical sense is a wholly artificial construct. It makes no sense at all to lump together Beethoven and Debussy, Voltaire and Burke, Vermeer and Picasso, Notre Dame and St. Paul’s, boiled beef and bouillabaisse, and portray them as elements of a ‘European’ musical, philosophical, artistic, architectural or gastronomic reality.”

14 years after her Bruges address, in Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, Margaret Thatcher publicly raised the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union altogether. Urging a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, she was the first major British political figure to raise the prospect of Brexit, citing NAFTA and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as possible alternatives to EU membership. “We trade globally,” she wrote, “and we must think globally – not confined within the bounds of a narrow Europe.” She also warned against the creation of a European Union army, and the rise of an EU defence identity that would undercut NATO.

Lady Thatcher admired Europe’s rich culture, architecture and natural beauty, but she loathed the supranational behometh the European Union had become. She believed that Britain could only truly be a free nation again when it was shorn of the shackles of Brussels, and could decide its own laws and frame its own interests.  Her overall view of Europe was best summed up in her searing words from Statecraft, which should leave the British people in no doubt as to where she stood on the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU:

“That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era. And that Britain, with her traditional strengths and global destiny, should ever have been part of it will appear a political error of historic magnitude.”

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.