How the Brexiteers Warped Margaret Thatcher’s Idea of Europe
Paddy Briggs looks at the career and restoration of Thatcher’s legacy by Tory Brexiteers and asks whether she would agree with them if she was alive today.
It’s 40 years since Britain’s most divisive modern Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, came to power and her premiership and fall continues to have an effect on political life both in the UK and elsewhere.
One thing that pro-Thatcher and anti-Thatcher modern day observers can agree on is that she changed Britain dramatically, although whether that change was for good or ill is still to be debated.
The main case for her defence revolves around what Thatcher replaced – a Labour Government that had run out of steam, dominated by a Labour Party under the control of intransigent and small ‘c’ conservative trades unions. The Cabinet that Harold Wilson had handed over to James Callaghan in 1976 was talented and experienced, but even the canny Wilson and certainly not his successor could do anything about the unions – in place of strife there was more strife.
Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 to tackle the strife, and this she did. And some. It wasn’t pretty, nor was it quick and easy.
There were riots across Britain in the early years of Thatcher’s premiership and the economy was in dire straits. It is forgotten that Michael Foot actually led her in the polls for a time – it was that bad. But, the ideology of Foot’s Labour Party was to lead to the formation of the Social Democratic Party and an alliance of the new party with the Liberals. As Thatcher occupied the right and Foot the left, there was genuine optimism that the centre-ground could hold and prosper.
But, the Falklands War in 1982 changed everything. Coming at a time when the economy was showing signs of recovery, it provided impetus to the distinctive Thatcher brand – flag-waving, patriotically British and increasingly sceptical of foreigners except, that is, Ronald Reagan who had taken office as US President the previous year and with whom she built an immediate rapport.
In the 1983 general election, the left and centre-left (Labour and the alliance) actually marginally out-polled the Conservatives, but our first past the post electoral system delivered Thatcher a landslide victory, with the Tories winning 397 seats to the opposition’s 232.
This was to be the beginning of the real Thatcherite revolution.
“The Enemy Within”
The target of the long promised assault on union power was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) under its firebrand uber-socialist leader Arthur Scargill. To Thatcher, the miners were the “enemy within”.
But, as Edward Heath had found, the miners were not easy meat – not least because there was a strong groundswell of sentimental support for them in the country at large. Despite this, Thatcher planned carefully, learning from Heath’s mistakes and, when the miners went on strike, she organised and won – taking the majority of public opinion with her. Although deep mining in Britain took a while to disappear, the main reason for its eventual privatisation and decline came after Thatcher’s victory.
Thatcher’s personal ideology was not that of a One Nation Conservative. Her privatisation programme was branded “selling off the family silver” by one of her predecessors, Harold Macmillan. Heath rarely concealed his disdain for her. In her Cabinet, the traditional Tories were condemned as “Wets”, though only occasionally did she feel the need to sack them.
Shifting the Economic Balance
Margaret Thatcher was determined to shift the balance in the mixed economy she inherited away from public ownership and regulation to a more libertarian free enterprise, with lower taxation. Privatisation was her main tool but deregulation, especially in financial services, also played a key part.
The seeds of the destruction of Britain’s much envied workplace pensions sector were sown in the late 1980s leading to the scandalous miss-selling of some ‘personal pension plans’. The ‘loadsamoney’ culture of the times was mocked by comedian Harry Enfield in a hit single and a successful live tour in which there was satirical mocking of “the hapless poor, middle-class people in suits, opera-goers, politicians and the old-style, outmoded pay packet flat cap working class”.
Margaret Thatcher was not, however, a class warrior though some of her supporters were. Of bourgeois origins, she admired those who succeeded by their own efforts, as she had, and she was suspicious of privilege.
Her three general election victories required voter support outside of the traditional Conservative-voting middle classes and she had an instinctive feel for electorally attractive populism. After the Falklands War this included overt patriotism and contempt for communism. Together with Ronald Reagan, she can be credited with a hand in the fall of the Soviet Union. However, dictators of the right such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile troubled her much less.
In 1975, Thatcher had played a key role in campaigning for a “yes” vote in the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the then European Community.
During her premiership, she fought resolutely and successfully to reduce Britain’s contributions to the EC but, by 1988, she had become much more of a sceptic and in a speech in Bruges she said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of the Bruges speech, which perhaps for the first time articulated the argument of British sovereignty that has become the core of subsequent Eurosceptic campaigning.
But, despite various battles over Europe, Thatcher did pass the Single European Act, which created the single market and, in the dying days of her premiership, she agreed to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the crucial precursor of the single European currency.
Europe played a part in Margaret Thatcher’s fall as her Cabinet was distinctly more pro-Europe than she was. However, it was more her increasingly autocratic, even unbalanced, style that lost her the support of her colleagues. Her judgement on the Poll Tax began to fail her and public support was dwindling. Throughout 1989 to 1990, the Conservatives trailed Labour by a wide margin in the opinion polls.
Margaret Thatcher was a unique force in British politics and it is over-simplistic to describe her simply as a flag-waving Eurosceptic creating the mold for today’s Brexiteers.
Totem for the Right
Conservative campaigners who opposed Britain’s membership of the EU adopted Thatcher as their totem. The Bruges Group, consisting (mainly) Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, was formed in 1989 and named after Thatcher’s Bruges speech. The think tank has been a major force on the right for 30 years, especially during the 2016 EU Referendum. The woman who had been Britain’s first female Prime Minister was its first honorary president.
The key message of Thatcher’s Bruges speech was the rejection of “dominance from Brussels” but this is actually code for a neoliberal objection to regulation in favour of free enterprise.
Throughout her decade in office, Thatcher favoured the operation of the market and sought to reduce the power of the state. The extent to which this ran counter to the goal of transnational cooperation in the EU has been, and still is, grossly exaggerated. While the customs union and the single market need rules to govern their operation, there remains considerable freedom for member states to have their own economic models. Some are more dirigist and centralised, some more laissez-faire.
There is a great irony in the fact that the free market Bruges Group is so opposed to the European Union. The EU is a capitalist construct which is why some old-fashioned socialists still oppose it and why Britain’s original joining of the club was supported by the likes of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher and opposed by Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Eliminating tariffs between trading members, reducing or removing paperwork, facilitating the free movement of capital, goods and labour are, one would think, goals that would warm Conservative souls – and they did. Yes, there was a modicum of the surrendering of sovereignty involved but, in its place, came a remarkable acquisition of sovereignty over our neighbours’ actions.
Inside the EU, Britain – in theory – has a veto over certain aspects of the domestic policy of 27 sovereign nations. Such vetoes are rarely used, of course, but the power means that if say Germany was to propose to use non-EU compliant practices in a competitive situation in the UK, it could be stopped by a UK veto. Outside the EU, Britain will have no such protection.
A Thatcherite Brexit
The Bruges Group is predicated on a nationalist idea that it is more important where a decision is taken than the quality of the decision – a collective choice made together by 28 EU member states in the European Parliament is always, under this belief, inferior to one taken by Britain alone in Westminster.
The Brexiteers’ tame economist and Bruges Group supporter Professor Patrick Minford has said that “the regulation done by the EU is incredibly top-down, dirigist regulation and it goes into all parts of our economic life”. Note that this is not about the desirability or benefits of the regulation, but about the fact that it emanates from Brussels. If one puts faux sovereignty above everything else, this is where one ends up. Economists for Free Trade, which Minford chairs, opposes the world’s undeniably most effective practical force for free trade – the EU. The 28 EU members have free trade amongst themselves and others but also free trade agreements in place with 36 other countries and territories and negotiations underway with dozens of others.
Although today’s problems are not arguably directly attributable to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘patriotic’ bombast in Bruges 30 years ago, for those who worship the Thatcher memory and want Brexit at any cost it is a perfect fit. Add in extreme economic liberalism, low tax, anti-state and anti-mixed economy and one can see the direction in which our current Government wants us to move. And why Donald Trump and American businesses support it from across the pond.
Margaret Thatcher did not see, as many Brexiteers do, an economic alliance with the US as being an alternative to the European Union. On the contrary. In New York in 1991 she said: “We must begin to lay the foundations of an Atlantic Economic Community – embracing Europe (namely the European Economic Community, EFTA and the new democratic states of Eastern Europe) on the one hand and North America on the other. This proposal has all the merits which are attached to any extension of free trade – greater economic efficiency leading to greater wealth, benefiting all those taking part. But it has two other important advantages… Given the liberal economic tradition of the US, Britain and several European Community countries, and given the fierce commitment to free market economics of the former communist states, such a block would be imbued with the philosophy of free trade.”
Margaret Thatcher’s New York speech was not picked up in the same way as her 1988 Bruges speech had been. Brexit is the antithesis of the principles Thatcher articulated there in 1991 and which the EU has successfully followed for 30 years.
Today, we are witnessing the revenge of the once-defeated and marginalised Thatcherite Bruges Group Conservatives who have suffered, in their eyes, for 26 years. The smiles of Norman Tebbit, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont are scary things – but this is their moment of glory. For them, Brexit was a necessary step in the restoration of Blessed Margaret. It was not an end in itself, but a means to continue her revolution.
Whether Margaret Thatcher, if alive today, would be supporting them is another matter.