How Thatcher Came to Be Euroskeptic
The Iron Lady was lukewarm on the EU before she was against it.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1996


Contrarily, to the extent that British exceptionalism still exists on that scepter’d isle, Mrs. Thatcher was a devotee. To the embarrassment of some who sought to emulate Tony Blair’s vacuous and pseudo-cosmopolitan “Cool Britannia,” she told the Conservative-party conference in 1999, “My friends, we are quite the best country in Europe.” During her premiership, she appropriated the imagery of the British lion. Like Churchill, she spoke warmly of the “English-speaking peoples,” a theme she developed especially keenly toward the end of her premiership and in her retirement. And her admiration for America knew no bounds.

Post–Downing Street, Mrs. Thatcher warned that, by dint of its very nature, the European project would become hostile to the United States. “The overall European federalist project,” she argued in a 1996 speech to the New Atlantic Initiative in Prague, “is in truth a nightmare. . . . Were it to come about, another great power would have been born — equal or nearly equal in economic strength to the United States. Does anyone suppose that such a power would not soon become a rival to America?” She answered her own question in typically bold terms: “Europe separated from the United States would in my view be unequivocally a bad thing — bad for America, bad for Europe, and bad for the world at large.” Mrs. Thatcher had seen the instincts of the EU, and she considered them to be antithetical to the principles of “the Atlantic political consciousness,” which “does not seek to eliminate national identity, it respects it” and “makes excellent strategic and economic sense.”

“In my lifetime,” she wrote in her final book, Statecraft, “all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world.” As was her style, she did not shy away from saying such things directly to Europeans, especially after it had dawned on her that the European Union represented all that she had fought so hard to overcome. After the president of the European Commission, the French socialist Jacques Delors, spoke to the British Trades Union Congress in 1988 — such a meeting as might have informed the worst nightmares of British conservatives in the 1980s — and suggested that the EU should control economic, social, and fiscal legislation in the member states, she rounded on the federalists.

“You have asked me to speak on the subject of Britain,” she told the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988. “Perhaps I should congratulate you on your courage.” Having thus set expectations, Mrs. Thatcher proceeded to remind the assembled company that “we British have in a very special way contributed to Europe.” How? “Over the years we have fought to prevent Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power . . . we have fought and we have died for her freedom . . . had it not been for that willingness to fight and to die, Europe would have been united long before now — but not in liberty, not in justice.” This is the Mrs. Thatcher that we know and love.

For her consistent and sagacious opposition to the euro, we should be grateful to Mrs. Thatcher without qualification. But from her better-late-than-never conversion into fully-fledged Euroskeptic and unyielding Atlanticist — for which she paid a high political price — we might draw another lesson: The virtue of sovereignty does not depend upon its capacity to deliver us what we want; instead, sovereignty is a good in and of itself. Mrs. Thatcher quickly wised up to that truth. Europeans across the continent would do well to follow her example.

– Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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