Politics & Policy

How Thatcher Came to Be Euroskeptic

The Iron Lady was lukewarm on the EU before she was against it.

Critics of the European Union will remember with considerable affection a famous parliamentary performance in which — with an emphatic “No! No! No!” — Margaret Thatcher roundly rejected the prospect of further European integration. “What is the point,” she asked the assembled House of Commons, “in trying to get elected to Parliament only to hand over your sterling and the powers of this house to Europe?” This is a familiar refrain of Euroskeptics — as those who would defend the principle of national sovereignty against foreign usurpation are curiously described — and one that is particularly salient now that the European edifice is creaking and moaning, as students of history always knew that it would. For the support of such a formidable character, all enemies of the European project should be grateful.

Yet we should take care not to be so grateful that we rewrite history and transform Mrs. Thatcher into something that she was not. By the end of her premiership, she had found her voice on the question of Europe. (And what a voice.) She correctly predicted from the outset the unviability of the single European currency and was wholly vindicated in her opposition to British entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. But nobody is perfect, and it is only fair to acknowledge that she did not always hold the strong views on Britain’s political involvement with Europe for which she has most recently become acclaimed.

In her opposition to the European single currency and the ERM, history has confirmed a remarkable prescience. Mrs. Thatcher correctly predicted that a single currency could not simultaneously accommodate the likes of Germany and Greece — countries she specifically named — and that attempting to reconcile the two would lead to disaster for smaller nations: It will “devastate their inefficient economies,” she warned a tentatively pro-euro chancellor, John Major, in 1990. Her staunch opposition within a divided party and her peremptory rejection of the views of those who disagreed with her cost her dearly politically, contributing to her downfall in 1990.

Her unilateral opposition to British involvement with the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, too, helped to end her premiership. But on this question, as on so many others, history has been kinder to her than her party was. In 1992, as she was gearing up to give a speech to the Economic Club of New York that recommended Britain leave the ERM, the ERM collapsed and Britain withdrew. This rendered her remarks a victorious post-mortem. By chance, former chancellor Nigel Lawson’s memoirs were released at around the same time and were being serialized in the Times. The memoirs contained a passage explaining how Mrs. Thatcher’s opposition to the ERM had contributed to her downfall. At the time of her dramatic ouster in 1990, the conventional wisdom had been that her “obstinacy” and unwillingness to accommodate the views of her colleagues on matters European had done her in. Now her “poor judgment” looks like great wisdom.

Still, the biggest mistake of Mrs. Thatcher’s career was signing the 1986 Single European Act. Unusually for such a strong leader, she allowed herself to be convinced that the SEA was a price worth paying in exchange for expanding and streamlining the single market. This was an unfortunate extension of a then-popular belief that further European political integration might help to impose laissez-faire and free-trade values on a reluctant continent. This view was sufficiently popular that it was shared — albeit with horror — by the socialist Labour party, which viewed the EEC disparagingly as a “capitalists’ club.” Thus, when Tony Blair — that arch Europhile — initially ran for office in 1983, he did so advocating wholesale British withdrawal from the European Economic Community.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher would speak of “liberty and justice.” But early on, before she learned to trust her judgment on foreign-policy issues, it was economics that preoccupied her. For this, she deserves some criticism. Undoubtedly, Europe became more of an affront to Britain’s autonomy as it matured into today’s nightmare, and she cannot have been expected to predict each and every arrogation. But the principled stand for British sovereignty that she later took did not find its voice until she concluded that British membership would undo her hard-fought domestic victories and reintroduce socialism by the back door. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level,” she exclaimed in 1988. It is a distinct irony that the mechanisms that made this a real possibility bore her signature.

Thankfully, Mrs. Thatcher’s interest dissipated when it became apparent that she’d been sold a lemon. (The salesmen responsible were as often her own government as the Eurocrats she came to loathe.) Certainly, she shared none of the soft, Kumbaya-collectivism that marks out the modern British Europhile. Too many in Britain’s current stable of MPs have been comfortable with Britain’s being subsumed into a European super state because they hope that a strong EU will “civilize” the country and “harmonize” its differences away. More — misguidedly — are ashamed of Britain’s legacy of empire. Other hope that stronger ties with Europe will undermine the special relationship and put some distance between London and Washington.

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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