One of the sideshows of the Brexit campaign was a debate on the question of whether Margaret Thatcher would have supported Leave or Remain. It was a debate carried on largely by people who either knew her as a parliamentary colleague or worked for her in one arena or another, and it was therefore fairly civilized. It was also inevitably speculative. We can’t know for certain how someone would react to an event after her death; she never saw the EU reform package that David Cameron brought back from Brussels, for instance. Still, we can make informed and cautious guesses.
In my own own take on the story (“Thatcher’s Advisers Argue over Her Likely Position on Brexit”), I concluded that — whatever the uncertainties — Mrs. Thatcher would have voted for Brexit, doubtless after carefully examining both sides, but firmly and with very few doubts.
Now that the Brits both in the referendum and in government policy have adopted Brexit — in effect, now that Mrs. Thatcher has triumphed posthumously — what effect will this have on her reputation? It seems an odd question. How can events three years after her death change people’s judgments on her actions in life? But it thrusts itself forward because her record on Britain and the European Union is often cited, even by friendly critics, as the largest single blot on an otherwise splendid career of achievement. As for unfriendly critics . . . here is the judgment of Ian Gilmour, a Tory grandee whom she fired from her first Cabinet:
Although she signed the Single European Act, under which Britain sensibly pooled much sovereignty with her partners, Thatcher showed a deep-seated prejudice against the European community in all her meetings with ministers and officials, according to an adviser who was present. Nigel Lawson noted her “truculent chauvinism” in Europe, and Campbell considers Europe to have been the greatest failure of her premiership.
The Campbell in question is John Campbell, a pretty fair-minded biographer, whose picture of Thatcher on Europe shows a woman whose “truculent chauvinism” was held in check by the realities of office but who in retirement finally allowed her prejudices to overcome her judgment. She seemingly reached this stage with the publication of her final book, Statecraft, which came up to the very brink of advocating withdrawal from the EU. In his biography, The Iron Lady, Campbell summarizes the arguments in Statecraft as follows:
Europe, she had concluded after years of trying was “fundamentally unreformable”. It was “an empire in the making . . . the ultimate bureaucracy”, founded on “humbug”; inherently protectionist, intrinsically corrupt, essentially undemocratic, and dedicated to the destruction of nation states. “It is in fact a classic utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” That being so, she now called, as she had never done so explicitly before, for a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s membership, and if that failed — as it was bound to do— for Britain to be ready to leave the union and join the North American Free Trade Area instead, turning its back on the whole disastrous folly.
When Statecraft was serialized in the Times of London in 2003, the reaction of the political and media establishments was sulphurous. Campbell again:
This time the consensus was clear, right across the political spectrum, that she had finally lost touch with reality. Her reading of history was denounced as blinkered nonsense; the option of renegotiation was dismissed as fantasy; the idea of withdrawal as simply impractical. In the Commons, Tony Blair challenged Iain Duncan Smith to disown her views. “To talk about withdrawal and rule out the single currency whatever the circumstances is not an act of patriotism. It is an act of folly.”
Duncan Smith refused to disown her, as Campbell points out, but practically every other prominent Tory, respectable person, and important organization did so in extravagant terms — small-minded, xenophobic, Little Englander, etc., etc. It was made clear that Britain’s membership in the EU was an unchangeable reality of Britain’s future, support for it an establishment orthodoxy, and opposition to it an eccentricity at best. Since she was leaving public life on medical advice, she was no longer available to defend her own views. Only a handful of political allies came to her defence, and they were duly caricatured as the awkward squad, losers, fruitcakes, loonies, and so on. It seemed with the emergence of David Cameron and the self-styled modernizers to lead the Tory party two years later that Euro-skepticism was dead and would shortly be buried along with Mrs. Thatcher when her funeral took place as it did in 2013.
It was in the atmosphere of 2013 that obituarists attempting to sum up her career usually concluded that “Europe” was the main issue where she had been wrong-footed by history. Those who sympathized with her on the question, as I did, tended to argue it was too early for such a confident verdict. We advanced such tentative arguments as she was “either behind history or ahead of her party.”
Today it looks as if she was ahead of both. How did that happen? And what conclusions should we draw?
One reason is that Mrs. Thatcher always had much more support from the general population on Europe than from the political and other elites. Opinion polls from the 1970s to this year always showed that a large segment of the British population supported the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU. This support fluctuated, only occasionally becoming a majority, but it never dipped much or for long to below 30 percent. The Euro-skeptics were treated by the media as a niche minority — which probably depressed their numbers more than fairer coverage might have done. But when the referendum rules forced the media to give Euro-skepticism fairer coverage, the Leave camp became a popular majority in less than four months. And Thatcher was an important symbol for it.
That was even truer for the Tory party than for the electorate at large. Euro-skepticism had always been the opinion of most Tories in and out of Parliament. Their leadership, on the other hand, was mainly Europhile. As a result, successive Tory leaders had to conceal from the rank and file their degree of commitment to the “European idea.” Their rhetoric was always more Euro-skeptic than their policies and intentions. Thatcher had been an exception; it was one reason she had been popular with the party faithful and why the post-Thatcher leadership had either to crush her opposition or to recruit her memory. Now, the referendum stretched Tory loyalty to David Cameron and the Europhile cabinet majority to the breaking point and beyond. Again, she was an obvious symbol — and beneficiary — of this peasants’ revolt.
Much the most important reason for the revival of Thatcher’s reputation, however, is that she increasingly proved to be right. Read the list of her criticisms of the European Union listed by Campbell above. Fundamentally unreformable? Check. All its reforms so far are attempts to consolidate its founding errors. An empire in the making . . . the ultimate bureaucracy? Check. The European Commission, an appointed bureaucracy, enjoys a monopoly power of initiating legislation, and the decisions of the EU’s courts are as binding on national governments as any Viceroy’s. Founded on “humbug”? Well, if humbug means false claims of superior virtue sustained by lies and trickery (such as recycling the European Constitution rejected in referendums as the Lisbon Treaty not subject to one), that’s almost a textbook description. [I]nherently protectionist, intrinsically corrupt, essentially undemocratic? Check, check, check. Dedicated to the destruction of nation states? That’s actually on the packet along with endorsements from numerous Euro-crats, most recently Jean-Claude Juncker. A classic utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure? Well, I suppose one would have to concede that the destiny of the EU is not yet fully worked out.
But the Euro and refugee crises — both resulting directly from two of the EU’s fundamental institutions, both embarked upon for largely theoretical reasons, both threatening the welfare of millions of ordinary Europeans, both stretching the loyalty of EU governments to Brussels, both posing existential threats to the EU and indeed to Europe itself, yet both seemingly endless and “unreformable” — certainly have the smell of Utopia and the Faculty Lounge about them. Both these crises, moreover, arose half a decade after Mrs. Thatcher’s criticisms of the institutions and policies that produced them. In addition to being a shrewd critic of the EU, therefore, she also counts as a highly prescient seer.
Compare that record with those of her most trenchant pro-EU critics, notably Tony Blair cited above. Blair not only advocated British membership in the EU’s single currency, the euro, when it was still a proposal, but he continues to argue for it now that it is visibly wreaking havoc across Europe. He also promised to reform the Common Agricultural Policy when he was the revolving EU president, surrendering part of the Thatcher financial rebate to win this “reform,” and he got almost nothing in return: The CAP still gets 40 percent of the EU budget. “Act of folly” does not seem a sufficiently harsh description of such blindly optimistic stupidity and failure.
On Europe, the question today is not ‘Why did she get it right?’ but ‘Why did all of them get it so wrong?’
Disappointed “Remainers” currently comforting themselves that the clever people voted to stay in the EU and that it was mainly “uneducated” people who opted to regain Britain’s independence should perhaps reflect on the relative reputations of Thatcher and Blair today — and on the reputations of Blair’s heirs in the modernizing wing of the Tory Party. It’s now clear that they got Britain wrong and Thatcher got her country right. What is more important, however, is that she got the EU right, too—indeed, she got Britain right because she got the EU right. She recognized that the pragmatic British would never feel comfortable inside its centralized bureaucratic structures with its over-regulation, grandiose ambitions, and lack of democracy—and that these failings would get worse and more intrusive over time. It got worse and the Brits voted Out.
Brexit repairs the largest single hole in her reputation — and tears several holes in the reputations of her rivals in all parties. Today the question is not “Why did she get it right?” but “Why did all of them get it so wrong?”
Postscript: In view of my praise for the arguments of Statecraft, maybe I should make clear that I had no hand at all in its composition. It was written by the team of Mrs. Thatcher, Robin Harris (her longtime adviser and the biographer of Talleyrand as well as of Mrs. T — the yin and yang of diplomacy, you might say), and Nile Gardiner (their researcher and now director of the Thatcher Institute for Liberty at the Heritage Foundation). My part was solely that Robin and I took Lady Thatcher to lunch in order to persuade her to write it.
As we settled down in the restaurant to read the menu, Robin leant toward Lady T and said quietly: “Don’t look up, but Mr. Heath is just two tables down from us.”
She waited a moment or two, then leant forward in the former prime minister’s direction, smiled, and waved. He nodded back, and we all turned to ordering, discussing the Statecraft project. Lady T, however, said that we must stop by Ted’s table and say hello to her great rival when we left. We agreed.
At the table between Ted and us, within easy earshot of both, were two smart well-dressed ladies of about Lady T’s age minus about five years. They got up to leave while we were still at the coffee stage, walked past our table, paused, and then did that little hesitation waltz that all celebrities must learn to fear. It conveys “should we/shouldn’t we,” and it continued for a moment as the ladies slowly turned pink in the face. Then one stepped forward and said in a pleasant soft Northern English accent: “Lady Thatcher, we apologize for disturbing your lunch, but we’ll do so only for a moment. We just wanted to thank you for saving our country.”
“That’s right,” said the other lady. “Before you, we were on the road to ruin.”
“How very kind of you,” responded Lady T. “Please join our table for a coffee.”
“No,” they replied. “We said we wouldn’t and we won’t. But thank you.”
They were as good as their word and left. Lady T said: “Well, wasn’t that nice of them. But we should leave, too. Let’s stop by and say hello to Ted.”
Ted too had been finishing his coffee only a moment before.
But Ted had gone.
After that, it wasn’t hard to persuade Lady T to write Statecraft.