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‘Goodbye to All That’: An Early Eurosceptic and Thatcher Aide Looks Back

A Union Jack and European Union flag at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in 2016. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
John O’Sullivan, who was there, reviews the long history leading up to Brexit.

As the amiably vulgar crowds of Brexiteers sang in loud celebration under Nigel Farage’s beaming approval in Parliament Square (to the puritan disapproval of the Independent’s Tom Peck: a “knuckle-dragging carnival of the irredeemably stupid,” retweeted by historian Simon Schama as “brilliant”), I was at a small private celebration in a Budapest restaurant with my American wife, Irish writer “cousin,” and a Swiss friend raising glasses of delicious Hungarian fizz to the recovery of Britain’s democratic sovereignty.

Other Eurosceptics have testified to feeling a slight sense of anticlimax as the moment came. It was indeed a little like New Year’s Eve — we had known this night was coming for a long time, we wanted it to happen, but the next morning we would be starting on a different and perhaps tougher work schedule rather than a vacation. That said, we would be independent contractors rather than salaried employees.

My own feeling, however, was not so much that I was embarking on a new task as that I was laying down an old one. I first became a Brexiteer (or, as we were then confusingly known, an “anti-Marketeer,” because the European Union, then the European Economic Community, or EEC, was known colloquially as the Common Market) in the late 1960s. The Tories were then the pro-Europe party in substance even though all parties were formally undecided. In the course of attending discussions of the Tory leadership on the EEC (as a junior aide, I hasten to add), I reached the heretical conclusion that the economic case for “joining Europe” was weak and the case against surrendering our sovereignty to do so was therefore strong. In the 1970 election, in which I stood as a Tory candidate for Gateshead West, I stressed the conditional nature of our manifesto pledge on Europe: “Our commitment is to negotiate, no more, no less.” My Euroscepticism was firming up.

Not that anyone gives a damn about what a first-time Tory candidate in a safe Labour seat thinks about anything. As the party professionals say in their wisdom, a parliamentary candidate is “just a bloody legal necessity.” Thus Britain joined the EEC in 1973, despite my opposition, and was then faced with a referendum in 1975 on whether to confirm or reject the (now defeated) Tory government’s handiwork. By then I had risen to a far more influential position in the Tory world: I was an editorial and parliamentary correspondent in the Daily Telegraph, an independent paper known colloquially as “the Torygraph” since the Tory faithful bought it and the Tory leadership had to take its editorial advice into account.

Also, I was among the relatively few active Tories who had bucked the official party line and campaigned for a No vote in the hapless anti-Market effort. I had spoken to the voters and I knew we were doomed.

On June 4, 1975, therefore, I sat down at my clattering typewriter in the Telegraph offices and embarked on a melancholy task. As one of the minority of editorial writers opposed to EEC membership, I had been asked by editor Bill Deedes to write a light account of the referendum campaign that would appear on the morning of the vote. Bill said he wanted my squib to offset the solemnity of the editorial, but my suspicion was that he was a secret No voter who wanted it to offset the Telegraph’s stern admonition to vote Yes. And he may have been right. In its small way that squib was the modest beginning of the Telegraph’s Euroscepticism, which has since played a big part in achieving Brexit — the full story of which is told in the Telegraph itself.

In principle Bill could have ordered a No editorial, but pressure from the establishment for an endorsement of Britain’s EU membership was so overwhelming in 1975 that it would have seemed eccentric, unpatriotic, even treasonable. So I read through “the files” of the previous month’s campaigning and started bashing out the piece:

From the Establishment and the respectable anti-Establishment, from the Economist and the New Statesman, from Lord Feather [of the Trades Union Congress] and Mr. Campbell Adamson [of the Confederation of British Industry], from Prime Ministers Wilson (Labour) and Heath (Tory), from the Royal Commission Volunteers to ‘Actors and Actresses for Europe’, from the farthest reaches of the civilized West End, the same advice, the same dire predictions of life outside the Market (‘God, it was hell out there in 1972’), the same comforting assurances of a bright future inside, less ecstatic admittedly than similar forecasts before we had entered (‘Come in, come in, the water’s lukewarm’ was their newer message) have been proclaimed with an almost religious fervor.

Religion itself had been conscripted for the European cause. The bishop of London, preaching in St Paul’s, had said that those concerned about sovereignty were guilty of the heresy “My country, right or wrong,” which was “essentially selfish and inward-looking.” Big Business spoke with one voice: The CBI’s Ralph Bateman declared that it would be “madness” to leave the EEC, and Mr. Barrie Heath told the workers at the engineering company, Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, that membership in the EEC was not a political issue at all. It was a simple matter of economic and industrial efficiency.

“Is he Sir Barrie?” asked Enoch Powell, the leading Tory campaigner for a No vote. “No? Well, he soon will be.” He was, too — given a knighthood three years later “for services to exporting.”

If the Yes campaigners looked like a group of “suits” who had just emerged from too good a lunch at the Savoy, the Noes seemed to be an odd blend of left and right eccentrics in denims and hunting pink, respectively. But the Left — above all, its favorite, Tony Benn — predominated.  After he left frontline politics, Benn morphed into a lovable British eccentric, with his mug of tea and his nostalgic lectures on workers’ control, but at the time he was seen by Middle England as its main enemy on the left. Dominic Sandbrook recently cited my old joke in his social history of Britain in the 1970s: “Mr. Benn often complains that the press and television are biased against the anti-Marketeers. And he is absolutely right. They keep on reporting him.”

As a result of this unbalanced campaign, the British people were being pushed to stay in this modernizing New Europe in the resigned spirit of “If you know of a better airport lounge, go to it.” My article, however, ended with a warning: “In supporting Europe, the entire British establishment has put all its money on one horse — admittedly the favorite. But what if, like most of the establishment’s fancied runners in the last twenty years, it comes in fourth?”

Not that I would ever dream of saying “I told you so,” but that is exactly what happened. Leaders in all the main political and cultural institutions had told themselves a number of defeatist stories to justify breaking their previous loyalties and surrendering an ever-growing share of their own freedom of action: Suez had demonstrated the shrinkage of Britain’s independent role as a world power; the Commonwealth was no help in arresting our own decline; we needed the cold bath of economic competition to wake ourselves up — and that would be provided by unimpeded access to the European market that had enabled EEC members to grow more rapidly than Britain in the previous two decades. Underlying these soliloquies was a feeling that Britain could only overcome this declinism by merging itself into a larger world power. As a critic of that attitude, Enoch Powell, said in the late sixties when Britain was still hesitating: “Their message is: We were big once. We want to be big again.”

Yet, even at the time, none of these arguments really withstood skeptical examination even at the time. Consider each one:

  • If the country needed a cold bath of competition, it could have obtained that more thoroughly by adopting free trade with the world rather than by joining a Europe cosseted by a common external tariff.
  • No country, even the United States, had untrammeled power, as the Vietnam War had just established. But the British had defeated the Malayan Communists ten years earlier and were about to see off the Indonesians in the largely unreported Borneo war. They had no real reason to reproach themselves for lacking power and influence internationally.
  • Furthermore, the real source of British decline lay in the inefficiency of British industry and the excessive power of the trade unions. Membership in the European Economic Community would do nothing about that. Indeed, for both Labour and pre-Thatcher Tories, “Europe” was a way of evading that truth rather than tackling it. Europe would do what we feared to do ourselves, they argued, but no one could ever explain how.
  • The British Commonwealth had its limitations, but Britain was Australia’s largest single trading and investment partner in the early 1960s until EEC membership explicitly set out to reduce that trade through quotas.
  • Above all, though full access to a larger European market would indeed be a benefit to Britain, this was overstated as a factor in Europe’s post-war growth. At least as important was the move from low-productivity jobs in agriculture to high-productivity jobs in industry on the continent after 1945. But the British economy had made that transition between 1870 and 1945. We couldn’t get the same benefit twice.

All these factors soon became academic, however. No sooner had Britain confirmed its EEC membership in the 1975 referendum than Europe stopped growing. The benefits of an expanded market that were supposed to follow British entry failed to arrive on schedule or at all. Europe itself went into a long sleep of stagflation. And the Brits fell deeper into the Slough of Despond, until four years later they reached its lowest point in the Winter of Discontent, when strikes spread over Britain like the coronavirus. It took the arrival of Margaret Thatcher to restore strength and prosperity to Britain by the only method that works — creating the framework of financial and economic stability that enables people and industries to save themselves by their own efforts.

For most of the next decade, therefore, the EEC as a political issue faded into the background as Thatcher’s fight to revive Britain through her own efforts (“her” referring here to both Britain and Thatcher) dominated life and politics. Britain’s relationship with the EEC was structured mainly around the attempts of the new prime minister to get a large British budgetary rebate from Brussels to compensate for the fact that the EEC budget was structurally biased against the Brits, who paid in a lot but got little back because 40 percent of EEC spending was on agriculture. “Europe” came back into the headlines after 1986, however, as a result of three developments: Thatcherite Britain recovered economically to become the world’s fourth-largest economy; the EEC adopted a single market, in which regulatory “harmonization” in Brussels replaced the principle that all EEC members would mutually recognize one another’s standards; and the Left in Brussels and Britain saw that this harmonization, enforced on the principle of “a level playing field,” would give Brussels the power to control everything that moved across the continent. And Brussels was not a Tory city.

Jacques Delors, newly chosen as the EU Commission president, told the British labor unions this good news in a famous 1988 speech. Within ten years, he said, 80 percent of economic and social legislation would be determined by Europe. And within a very short time the Labour Party and the unions had switched sides to become strongly Europhile. Most Tories took longer to realize that the balance of political advantage of the European issue had changed, but it was always likely that a Tory government presiding over a booming deregulated economy would resist a Brussels takeover run by a socialist. Thatcher responded to Delors only two months later, in what became known as the Bruges speech (drafted by her close adviser and personal friend Charles Powell, who was a moderate Euroskeptic). Here is its most famous passage:

“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.”

Not all Tories, nor all cabinet ministers, were happy with this open and robust resistance, however, and for the next two years a quiet civil war spread across the party, fought over Europe and issues related to it. They wanted quiet diplomacy and compromise with Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. Having served in Downing Street for two years as a special adviser to the prime minister, I had moved to the U.S. in 1988 to edit National Review. From there I returned to London, to write speeches for her, most of which had Bruges-type passages, from time to time.  I had a ringside seat, therefore, from which to observe the growing divide between Thatcher, supported by the party faithful, and the majority of hercCabinet, supported by what has to be called elite opinion over European policy. That reached a climax when she rejected moves at the EU summit in Rome to move toward far greater Euro-integration, political and economic, and returned to London to face a crisis. Foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe resigned; former defense secretary (and fierce Europhiliac) Michael Heseltine stood against her in a leadership election; she failed to get the necessary super-majority . . . and returned from the Paris conference in celebration of the end of the Cold War to face the second round of the leadership election.

In New York, I had written some passages for the prime minister to deliver the next day in a speech responding to a Labour motion of no confidence and boarded a plane for London. In London, one minister after another was undermining her will to fight on by telling her she was already as good as defeated. When I got off the plane, she had already announced her intention to resign, delivered a humdinger of a speech in Parliament, and sent me an invitation to Downing Street for a drink the day after. That party of old friends and advisers from the early Thatcher years onward was one of those odd occasions in which feelings of tragedy and sadness are dissipated in a catharsis of wit and hilarity. I don’t know when I’ve felt sadder or laughed more.

But I went on from there to address a meeting of the Bruges Group, formed to advance the Tory Eurosceptic cause, that had been arranged months before. To my surprise I found that although they were saddened by the prime minister’s departure, they didn’t think it would significantly change the drift of government policy toward a looser relationship with Europe. I tried to make their flesh creep by pointing out that she had been ousted because of — in large measure — her militant Euroscepticism and that two of her three potential successors were strong Europhiles. As it turned out, the third was John Major, who turned out to be as Europhiliac as Heseltine. Of the five prime ministers since Thatcher, four have been almost equally so (though sometimes in light disguise). By means of occasional anti-Brussels rhetoric without consequence, successive Tory leaders were able to keep the restive Brexiteer majority of their grassroots supporters under control until Nigel Farage invented two Leave parties in succession in order to give right-wing voters a genuinely Eurosceptic party to vote for.

That was vital. But would it have been enough if the intellectual case had not been made in the years since Thatcher’s defenestration? Former chancellor Norman Lamont has said recently that he thought that in 1993 he might have been the first frontline politician to suggest that Britain might actually leave the EU rather than try, always ineffectually, to reform-cum-liberalize it. I think he’s right and that his isolation in challenging such an intellectually challengeable institution as the EU is a marker of the astounding groupthink that has gripped cultural, media, and political elites in the West right up to the recent Tory election victory. And though Lamont was the first serving major politician to challenge that groupthink, he was building on the interventions in the European debate that Thatcher continued to make in the two decades after she left office.

Along with Robin Harris, another Thatcher aide and later the author of a biography of the lady that took no equivocating prisoners, I was fortunate enough to work with the former prime minister both when she was writing her memoirs and when she wanted to make speeches on especially important topics. Ever the scholarship girl, she used those occasions to develop a soundly based analysis of subjects as important and as different as the euro and the relationship between Russia and the West. All her speeches are available at margaretthatcher.org, but to see her views on the European issue in the round, look at both the Bruges speech she gave in government and her speech at The Hague not long after she left it. But the speech that probably best represents her growing influence on the issue is her 1992 speech to the World Economic Development Conference in the U.S. I recall that speech well. She had invited Robin and me to help with its writing in the British embassy in Washington. As so often with a Thatcher speech, the writing continued well into the small hours. She retired about 3:30 a.m. We did some editorial cleaning up on the computer. And at about 5:00 a.m. we let ourselves out of the embassy onto Massachusetts Avenue. No taxis were to be had. We schlepped our cases about a mile down to the hotel on Dupont Circle to catch a few hours’ sleep.

But we were reenergized by the speech’s reception the next day. It was delivered just after Britain had been forced out of the European Exchange Realignment Mechanism, which she had never liked, had been forced by political weakness to join shortly before losing office, and had criticized as trapping the pound at too high a rate and inflicting a recession on the economy. Crashing out of the ERM confirmed these fears, and her speech was interpreted by the media as an “elegant I told you so.”

As others have pointed out, however, notably Tom McTague at The Atlantic, that speech looked forward to future European controversies as well as back to the ERM. In particular, Thatcher warned of the consequences if a single European currency were to be introduced, as it was eight years later: “Huge sums would have to be transferred from richer to poorer countries and regions to allow them to take the strain. Even then, unemployment and mass migration across now-open frontiers would follow. And a full-fledged single currency would allow no escape hatch.” She then laid out the political consequences, too:

the growth of extremist parties, battening on fears about mass immigration and unemployment, offering a real — if thoroughly unwelcome — alternative to the Euro-centrist political establishment. If, in addition, you were to create a supranational European federation, and the people could no longer hold their national parliaments to account, extremism could only grow further.”

McTague remarks that this was a remarkably prescient speech. It was more than prescient, moreover, because these arguments not only kept alive the Eurosceptic case in the 1990s, they later injected it with performance-enhancing drugs when the euro crisis, the Greek crisis, the migration crisis, the rise of populism, and the collapse of center-left and center-right parties altered the political landscape in the twenty-teens. We read the runes of those crises more intelligently because Thatcher had explained them in advance. In her accurate prediction of how the country would respond to escaping from the ERM, did she perhaps also predict the likely response of Britain to Brexit?

The histrionics of this time will soon be forgotten. The benefits will be increasingly appreciated. Dire warnings of what will happen when the economic straitjacket is removed will quickly prove false. The patient may perhaps wave his arms around a bit at first. He may even make a noise. But his odd behavior reflects the torture of the straitjacket, not an inherent disordered condition. And the long-concealed truth quickly dawns that this patient was perfectly sane all the time.

I think so; we’ll know in time. For the moment, however, I am inclined to think of Brexit as Mrs. Thatcher’s last victory and the fulfillment of Thatcherism. In the final stage of her career she reached Eurosceptic conclusions on the euro and more broadly, in her retirement, on Britain’s European commitment. She took time to do so. As a practical politician, she was always a work in progress, feeling her way in new policy areas, but as she grew more confident on an issue, making judgments that were generally consistent with all her other political instincts. The more she encountered the European Union, the more suspicious of it she became. It seemed to her to concentrate the centralizing and leveling passions in one vast bureaucratic machine insensitive to the sovereignty of nations and to the aspirations of citizens. Above all, she believed it simply did not suit the British who had grown up under different institutions and with a different social outlook.

Some years ago I was asked by an Italian political conference to assess how history would judge Margaret Thatcher on Europe. I replied that she would prove to be either ahead of her party or behind history. If Brexit occurred successfully, then Thatcherism would be seen as the start of a new phase of British history, leading either to an adventurous independent English nationalism in the style of (though in very different circumstances from) Elizabethan England or perhaps to a renewed closeness to the countries of the Anglosphere straddling the world. If Britain voted to remain in Europe, Thatcher would seem to have been behind history, and Thatcherism would look like a glorious last stand by Old England, the England that more or less invented classical liberalism in 1689, before it was subsumed into a collective European nonidentity. In either event, she deserved well of the people she governed for eleven years. Without her they would have been given no choice in the matter.

As Brexit turned out, she proved to be ahead both of her party and of history, and can truly now rest in peace.

As for myself, I feel a sense of relief as well as of satisfaction. In much of my writing life, both as a “ghost” and as a commentator in my own voice, I have been been devoted to arguing for a self-governing democratic Britain, first as a member of a loose and lightly regulated Europe and, when that possibility was ruled out by a persistent Brussels majority, as an ex-member of the European Union. That second possibility has now been achieved, and I think securely so. There will still be alarms and excursions about our future trading relationship with the EU, and the government can be confidently expected to make other blunders along the way. But I really don’t see the country being persuaded to rejoin the EU under any dispensation. But reporting and analyzing those controversies I can leave with perfect confidence to my colleagues such as Madeleine Kearns and Michael Brendan Dougherty, who have done such a tremendous job of covering the final days of European Britain. That burden has now been lifted from my shoulders. I must turn, quite happily, to other concerns.

But to what exactly?

Well, they tell me that some interesting things have been happening in the United States. It seems unlikely, but I’ll give it a shot.

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