In early February, before the date had even been set for the June 23 referendum that will decide whether Britain remains a member of the European Union, the governing Conservative Party began a fight with itself over how Margaret Thatcher would have voted. Her former private secretary Charles Powell (pronounced “pole”) started the debate, when he declared in a newspaper article that his onetime boss, for all her vocal hostility to the European enterprise, would ultimately have opted for Britain to remain in the EU. “Margaret Thatcher’s heart was never in our membership of the EU,” Lord Powell conceded. “But I am convinced her head would continue to favour staying in on the conditions now on offer…. The one thing I never heard her propose was Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.”
Not so, said a chorus of fellow veterans of the Thatcher era. They were adamant that the lady would have been in their camp, urging a British exit—or Brexit—from the twenty-eight-state club. “The EU of those days was very different from the EU today,” wrote David Young, who served as a cabinet minister in Thatcher’s 1980s pomp. “If Margaret were with us today she may not be leading Brexit but she certainly would be cajoling the leaders of the various campaigns to get their act together. And when the day came would vote out.” Another Thatcher lieutenant, John Redwood, who served as a policy aide to the prime minister before becoming a cabinet minister in his own right, took to his blog to lambast Powell. “May Margaret Thatcher rest in peace. She…showed no appetite…for the high degree of integration we now experience under common EU laws, powers, and policies. I find it disappointing that Lord Powell should presume to be able to communicate with the dead.”
A version of this argument, like a brawl at a séance, tends to occur whenever Conservatives debate Europe. It certainly predates Thatcher’s death in 2013. Ever since she was toppled by her own MPs in November 1990, her bereaved party has wrestled over the Thatcher legacy, trying to claim its authority for whatever current project this or that faction wishes to pursue. Part of this is simple ancestor worship, a cast of mind not confined to Britain’s Tories. One has only to eavesdrop on the Republican presidential debates to hear how often the name of Ronald Reagan is invoked, as if today’s GOP is constantly asking itself the question: What would Reagan do?
In the Tory case, there is another element at work: guilt. For at least a generation, the Tory tribe has been consumed with remorse for the act of regicide it had committed. Regularly appended to any reference to Thatcher, who was the longest-serving British prime minister of the twentieth century and who led her party to three consecutive general election victories, is that she was “undefeated.” She never lost an election; she was never rejected by the voters. It is the equivalent in politics of a police declaration, once a corpse is found, that “there were no suspicious circumstances”: it means that this was an act of Tory self-harm. Until last May, the Tories had gone twenty-three years without winning an outright mandate at the ballot box. This was read as a kind of punishment, a generational penance for the great betrayal of 1990.
Part of it too is the transformation that Thatcher herself wrought. Such was the full-spectrum dominance of both her party and her era that there are plenty who seem to believe that the Tories’ defining mission, their raison d’être, should be the completion of her work. The party’s current legislative program, for example, includes a Right to Buy home ownership scheme explicitly modeled on the policy of the same name that was one of Thatcher’s most popular initiatives, granting tenants of public housing the right to purchase their homes at a heavily discounted rate. For Tories of this stripe, their true affiliation—the label they wear with greatest pride—is not Conservative but Thatcherite.
But the question of Europe presents a conundrum for the Conservative keen to be true to the Thatcherite inheritance. For what exactly was the Thatcher position on Europe? That ghoulish debate of early February, with assorted Tory grandees arguing like relatives over a disputed will, quarreling over what their departed matriarch would really have wanted, was only possible because, when it comes to Europe, the Thatcher record is uncharacteristically ambiguous.
As Charles Moore recounted in the first volume of his biography, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (2013), Thatcher began her fifteen-year reign as Conservative leader by playing a full and active part in the 1975 referendum campaign, when Britons were asked whether they wanted to remain part of the Common Market they had joined two years earlier. (Until the current prime minister, David Cameron, announced that there would be a vote in June, the 1975 plebiscite remained the first and only time the British people had been directly asked their view of the matter—a point the pro-Brexit camp makes often.) Thatcher was for “in” or, as the question was put in 1975, “Yes.” It’s true that most of her party, along with most of the then-governing Labour Party and the rest of the political establishment, as well as the press, were in the same camp, but it remains a striking fact all the same—especially in view of the part she would come to play as the great disrupter of the soggy postwar political consensus she so reviled.
But no matter how uncomfortable it is for today’s Thatcherite Brexiteers, the evidence of her pro-European affiliation in 1975 is incontrovertible. It even exists in visual form, thanks to the indelible photographs that show the newly elected party leader modeling a rather snug sweater, emblazoned with the flags of the nine members of the European Economic Community: founders France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Italy, along with late arrivals Denmark, Ireland, and Britain itself. (Thatcher, not yet fifty years old, was arm in arm with two other women, whose pro-EEC T-shirts were no less figure-hugging. A clue to the effect the photo-op was aiming for was contained in the slogan worn by one of the other women: “Europe—or bust.”)
Yet if Margaret Thatcher began as an advocate for Europe, she would end as its scourge. A matter of weeks before her defenestration, indeed in a performance that, in some ways, led to it, she would stand before the House of Commons, eleven and a half years into her premiership, and declare her ringing response to what she warned were federalist demands for the further integration of Europe: “No! No! No!”
Still, what becomes clear from the second volume of Moore’s detailed, comprehensive, and surely definitive biography is that this was no simple journey from Europhile to Europhobe, to use the labels that long characterized the conflicting factions within the Tory Party. In the very same month that Thatcher bellowed her notorious three No’s, she had taken Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a device that was seen, even at the time, as the first step toward the creation of a single European currency—today’s euro—and eventual Economic and Monetary Union, with perhaps political union to follow.
The same picture of mixed and contradictory signals emerges from Moore’s account of Thatcher’s policy on Europe in the period that the book’s subtitle describes as her “zenith,” beginning where the previous volume ended—with total victory in the 1982 war in the South Atlantic, wresting the Falkland Islands from Argentine invasion—and concluding with Thatcher’s third election triumph, a second landslide, in 1987.
Moore lays bare her antagonism to Brussels and all it represented, both large and small. She reserved a special contempt for grand talk of dissolving the separate nationalisms of Europe and creating a federal European state to take their place. “I do not know what European political union means,” she told Die Welt in 1984. “I do not believe that we shall have or can have a United States of Europe.” But she also found the Continental way of doing business maddening. The formal dinners at summits were particularly infuriating. “These men!” she fumed to her press secretary after one endless evening. “All they do is anecdote away. Never get down to business. So unbusinesslike!”
Moore unearths one especially telling example, which suggests that Thatcher’s wariness of Europe was anchored, in part, in the centuries-old British fear of invasion, even contamination, by the foreign hordes. A footnote records an official’s account of a discussion between Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl about the project to link Britain and the Continent by means of a tunnel under the English Channel—the so-called Chunnel:
She started talking about her concerns that rats and animals with rabies would come through the Chunnel and spread rabies in Britain. Kohl saw this as a metaphor for her relationship with Europe. He said he’d never heard anything more stupid in his life.
The story is potent because of what happened next. For despite Thatcher’s worries about foreign diseases, the Chunnel did get built. And it was her government, along with the French, that built it.
That was the pattern. Lots of huffing and puffing from the prime minister, often expressed through exasperated notes scribbled in the margins of memos, which served as the background noise to a slow, steady, and gradual convergence of Britain with the rest of Europe.
Part of the explanation for this contradictory pattern was a tendency to put concrete, practical gains for Britain ahead of the less palpable, long-term consequences. In 1984 Thatcher secured a much-vaunted rebate of part of London’s cash contribution to the Brussels coffers, but at a price of sealing the alliance between Kohl and François Mitterrand, the Franco-German motor that would drive Europe toward “ever closer union” for the rest of the decade and beyond. “At last the stalemate was ended,” Moore writes of the long-running rebate saga, “and [her Continental rivals] could get on with European integration, whether Mrs. Thatcher liked it or not.”
She suffered from the British habit of attaching more value to the tangible than to the abstract, securing material gains by granting apparently symbolic, rhetorical concessions to her federalizing neighbors. Moore shows Thatcher biting her tongue and signing on to assorted “solemn declarations” and vows, reassured by the silky mandarins of Whitehall that it was all so much windy rhetoric, more in the realm of theology than politics. Perhaps it was another example of the age-old distinction that long separated British (or English) philosophy from the Continental variety: the former grounded in empirical reality, the latter prone to intangible abstraction.
But as Moore writes, “Theology always matters to a priesthood.” Those symbolic declarations, each one blessed, however reluctantly, by Thatcher, added up. By the time her tenure in Downing Street was over, the European project had deepened—and she had allowed it to happen. As a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, where he served as editor for eight years, Charles Moore makes no secret of his Brexit sympathies, just as, as Thatcher’s authorized biographer, he does not hide his admiration for his subject. He is one of those keen to reconcile the two sentiments. Little wonder, then, that he seizes on evidence that suggests Thatcher was somehow kept in the dark about the true nature of the European enterprise by Euro-enthusiast ministers, aides, and foreign counterparts. But he is honest enough to admit that if Britain became embedded in an ever-integrating Europe during her years in power, then she bears some responsibility for that. “As well as being deceived,” he writes, “Mrs. Thatcher must also have been self-deceiving.”
Yet if the great warrior queen of the 1980s was uncharacteristically ambivalent in dealing with the European question, that is hardly surprising. Her inner conflict, if that’s what it was, reflects a tension that has animated British attitudes toward Europe for the last seven decades. It endures still, throbbing even now in the current referendum campaign. It turns, inevitably, on World War II and how to understand it.
One reading of Britain’s wartime experience centers on 1940, when the country stood alone to fight against a fascist menace that had devoured the Continent. In this reading, the British are made of different, sterner stuff than the Europeans. While they were either conquering or being conquered, Britain was the valiant defender of freedom, indeed the last best hope of humanity until the Americans arrived (late) to do their bit. The European Union might work for those Continentals, but it threatens to smother the unique Anglo-Saxon spirit of liberty that makes this island nation—and especially England—destined to govern itself, alone if necessary. Just as it was in 1940.
This view comes with an addendum, though one voiced only rarely these days. It holds that the European Union is especially sinister because it amounts to achieving, albeit by peaceful means, Adolf Hitler’s plan for German domination. In 1990, Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher’s ministers and close to her on the European issue, told an interviewer: “This is all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe. It has to be thwarted.”
At that time and since, Germany insisted that, on the contrary, it saw a federal Europe as a means to restrain its own strength—as a series of Lilliputian ropes that might tie down the German Gulliver. But Thatcher was not convinced. “Kohl’s endless pleas for ‘a European Germany’ to avoid ‘a German Europe’ sounded almost like a threat in her mind,” writes Moore. The prospect of a reunified, and therefore stronger, Germany troubled her.
But there is an alternative British reading of the wartime experience. It holds that the lesson of history is that the nations of Europe will murder each other viciously unless they are bound together in a shared mission, one that compels them to resolve their disputes around a negotiating table rather than on a battlefield. Churchill had always said jaw-jaw was better than war-war, and the European venture—whether the loose trading bloc of six nations that formed in 1957 or today’s effort to draw together twenty-eight states whose societies, economies, and fiscal arrangements remain stubbornly different—enshrines that logic. Taming Germany is part of it, but in recent years it is understood as a way of containing the collective demons of xenophobia and nationalist loathing—witness the rise of Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen—that apparently lurk as close to the European surface as they ever did.
In Britain, this was the position associated most closely with Margaret Thatcher’s predecessor as Tory leader, Edward Heath, a veteran of the war in Europe hugely influenced by his experience of combat. As prime minister, he had led Britain into the Common Market in 1973. Once he had been toppled by her, he could barely conceal his resentment. But there was more than personal animus at work. She did not share his vision of Europe. She could mouth the words—at one point declaring, “We were passionate Europeans. We joined the Community so that the conflicts that had occurred in the past could not recur in the future”—but she rarely felt the tune. Moore provides an exquisite illustration. In 1984, Thatcher watched TV footage of Kohl and Mitterrand visiting the site of the bloody World War I battle of Verdun. The two men stood together, gazing at the field, holding hands, symbolically reconciling France and Germany. “Wasn’t it moving, she was privately asked afterwards? ‘No, it was not,’ she answered. ‘Two grown men holding hands!’”
To this day, this remains a fault line in British attitudes toward Europe and the European Union, dividing the nation as well as the Conservative Party. The Leave campaign, including the UK Independence Party—whose agitation, and threat to siphon off Euroskeptic voters from the Tories, partly explain why Cameron felt compelled to promise an in/out referendum in the first place—takes 1940 as its moral and emotional starting point. Its most high-profile Conservative voice is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose public style often seems a rumpled attempt to imitate Winston Churchill.
And over the Remain side, the shadow of the war looms too. When Cameron, who won the Tory leadership in 2005 by posing as the Euroskeptic choice, is pressed to make the emotional case for Britain staying in the Union, it is the argument for postwar peace he falls back on. Indeed, among the first words of the speech he made in 2013 promising the referendum was a tribute to the European project for pacifying a blood-soaked continent: “Healing those wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union.”
Cameron’s unlikely allies in the Remain campaign include most of the labor unions, the Scottish National Party, the Greens, and Labour. The latter’s support is offered only tepidly; the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, harbors the traditional socialist wariness of a European venture many on the left have long dismissed as a “capitalist club.” Yet for all their range, most Remain advocates would agree that they lack the stirring, visceral rallying cry of the “Outers.” They cannot make the simple plea for independence and self-rule available to the Leave side. When they need to reach the heart, rather than the pocketbook, it is the post-1945 argument of peace they deploy, the same argument Mitterrand and Kohl wordlessly made all those years ago at Verdun, through a physical gesture that left Thatcher so unmoved.
If memories of war and peace linger below the surface of the referendum question, aboveground the battle of Brexit—which polls show as fairly evenly poised, albeit with Remain usually ahead—is about economics. The Remain camp, led by David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne, argue that British prosperity is better served inside than out. Backed by a chorus of business leaders, they say that it would border on lunacy for Britain to break away from what is the world’s biggest single market right on its doorstep, denying itself the ability to sell on preferential terms to some five hundred million consumers. The Outers reply that such talk is scaremongering and that a post-Brexit Britain would swiftly be able to negotiate a new free trade deal with the EU, doing business with its erstwhile partners the way, say, Canada does now. To argue otherwise, say the Outers, is nothing more than Project Fear—deliberately redeploying the label the Yes side tagged onto No during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
This focus on economics is another inheritance from Thatcher. For her, that was what the European project was meant to be about. She donned the multiflagged sweater in 1975 for the Common Market, happy to bless the European Economic Community because its purpose was contained in its name. But once the Continentals expanded the vision, once they started to speak of a European Union, she grew suspicious. Practical moves to make the buying and selling of goods across borders easier: that was the business she was in.
To that end, she was the driving force throughout the 1980s in winning agreement for what was aridly referred to as the Single European Act but which created what is still known as the Single Market. She was an avowed believer in free trade and saw herself as making a particularly British contribution to Europe, knocking down barriers and tariffs, so that the bracing breeze of economic liberalism might blow through the Continent. She believed Europe would be obliged to scythe through forests of regulation, much as she was doing at home. Through the Single Market, she would Anglicize, if not Thatcherize, Europe.
But it didn’t work out that way. For the Single Market to function, for the playing field to be truly level, makers of, say, automobiles would have to comply with the same labor or safety standards whether they were in Berlin or Birmingham. And that meant regulations drafted and enforced in Brussels. To be sure, Britain would have a voice in drawing up those regulations, but it would only be one voice among many. For economic gain, Britain had abridged—others would say traded away—some of its sovereignty.
The result was that the traditional Britain of Thatcher’s rhetoric, the Britain that had once ruled the world through an empire, answering only to itself, the Britain that the young Margaret had been raised to revere, had changed—and not in a way that she liked. As Moore puts it in a sentence that will be wounding to her disciples, explaining her Nixon-to-China ability as a Euroskeptic to get pro-European measures through Parliament with little opposition, “In that sense, if in no other, Mrs. Thatcher was the most effective promoter of European integration Britain has ever known.”
As it happens, this is a paradox that characterizes large parts of the Thatcher record detailed by Moore: in pursuing Thatcherism, she eventually collided with conservatism. Her campaign of privatization, for example, selling off state-owned industries, came to define the Thatcherite creed and was copied around the world. (Moore’s chapter on the subject is titled “Sales of the Century.”) It certainly sent a jolt of electricity through a British economy that had grown sclerotic.
But the result is that the companies that now own, say, Britain’s major utilities—power and water—are often not British at all. As a good Conservative, Thatcher cherished the stand-alone independence of Britain. Yet the corporations keeping the lights on in British homes today include E–ON, which is German, and EDF, which is French. On Europe, as on so much else, in pursuing Thatcherism, Margaret Thatcher made the country less like it was, until it could often barely recognize itself. Which is a curious legacy for a conservative.
A focus on the economic bottom line is not the only aspect of Britain’s current European debate that was visible, even if it did not originate, in the Thatcher era. Today’s Brexiteers regularly suggest that Britain’s destiny is to look westward, toward the United States and what some style “the Anglosphere,” rather than east toward Europe.
Thatcher seemed to embody that westward preference, specifically through her exceptionally close relationship with Ronald Reagan. Moore quotes Thatcher’s former chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, speaking of the “sexual chemistry” between PM and president. As Moore’s account confirms, even Reagan’s failure to notify his British counterpart of the US invasion of Grenada—where Queen Elizabeth remains the head of state—could not break their bond.
The Outers hope that, once Britain has broken free of the EU, those glory days will return, as if the only thing stopping the US from embracing its English-speaking cousins is the unpleasant whiff of Europe on their clothes. But that notion is hard to sustain, not least because Barack Obama is only the latest American president to leave no doubt that he regards Britain as more valuable to the US inside the EU than on its own.
Yet there is one dominant theme of the Brexit campaign that barely made a dent in the Thatcher period: immigration. Today it is Britain’s inability to stop European citizens from entering the country under the hallowed EU principle of freedom of movement that fuels much support for Leave. In recent years, as polls have shown more Britons concerned about immigration, the relevance of UKIP and the European issue has risen. This, rather than abstract discussions of sovereignty, is what drives much popular support for Leave.
Indeed, central to Cameron’s attempt earlier this year to negotiate new terms for British membership of the EU was the objective of reducing the number of European arrivals on Britain’s shores. The whole issue has gained extra intensity thanks to the refugee crisis, with tens of thousands on the move from Syria and neighboring Turkey seeking safety in Europe. Perhaps wary of fueling the anti-immigration sentiment on which the Brexit cause feeds, Cameron has agreed to accept no more than 20,000 refugees from devastated Syria over five years.
So it’s revealing to see how lightly that question pressed on Thatcher. When she worried about the tunnel under the Channel, it was European rats and dogs she feared, not people. Freedom of movement was a cardinal EU right then too. But relatively few wanted to leave one rich Western European country for another. It was the EU’s expansion to the east, the inclusion of new member states such as Poland, that suddenly made Britain a magnet, with London promising wages unimaginable in Warsaw. In the Iron Lady’s day such places remained firmly behind the iron curtain.
This is a reminder of how much has changed since then. Three of the mortal enemies Thatcher fought with all her might in the 1980s—the Irish Republican Army, Britain’s coal miners, the Soviet Union—have melted away. In the last two battles at least, she could claim victories that were total: she lived to see her old foes vanish. But the European question lingers on, still looming over the politics of the Conservative Party and British national life—just like the lady herself.