The Lady Was For Leaving

Following David Cameron’s long-awaited “big speech” on Europe of January 23, the Conservative press office told journalists that it went considerably further in its Euroscepticism than Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech.

Cameron, it should be remembered, had explained his failure to live up to his “copper-bottomed guarantee” to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty by explaining that a great deal of water had passed under the bridge between the time of his promise in 2007 and the 2010 election campaign. His press spokesmen appear to have forgotten the much greater volume that has passed under the bridge during the quarter of a century since Mrs Thatcher’s landmark speech.

In her book Statecraft she wrote: “That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked on will be seen in future years to be the greatest folly of the modern era. And that Britain, with her traditional strengths and global destiny, should ever have become part of it will appear a political error of the first magnitude.”

She also correctly foresaw the present difficulties in the eurozone and identified their roots, arguing that “the single currency is bound to fail, economically, and indeed socially though the timing, occasion and full consequences are unclear.” International rescue bids might be launched to preserve the euro, but these would founder because of its fundamental flaws, she concluded. 

More than most speakers, Mrs Thatcher was capable of producing a collective intake of breath, but I have seldom witnessed a more pronounced mass inhalation than when she told a conference of political leaders and think-tankers in Prague in 1996:

The overarching European federalist project, which was envisaged by some from the start but which has only in recent years come out into the open, is in truth a nightmare . . . If this new Europe were not to follow the path to separate great power status, it would be the first such power in history to renounce its independent role. It would have pioneered a new course in self-abnegation. It would have chosen moral influence over political power. The history of Europe — bloodstained, as well as idealistic — should not encourage us in these fantasies.

Despite all of this, it is true that she was reluctant publicly to advocate British withdrawal, perhaps because she did not wish to provide evidence for the claim that she was making life difficult for her successors as party leader. She also resisted pressure from her friend Malcolm Pearson, who wanted her publicly to acknowledge that she had made a huge error when she signed the Single European Act in 1986. Lord Pearson, who had resigned the Tory whip in 2004 and later joined UKIP, believed that such an admission would transform political debate in a way that would help pave the way for Britain’s withdrawal, but his entreaties were ignored.

During the period that followed her resignation from office I provided occasional speech writing help, normally on defence topics. In the lengthy discussion which customarily preceded the drafting of her speeches and which ranged over a wide range of topics, I was left in no doubt about the strength of her conviction that EU membership was fundamentally at variance with British interests, that the European project would end badly and that she felt more strongly about this than about any other matter. But the issue of withdrawal was never discussed and the withdrawal word never uttered.

However, at one of the series of drinks parties Lady Thatcher held around 2006 for friends and allies at the Belgravia house which she used as her office, I was presumptuous enough to broach the subject. She had greeted me on arrival not with a welcoming handshake, but a denunciation of the latest assault on British sovereignty from Brussels. Acting on the belief that rhetoric should not be the exclusive preserve of politicians, I replied: “Well, why don’t we just get out?”

Her look implied that I really was too naive for this world, but after a pause she said: “Well, I wouldn’t mind that at all, but . . .” She inclined her head towards a group of Tory frontbenchers, including several former ministers, who were standing just a few feet away. All would have described themselves as Eurosceptics, but none, either then or since, has called for British withdrawal.

Her words confirmed what I already knew, but which I still wanted to hear, while her gesture indicated that in her view it was all too obvious that her party lacked the courage and conviction to do what was necessary. We may shortly find out whether she was right.

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