To be quite so desperate, quite so early, in the pre-referendum campaign as the In campaigners must be to wheel out Lord Powell of Bayswater with his proxy, post-humous Thatcher endorsement is not a good sign for them. Charles Powell even suggests of David Cameron’s package that Mrs Thatcher “would have gone along with what is on offer, indeed negotiated something similar herself”.
I would find this assertion astonishing had Charles not got form on the subject. At the time of the bitterly fought Maastricht Treaty and later,
he insisted that Margaret Thatcher would have eventually signed up to it – with opt outs – as her successor John Major did. She, herself, vigorously and consistently denied that she would have done so. As I show in discussion of the matter in my biography of her, the documentary and other evidence is overwhelming that she was correct in saying this. She would have vetoed the treaty.
This is important because it shows where Charles Powell is coming from in his latest improbable assertion. Lord Powell was an outstanding public servant, a generally wise adviser, and a grateful, kind and generous friend to Margaret Thatcher, especially in her later years when he need not have been. But he will not or perhaps cannot accept that Mrs Thatcher was not simply a pragmatist who let off steam, but rather a radical who could sometimes and conditionally be compelled to compromise. Charles Powell like David Cameron is an establishment Conservative. She wasn’t.
It is perfectly true that in the early years of government she accepted imperfect deals in negotiations with the EU when she thought they were the best available. But at least by 1988 – when Charles drafted her Bruges Speech – she felt that Europe was going in a fundamentally wrong direction. She may, as he says, never in government have actually talked about leaving altogether but the ultimata she effectively delivered logically brought that eventuality into play. If she had vetoed what became the Maastricht Treaty, as she would have done, Britain have begun an institutional re shaping of its relations with the EU so fundamental that the country would have been outside its central – and centralising – policies. We would already have been on the way out.
There are two reasons why we can be quite sure that Margaret Thatcher would not – as Charles Powell claims – be now “convincing the British people that staying in the EU was the right thing to do”. First, it is simply, I am afraid, risible to suggest that (again quoting Powell) she would pray in aid “the cumulative changes to Europe since the last referendum 40 years ago”. During that period the Cold War has been won and Eastern Europe liberated so Europe’s unity now has no great strategic, security significance as it had in the past. On the other hand, the (in fact always misleading) assertion that it was only an economic body – a “common market” – is no longer even heard. Europe today is an imploding, dysfunctional, bureaucratically driven but terminally paralysed federal state. Britain has no influence on it. But it has unwelcome influence over Britain. Most importantly, thanks both to the Thatcher economic reforms and the global prevalence of low tariffs, Britain is excellently placed to find its own place in the world economy – this was not, of course, true in the 1970s and much of the 1980s.
The second reason why Mrs Thatcher had had enough of Europe and wanted out of it was emotional. People who dismiss passion in politics know nothing of either. She was passionate about Britain and she felt by the end of her time in office and increasingly afterwards that she had failed to see the danger that Europe’s ambitions proposed. She was angry – the Bruges Speech expressed that anger. But I am sure she also felt guilty. She was defensive about the Single European Act of 1986 which introduced the Single Market but also extensive and unwelcome European intervention. She thought that in striving – as she did not just privately but very publicly until her health problems silenced her – to put the case against Europe and for British sovereignty she was doing her final duty, and perhaps making up for duties she ought to have done earlier.
So I am convinced that in the impossible case that Margaret Thatcher, despite her frailty, could participate in the forthcoming referendum campaign, she would fight with all her reserves for Britain to leave the European Union.
Robin Harris’s complete biography of Margaret Thatcher is now available in paperback.