Little Englander who promoted a larger Europe
One of the things to remember about Margaret Thatcher was that at the time she took office, Britain was the sick man of Europe and the first thing she did was transform perceptions and put Britain back on the map in the European Union. She didn’t come to office with the notion in her head, “I want my money back”, but Britain was about the second-poorest country, measured in GDP per capita, yet it was the only country other than Germany to pay a net contribution. She quickly got into the position of having to fight her cause, she had to be tough.
She would go to the European Council with the Treaty of Rome in her hands, a four centimetre-thick book that nobody else had ever read. It was both effective and extremely irritating for the others.
She wasn’t unrealistic about Britain’s role or what she could achieve. At Fontainebleau, she concluded on her own, without her advisers, that this was the moment to do the deal, but it soured the atmosphere in both directions. They thought she was irritating and she thought, here’s a bunch of hopeless men and the only way to deal with them is to be tough and fight them.
Among the heads of government, she was the primary champion of the single market. In later life she felt duped by her officials, but I don’t think that history bears this out. She was not one for the opt-out philosophy – whether she would have gone for one on Maastricht we don’t know, but her view always was that you have got to be part of it, that’s why she accepted the Single European Act.
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The Bruges speech looks quite moderate today. People were more suspicious of her motive for pushing widening than they should have been, she genuinely thought that bringing these countries back into Europe was historically the right thing to do.
As time went on – ERM, single currency – she was in general becoming more unreasonable. She was in power too long.
In a funny kind of way, not so much in office but out of office, she has frozen the debate on Europe, even made it worse. Unable to come to terms with her political assassination, she set herself up as the chief opponent to the Maastricht treaty. That was very pernicious and had an impact even beyond the Tories, although especially on the Tories. Cameron is trying to fight back now.
She was a child of the Second World War and those attitudes persisted. At heart she was a little Englander and if she looked beyond England it was across the Atlantic. Of course, she was hardly alone in this among the British prime ministers.
Her direct influence after losing office was relatively small. She didn’t play a pronounced part in public life. Her legacy is much more the transformative legacy in terms of our views on how to manage the economy and how to manage industrial relations, something that made New Labour possible.
Stephen Wall worked in the private offices of successive British foreign ministers between 1988 and 1991 and when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, he became his adviser on foreign affairs. He was the UK’s permanent representative to the EU in 1995-2000 and is the author of the second volume of the Foreign Office’s official history of Britain and the European Community, covering 1963-1975.