So would she stay or would she go? If she were alive today, would Margaret Thatcher line up with David Cameron and the Tory establishment (the people she once denounced as the “Wets”) and support continued membership of the EU on the terms set out in the Prime Minister’s draft agreement? Or would she line up with the Outers – the disparate band made up of 100-plus Conservative MPs, 70 per cent of the 150,000 Tory party members, Ukip, Eurosceptic businessmen, and around one quarter of the Cabinet – not to mention about half the country, according to the latest polls?
The question is posed because yesterday Charles (now Lord) Powell, her longest serving and most senior foreign affairs adviser, was accorded the privilege of the front page of The Sunday Times to put forward a quite extraordinary proposition – that the woman brought down by the Tory wets in 1990, principally over her hard-line, anti-European views, would today be lined up alongside Cameron, presumably arguing that the footling concessions he has wrung out of Brussels are grounds to stay aboard the European version of the Titanic.
It is true – just – that Margaret Thatcher never unequivocally advocated withdrawal from the EU. But she came damn close, saying as long ago as 1996 that Britain might have to leave. And her whole career, certainly from the late 1980s onwards, was marked by her fierce resistance to the idea of a European superstate, her opposition to the kind of economic and political integration we have endured these past 25 years, and her unswerving adherence to the primacy of the nation state.
One-time Foreign Office man Powell says in his article that Thatcher would have put aside her “emotional” Euroscepticism to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU in the same way as Cameron. This is a curiously selective reading of recent political history – although one that serves the Prime Minister and his acolytes well, not least as the evidence mounts that for all the feuding among the Brexit camps, Cameron’s deal has gone down dreadfully with the press and the public and that the “people’s army”, as Nigel Farage likes to call it, might be heading for a momentous victory.
This is Thatcher’s most famous speech on the subject of Europe, the one delivered at Bruges in September 1988, the one that virtually invented Euroscepticism overnight. In it she likens herself to Genghis Khan, warns of the folly of trying to create an identikit European personality, dismisses the goal of a United States of Europe, and scorns the notion of power being centralised in the Brussels bureaucracy.
Here is an extract of what she said at Bruges. Eurosceptics could just about make the same speech today.
“My first guiding principle is this: willing and active co-operation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community.
To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve.
Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, Britain as Britain, each with its own customs, traditions and identity. It would be folly to try to fit them into some sort of identikit European personality.
Some of the founding fathers of the Community thought that the United States of America might be its model.
But the whole history of America is quite different from Europe. People went there to get away from the intolerance and constraints of life in Europe. They sought liberty and opportunity; and their strong sense of purpose has, over two centuries, helped to create a new unity and pride in being American, just as our pride lies in being British or Belgian or Dutch or German.
I am the first to say that on many great issues the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice. I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world.
But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy. Indeed, it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction.
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.
Certainly we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose. But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one’s own country; for these have been the source of Europe’s vitality through the centuries.”
That was 1988 – a speech 30 years ahead of its time. But by then the European train was clattering along madly as Commission President Jaques Delors hit the integrationist pedal. Throughout 1988 and 1989, Thatcher, as her power waned, fought a losing battle against the likes of Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson and their demands for monetary union. Badly weakened by the autumn of 1990, she surrendered to their insistence that Britain should join the forerunner of the euro, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which locked the pound to the D-mark and other European currencies, and so intensified the recession of the early 1990s.
Mr Delors, meanwhile, was pressing ahead with his nightmarish vision of a European superstate. He wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the community, the commission to be the executive and the Council of Ministers to be the senate. It sparked Thatcher’s most heartfelt European outburst.
“No. No. No,” she told the Commons on 30 October 1990, prompting Howe’s resignation, his public denunciation of her European policy and the challenge to her leadership of Michael Heseltine, now one of Cameron’s strongest supporters.
Of course, all this was long before Europe’s many subsequent “triumphs”: the creation of a single currency that has frozen the Mediterranean states in perma-frost recession, the inability of the EU to prevent the carnage that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia, the sovereign debt crisis crucifying Greece and threatening the economies of Italy, Spain and Portugal, the virtual collapse of democracy in Greece with the brutal imposition of severe austerity by Germany and the European Central Bank, the implosion of the Schengen border-free agreement and its replacement by ad hoc passport controls and Hungary’s barbed wire fence, the idiotic rulings of European courts protecting the rights of chancers and criminals, and finally the migrant crisis and the associated risks of more jihadist terrorist outrages.
If Margaret Thatcher was saying “No” in 1990, she would be taking to the barricades today to extricate Britain from the deathly clutches of this doomed experiment in flaccid internationalism and quasi-socialist bureaucracy, complete with lashings of political correctness and corruption.
And if she got to read Lord Powell, she would be turning in her grave.