Britain and Europe (6): Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag

ob_cd63e2_margaret-thatcherMargret Thatcher transformed much in our national life. Now taken as the totemic figure of Tory Euroscpeticism, her attitudes to Europe were perhaps less fixed, and more interesting.

Thatcher often portrayed herself as an ideological politician, and her supporters followed suit. Of course, she was just that. Certainly, it would impossible to understand Thatcherism without some understanding of monetarism and free markets, for example. However, to see Thatcher and Thatcherism in purely ideological terms would be to misread her, and misread her career.

In the first place it makes what appear like her inconsistencies as hard to account for. To square the Heathite milk-snatcher and slayer of grammar schools with the later Thatcher has always required explanation. In part, it is argued, she was on the ideological and political path that would lead her to monetarism, free markets and the radical Conservatism of the likes of Sir Keith Joseph or even Enoch Powell.

Similarly, the Mrs Thatcher of the 1975 was an enthusiastic campaigner for Yes; by the end it was, famously ‘No, no, no’. Once again, we might view that as a political traverse from Europhilia to Euro-scepticism. And it was.

In part, we might explain the increasing radicalism of Mrs Thatcher by pointing to her political realism. Simply, she was loyal leader of Heath’s cabinet because that was how she was able to make a career (especially as a woman). As a new leader, her position was still weak, especially in the face of a pretty misogynistic back and front bench party. Similarly, in a new government still dominated by Heathite wets, she had to expend most of her political capital on the radical economic policies on which she staked all. Lastly, she was the leader of an overwhelmingly pro-EEC cabinet and party.

The dominant foreign policy issue of Mrs Thatcher’s first years in power, aside from the Falklands, was the Cold War. These were the years of Reagan and the ‘evil empire’, of a resurgent arms race and what she saw as the fifth column of unilateralism at home. The EEC was a western bulwark against the Soviet Union and all that she saw coming with it.

It was also true to say that elements of the EEC’s direction of travel might well be seen as Thatcherite. The Single European Act’s aspiration for a single market fitted the new Conservatism ideological commitment to free markets and free trade. Even the ERM could be seen as a way of guaranteeing sound money in the face of the failure of monetarism to actually work.

All of the above misses something at the heart of Thatcher’s politics. As much as she was an ideologue, she was also a passionate and tribal Tory. If we accept that tribal Toryism, her attitude to Europe might become easier to make sense of. In the ‘70s, the Conservatives were strongly supportive of the EEC. For many in Labour, the Common Market was the capitalists’ club. In 1983, Labour ran on a manifesto promising to withdraw from the EEC. To be Conservative was to be pro-Europe.

Mrs Thatcher never proved straightforwardly pro-Europe, however. In part that reflected one of the key differences between her Conservatism and that of Edward Heath. For all its talk of market-led reform, Heath’s Conservatism was no less wedded to a corporatist, technocratic attachment to the ability of the state to order and lead a modern economy. The EEC was a child of the same ilk, in many ways. For Mrs Thatcher, there was too much of the state about it.

We can, once more, see ideology at work here. Mrs Thatcher’s belief in a smaller state was at odds with Brussels bureaucrats and their incipient centralism. The occasion of the first falling out might as easily be explained by a more instinctive part of Thatcherism. If the state’s money was, really, your money, what was the money Britain sent to Brussels? It was, famously, our or my money.


In truth, the deal cut by Heath and not really altered by Wilson had not been the best. Over time, Britain’s contributions to the community grew out of proportion to its under-performing economy. Mrs Thatcher was determined to change that. Her tactics were quintessentially Thatcher, with a very large admixture of de Gaulle (a figure she often resembled). The famous handbag was wielded, and wielded to very considerable effect:

It’s my money and I want it back.

It was, in truth, a classic example of EEC politics, and what enabled her victory was the fact that, in the EEC, power did not reside in the Commission; instead, it resided in the Council of Ministers. Britain’s power of veto gave her a kind of nuclear weapon. The handbag had its effect, but the intergovernmental big stick was the threat that worked. Still though, it was compromise. Thatcher had demanded the full £1bn; she got 2/3rds. She was hardly satisfied: she would return to the issue in 1988 as British budget contributions ballooned once more.

If, for many of her fellow leaders, the Thatcher of the budget rebate was next to impossible, there was another Thatcher. At least until the creation of the Euro, arguably the single most important step in the course of advancing European unity was the Single European Act, and the single market it created. Negotiations, as European negotiations always are, were prolonged and often fraught. Thatcher refused to accept the end of border controls (the rest went ahead in the Schengen Agreement) and the harmonisation of indirect taxes. She did, however, accept the rest. The requirements of a single market, of themselves, would greatly expand the role of EU law (it was now the EU) and the Commission. She also signed up to a watering down of the intergovernmental structure of the Council of Ministers through qualified majority voting. Most of all, she also signed up to ‘ever closer union’.


The key fall out with Brussels was not over this, nor the budget, nor the role of the Commission per se. Instead, it was Jacques Delors. There was a wider context; Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand reasserted the primacy of the Franco-German axis and pushed for moves towards political and social union. Thatcher was opposed in principle. It was Delors that tipped her over into a public, and so very strident turn against Europe. He had been a socialist Minister of Finance in France, becoming President of the European Commission in 1985. It was Delors who saw in the Single European Act. Perhaps it was in that context that Delors looked to persuade left of centre opinion that Europe was not just about markets.


The social market was born. In that spirit, Delors addressed the annual conference of the TUC in 1988. In that speech he posited the idea that governments were might be compelled to implement the so-called Social Chapter, guaranteeing workers’ rights.

The Thatcher of 1988 had slipped then reins that bound her back in the early ‘80s; she had also become more radical and, no less importantly, more strident. It was that stridency that came to the fore in her reply to Delors, her famous Bruges Speech. It was also her tribalism. Yes, the Conservatives had rolled back the state. No less importantly, she had rolled back the unions. And now, Delors was talking to the TUC, home to the vanquished Scargill and the miners.


It was that Euro-treachery as much as anything that raised the Iron Lady’s ire; and her ire was something to behold. Thatcher, and her Conservatism, had shifted its view. It was ‘No,no,no’.

For the less couth fan club, it became ‘Up yours, Delors’.


What followed, and most of all Mrs Thatcher’s defenestration in 1990, that would turn that passion into the political poison that would lead the Conservatives to disaster and Britain on the road to June 2016. Of which, more next time.

You can watch the Bruges Speech here:

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