The EU Referendum and Thatcher's Vision

Her wisdom was prescient.

Last year, I attended the annual lecture of the Margaret Thatcher Centre in London. I got a lot of surprised looks from the other guests when I told them that I made the long and expensive 3-day trip solely for that purpose. Maybe it was out of the ordinary, but I had my reasons – chief among them the fact that I am a historian, a perspective that informs me of how starved for great statesmanship the world is today. The only current world-class statesman I can think of is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he is as big a Thatcherite as I am.

It is through this circle of Thatcher fans that I have gained and maintained great friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and have watched with great interest as they set out to fight for a “Leave” vote in this week’s EU referendum. And since the spirit of the Iron Lady hangs over my every interaction with the UK, I felt it worthwhile to revisit an interview she gave Forbes magazine (October 26, 1992) dealing with this very topic.

As always, her wisdom was prescient:

“Nations feel comfortable in their own nationhood. Pride enables you to do things you otherwise might not be able to do. Europe should be each group in its own national identity. Don’t try to extinguish that. If you try to push people into a mold, you’ll create resentment, and you’re creating it now. … Maastricht was a treaty which went totally in the wrong direction. It was a treaty which took us from being an economic community with a kind of common market as our objective to trying to create a European union with a citizenship of that union.”

She worried that ”80% of Britain’s economic decisions will be made in Brussels.”

“What is it about some of these people who enjoy the freedoms of democracy, who enjoy the elected representatives’ being accountable to the people? Why do they want to substitute bureaucracy for it? What’s the matter, what’s happened to them? I will tell you the [European] Commission loves its powers. Power for the sake of power. It’s not what we fought for. We fought for democracy, freedom and justice. … We just reelected our parliament. What for? Just to be a talking show?”

Centralized international schemes, like single currencies, were doomed to fail because “We’re all at different levels of development of our economies.” She warned of “massive extra subsidies from the rest of us for them or massive movements of immigration from their countries into ours. Both would cause resentment and not [produce] … harmonious development. We should each of us be proud to be separate countries cooperating together.”

The article reminds us that, despite her dim view of the EU, she was far from an isolationist and had a vision of her own: “Of a European common market as a trading bloc, she says: ‘It just won’t do. It’s not big enough minded.‘ What, in her not-so humble opinion, Europe really needs is a two-continent free trade area that would take in Eastern Europe and embrace North America, including Mexico. … ‘It would then be the backup, the political backup, for NATO as the defense unit.’” The article also notes: “She scoffs, too, at the idea of Europe as an economic power standing on its own. ‘Europe cannot do in the world without American leadership. There is no substitute for this great land and the clear lead it can give.’”

As if giving a preemptive response to the rise of “Nationalist-Populist” arguments against this (and perhaps predicting the coming dearth of even potential statesmen who would understand any of this), Lady Thatcher explained:

“The most detailed regular form of international cooperation is trade, international trade. It goes on every hour of the day. Big companies in small countries selling to small companies in big countries. It doesn’t matter the size of your country. In free trade, you get the free movement with the best goods, the best value for the consumer. And that is what all of us should go ahead with. Not trade blocs that exclude people.”

(And she didn’t fall into the “agrarian” category either: “We must get down agricultural subsidies and expand GATT to cover services as well as goods. And, of course, the international respect for intellectual property,” she said.)

As has been said of many subjects and many occasions, it would behoove the great citizens of the United Kingdom to listen to Margaret Thatcher again.

On a side note, on October 12, 1984, the Irish Republican Army attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Thatcher by bombing her hotel in Brighton, where she was to address the Conservative Party Conference. In defiance of this attack, she insisted that conference go on. To the victims of the terrorist attack in Orlando, I hope you to will be inspired by her message

“It was an attempt not only to disrupt and terminate our Conference; It was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically-elected Government. That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared, and the fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.