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Margaret Thatcher and the EU: Neither a saint nor a sinner

Dr Simon Usherwood

In one of those odd coincidences, I have been thinking about Margaret Thatcher recently.  I got an email a couple of weeks ago, about a chapter on her that I had written for an edited collection three years ago: The editors have just got around to final proofs for publication later this year, so I was asked to review my piece. With the news of Thatcher’s death yesterday, I find myself posting some opening comments from that chapter here, since it seems an apposite time.

“In many towns across Europe, there is the tradition of parading the holy relics of the saint. As time has passed, these relics have been endowed with special powers, a manifestation of the power of the divine. Questions about the origins of the relics or the sanctity of the individual are barely discussed or are considered disrespectful. Thus it is that even if there are enough fragments of the Cross to build an ark, their status and veneration continue, through the value that the faithful give to them. I would argue that a somewhat similar process has taken place with Margaret Thatcher, in regard of her European policy: an abstraction from reality.

In the twenty years since the end of her premiership, Thatcher has loomed over British politics in a way that few other individuals have ever managed. This presence is the result of the caesura that occurred in 1979 with the Conservative victory in the General Election : the neo-liberal turn and the reconfiguration of the state’s role that marked a deep change in the pattern of British public life. Moreover, there was also the long period of her premiership, during which the Cold War ended and the political, economic, social and cultural imperatives that flowed from that began to crumble. All Prime Ministers since Thatcher have been defined by her and in opposition to her: it is no accident that all her successors have been conspicuous in inviting her back to Downing Street to make the association manifest.

However, it is precisely in the scale of her importance in British politics that Thatcher loses her substance and her own voice. It is largely impossible to discuss her personality, politics or policy objectives in the UK without entering into a Manichean debate about her intrinsic goodness or badness, a screen onto which the individual can project their own attitudes and prejudices. Margaret Thatcher is a subject on which there is precious little middle ground.

Notwithstanding this, we might return to Thatcher’s time in office and consider her actions as they appeared at the time, rather than in subsequent justifications, analyses and reinterpretations. In particular, we might seek to identity the underlying motivations behind Thatcher’s approach to European policy. Rather than the conventional representation of this being a central (indeed, the central) part of Thatcher’s political identity (mostly obviously in the importance accorded to ‘Europe’ in her leadership defeat in 1990), I would argue that it was instead a function of her pragmatic, problem-solving approach, which in turn meant that it was much more fluid and flexible than often noted.

We could also reflect on the extent to which Thatcher was responsible for the re-birth of British Euroscepticism in the early 1990s. A relatively mainstream and successful grouping of politicians and decision-makers had been able to challenge any British involvement in European integration for much of the post-1945 period, but following the 1975 referendum, it lost its momentum, its organisation and its members. Here again, the conventional wisdom is that Thatcher – most obviously with her Bruges speech of 1988 – was central in reawakening people to the perils of ‘Europe’, was then a ‘victim’ of some European treachery and was instrumental in catalysing the new wave of opposition that persists to this day. However, this would be to ignore a number of other factors that arguably played a much more important role.

Thatcher emerges from this analysis as neither a saint nor a sinner, but a politician caught up in a set of circumstances that demanded action. It cannot be denied that her view of the integration process was largely negative, but her political instincts about what was possible – as against her core beliefs about what was right – seemed to have been most at play. Moreover, despite the gnashing of teeth and rolling of eyes at the mention of her name, it also has to be remembered that Thatcher’s view of how integration should progress has largely come to be the conventional view. In so doing, it asks us to consider the utility of labelling individuals or ideas as ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-European.’”

In the coming days and weeks we will hear a lot about Thatcher and her ‘meaning’: we might all do well to consider our own biases and interests in the construction of that meaning.

Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.

Twitter: @Usherwood and @surreypolitics

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