Any gathering of Tory cheerleaders will agree on one aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership: that she fought our corner with the rest of the EU, resisting the attempts by those dastardly foreigners to re-brand our sausages and straighten our bananas.
Unfortunately, that’s not what really happened.
Thatcher was part of Sailor Heath’s 1970 election winning Government. Part of the platform on which they were elected was to take the UK into the then EEC. They duly did so, in 1973. Thatcher would later prove combative over contributions, and made suitably defiant noises in her Bruges speech, but she did not dissent from continuing UK membership of the EU.
The UK, in the early 1980s, held out for a rebate on its EU contributions. Thatcher was certain of her ground, and it’s possible that the estimates behind the figures to which we signed up in 1973 needed adjustment. At first, other countries’ representatives didn’t see things her way, but rather like John McEnroe, she knew how far the umpire could be pushed. The UK got its rebate.
Otherwise, there was none of the vindictive streak that marked her approach to local government or the trades unions: she played hardball, but got along rather well with the likes of François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Thatcher signed up to the Single European Act and later was persuaded by her last Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Shagger” Major, to allow Sterling to become part of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
So what of the Bruges speech? Ah well. It was just that, a speech. Also, her later assertion that she could never have signed up to the Maastricht Treaty was inconsistent with her earlier pro-European actions. She went along with the European Project: the rebate merely meant that we paid less for the journey. There was never any thought that our membership of the EU would be ended, or even that our status within the Union might be modified – inconvenient facts that those anti-Europeans who praise her legacy are unable or unwilling to confront.
Next, I’ll look at Thatcher and the Unions. In the meantime, here’s how Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell remembers that Downing Street address.