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Friday, 19 February 2016

Thatcher's poisonous legacy


I feel the need to blame someone for the EU referendum imbroglio, so I'm going to blame Margaret Thatcher. She injected a poison into the Conservative party, and it has now spread to infect the entire body politic.

The poison produces a form of hysteria whenever the words 'Europe' or 'Brussels' are mentioned in the hearing of a Tory MP. That's because many of them are, politically speaking, Thatcher's children -- David Cameron was just 12 years old when she was first elected -- and they ingested with their mother's milk her deep suspicion of anything that carried with it a whiff of mainland Europe.

Like her, they boast that Britain has always stood alone in Europe, an island apart, stronger and more valiant than the rest of the continent. Look what happened to the Spanish armada, they say. Were we conquered by Napoleon? Or Hitler? Alone in Europe, we did not yield.

Thatcher spelt it out in her famous Bruges speech in 1988. 'Over the centuries we have fought to prevent Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power. We have fought and we have died for her freedom ... Had it not been for that willingness to fight and to die, Europe would have been united long before now—but not in liberty, not in justice.'

The countries of mainland Europe, she believed, have never really been Britain's partners; for most of our history, they have been our foes, to be vanquished, not embraced. (The exception is Portugal: the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, signed in 1373, is said to be the oldest alliance in the world still in force.)

Too few MPs of all parties have dared to point out that throughout its history, Britain has fought its wars in alliance with European partners. If it can adopt a pan-European identity in war, can it not also do so in peace? Or was the 1940s US secretary of state Edward Stettinius right when he suggested that the British would always be uncomfortable in any club that they did not lead?

MPs have utterly failed to shape a coherent debate over Europe. They were prepared to move ahead of public opinion on issues such as capital punishment, gay rights and race relations in the 1960s and 70s, but have too often pandered to populism and xenophobia when it comes to the EU. Too much of what many people believe about it is simply wrong. Our politicians, of both major parties, have quaked in Thatcher's shadow for far too long, and now they are reaping the whirlwind.

Sir Humphrey Appleby neatly defined the Thatcherite approach to Europe in the TV comedy series Yes, Minister, in 1980,  just a year after Mrs Thatcher entered Downing Street: 'Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians ... Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?'

What Thatcher's children don't seem to have noticed is that this approach is no longer fit for purpose. Of course Britain has a history to be proud of, but the challenges that we face now -- global economic fragility, the mass movement of refugees and other migrants, climate change, a resurgent Russia, terrorism, including cyber-terrorism -- are not challenges that can be met by Royal Navy gunboats or RAF Spitfires.

Desperate refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria will not stop trying to smuggle themselves into the UK just because we are no longer in the EU; indeed, I would have thought it must be obvious that our chances of finding a solution to the refugee crisis will be much diminished if we turn our backs on the rest of the continent. Do we really not want to be included in Europe's attempts to solve the crisis?

My generation, the post-war baby-boomers, were the first for hundreds of years not to face conscription into the armed forces to fight in a foreign war. Two world wars, fought on the battlefields of Europe as well as in north Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, led directly to a burning determination in France, Germany and the Benelux countries that there had to be a better way. Britain, despite its own grievous losses, thought otherwise: we still had an empire, after all, so why did we need to sign up with a bunch of unreliable Europeans?

So, yes, of course, our history is different. But no, our future cannot be splendid isolationism. The EU is not without fault, God knows, but we are, surely, in the words of the Scottish independence referendum campaigners, Better Together.

Incidentally, I am indebted to Alex Barker and George Parker of the Financial Times for pointing out that on the issue of child benefit being paid to EU workers whose children have remained in their country of origin, the maximum savings of the proposed reforms would be about £25 million, on a par with a recent government grant to fund research on driverless cars. That's how relevant this whole referendum charade has become.

And on the subject of numbers, not that anyone seems much interested in actual facts when it comes to the EU debate, here are a few more for your consideration (they relate to 2014): 85% of EU migrants to the UK have jobs; 32% of the most recent arrivals have university degrees; 37% are classed as managers or professionals. In other words, they are exactly the kind of people whom we should be welcoming to bring extra vitality to our economy and extra taxes to the exchequer. 

Surprisingly, given our chronic euro-grumpiness, our EU partners are still keen for us to stay -- although I rather liked the front page of the French newspaper Libération on Thursday: 'If it's yes, fine; if it's no, never mind.' If we do vote to leave, however, it's unlikely that our partners will be so forgiving, because the last thing they want to do for the next five years is get bogged down in endless, tiresome negotiations over their future relationship with the UK. If we think they'll be accommodating, I fear we'll be in for a very rude awakening.

You may have wondered, by the way, why I have not once used the word 'Brexit'. It's because to my ears, it sounds far too much like a particularly unappetising breakfast cereal, or a new brand of toilet cleaner. Or perhaps both.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a great read. Couldn't agree more.

Mickrab said...

Nailed it again Robin.

Anonymous said...

Well said Robin. Sadly the argument on Europe here is being conducted at about the same level as the Republican debate in the US election run up. Thatcher may have poisoned and set the trend for the later years but those who came before her post-1973 also did little to nurture the cause of a European union.

Anonymous said...

Never read your blog before ,but having been directed here by my son ,certainly will again, brilliantly put! So apt and refreshing and intelligent.
Thank you



Anonymous said...

The seeds of so much long-term damage were sown for short-term gain in the Thatcher/Reagan years. Thank you for this clear-eyed view.

Alison Clarke said...

Until there is honesty in the European debate both in Parliament and in our press there is a terrible risk that the wrong decision will be taken for the wrong reasons. When the first supra national institution was formed in Europe, the European Coal and Steel community, it was formed to cause Germany and France to form an economic partnership not for reasons of financial improvement but for reasons on political improvement to reduce the risk of war in Europe. That financial partnership for political harmony between the European member states lies at the heart of the European Union. It alway did. It is the result of dishonesty on the part of British press and parliament that the British public are widely unaware of this simple fact. The question to be resolved in this referendum is do we think Britain, sitting within sight of the European landmass, is better off as part of a community whose intention is wellbeing and security through partnership or competitive advantage while standing apart. Looking backwards for answers to our stand alone history in an increasingly globalised world is not going to work. We must look forward. Biology and physics show us that all life happens in relationship. What would make Britons exceptions to that rule?

Adullamite said...

One small point, the 'British' attitude espoused by Thatcher is an 'English' attitude, indeed a southern English attitude for the most part. Most Scots are happy with Europe and have much in common with Scandinavia & Benelux nations. The English imperialist arrogance leads their approach to France & Europe.