Chapter one: Thatcher’s legacy: the terrible twins of Brexit

The second instalment of Blimey, it could be Brexit: how we got here; Blairism and Maggyism; Heath and Powell. Read the preface and introduction here.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
30 March 2016

In memory of Stuart Hall 

With England evenly divided over Brexit we have to look at the worldviews of the two camps. “What! Worldviews!”, I hear you laugh, “they are all just out for themselves!”

I can quite see how many are tempted to dismiss the contention between the leaders of Remain and Leave as a fight between Tweedledum and Dummer. A clash of ambitions not ideas. Soon after Gove published his devastating memo setting out the case for Brexit he and his wife drove off to Dorneywood, the country residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, where they enjoyed dinner with George Osborne and family. Meanwhile, everyone in the Westminster village has heard that Boris Johnson wrote two columns that fateful weekend after Cameron returned from Brussels. The one that he published in the Telegraph saying why we all had to support Leave and another, apparently better, setting out why we had to Remain. If the leading contenders are so close to each other personally and their judgments of the issue so fine, how significant can the differences be? Surely not enough to bestow them with the glory of having competing ideologies or worldviews!

Scorn can be justified. But it runs the danger of the narcissism of the scornful: being too much in love with your own cleverness. It could just be a surface reflection. In this case something deeper is happening, however shallow the participants.


There is shallowness. In 1972 the original European Community Act was debated in parliament for six days. Twenty years later, before he set off to Maastricht for the treaty negotiations that led to the creation of the Euro, the Commons debated for two days – before giving John Major a 100-vote majority for his negotiating position. This year, as even the Telegraph complains, no House of Commons debate on Cameron’s deal is taking place at all, even though it provides the basis for the referendum. Do our MPs as a whole propose that the country supports or rejects the terms? As both sides spend so much time assuring us of their concern for parliamentary sovereignty, could they tell us what parliament recommends even while granting voters the final call in the referendum? That way we could learn the assessment our MPs themselves have about what is happening to Europe and our country’s place in it. There will be no clash of giants debating the country’s future in this way. Instead members of parliament accepted a Prime Minister’s statement delivered on Monday 22nd February along with Jeremy Corbyn’s response to it, whereupon there were two hours of short questions to the PM, with no follow up or response allowed as he evaded them. Shallow may be too generous a word for this exercise, slithery is more appropriate. 

Yet the future of the country is genuinely at stake! So my question can be reframed: what are the forces and mentalities that have driven the future of Britain into these shallows? Here, and in next week’s chapter, I want to untangle the origins of the peculiarly narrow nature of the referendum.

It’s a fight between Tory-Blairism (Blairism for short) and Maggyism. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who lead Remain are today’s Blairites, talking regularly with the ex-Prime Minister whom they used to refer to as ‘The Master’, and openly with his henchperson Peter Mandelson. The Lord Chancellor Michael Gove and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who head Leave represent a counter strategy for Britain for which the most suitable name is ‘Maggyism’. Both groups are descendants of Thatcherism energised and distorted by her legacy. We need our own reasons to come to any decision, for the choice between the Blairites and the Maggyites is like having to decide between the corrupted and the crazy. I will spell out what I mean by each in more detail in a later chapter.

Of the two, ‘Maggyism’ is currently the more interesting. It has always been assertive but is now moving from being the outlier to claim the beating heart of Britain. Should it win the vote for Brexit it will, for sure, govern England – until the left shakes off its Blairism and reconfigures itself. The election of Corbyn suggests it may be able to, although how long, one asks, how long will this take. Meanwhile, Tory-Blairism is turning to clay in the hands of Cameron and Osborne, even though it remains the favourite to win on 23 June.

The Tory boys divided only recently. At the end of March 2016 we can still say, “But look how close they were only a month ago!” Yet what matters is the separate directions in which the different paths take them. To see what the declining forces of Blairism and the energised alternative of Maggyism hold in store, we have first to look to their joint origins in the mothership itself whence they have come: Thatcherism. 

This will take us away from the immediate issues of the referendum but we need some grasp of the history behind it to prepare ourselves for what Gramscians call the present conjuncture. When better to do this than now, in the pause before the official campaign is launched? As those who study the Italian Marxist will tell you, and the most sensitive and acerbic of them all was the late Stuart Hall, you can’t make sense of a conjuncture without taking a measure of the long cultural influences that modify it. Just as astrophysicists can now hear the gravity waves of the immense concussion of two black holes colliding a billion light years away, so we need to decipher the noise of the referendum campaign as the tremors of a clash that occurred many decades ago. This means going back beyond even Thatcherism itself to the post-war period.

We can feel its pressure in the present. The two-sided nature of the Thatcherite coin that was struck in the 80s presents a challenge for the whole electorate. Both Leave and Remain draw on Thatcher’s legacy to peddle arguments about ‘our money’ and the economic losses and gains of EU membership. Cameron calculates that Britain gets “the best of both worlds” with his deal for staying in. He warns of severe economic losses if we leave. Against him, Leavers want to rid the country of “regulatory burdens” that hold back trade and prevent the country from maximising moneymaking opportunities it could achieve around the world. Both Remain and Leave use the cost-benefit language of the market place, urging the public to decide what is “best” for the country in material terms. This is the grocer’s daughter angle of Thatcherism. Yet at the same time turning Brexit into a shopkeeper wrangle does not satisfy anyone’s soul. People want to decide with their heart not their pocket. So the air is also filled with appeals to voters’ inner Francis Drake. Leave emphasises the Falklands, spare-no-expense-to-do-what-is-right, character of Maggyism, as in “we British are as we have always been – competent, courageous and resolute”. The Remainers will not be outdone in this respect claiming it will be ‘Little Britain’ if the country leaves but ‘Great Britain’ if we stay. Cameron told the Independent on Sunday:

“the world I want my children to grow up in is [one] where there’s a big, bold, brave Britain at the heart of these institutions trying to deliver a world based on the values we care about – democracy, freedom, rights… That’s the kind of country I want my little ones to grow up and inherit…. a swashbuckling, trading, successful, buccaneer nation of the 21st century’ within the EU”.


Alongside some serious arguments both sides are emitting a rhetorical mishmash of steaming nostalgia and malodourous money-grubbing, the pure scent of Thatcherism.


Behind the ordure is the heavy lifting. Stuart Hall described the birth of “Thatcherism” in January 1979, before she won the election of that year, as representing the rise of an “authoritarian populism” which sought to destroy the “consensus politics” of the period within which, “social democracy was the principle tendency”. “Of course”, he added, “it aims for a construction of a national consensus of its own”. It was only three years into her unpopular first term of office that the fluke of a mis-timed invasion of the Falklands by Argentina allowed Thatcher to gather up the inheritance of Churchillism. This, as I show in Iron Britannia, was the specific cross-class form taken by “consensus politics” after 1945. In the years that followed her South Atlantic triumph, Thatcher’s governments detonated Churchillism into pieces to replace it with her own consensus. Its defining phrase is: ‘There is no Alternative’. The contrast is stark, whereas 'consensus politics' recognises an on-going conscious process, Thatcherism presents itself as fate.

In 2016, what the left has to work out is how the pernicious, suffocating authority of the Thatcherite consensus can be effectively challenged. Meanwhile the right will seek to refresh itself under conditions of economic stress and the delegitimising likelihood of another financial crash. The threat of Leave winning the conflict over Brexit is that it will replenish the hegemony of the authoritarian national-populism Thatcher began, in the duumvirate of Gove and Johnson. While the threat of Remain is that Cameron and Osborne will complete a renewal of the corporate populism of Blairism. Such is the resilience of Thatcher’s disbursement.

From the start the seeds of what I am calling Tory-Blairism and Maggyism began to sprout buried within Thatcher’s accomplishment. She was lucky to have been voted into the Conservative leadership in 1975. She held onto it and won the 1979 election thanks to her capacity to hold together the two fissiparous tendencies. Political organisers who stand out from the crowd, as Thatcher did and Cameron does not, achieve their influence through a capacity to sustain alliances of political tribes that otherwise compete against, and even hate, each other. This creates, as the phrase goes, something greater than the sum of the parts. With time and inevitable frustrations the novelty and energy of the alliance frays and narrows. Where once a successful leader opened up opportunities for influence, she or he starts to block the hopes of supporters with different agendas. This was the story of Thatcher too. For many years, though, she was able to hold together antagonistic wings of Toryism that date right back to different experiences of the Second World War.

The two black holes

They were personified by two men neither of whom were ever in Thatcher’s own cabinet: the pro-European moderniser Edward Heath, who became Tory party leader in 1965 and then Prime Minister from 1970-74, and who took the country into what became the EU in 1972; and Enoch Powell, four years older than Heath who became his nemesis. Theirs was the collision of the two black holes of post-war Britain, its vibrations have distorted the space-time continuum of the country’s politics ever since. Today, their ghosts fight on across the battlement of Ukania’s divided Elsinore, in the shapes of Remain and Leave.

Both were grammar school boys, both served in the war: Heath in Northern Europe fighting for his continent, Powell in the Far East fighting for India. Both were elected to the Commons in 1950 in their thirties, each marked as an exceptionally able recruit into the Conservative party. It was the February 1950 General Election, which Labour won narrowly to form a government that only lasted a year. The young Powell gave his maiden speech to the Commons in March 1950, the young Heath rose to address the House for the first time in June 1950. Each used the moment to set out the cause that was to mark their lives. “Unless”, Powell concluded his speech, in a debate on the country’s military resources, “we summon to the defence of this worldwide Empire all its resources, be they European or non-European, we shall fall under the load which we are attempting to bear”. Three months later, Heath in his peroration, called on the Labour government to join the first step then being taken towards the European Union, “I appeal tonight to the Government to follow that dictum, and to go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to co-ordinate it in the way suggested”. The contrast, one hungry to preserve achievements of the past the other keen to support a construction of the future haunts us still, 66 years on.

Fast forward: Heath was recruited into the Whips office and after the Suez fiasco of 1956 helped Harold Macmillan become Prime Minister. Powell later said of Macmillan, in words that could be used today to describe David Cameron, that he,

was a Whig, not a Tory... he had no use for the Conservative loyalties and affections; they interfered too much with the Whig's true vocation of detecting trends in events and riding them skilfully so as to preserve the privileges, property and interests of his class.

Powell resigned from Macmillan’s government in 1958 in an early public call for monetarism, a blow to Heath who was then Chief Whip. Macmillan made Heath the chief negotiator of his effort to join the Common Market that was vetoed by de Gaulle in 1963. Heath then became his party’s leader of the opposition in 1965. He appointed Powell as his shadow Minister of Defence. In 1968 he sacked him after Powell gave his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that incited racial hatred. Nothing moved Powell more, however, than opposition to any membership of what was then called the Common Market. He saw in it the destruction of Britain’s sovereignty – something that Heath was as utterly dedicated to sharing as Powell was to preserving intact.

In 1967, the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson also applied to join and was also rebuffed by de Gaulle. After Heath won the 1970 election narrowly, and perhaps thanks to the impact of three election addresses by Powell, he went on to successfully negotiate an agreement on the UK’s entry in 1972. Now in opposition, Harold Wilson committed his party to a referendum on continued membership should it win the next election. He did this as a device to ensure Labour unity. For he had to handle growing opposition to the EU from the left and within the Trade Unions while managing the adamantine pro-Europe modernisers headed by Roy Jenkins – the Labour arm of the Establishment who later became the European Commissioner. Despite his studied duplicity at the time, Wilson was as dedicated as anyone to staing in.

Unlike David Cameron, Wilson was not Prime Minister when he committed his Party to holding a referendum, nor did he fear an anti-European competitor like UKIP eating into his vote in crucial marginals. He had no desire to make it a key election issue. But Enoch Powell did. He had voted against every clause of Heath’s European Community Act in 1972 and plotted his revenge coldly. In February 1974 Heath called a snap general election to ask the country to renew his authority in an effort to defeat a miners strike that his own administrative incompetence had permitted. Powell seized his opportunity. His first sensation was to refuse to stand as a Conservative candidate, he cited his party’s policy on Europe. Then, just five days before the election, he delivered a major speech in Birmingham calling on voters everywhere to back Labour because it would give the country a referendum, saying

This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate expressed in its own Parliament, or whether it will become one province in a new European superstate.

In the election, the Conservatives got 225,000 more votes overall than Labour but four fewer MPs. The swing to Labour, which was notably at its greatest across Powell’s home territory of the Midlands, was just enough to hang Heath. Powell lost the election for him – his anti-European call to vote for a referendum meant the election went Labour’s way.

In 1975 a tired Wilson sought only to give the country a quieter life with less industrial strife and found himself in 10 Downing Street thanks to Powell’s studied ambush of his Tory rival. Had Heath called the election just three weeks earlier he would probably have won. There would have been no referendum and no premiership for Margaret Thatcher. Instead, by edging Edward Heath out of Downing Street, Enoch Powell’s dramatic call ensured that membership of Europe is something the public to this day feels it is legitimately theirs to decide. You could conclude that the whole business of having referendums is merely the result of chance, thanks to the mis-management of careless British leaders. Such a view points to the heart of Britain’s European problem. Namely, that membership was and still is seen by most of the elite as a matter of top-down management, rather than an issue that demands being straight with the public about what it means for democracy. The referendums may have come about, then and today, as a result of short-term fixes – made in bad-faith and implemented thanks to a string of errors. But the force that pushed them to plebiscite is a democratic energy in British politics that has never been and still is not respected by those who run the country.

Thatcherism sets the scene

In February 1975 Thatcher won the leadership of her party from Heath thanks to his bungling the succession, just as he bungled the 1974 election. In our sensationalist times Thatcherism is demarcated by two episodes: when she gained her unrivalled predominance by winning the Falklands War in 1982 and when she was prematurely tossed out of office by her colleagues after saying “No, No. No” to Europe in 1990. She herself thus appears to be defined by two key moments of Maggyism. However, Thatcher was also a serious alliance builder and a product of the broader realism of conservative politics, as Charles Moore’s careful official biography sets out. For example Geoffrey Howe who became her Chancellor of the Exchequer and fellow architect of her ‘dry’ economic policies voted for Edward Heath as leader not Thatcher (and in the end delivered the fatal, destruction of her premiership).

Thatcher reports in her memoirs, "The first major political challenge I faced on becoming Leader was the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Economic Community” in the form of the referendum on 5 June 1975. At the launch of the pro-market campaign in April Thatcher graciously ceded the leadership of the Conservative campaign to stay in to Edward Heath saying she was, "the pupil speaking before the master". She admits but she had "not grasped" the constitutional issues at the time. She saw Europe "as a framework within which Britain could prosper rather than a crusade". By backing entry without inflaming the bitterness of those opposed to it she held in balance those who wanted the United Kingdom to participate in the European project wholeheartedly and those who preferred merely to seek advantage from it. She congratulates herself on emerging from the campaign "as a unifying figure for the party".

Instead of seeking to overcome the division she preserved it, perhaps originally as a form of divide and rule. Britain’s political framework was transformed in the furnace of Thatcherism. Across a decade her premiership destroyed and created on a scale none thought possible. Her ability to manage the tension over Europe worked to her advantage at the start. She never confronted it but rather inflamed it. When Europe went through a profound, unexpected transformation with the collapse of Communism she did not seek to dismantle the soft wall that threaded through her party as the hard wall across Germany came down. Instead by preserving the division she crippled her achievement.

I want to look at three aspects of the Thatcher years that shape the present argument over Brexit and help explain its shallowness. First, how the destruction of traditional manufacturing and trade unions depleted Britain of significant economic institutions that would today have embedded it Europe. Second, how the most revolutionary of her policies, the destruction of the financial closed shop run by the ruling class in the City of London with the ‘Big Bang’, alongside privatisation of nationalised industries and an assault on the civil service, shattered the ‘Establishment’ which had taken the UK into the European Community; Britain no longer has an assured governing class capable of guaranteeing the country stays in the EU. Third, how Thatcher failed to support the historic opportunity created by the end of the Cold War, through her opposition to the unification of Germany. This arguably permitted the creation of the Euro and created the antagonistic marginalisation of the UK in the EU, which, even though it led to her personal downfall, continues to this day.

None of the three, which I will now look at more closely, can be understood without bearing in mind the North Sea bonanza, which came on stream as Thatcher’s premiership began, when Britain moved from being an oil importer to becoming a de facto member of OPEC. In 1978, as North Sea oil came on stream, the government already received in oil and gas revenues £230 million. In 1980, the first full year of her premiership, the British state received £2.3 billion. This rose to £8.7 billion in 1984, an extraordinary £12 billion in 1985, £11 billion in 1986 and then to a healthy average of £3 billion a year in added government revenues for the rest of Thatcher’s time. These enormous windfalls helped bankroll the forceful domestic reforms of the Thatcher years. Famously she battled against lethargy and resistance. But her determination was extremely well lubricated. If only to judge her by her own restricted standards, any verdict of the legacy of her three achievements has to decide whether it was an investment well spent.

A lightweight economy

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The early Thatcher period tore the heart out of both UK manufacturing and its industrial trade unions. Two great bodies of interest that would have deepened the UK’s integration with the EU were thereby marginalised. A graph tells more than any paragraph can. It shows the balance of trade with the rest of the world in manufactured goods. The last ever UK manufacturing trade surplus was generated in 1982, the year of the Falklands War. Thereafter it has moved steadily into the negative as a percentage of gross domestic product. This has been only partially counterbalanced by a surplus in service industries. Thatcher attempted to restore ‘Victorian values’ but failed utterly with the best of these, namely that Britain was a workshop for the world. This is not to ‘blame’ her exclusively, as there were chronic issues with British industry. But a pitiless destruction rather than a creative one was pursued when the resources for renewal were available. One measure of the consequence is a list of the current top 25 manufacturing companies in Europe. Eight are German, four are French and one, Airbus, is Franco-German. None are British. The Union Jack flies only from Unilever, which is also Dutch, and Rio Tinto which is largely Australian.

A similar picture of exceptional losses applies to the organised working class. Trade Union membership rose to over 13 million in 1979 when Thatcher took office. It fell sharply and steadily to less than half that number under her impact. Six million is still considerable, but her destruction of the miners, the praetorian guard of the UK’s proletariat, eviscerated trade union influence, and the bedrock of social democracy was driven to the margins of British life and with it the possibility of organised sections of British society experiencing cross-European solidarity (of course this would also have needed an active social democratic movement on mainland Europe, whose weakness I’ll discuss in a later chapter).

The Thatcher government’s supporters argue that the economy grew at over 3.7% from 1984 to 1987 in one of its strongest spurts of the century: productivity rose, competitiveness increased and a reversal of fortunes took place. A concise defence on these lines can be found in the conclusion of Nigel Lawson’s memoir The View From Number 11. The release of energy and purpose including purposive opposition is undeniable. Thatcherism was de facto the country’s way out of the stifling crisis of the 1970s. Charles Moore agrees that it encouraged a culture of ‘get rich quick’ and notes dryly that this is better than ‘getting poor slowly’. These were not the only alternatives. But this is an argument for another time and place. What we need to take a measure of here is the way Thatcherism separated the UK from the possibility of growing within a more European framework and created a philistine economic culture hostile to government and solidarity.

Bang goes the Establishment

The pioneering programme of privatisation of the UK’s nationalised industries was part of a wider marketisation of British society. It also generated the growth of a parasitic, political-media class to displace the gentlemanly ‘consensus’ that was Thatcher’s true ‘enemy within’. A decisive moment was the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986, the deregulation of the City of London ending its public school restrictive practices. Charles Moore writes, "Mrs Thatcher's innovations of privatisation and financial reform changed the world. The City ‘club’ really did disappear, and London really did become a centre for international markets and for banks, as it had not been since before the First World War.” (Vol II, p 218) At the same time her governments initiated experiments in contracting out public services, by establishing a battery of market style contracts to ensure delivery,

The result was the introduction into government of tools drawn from the arcane world of management consultancy. They included re-engineering, internal pricing, outsourcing and virtual markets, for everything from defence supplies to government hospitality.

The quote is from Thatcher and Sons, a forensic examination of British government from Thatcher, through Major, to Blair and Brown, by Simon Jenkins. He demonstrates the continuity of her influence and asks how, "this warrior for liberty and a retreating state, could leave behind her the most potent and centralised government in the free world?"(153) His answer is a chilling account of the unstoppable momentum of Prime Ministerial centralisation and Treasury regulation unleashed by Thatcher, "She might espouse freedom in theory, but in practice she craved control” (106). It has proved unstoppable ever since: John Major was a hapless premier privatising parts that Thatcher had the better sense not to touch, such as the railways, while centralising the response to traffic cones. Tony Blair “concentrated power to a new degree”. Gordon Brown “derided the public service ethos” while seeking to control the outcome of everything. Today, Cameron and Osborne’s slogan could be, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

This concentration of executive power across thirty years is like a wrecking ball demolishing the heart of the old regime while leaving the chipped façade. In a later section of Blimey, it could be Brexit! I’ll return to its implications for the constitution, when I look at sovereignty and the state, to test the presumption of the Leave camp that we enjoy, or at least could enjoy, a self-governing democracy if only it can be rescued from Euro-power.

Here, in order to understand the shallowness of today’s debate over Brexit, I want to take a look at the degrading and shameful consequences for Britain’s, or rather Westminster’s, political culture. Thatcher’s reforms generated a momentum of lasting consequence: the devastation of manufacturing industry, privatisation, Big Bang, the marketisation of the public sector, smashing the unions, contempt for the ethos of public service, undermining the independence of the civil service, the rise of celebrity politics, a fetishisation of victory as all that matters. All this broke the grip, morale, spirit, self-belief and financial controls of the old ruling Establishment. 

Its class-ridden routines had to be replaced. The circles of overlapping clubs of influence mapped by Anthony Sampson in his 1960 Anatomy of Britain were a busted flush. They needed to be replaced with a new constitutional settlement. Instead it was usurped by a narrower, professional and far more venal political-media complex.

The transition deserves a chapter of its own but this is unnecessary thanks to the work of Peter Oborne, whose triptych does the work. It begins with Alistair Campbell, New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class, continues with The Rise of Political Lying and culminates in his magisterial The Triumph of the Political Class. I won't attempt a development of his analysis but I will tweak the concept. Because it is not an economic formation but rather a parasitical entourage that lives off its control of parliament, state, regulatory bodies created by the state, the corporate media and PR companies, it is more accurate to call it a ‘caste’ rather than a ‘class’.

The political and media caste grew from Thatcher's dismantling of the old order, her media-professional approach to politics, and a permissive attitude towards corruption that was good for British business (for example, with respect to her son; to the Pergau Dam which the civil servant involved, Tim Lancaster, refused to sign off; and to the sale of arms to Middle East dictators, with Thatcher and Howe giving the wink to rearming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq even after he gassed the Kurds at Halabja). It struggled to find its way through the years of sleaze under John Major. Then, in Tony Blair, it found its true progenitor.

The four Tory leaders now fighting over Brexit are all pure products of the political media caste and its manipulative, celebrity politics. In the 1975 referendum even though it was contrived, ‘big beasts’ of both parties led great interests into battle. As we have seen, on the Tory side Edward Heath really was a believer in the European project as such, while Enoch Powell wanted nothing to do with it on principle. Soldiers both, whatever you think of what they said and did, their patriotism, disinterest in commerce and sense of duty is hard to fault. The contrast with today could hardly be more disheartening. From all accounts Cameron believes in nothing, Osborne can’t add up, Johnson believes only in himself and Gove in Rupert Murdoch.

Thatcher's German disaster

The final legacy of the Thatcher years does not concern the sorry interior of the UK’s degraded politics but helps explain the way it excludes itself from Europe. In a heartfelt, clear, well documented self-criticism that describes a reassessment many have gone through, Shaun Lawson describes how he was an unthinking leftist pro-European who shared the scorn of Thatcher’s infamous words, when she told parliament,

The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.

Now he concludes she was all too prescient, “Thatcher and the Eurosceptics were right all along”. My response is, hindsight can give a false sense of clarity. Thatcher spoke on 30 October 1990. It caused Geoffrey Howe to resign from her government. On 1 November he explained why, “None of us wants the imposition of a single currency, but more than one form of EMU is possible... We should be in the business, not of isolating ourselves unduly, but of offering positive alternatives that can enable us to be seriously engaged.”

Two weeks later Howe made his resignation speech to the Commons which in effect called on Michael Heseltine, who had resigned from Thatcher’s Cabinet and was the favourite to succeed her, to precipitate a leadership contest. It is a famous speech for being extraordinarily effective in driving her from office, although she stopped Heseltine by backing John Major. It laid out a case for a different attitude to Europe and is worth quoting at length, not least because little of such quality and understanding of the EU’s process is being said today,

We have done best when we have seen the Community not as a static entity to be resisted and contained, but as an active process which we can shape, often decisively, provided that we allow ourselves to be fully engaged in it, with confidence, with enthusiasm and in good faith. We must at all costs avoid presenting ourselves yet again with an over-simplified choice, a false antithesis, a bogus dilemma, between one alternative, starkly labelled "co-operation between independent sovereign states" and a second, equally crudely labelled alternative, "centralised, federal super-state", as if there were no middle way in between.


We commit a serious error if we think always in terms of "surrendering" sovereignty and seek to stand pat for all time on a given deal by proclaiming, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did two weeks ago, that we have "surrendered enough".


The European enterprise is not and should not be seen like that as some kind of zero sum game. Sir Winston Churchill put it much more positively 40 years ago, when he said: "It is also possible and not less agreeable to regard this sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty as the gradual assumption by all the nations concerned of that larger sovereignty which can alone protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics and their national traditions."


I have to say that I find Winston Churchill's perception a good deal more convincing, and more encouraging for the interests of our nation, than the nightmare image sometimes conjured up by my right hon. Friend, who seems sometimes to look out upon a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to "extinguish democracy", to "dissolve our national identities" and to lead us "through the back-door into a federal Europe".


What kind of vision is that for our business people, who trade there each day, for our financiers, who seek to make London the money capital of Europe or for all the young people of today?


These concerns are especially important as we approach the crucial topic of economic and monetary union. We must be positively and centrally involved in this debate and not fearfully and negatively detached. The costs of disengagement here could be very serious indeed.


There is talk, of course, of a single currency for Europe. I agree that there are many difficulties about the concept both economic and political. Of course, as I said in my letter of resignation, none of us wants the imposition of a single currency. But that is not the real risk. The 11 others cannot impose their solution on the 12th country against its will, but they can go ahead without us. The risk is not imposition but isolation…


The tragedy is, and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people and for my right hon. Friend herself, a very real tragedy – that the Prime Minister's perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation. It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out. We have paid heavily in the past for late starts and squandered opportunities in Europe. We dare not let that happen again. If we detach ourselves completely, as a party or a nation, from the middle ground of Europe, the effects will be incalculable and very hard ever to correct.

Between 1 November when Howe resigned and this speech on the 13th, the Berlin wall came down on 9 November. When Howe warns his leader against isolation from Europe he was speaking in a context of the greatest changes across the continent since 1945. Thatcher believed herself to be an architect of a Cold War victory, put herself forward as the creator of a Magna Carta for the whole of Europe and went to a Paris summit to lay this egg. Her overconfidence took her away from Westminster and may have cost her the critical votes that led to her losing the premiership (even if it gave me my one chance to confront her). Behind her vainglorious attempt was another agenda, to stop the reunification of Germany.

But this was the pivotal issue for the future of the continent. She regarded it as a recreation of the wartime threat! Her blinkered, backward looking self-righteousness excluded the UK from the most important development in contemporary European history, one which for obvious reasons Britain had every reason to claim full involvement. Instead, the issue fell to France alone to negotiate with Germany as a major European power. Both the German Chancellor Kohl and France’s President Mitterand wanted to bind the expanded Germany irrevocably into Europe. Fatally, they pushed ahead with a single currency as the means of achieving this.

Of course, it is a counter-factual. But imagine that the Falklands War had not taken place and that Michael Heseltine or even David Owen had been Britain’s Prime Minister in 1989. Both were pro-Europeans unlike Thatcher but neither federalists. They would have welcomed the unification of Germany as a triumph yet fought the idea of a single currency – tooth and nail in Owen’s case. Another means of doubly securing Germany’s role without the Euro would have been found through the active collaboration of the big three: Britain, France and Germany. When Howe complains about the Prime Minister’s intolerable lecturing of Europe and exclusion from its development he was expressing a maddening fury at the opportunity being lost as he spoke. Through her regressive anti-Germanism Thatcher helped to create the dark side of the European project that she condemned. For at an exceptional moment when Britain could have shifted the political course of the EU because the place of Germany itself was being negotiated she absented the UK from having a creative influence.

She was not right. There may be an argument now, a quarter century later, about whether to leave the EU because it is beyond reform. It was not about this then. The Delors’ plan for a federal replacement of the nation states was no foregone conclusion, not least because it won’t work anyway. Thatcher’s actions only made it more likely that the plan would be attempted not less. She turned Britain into an outrider, when by actively helping Germany reunify it could have claimed and not surrendered the place at the centre of EU policy that, if I may be excused the Churchillist note, its wartime role fully justified. 


Shortly I will assess Tory-Blairism, the current inheritor of Thatcher’s legacy and how Maggyism, which once seemed irrelevant, has grown in confidence to become its challenger. Then I will turn to the larger context with a chapter on the disintegration of the political order across the continent, the rise of populism since the financial crash.

Only then will I be in a position to consider what has happened to the Labour party and the left in Britain with respect to Europe. But I will just say this now. The right-wing monopoly of the arguments helps explain why Labour and the left more generally find it so hard to get any traction in the debates. Brexit or not is taking place, as I hope I have shown, within the fatalistic national-popular consensus constructed by Thatcherism, which now imbricates the media-political class through and through, blinding it to the possibility of seeing that there can be an alternative. Outside it the Greens have the clearest pro-Remain perspective of their own, but for this very reason are struggling to get it heard. The surge of support that propelled Jeremy Corbyn into the Labour leadership last year was the expression of an unstoppable demand to rid the Labour party of New Labour’s embrace of Thatcherism via Blair. However no wing of the Labour movement, or indeed any of its feathers, claws or beak, knows how to do this. For it means developing a clear vision of the way Britain should be governed with respect to becoming a modern democracy; with respect to Scotland; to the English question; and to being part of the EU – all of which are connected as a single arc of issues. The English left does not want a market-led, Thatcherite set of answers to the failures of our democracy but is as yet unable to put a believable replacement on the table.

Except (this is very important for those who live there) in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, where another view of Europe as a progressive form of international cooperation has credibility, not least because rule from Brussels for them is at least as democratic as rule from Westminster.

Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.

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