Leadership Lessons from Attila the Hen: Margaret Thatcher on Europe-and the United States
It was a vintage if ill-advised display of firmness.
A quarter of a century ago, Margaret Thatcher threw the British House of Commons into an uproar when she mocked the concept of a United State of Europe in no more than three words. Punctuating each one, she said:
“No. No. No.”
This wasn’t just verbal overkill. More precisely, she was saying “No” to a European Parliament comparable to the U.S. House of Representatives, “No” to a European Council of Ministers comparable to the U.S. Senate, and “No” to a European Commission approximating the power of the White House and executive branch.
Nevertheless, senior members of her party railed at her vehement rejection of a new conventional wisdom. They challenged her leadership—and forced her resignation.
After eleven years (the most of any British prime minister in the 20th century), she was booted out of office on the issue of European integration. She resigned on Nov. 28, 1990.
Since her departure, every British PM (two Conservatives and two Laborites) has waved the pro-Europe flag. Support for the European Union (EU)—supplanting what began as the European Common Market—has been the consensus view of the British political establishment EST (Ever Since Thatcher).
However, with the “Brexit” vote last month, this era may also come to an abrupt close. After 26 years, will the British public have swung around to her thinking?
Thatcher foresaw many of the difficulties today’s Europe.
In 1975, as opposition leader, she campaigned to keep Britain in the Common Market. However, after winning a third term as prime minister in 1987, she worried about the metamorphosis of the Common Market from free-trade zone into the “Babel Express”—a new super-state with many different languages and national identities. Ironically enough, the EU was taking shape just as an older super-state (the Soviet Union) was falling apart.
A new super-state centered in Brussels, Thatcher thought, would be as antithetical to democratic freedom and democratic accountability as the older one centered on Moscow. In her memoirs she wrote: It would have “the same inclination toward bureaucratic rather than market solutions” . . . and it would make distant and unelected elitists the masters rather than the servants of the people.
“Ultimately,” she wrote, “there was no option but to stake out a radically different position from the direction in which most of the Community seemed to be going, to raise the flag of national sovereignty, free trade, and free enterprise—and fight.”
Here are eye-opening excerpts from a major speech she gave less than two years out of office. At the Hague, she predicted worsening problems of:
Insecurity—because Europe’s protection will strain [relations with the U.S.] on which the security of the Continent ultimately depends.
Unemployment—because the pursuit of policies of regulation will increase costs, and price Europeans out of jobs.
National resentment—because a single currency and centralized economic policy . . . will make [people in various countries] feel angry and powerless.
Ethnic conflict—because the wealthy European countries will not be the only ones faced with waves of immigration from the south and east.
Suffice it to say that all she predicted has come to pass.