Thatcher Biographer How the Tories Turned Against the EU

Britain's Tories were once a pro-European party. They only shifted course in the later stages of Margaret Thatcher's era as prime minister. The Iron Lady's official biographer explains how erstwhile Europhiles became Euroskeptics.

Margaret Thatcher in 1975: Conservatives say yes to Europe
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Margaret Thatcher in 1975: Conservatives say yes to Europe

Interview Conducted by

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Moore, would Margaret Thatcher vote for Brexit?

Moore: I'm afraid I can't answer that and don't want to guess. Thatcher moved a lot in her career. In the beginning she was strongly in favor of the European Economic Community (EEC) and campaigned to stay in it during the 1975 referendum. But as prime minister she became more hostile to the direction of the project. In her last two or three years in office, she fought hard against what later became the European Union.


Moore: She was fiercely against monetary and economic union and the euro -- and very opposed to political union. She felt Britain would be better off if it kept a distance from all of this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Conservatives today are a largely Euroskeptic party. Was that already the case in 1975 when Thatcher became the party's leader?

Moore: Only a minority was against the EEC. Some preferred our links with the Commonwealth, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and others. But the leading figures in the party were almost all keen on Europe, partly because they believed this was a way of rescuing Britain from economic decline. We had become very pessimistic about the British economy -- France and Germany were doing much better in the 1960s and 1970s. Many Conservatives thought Europe was the future and Britain should be part of it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When did the mood change?

Moore: By the late 1980s, Thatcher thought the EC had become too dirigiste. She was also becoming anxious of the changing balance of power on the Continent and thought Europe was a cover for German hegemony. She was against reunification. I personally think she was wrong in her interpretation of German motives.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Britain was the driving force behind the single market -- did her government not see the benefits of working together more closely?

Moore: Thatcher wanted a free market, but she realized maybe too late that it also increased the power of European institutions -- the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. It was not a free market, but imposed a new regulatory regime. It was a massive transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels. Thatcher later said the single market went wrong.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: She never felt comfortable in Brussels, did she?

Moore: She didn't like all the leaders having dinner, drinking wine, making small talk. She used the word "anecdote" as a verb when she spoke about her colleagues from other European states: "There they are, all anecdoting away." At one meeting, she saw the foreign ministers sitting around and having drinks. They were supposed to work. She got absolutely furious and said, "Look at them, we saved all their necks in the war!"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 1984, Thatcher negotiated a rebate from the British contribution to the European budget. Why was she so obsessed with money?

Moore: At that time, Britain was still suffering economically, that's part of the explanation. More importantly, British public opinion never really shared the idea of a single European entity. The EU is not a religious belief in this country. We have a transactional view of the European Union, and ask the question: "Are we doing well out of it or not?" This is important for the current debate as well. David Cameron can't say, "The EU is wonderful." He has to say, "We benefit from it."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: On the Continent, Thatcher is remembered as having been the lady shouting, "I want my money back!" What made her so angry?

Moore: For her the EU was the attempt to take power from Britain. She was furious when Jacques Delors, the former president of the Commission, came to Britain in 1988 and told trade unions that he wanted to do more on a European level for the health and safety of British workers. She thought it was socialism. In her Brussels speech shortly after Delors' visit, she said: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super state." Thatcher also feared the EU domestically, because it gave the Labour Party an advantage.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the debate in the 1980s shape the Conservative Party today?

Moore: The Conservative commitment to the EU collapsed the moment we opted out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the euro. Thatcher was ousted in 1990 by her party. She fell mainly over the Europe issue -- and that's another reason for the hostility of many conservatives to the EU. They think that the pro-Europeans destroyed Margaret Thatcher.

About Charles Moore
  • AFP
    Charles Moore, 59, first got to know Margaret Thatcher as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Later, in the 1990s, she asked him to be her official biographer. The Iron Lady granted him unlimited access to her private archive, to friends, relatives and earlier companions -- all under one condition: Moore would have to wait until after her death before publishing the biography. The second volume of the biography was published in the autumn and a third volume is in the works.
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emeryderek 06/23/2016
1. Brexit
Betting odds are on Remain because the majority of undecided will vote Remain. The EEC was OK for Brits because it was about increasing trade. The EU is not because its about full union. The UK have had an accountable democracy for hundreds of years. Brits instinctively hate being told what to do by the unaccountable. This will not change in the next 100 years. We are a pragmatic race (reason trumps ideology). In the EU ideology trumps reason. Few in the UK are progressive liberals who believe in the Project and few see themselves as Europeans. Trade is the driving force. Trade to the EU has been in decline since 1999 but increasing to the rest of the world. By 2030 its likely to be about 30% to the EU and 70% to the rest of the world. If EU trade continues to decline we will leave as it will not pass the 'what's in it for me' test. The sooner you move to full union the sooner the pressure will build up to leave by such large numbers than politicians will not be able to ignore it, though they would like to.
dinerouk61 06/24/2016
2. Brexit victory for leave!
Danke Frau Merkel!
aglow 06/24/2016
The Tories saw the EU for what it was, a socialist project, right from the Italian Communist, Altieri Spinelli (after whom the main building of the EU Parliament in Brussels is now named), through Jean Monnet (EU building named after him) and back to Spinelli when he unveiled his draft "Constitution for European Union", which led to the final merging, at Maastricht in 1991, of Monnet's various "communities" in a single "European Union".
paulsabino10 06/24/2016
4. Margaret Thatcher is dancing!
She has been Vindicated! This article with her biographer gives the readers the unbiased point of view of those who voted Out! ( whether right or wrong ) Break out the scotch! A Toast! Viva UK Viva! Down EU Down!
Colin Robinson 06/24/2016
5. Brexit
I opted to leave the EU because of several factors: 1) Immigration Control 2) Control of our borders 3) To hold to account MP's that I elect/Don't Elect 4) Not to be told what to do by those I don't elect; see your so called EU Bosses.
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