Maggie & the Storm Over Europe

Margaret Thatcher, the new leader of the Conservative Party, campaigning for England to remain part of the European Economic Community, June 1975


In early February, before the date had even been set for the June 23 referendum that will decide whether Britain remains a member of the European Union, the governing Conservative Party began a fight with itself over how Margaret Thatcher would have voted. Her former private secretary Charles Powell (pronounced “pole”) started the debate, when he declared in a newspaper article that his onetime boss, for all her vocal hostility to the European enterprise, would ultimately have opted for Britain to remain in the EU. “Margaret Thatcher’s heart was never in our membership of the EU,” Lord Powell conceded. “But I am convinced her head would continue to favour staying in on the conditions now on offer…. The one thing I never heard her propose was Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.”

Not so, said a chorus of fellow veterans of the Thatcher era. They were adamant that the lady would have been in their camp, urging a British exit—or Brexit—from the twenty-eight-state club. “The EU of those days was very different from the EU today,” wrote David Young, who served as a cabinet minister in Thatcher’s 1980s pomp. “If Margaret were with us today she may not be leading Brexit but she certainly would be cajoling the leaders of the various campaigns to get their act together. And when the day came would vote out.” Another Thatcher lieutenant, John Redwood, who served as a policy aide to the prime minister before becoming a cabinet minister in his own right, took to his blog to lambast Powell. “May Margaret Thatcher rest in peace. She…showed no appetite…for the high degree of integration we now experience under common EU laws, powers, and policies. I find it disappointing that Lord Powell should presume to be able to communicate with the dead.”

A version of this argument, like a brawl at a séance, tends to occur whenever Conservatives debate Europe. It certainly predates Thatcher’s death in 2013. Ever since she was toppled by her own MPs in November 1990, her bereaved party has wrestled over the Thatcher legacy, trying to claim its authority for whatever current project this or that faction wishes to pursue. Part of this is simple ancestor worship, a cast of mind not confined to Britain’s Tories. One has only to eavesdrop on the Republican presidential debates to hear how often the name of Ronald Reagan is invoked, as if today’s GOP is constantly asking itself the question: What would Reagan do?

In the Tory case, there is another element at work: guilt. For at least a generation, the Tory tribe has been consumed with remorse for the act of regicide it had committed. Regularly appended to any reference to Thatcher, who was the longest-serving British prime minister…

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