The contexts of Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988

Last week was the thirtieth anniversary of the “Bruges speech” by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Over at the FT I did a piece on the anniversary, contending that the speech was not the start of the road to Brexit (a view put forward by a number of pundits).

Instead I suggested that it was that by disregarding that speech that Conservatives took us on the road to Brexit.

The peroration (of sorts) to the piece was:

“…for two fateful years, 2015 to 2017, the Conservatives did have an overall majority.

“And they unleashed first an in/out referendum and then a botched Brexit.

“They may well have now brought the UK down with them.

“None of this happened because of the Bruges speech, in which Thatcher set the Conservatives the challenge of fashioning the future of Europe.

“It came about because many in her party disregarded the Bruges speech and decided to retreat from the EU instead.

“The road to Brexit began not with the Bruges speech, but with its rejection.”

This proposition may be right or wrong, and it is ultimately a matter of opinion and interpretation, as is any attempt to make causal connections between historical events.  If you have a view, go over to the FT if you can and leave a comment there.

The purpose of this post is not to re-assert the argument made at the FT but to set out what I think are the relevant contexts to the Bruges speech.  Some of these contexts are set out in the FT piece, but I thought they warranted a separate post on this blog.

In doing this “contextual” post, I realise that it is not “black-letter” law.  But if you want black-letter law, go to law school.  This blog (and my writing at FT and elsewhere) is about law and policy, which means (if it means anything at all) putting law into context.

And understanding the context of contested views about the nature of the European Union (formerly the European Communities, including the European Economic Community) and of the single market, makes it easier understand many of the law and policy aspects of Brexit today.

(And by way of background, in 1988 to 1990 I was a politics student and (then) Conservative activist with Euro-sceptic views, and so what follows is based partly on recollection, and memory of course can have its own bias.  And I have not supported the Conservatives for over ten years, since around the David Cameron pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act.  I am now a non-party small-l liberal and far more on the Left than Right.)

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1988 was four years before 1992, and at the time the latter seemed a more significant date for Europe.

“1992” was the shorthand for a campaign of awareness of the completion (or supposed completion) of the Single Market.

In April 1988, five months before the Bruges speech, Thatcher launched the “1992” campaign at Lancaster House.  It is worth reading the speech in full, but here are a couple of highlights:

“How we meet the challenge of the Single Market will be a major factor, possibly the major factor, in our competitive position in European and world markets into the twenty-first century.”

Indeed.

And:

“By 1993 Europe will be our home market.

“That means that we won’t just be exporting to eleven other countries. We will be doing business in a single domestic market. Getting to grips with that basic proposition will mean a major re-think, for companies of every size […] 

“Above all, it means a positive attitude of mind: a decision to go all out to make a success of the single market.”

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The “1992” campaign, I recall from speaker and discussion meetings and conferences at the time was not a cause of any enthusiasm among Tory activists.

But nor was it the cause of particular disquiet.

My recollection was a sense of reluctant pragmatism.

But when in the early 1990s, it appeared that for enthusiasts for European integration the achievement of “1992” was not enough.  There was then a push for the European Communities to be converted into a European Union.

This was the run-up to the Maastricht Treaty.

I remember a sense that this rush, before “1992” had settled, seemed like taking a step too quickly and too far.  It seemed that those in favour of European integration would never be satisfied.

I thought (and still think) it was a mistake for an impatient push for creation of a European Union (and for monetary and currency union) to begin before the single market had properly become embedded and the benefits appreciated in the UK.

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In the late 1980s there was a sense among Tories of euphoria and, in hindsight, hubris. At the 1988 Conservative Party conference (which I attended), the slogan “ten more years” was as common as “make America great” at any Trump rally.

At home, the trade unions had been (or at least had seen to be) defeated.  This was partly because of the trade union reforms of Norman Tebbit and others (which have never been significantly repealed, even by later Labour governments), partly because unionised sectors of the economy had disappeared or had weakened, and partly because of the symbolic victory of the British state over the badly led miners strike.

Abroad, and to the extent Tories of the time thought about Europe they thought about in terms of the Cold War and the threat of the Warsaw Pact than anything to do with the EEC, it seemed also that the Conservatives had “won”. Gorbachev was a person whom Thatcher could do business with, and although the sudden collapses of the Iron Curtain (figuratively) and the Berlin Wall (literally) in 1989 to 1990 were surprises, there was from the mid-1980s onwards a sense that the Cold War was becoming less intense.  And the UK could be again proud in the world (and the genuinely impressive triumph in the Falklands bolstered this sense of international confidence.)

The enemies “within” and abroad looked as if they were vanquished: the scalps of enemies from Galtieri to Scargill hanged on the mental walls of the Tories of the time.  The 1987 general election had seemed a walk over.

It was a time for new opponents, for new foes to be defeated in the “ten more years”.

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One enemy which was identified was “wasteful” and “loony left” local government, and the urge to check this explained the folly of the community charge (ahem, Poll Tax).

The other became European federalists seeking to impose a European super state.

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The “Bruges speech” was not the only significant speech about the future of Europe in September 1988.

Earlier that month, at the Trades Union conference, the European Commission president Jacques Delors had made an emphatic demand that there be a social dimension to the EEC.

The Delors speech is worth reading along with Thatcher’s Bruges speech.  One is almost a reply to the other, two visions of the future of the EEC.

I recollect that the effect of the Delors speech seemed profound on those in the Labour movement, who had been sceptical of the European project.  As recently as 1983, the Labour Party general election manifesto had proposed UK’s withdrawal.  Then well-known Labour politicians, from Tony Benn and Michael Foot to Peter Shore were openly hostile to the EEC.

But the Labour left, which were as dispirited as the Tories were euphoric, saw in what Delors had to say a way of checking the excesses of the Tory UK state, and there seemed a general acceptance of the social dimension of the EEC, a Euro-enthusiasm which was to hold the Labour leadership until Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

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But in 1988, the Conservatives were the more European of the major two parties.

Winston Churchill had promoted a united states of Europen in his post war speeches.

Harold Macmillan had seen EEC membership as a replacement for the loss of empire and the limitations of the commonwealth.

Edward Heath had taken the UK into the EEC in 1973.

The Tories had officially campaigned “yes” in the 1975 referendum.

And the Single Market itself owed greatly to the Tory politician Lord Cockfield (in my mind the most significant Tory politician of the 1980s after Thatcher).

The Conservatives in parliament under Thatcher had endorsed the Single European Act, the biggest shift to date (and perhaps ever) of power from member states to the Brussels institutions.

There were exceptions, of course, though Powell had long left the Tory party and the most prominent Euro-dissident John Biffen was famously “semi-detached” in cabinet).

But the Conservative Party at the time of Thatcher’s “1992” speech and then her “Bruges” speech was a pro-European party with an impeccable track record.

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But.

The Bruges speech soon became something it was not.

In the speech, Thatcher states (in a phrase which riles many Brexiteers):

“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

The speech was not a rejection of the EEC.

It instead was setting out a vision of the EEC.

And the venue was important: this was not like Theresa May seeking to placate political backbenchers.  Thatcher was leading from the front, at the College of Europe, seeking to take on those with alternative views.

The Bruges speech was a call to arms, not the sound of the bugle of defeat.

And it was, perhaps, the last “pro” European speech of any UK prime minister.

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After 1988 the attitude of many Tories, and of the right wing press hardened.

1990 was the year both of the infamous Spectator cover of Kohl as Hitler and of The Sun’s Up Yours Delors.

This was two years on from the “1992” and “Bruges” speeches of Thatcher.

Something had changed.

The tendency became not to show that the “Bruges” vision of the future of Europe was better and more attractive than the federalist alternative.

Instead the other side became the enemy, to be insulted and reviled.

As far as I recall, no leading minister from John Major downwards made a pro-European speech after he became prime minister in 1990.

The divisions in the Tory party during the passage of the Maastricht treaty became deep and hard.  Eurosceptics became, in effect, a party within a party, with their own groups and publications.

There was lots of politics.  MPs had the whip withdrawn.  There was a leadership challenge.  MPs in favour of taking the EEC seriously resigned the whip and joined over parties.

Elsewhere in the EU of 1992, the Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty to the jubilation of many Tories in the UK.  The French had only a bare majority in their referendum

And then there was also “Black Wednesday” of 1992, which discredited (or was seen to discredit) those in favour of UK participating in monetary and currency union.

It was not becoming difficult to be an opponent of the EU project.

1992 was turning out to be a different sort of year for the European project than that envisaged in Thatcher’s speeches of 1988.

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Within four of years of 1988, Thatcher’s positive vision of what the EEC seemed out-of-date. Only her warnings of the other more federalist visions seemed relevant.  The EU seemed not to be going in Thatcher’s direction.

And in later years, Thatcher was reported to be no longer a fan of the EU in any way.

Her supporters and fans no longer sought to reform the European project but to move the UK away from its centre.  The Conservatives left the centre-right group in the European parliament.  Every opt-out was received with a demand for more.

And so contrary to the “Bruges” speech, many of those who followed her sought some form of existence on the fringes of the European Community as our destiny no longer seemed to be in Europe, as part of the Community.

Perhaps given the push to European integetion at Maastricht and afterwards, perhaps that shift in attitude was inevitable.

But in 1988 things did seem very different.

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