Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Thatcher, Bruges and future Tory EU policy

Still catching up, but it would be churlish not to mention the 20th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s celebrated (in some circles) Bruges speech, which passed the other day with the usual guff from withdrawalists. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has a fun piece on the anniversary celebrations and the Tories’ Europe problem which is well worth reading, considering the fact that they’re likely to be in power at some point within the next couple of years.

David CameronBecause the Tories under David Cameron still have no EU policy. I’ve been hunting for one for a while now (March 2008, July 2006), and they still seem no closer to working out what they even think of the thing. (It’s not just the Tories, of course – Labour are just as bad…)

The thing is, Thatcher’s near-infamous Bruges speech remains a great starting point for the Tories to set out their position on Britain’s involvement with the rest of Europe. An odd thing for someone who labels himself loosely pro-EU to say? Not really…

The speech is well worth reading in full – because it’s now become this near-mythical anti-EU manifesto for British withdrawalists (notably anti-EU “think tank” the Bruges Group, named after the speech – a think tank not afraid to associate itself with some of the more hysterical anti-EU crowd).

With such a massive reputation to fight through, it’s very easy to make assumptions about what Thatcher actually said. Listen to the anti-EU lot and you’d think that the speech was a blistering attack on the very idea of a common European future, delivered in the kind of foaming-at-the-mouth style that anyone who’s been knocking around EU-related internet forums has come to associate with British euroscepticism. (Seriously, British anti-EU types – you’re embarrassing me here… I want to feel proud of being British, and you’re making us all look like arseholes – same as those drunken tits on the Costa del Sol. Whatever happened to the old British virtues of decency, restraint and politeness?)

Yet it actually contains much that is positive towards a European Union, and fully supports continued British engagement at the heart of the process. It’s just that it doesn’t support the direction the current EU has been heading for the last 30-odd years towards greater centralisation and uniformity. Pretty much all of Thatcher’s suggestions back then are still being made to this day – and not just by eurosceptics.

Sadly, though, Thatcher’s Bruges speech is more referred to than read – and thanks to its current associations with flag-waving anti-EU nutters it is mostly ignored. Yet its overall vision for Europe remains a sound alternative to the current model, while in the details are identified many of the key problems with the current set-up, none of which have really changed in two decades. It’s got its problems, certainly – I don’t advocate everything that Maggie said by any means – but as a starting point for creating an alternative vision for the European Union, it remains both simple (if occasionally overly simplistic) and compelling. Check out the Wordle-generated word cloud of the speech (with only Europe, Community, European, Britain, British and removed – the five most commonly-used words, and in that order) – there may be a slight tilt towards an economic vision of European co-operation, but she covers a lot of ground:

Thatcher's Bruges speech word cloud

Most satisfying, though, is that it provides a healthy supply of quotes defending and advocating Britain’s close involvement with the rest of Europe (even to the point of advocating greater use of a European single currency) which can be thrown at any British eurosceptics that happen by…

“We British are as much heirs to the legacy of European culture as any other nation. Our links to the rest of Europe, the continent of Europe, have been the dominant factor in our history…

Too often, the history of Europe is described as a series of interminable wars and quarrels. Yet from our perspective today surely what strikes us most is our common experience… It is the record of nearly two thousand years of British involvement in Europe, cooperation with Europe and contribution to Europe, contribution which today is as valid and as strong as ever…

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.”

What are the chances of David Cameron ever making a speech containing that kind of rhetoric? The old Tory squabbles over the EU that dominated the 1990s may well have subsided, but the party leadership are still worried that they’re bubbling away under the surface. The recent campaign for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty showed how powerful anti-EU populism can be. Though the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it did demonstrate one thing – euroscepticism remains a danger to the Conservative party. Perhaps its biggest danger.

These people will be in charge of the EU’s second largest economy – and yet even they don’t know what they are going to do once they come to power.

(On a related note, Richard Corbett may be a decidedly pro-EU Labour MEP writing in the left-wing Guardian, so just about as biased as they come on this topic, but his recent look at current Tory attitudes towards the EU is essential reading.)


  1. I think you have already defined the Tory policy or the lack of such a policy as leaving themselves open to being blown along with the federalist breeze or something like? (I do not intend to misquote sorry if I have.) The question is therefore; is this a deliberate ploy or do they really not understand.

    The problem I see is there seems to be no certain way of getting from where we are to where Thatcher and others suggest we want to be. I see the EU on a track to a one nation state and understand the differences, opt-outs etc. allowed at present as building blocks, rather than evidence for a different outcome. I do not therefore take comfort from the idea of a two speed EU for obvious reasons, the two speeds are still on the same track to the same eventual end position.

    Thus I feel that those suggesting a different settlement can be achieved by remaining in the EU and working to change the end position, are really promoting a federalists system with much of the power remaining at the centre, but are dressing it up in different clothes.

    The only certain way of achieving a different settlement for the UK is to leave the EU altogether and agree separate trading agreements.

  2. The problem with the Tories is that they are being very un-Tory and “un-British”, at least from a political sense, both with regard to the economy and Europe.

    The Tories have developed an ideological position around Thatcherism. They have stayed quite on the economy bar Redwood because they have nothing to say beyond more of the same free-market deregulated Thatcherist clap trap that got us into this position in the first place.

    When it comes to Europe, they have the same problem, though taking a particular perspective from Bruge speech. Unfortunalty, the world has moved on, but the Tories have not.

    In my mind the greatest crime for the Tories is they have abandoned that greatest of British traits, pragmatism. The danger with being ideological is that you will undertake actions that suit that ideology, as oppossed to, in this case, the best intrests of this nation.

  3. Ken

    If we assume a Cameron led UK administration from May 2010 onwards, this outcome would result from swing voters in England switching their allegiance rather than mass defections from Labour to Conservative outside England – this trend will have the effect of polarising political affiliations along England vs Everywhere Else in the UK lines to an unprecedented level.

    What happens in these circumstances if there is no UK left to deliberate upon leaving the EU?

  4. Excellent analysis of the Bruges speech, thanks.

  5. A spitting image of Mrs Thatcher and caricature of Cameron.
    “usual guff from withdrawalists”, “near infamous Bruges speach” “near mythical anti EU manifesto” “more hysterical anti EU crowd” “anti EU lot”, “foaming at the mouth” “(seriously British anti EU types….. politeness )”, “flag wavimg anti EU nutters “.

    Sure you haven`t missed any cliches ?

  6. Evil European,

    Ah yes the “political reality” that Nosemonkey likes.Has it occured to you that some people see leaving the EU as the most pragmatic solution to the whole problem ?

  7. Sorry Peter, I have not been reading this thread, so missed your interesting question. I must admit though I cannot quite see the relevance to the post? I would also question the concept that the Conservatives would cause the break up of the UK, it was the Labour party which contributed to the break-up not Conservatives. Of course the Scottish Parliament is devolved from the UK Government, but in the event that Scotland wanted full independence, it would at the same time be leaving the EU, the remainder of the UK would still be a member, Scotland however would then have to apply for membership in its own right, and obviously a forgone conclusion is that it would be granted.

    I agree with your assessment that Conservative votes would come from swing voters in England, but as a United Kingdom we should respect that Scotland and Wales cannot always be the force behind forming the government as they have whenever we have had a Labour government. The idea of democracy is that sometimes we agree to be ruled by those with which we disagree, in the knowledge that at some point the tables will be reversed, your question raises the spectre that this is no longer the case and Scotland will only remain a member of the UK if we have a government formed by the Scots as we have had for the past 11 years.

    Of course we have yet to see if the Labour party can hold a controlling influence in Scotland against the SBP, if not then it is obvious that neither of the parties that can hold power in Westminster have a big following in Scotland.

  8. Ken

    The relevance flows from the fact that European integration is instinctively framed in terms of a process based on allegedly sovereign member Nation States. This is the de facto portrayal of European diversity, at all levels be it political, economic or social.

    For me, it is this (in reality) false supposition and the multitude of erroneous ramifications flowing from this fundamental flaw that lie at the core of the European problem – your comment was simply another manifestation of the same basic error.

    I am convinced that the future of the people living on these islands is intrinsically European. You might not share that concept but it drives my rationale when deliberating upon how the wide ranging “Europe” issue might be addressed.

    Put simply, the notion of European integration is doomed to ultimate failure if it continues to utilise the geo-political template provided by the Europe des Patries (or Europe of Nations) model. With each successive enlargement this axiom becomes more and more obvious but Europe proceeds down the same constitutional blind alley because powerful vested interests (in the form of individual national administrations) remain at the helm.

  9. Peter: I have no argument with your definition it is basically the same as mine, only the desirability of a united EU built by such deception, is subject to debate.

    The concept proposed by Thatcher was of an EU of sovereign nation states, that is still the thrust behind much of the rhetoric from all main parties, but it is not the reality that I can see being formed.
    Hence I cannot see how we get from where we are going, to where the political rhetoric argues we want to be. That is why I take the position that those who argue that we can create an EU of nation states by following the present template are at best misguided because the model is erroneous, as the old EUsceptic saying goes “the EU takes the R out of country”.

    I do not see that the EU is proceeding down a constitutional blind alley as you put it because it is a basic lie. Initially the EU was formed from individual sovereign nation states, but now I only see the nation states as scaffolding in the formation of an eventual EU state, slowly we are witnessing the individual sovereignty disappear in all areas of government, the present nations will be replaced with sub national and then cross national regions, further eroding the sovereignty of the original nation states, whose leaders will eventually find it legally impossible to act independently, legally impossible to protect the remaining sovereignty and eventually find it impossible to leave the EU.
    Those who support the EU always argue that this is not happening even as we see the skeleton being created and every passing treaty putting meat on the bones.

    An instance; this week a committee of the EU parliament has voted to end the British opt out on the working time directive, this will then be put before the whole EU parliament and if passed will go to the EU council, where the final vote will be taken by QMV. What ever the views on the 48 hour week it is clear that the British government does not have the power to retain its sovereignty whilst still remaining a member of the EU. Hence my argument that to obtain the stated goals of a different EU will require a totally different approach.

    I accept that your vision is of a united EU, the vocabulary used by the British political parties when describing the EU does not support that vision, but the reality does, that is why those of us who are EUsceptic argue that the politicians have been lying to us.

  10. Reading Thatcher’s speech wasn’t a call to get out of the EEC instantly, it was rather more of a call for a more decentralised, multi-speed, a la carte type of alliance of nation states. It actually sounds quite a bit like the kind of EU you have written about preferring. This would have been a radical change then, and an even more revolutionary change now when even evolutionary changes like the Lisbon Treaty or Constitutional Treaty end up being rejected by somebody. There is plenty of red meat in there for all types of EU-sceptic but as you say no outright calls for withdrawal, but then she had been actively campaigning for greater British involvement with the EEC. I guess this speech marks the half way point between campaigning for EEC membership and making it plain she favoured getting out.

  11. It’s obvious that Thatcher’s speech was unionist, not federalist. That’s why the entire notion that it was anti-EU is such incredible revisionism.

  12. In her book Statecraft, she writes that if she could live her life again she would pull out of the EU.

  13. Robin – as much as I have a certain amount of respect for Thatcher’s analytical abilities while she was in office, Statecraft was written when she was in her mid-70s, after she’d ceased to be involved in frontline politics for more than a decade, and was (according to some sources) already suffering from the onset of dementia/Alzheimers. Her political attitudes once her public life had come to an end became increasingly anti-EU, to be sure* – but by that point who cares?

    When she WAS in office, Thatcher did more to deepen Britain’s involvement with the EC/EU than any prime minister bar Heath. There’s a wonderful irony in that, I find… There’s also a case to be made that if she hadn’t been quite so belligerent and bloody-minded in the late 80s, she could well have shifted the whole thing far closer to a “British” vision of European co-operation than she managed.

    (* As Hugo Young noted in his halfway decent biography of her, One of Us, “after she left office, she took to making speeches that challenged many of the European policies she had herself pushed through the House of Commons… Having herself negotiated and signed the Single European Act in 1985, it was as if at some point thereafter she suddenly became aware of what it meant.” (hardback 1992 reissue, p.617-8).)

  14. Nosemonkey,

    I would take Mrs T`s writings after she left office as more honest about her feelings about an issue than anything said while in office , age and Alzheimers or not.Who cares ? obviously you do, or you wouldn`t have blogged about it.
    It is ironic that she took us deeper into the EU at the same time as (you say) being bloody minded and belligerent. It seems to prove, as that Hugo Young (dont like him) and others have said, that the EU project was something different to the face it showwed to her.
    Edward Heath never admitted to the failings of this project he took us in to even to the end. Is that because he was old and confused ?