Expert View

Thatcher’s heirs should follow her EU playbook

by David Hannay | 25.08.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

To say that Margaret Thatcher remains an icon for most of today’s Conservatives, more than 20 years after she left office, is not to invite contradiction. That is not surprising. Three successive election victories, an overhaul of Britain’s economy following the failures of the 1970s, the strengthening of Britain’s influence in the world and, right up until the last crisis of her premiership, an unbroken series of successes in European negotiations. Quite a record.

Those European successes – the UK’s budget rebate, creation of the single market, the opening of EU membership to countries which had suffered under fascism and Soviet domination, the freeing up of world trade – did not come easily. You might have thought they would contain useful lessons for her successors.

Well, you would be wrong. Both David Cameron and Theresa May have completely ignored those lessons. Indeed, they have flouted them. Would Thatcher have played Russian roulette with our EU membership by holding a referendum in the first place? This is not an attempt to guess how she might have voted in 2016. But just read what she had to say about referendums at the time of the 1975 plebiscite on the terms of our membership and you will see that she believed firmly that this was a matter to be settled by parliament. And, however great her irritation and anger was when negotiating with the EU, she never believed or said that Britain’s place was outside the EU.

And then there is the matter of red lines. Tough as she was, Thatcher did not believe in them. You can search the records of her negotiations over Britain’s budget contribution and the establishment of the single market and you will find she never set out a single red line in advance of the conclusion of the negotiations. She did not state her bottom line on the level of the rebate; nor did she lay out her terms for agreeing to treaty change to set up the single market. That did not make her a soft touch. She negotiated pragmatically and she did so successfully.

There are surely lessons there for the present government, which drew red lines all over the place – on the single market, on the customs union, on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – before the negotiations even began.

Nor did Thatcher ever say that no deal would be better than a bad deal. She always made it clear that she was negotiating to reach an agreement and thus gave an incentive to her opposite numbers to bargain constructively. And not many people, certainly not her negotiating partners, have suggested she concluded any bad deals.

It is late, but perhaps not too late, for the government to begin to apply some of those lessons. Why not open the negotiations for a new partnership with all trade options on the table, not with most of them excluded? Why not make a positive case for cooperating with the EU in areas such as research, the fight against international crime, and foreign and security policy and spell out the contributions we are prepared to make for our mutual benefit? Why not say we do not contemplate failure rather than courting it?

As Parliament returns from the summer recess, it really might be the moment for the government to take MPs into its confidence and to lay out a fresh start to negotiations which have begun so hesitantly and so unpromisingly. And that cannot be done by rushing out a series of documents stamped “have your cake and eat it”.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    One Response to “Thatcher’s heirs should follow her EU playbook”

    • When you consider that Thatcher was one of the main architects of the EU’s Single Market , as well as being the figurehead of the Conservative’s move to the right and free market economics in the 1980’s, it shows you how much further to the right the current Conservative leadership has moved. So much so that they are now closer to UKIP, described by the last PM as a party of fruitcases.