Margaret Thatcher’s Poor Legacy on Europe

Margaret Thatcher: a statesman with a poor legacy on Europe (22 April 2013) - by Gregor Dallas

I was considerably saddened by the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death, I would echo the tributes I have been hearing around the world and I felt that the funeral service at Saint Paul’s, with the Queen present, was a noble, Christian farewell to one of the greatest prime ministers Britain had in the twentieth century. But was she a great statesman?

There is a famous chapter on statesmanship in Henry Kissinger’s book about Metternich, Castle-reagh and Talleyrand as they sought a peaceful settlement for Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. I often re-read it for its clarity of principles. Its central point is that absolute justice is not possible in an international world because any state that seeks this will have to go to war to achieve it: one state’s justice is another state’s injustice. Kissinger wrote the book as a Harvard PhD thesis when he was still a young man. Kissinger remained, even in the White House, the Central European he always was. His policy of détente with the Soviet Union, and later with China, was a direct product of that Central European thinking.

He joined Metternich in believing that ‘nationalist enthusiasms’ were the greatest threat to peace because they seek to enforce their sense of absolute justice on the rest of the world. They caused chaos in Central Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and eventually brought about the tragic collapse of the Vienna Congress system in the Great War of 1914. Kissinger also re-gretted the actions of Canning and his followers after 1822, when they abandoned the Congress system for their ‘splendid isolation’ and the pursuit of empire: it turned Metternich’s Holy Alliance — initially a liberal institution — into its own resources, thus forging its reactionary character.

I followed Kissinger’s line of thought in a trilogy I wrote on the end of three great wars, 1815, 1918 and 1945. I very much regret that I could not compose a fourth volume on the collapse of Europe’s overseas empires and the end of Communism (they were obviously related) because of an extremist marketing culture that has developed in publishing, which has halted the production of all serious history — apart from a few tomes from Oxford and Cambridge — and reduced us to anecdotal histo-ries and biographies. That I am afraid is a by-product of Thatcherism.

But Thatcherism is a complicated story. It is obvious that the European Union is a Christian ances-tor of the nineteenth-century Congress system. It began as a Central European thought in the af-termath of Hitler. Every European state that lost an empire came immediately over to the European idea, with one exception, Britain. Even today ‘Eurosceptics’ believe that Britain’s future lies so-mewhere out there, in the blue open seas, and not in Europe. They could even do without Europe.

As a historian, I have to admit that I am not much of a hero worshipper. Individuals can alter the course of history, and Margaret Thatcher was one of them. Her greatest achievement was her de-fence of the free market against an essentially socialist consensus that had grown up after 1945 as a result of wartime planning. But she and those around her, like Keith Joseph, came in after a world upheaval that had nothing to do with Margaret Thatcher: the oil crisis and the collapse of world markets in 1973. The result was the floating of currencies. This put the nail in the coffin of world sterling; it also saw the birth of the European single currency out of the real concern to create a level playing field in the developing single European market.

‘Thatcherism’ developed under Edward Heath, who disastrously abandoned his policies when Bri-tain’s unemployment hit its first million: he ploughed money into the economy giving Britain an inflation rate of 25%. It was the Germans who taught the Thatcherites the principle of moneterism and the hard currency, which they eventually adopted after the victory of 1979. The subsequent years of prosperity were in part thanks to Margaret Thatcher. But the basic fact was that Britain was simply catching up with the rest of Europe — she had a lot a catching up to do!

The greatest political tragedy of this time was the rivalry which developed between Thatcher and Heath. Both were strong characters, but it really should not have developed. The hatred of Heath, which unfortunately she cultivated; led to the development of ‘Euroscepticism’, that is, English na-tionalism — the kind of enthusiasm Kissinger had warned against. Heath came from Broadstairs in Kent: you can virtually see the mainland of Europe from its shores. Thatcher came from Grantham in Lincolnshire, where the only talk of Europe was that it was a place where dictators with mous-taches came from. I don’t think Lady Thatcher ever lost that vision. The division that developed within the Conservative Party has today reached breaking point.

But she signed the Single Act, the most radical of all the European treaties, far more so than Maas-tricht. It was a statesmanlike act which gave the free market in Europe the level playing field that she required.

She claimed in her memoirs that she only signed it because she had been misled by the Europeans in her government. This cannot be true; it goes completely against the grain of Thatcher’s mastery of detail which would bow to no one. She did begin to isolate herself behind non-elected figures like Sir Alan Walters, who went to his death forecasting the demise of the euro. She fell at the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, and I don’t think that was a coincidence: she told Gorbachev that she wanted the Soviet Union to remain united, and she fought tooth and nail the unification of Germany — for all the wrong reasons. Reunification seriously weakened Germany. And that was the cause of Black Wednesday, not the markets. The other nations knocked out of the ERM on that day were back in the developing euro within two years.

So I come back to my first question. Was she a statesman? In Henry Kissinger’s book Metternich is regarded as the ultimate craftsman of statesmanship because, though Chancellor of a middling, declining power it was he who called the shots and created the Congress system. Prime Minister of Great Britain after the economic disasters of 1978-9, Margaret Thatcher in her world politics achieved the stature of Metternich in 1815. She was a grand statesman and we shall sorely miss her.

Gregor Dallas