Britain's Brexit fate was sealed in 1988—with just two speeches by Margaret Thatcherby David Willetts and Anthony Teasdale / September 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Precisely 30 years ago this autumn, the Conservatives ceased to be the “party of Europe” and began to move fitfully—by lurches, lunges and sidesteps—to “Euroscepticism,” a term invented in the process. In her speech in Bruges on 20th September 1988, and then in her speech at the Conservative conference four weeks later, Margaret Thatcher spoke about Europe very differently than before.
Already in office for over nine years, with three election wins behind her, she was still riding high in the polls. She enjoyed widespread respect abroad—as soulmate of Ronald Reagan, and easily the most powerful woman in world politics. The pace of European integration was quickening and she challenged it with typical vigour and directness.
The 1988 conference was the first under Thatcher where Europe took centre-stage, as she started drawing the dividing lines across which bigger battles would later be fought. Now that her official and personal papers for that year have been released, we can see more clearly what happened during 1988, and why.
The idea of the Bruges speech began, ironically, in the Foreign Office. They were looking for an opportunity for the prime minister to make a “positive” speech, contriving an invitation from the College of Europe in Bruges to give an address which, it was envisaged, would focus on European reforms Britain was leading on, such as the single market, and highlight other areas, like defence, where countries could work more closely together.
But events, together with Jacques Delors—the increasingly powerful President of the European Commission—would soon scupper that plan. The first half of 1988 had seen West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shift his country into a much more pro-European mode during his six-month presidency of the Council, while the French President, François Mitterrand, had been re-elected on a strongly European platform. Critically, the two leaders agreed to begin moving towards a single currency, with Delors appointed to chair a committee of central bank governors to study the question. On 6th July, Delors told the European Parliament that, within 10 years, he expected 80 per cent of economic and social legislation to be decided at European level and talked provocatively about the Commission being an “embryo European government.”
Thatcher delivered a sharp riposte later in July, condemning the “airy-fairy ideas” of certain European leaders on BBC radio’s Jimmy Young Show. She…