Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

The Sunday Times  (section News Review) – 2 April 2017


And we’re off!

By Andrew Roberts

The Tories used to be the party of Europe but once Thatcher realised she was dealing with a ‘rotten lot’, we were on the road to divorce, says the historian Andrew Roberts


'The adjective "historic" is one of the most overused words in politics and journalism, constantly employed for occasions that are at best mildly important and will be forgotten by all except pedants and historians. Yet the triggering of article 50 last Wednesday was by any criterion a moment that will be noted in history decades, perhaps centuries, from now.

How on earth had it come to that? How did a Conservative prime minister who had herself supported - at least nominally - "remain" in the European referendum come to trigger the process by which the United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union in two years' time?

After all, Theresa May leads the party of Winston Churchill, who was one of the founders of the European Movement, of Harold Macmillan, who negotiated Britain's first attempt to join what was then the Common Market, of Edward Heath, who took us into Europe in 1973, of Margaret Thatcher, who passed the Single European Act, and of John Major, who signed the Maastricht treaty which put the European Community on the path to ever-closer union in 1992. The Tory party used to be the party of Europe. What happened?

It isn’t easy today to recall quite how much British politicians accepted the inevitability of national decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Militant trade unionism, falling productivity, sterling crises, oil-price hikes, stock market crashes: it was a dangerous and depressing time for Britain. For an entire generation of politicians of all parties, the Common Market seemed to offer a way for the UK to escape its post-imperial cul de sac and instead attach itself to a large and growing zollverein (internal free market) that moreover was anti-communist and claimed to be - notwithstanding Nato - a force for world peace.

For those anti-Americans in all parties at the time of the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1975 it also seemed to provide Britain with a counterpoise to the United States, which was also seen to have let Britain down so badly during the Suez crisis of 1956.

A pro-Europe Margareth Thatcher in 1975 - AN 

For an entire generation of politicians who entered the Commons between 1945 and 1964, therefore, Europe represented a way out of Britain’s problems and a possible way forward to meld her increasingly meaningless sovereignty into the emerging new economic power.

This assumption was made by Roy Jenkins, Heath and scores of others. They were encouraged by MPs who had been elected before the war such as Macmillan, Rab Butler and Sir Alec Douglas-Home.  

The generation after Heath's, including Michael Heseltine (elected 1966) and Kenneth Clarke (elected 1970), also saw Europe as solving more problems than it posed and in general the Tory party went along with them.  

The fact that the opposition to the concept of a European future for Britain was led by the political outsiders and seeming extremists Tony Benn and Enoch Powell only confirmed the Europhiles in their assumptions. Benn opposed the Common Market from the left, seeing it as "a bankers' ramp" that would protect and promote capitalism to the detriment of the British working man.  

Powell, both as a Tory and later as an Ulster Unionist MP, fought the Common Market on the grounds of the extinction of British sovereignty and the issue of the democratic deficit. In the modern Conservative Party, Powellism is the intellectual influence that dares not speak its name because of Powell’s stance on mass Commonwealth immigration, but the EU referendum could not have been won had not his views on British sovereignty been adopted by the vast majority of the modern Conservative Party.  

So how did the mass of the Conservative Party move between the Europhile position articulated by Heath in the 1960s and early 1970s to the essentially Powellite position on the primacy of sovereignty adopted by the "leave" campaign?  

The key lies in the experience of someone who was not alive by the 2016 referendum campaign. The long European road marched by Thatcher is the key to explaining why the Tory party changed its mind on Europe and why May was able to trigger article 50 last Wednesday.  

"Naturally," Thatcher said to Heath at a Keep Britain in Europe meeting in 1975, "it's with some temerity that the pupil speaks before the master, because you know more about [the Common Market] than any of the rest of us."

Heath characteristically ignored her somewhat oleaginous remark and it was probably the last time she spoke to anyone with temerity, but it is as indicative of her early pro-Europeanism as the garish jumper depicting all the flags of Europe that she wore during the 1975 referendum campaign.  

It was the day-to-day practical experience of working with Brussels that turned Thatcher into such a passionate Eurosceptic, albeit one who passed the Single European Act in February 1986. She was an initial Europhile who got mugged by reality. Repeatedly.  

"They are all a rotten lot," she was saying privately of her fellow European leaders by 1979. "[Helmut] Schmidt and the Americans and we are the only people who would do any standing up and fighting if necessary."

As well as Brussels's pusillanimity towards the Soviet Union, Thatcher was also thrust into the debate over Britain's budget contributions as soon as her premiership began. "I have the money and they won't get their hands on it," she told the diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson on August 13, 1979, only three months after entering No 10.  

The next year she went one stage further, and this time in public, when she said at the Dublin EC summit in November: "[I want] my own money back!" Her disillusionment with the EU mirrored a wider sense of unease within the Tory party over relations with Brussels.  

Thatcher's language sounded embarrassingly strident to the Europhiles in her government, who tended to be found on the liberal or "wet" wing of the party and who would eventually bring her down in 1990. Yet neither Heseltine, Douglas Hurd nor Clarke made a powerful public case for further EU integration while they were in government in the 1990s and hardly a squeak was heard from them afterwards either, something they must presumably bitterly regret now.  

They allowed the argument over Europe to become dominated, especially in the Conservative press, by Eurosceptics such as Norman Tebbit, Bill Cash and the Maastricht rebels. They preferred to put the case that Britain was modifying the EU’s federalist tendencies rather than making a sustained, full-throated pro-Brussels case.  

The real climacteric came with Thatcher’s Bruges speech of September 20, 1988. She had seen the single market as being good for British trade, but with the election of Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission in 1985 she had also witnessed a strong move towards federalism and towards over-regulation, bureaucracy and the kind of social democracy she had always detested.  

"We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain," she said at Bruges, "only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels."

In October 1990 Thatcher quoted Delors as wanting the European parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, the Commission to be the executive and the council of ministers to be the senate. Her comment on that - "No! No! No!"- was to be the central rallying cry of a movement that last June persuaded 17,410,742 Britons to vote to leave the EU.  

Had Thatcher been defeated in a general election, the capacity for her name and myth to split the Tory party after her defenestration in November 1990 would have been muted, but the traumatic and sensational method of her destruction at the hands of the Europhiles after three general election victories set up the party for internal strife over Europe that lasted for more than a quarter of a century and ended only this year when Clarke was the sole Tory MP to enter the "no" lobby over Brexit. That, and Heseltine’s sacking from his advisory roles last month, signalled the utter rout of their wing of the party that had been so dominant for so long.  

As an indication of the revolution that has taken place, the proud Europhile Tory tradition now comprises fewer than 10 supporters in the Commons.  

The triggering of our departure from the EU in 2019 could not have happened without a belief in Britain that was wholly lacking in the 1960s and 1970s, which came about largely as a result of what Thatcher wrought. The trauma of the Suez debacle was wiped away by the Falklands War of 1982.  

The fear felt by companies' management towards militant union bosses was similarly wiped away by successive industrial relations acts and the defeat of the miners' strike.  

The fact that the Labour Party under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock posed no real threat to Thatcher during her 11½ years in power disproves the received wisdom that "you can't have strong government without a strong opposition".  

Thatcher proved it is perfectly possible, indeed more likely, to have good and strong government if the carping and obstructionism are kept to the minimum and May is likely to find the same thing as long as Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the opposition. Thatcher’s real opposition came not from Labour but from the wets in her own party, who today are a marginalised and spent force.  

As May starts her negotiations over Brexit, she might recall Thatcher's reminiscences in 1993 about her own talks with Brussels, in which she said: "There's not a strand of equity and fairness in Europe; they're out to get as much as they can. So I tackled it on that basis."

Having triggered article 50 - something May could not have done if the Tory party had not become Eurosceptic as a result of Thatcher’s struggles - the prime minister also needs to tackle Brussels on that sound basis.'


'Brexit in numbers

  • 726: Days until we leave the European Union
  • 17.4m: Number of Britons who voted for Brexit
  • £8.6bn: Net contribution the UK made to the EU last year'

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

On this occasion, The Sunday Times described the historian Andrew Roberts as a trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust. 

More information is to be found on Andrew Robert's official website. (

Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clark: British politicians who served as Secretaries of State while Margareth Thatcher was Prime Minister. They became criticasters of the government policy to leave the European Union.

The British Government introduced, on 26 January 2017,  an official Bill which had to be "read" in Parliament. It was described - during the passage through Parliament - as "A Bill to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU". Following agreement by both Houses of Parliament on the text, the parliamentary Bill, received Royal Assent on 16 March 2017. By receiving the Royal Assent, a formal signature by Queen Elizabeth II, the Bill became an Act: European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. The Bill and its parliamentary passage, with some amendments, is published on the official website of the British Parliament (Parliament.UK). 

Kenneth Clark voted within the House of Commons - in February 2017 - against the Bill of Parliament to assent the formal negociations of the British Government to leave the European UnionMichael Heseltine, a former deputy prime minister, was one of 13 Tory peers to rebel against the government by amending the "Article 50 Bill" to give Parliament the final say on any European Union agreement. 

The full parliamentary speech by Kenneth Clark: it was published by The Times (2 February 2017). Michael Heseltine wrote a comment in The Sunday Times to justify his political position (published on 12 March 2017). 

During the first months of 2017, the House of Commons and the House of Lords were also discussing a formal policy paper, a so-called "White Paper": The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union (Cm 9417). It is published on the official website of the British Government on 2 February 2017 (