Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
Charles C.W. Cooke has a piece up on National Review Online on “How Thatcher Became Eurosceptic” that is mandatory reading for the friends of the Centre, and for supporters of Lady Thatcher. It makes by implication a point that cannot be emphasized too strongly. For several decades after the Second World War, it was possible for honest and patriotic men and women in Britain to believe that European integration was -- in the true sense of the word -- fundamentally liberal, or at least liberalizing, and that British participation in it would ensure that it remained liberal.
After all, look at the opponents of integration. Across Europe, many were socialists, who (hilariously) believed the EEC was a capitalist ramp that would stop them from building socialism in one country. The Soviet Union hated the idea. The opposition in Britain focused on imperialists like Lord Beaverbrook, whose vision of an imperial economic union and emphasis on the economic potential of the Commonwealth seemed hopelessly anachronistic. Before the GATT got rolling with the Kennedy Round of 1964-1967, the EEC looked to be the best way to promote freer trade in Western Europe. The entire process was backed by the U.S., the guarantor of Western Europe’s liberal post-war order. Even the Common Agricultural Policy, which was itself only nascent in the early 1960s, could be excused as a regrettable concession to the French peasantry, which was already urbanizing rapidly.
In the end, most of those hopes, as Cooke recognizes, were falsified. But they seemed reasonable at the time, especially because Tory leaders like Edward Heath worked hard to deny the broader political implications of an ever-closer union with Europe. It was because of those hopes that a majority of Conservatives supported Britain’s first application to the EEC in 1961, and why the Tories were generally the pro-European party until late in the 1980s. There was thus nothing particularly remarkable about Lady Thatcher’s stand on matters European through the 1960s and 1970s, or even her support for the Single European Act of 1986. The sad lesson of the SEA is that giving an institution the power to do good also means giving it the power to do ill -- and in the hands of Jacques Delors and his successors, the EEC and its successors did a lot of ill.
What is significant, though, is how the vocabulary of Europe has changed over time. It used to be about Britain leading Europe to a freer and more open future, while the imperialists looked to be stuck in the past. No longer. I was reminded of this when I read my colleague Nile Gardiner’s pungent criticism of David Cameron’s recent interview in the Telegraph. In the early to middle years of the twentieth century, one of the most durable imperialist talking points -- and I’m not using that term pejoratively: it’s a statement of fact that men of this school, like many others at the time, sincerely believed in the British Empire -- was that, if Britain gave up the Empire, it would become a slightly greater Holland, just another European commercial and financial leader that had settled back into empire-less mediocrity. The comparison with Holland is a bit unfair, and the whole argument is none too subtle, but in retrospect, it’s not utterly without merit: absent the Empire, Britain is a lesser power than it was.
That’s why it’s so annoying to read Cameron echoing an EU talking point by saying:
If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.
This is exactly the sort of call to national greatness that the imperialist opponents of British participation in European integration used to use. But of course their point was precisely that Britain should not merge itself into an economic and (ultimately) political union with Europe, but should instead focus on the wider world outside of Europe. It is infuriating to see that rhetoric -- which obviously has a residual appeal, or Cameron wouldn’t use it -- being twisted to serve the opposite end: ridiculously, Britain’s world role and leadership now require it to follow President Barroso’s line, with cheerleading from the Prime Minister.
The real irony is this: back in the 1960s, the idea that Britain’s economic future lay in Europe, not the Commonwealth, seemed like a good bet. But those anachronistic imperialists may have been wiser in the long run. The idea of a Commonwealth economic union, true, is still a non-starter, but the thought that Britain has more to gain by focusing on the growing world outside Europe, rather than the shrinking economies inside it, now looks sensible. It’s a strange day when David Cameron channels Lord Beaverbrook to argue the case for Europe, and an even stranger one when the argument Beaverbrook was actually making looks better than the Prime Minister’s.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.