Not Unrolling but Unravelling

Inigo Thomas

In the address she delivered to the College of Europe in Bruges in September 1988, Margaret Thatcher introduced her notion of the European super-state and why Britain should see it as a threat. 'We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,' she said, 'only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels. Certainly we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose. But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one's own country; for these have been the source of Europe's vitality through the centuries.’

The words of that speech seem mild compared to the language of the Brexiteers during the referendum campaign. Thatcher spoke about nationalism and immigration, she pointed out that the first book to be printed in English was produced by William Caxton in Bruges, and that nearly 70,000 British soldiers were stationed in Europe (a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall). 'To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate,' she said, 'would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve.' Britain would remain Britain, Thatcher said, and there was no threat in that speech of the country leaving the EU.

The Bruges speech was essentially the origin of the Tory Eurosceptic movement; the creation of several organisations advocating Britain's departure from the EU followed. James Goldsmith's Referendum Party was one of them, the Bruges Group another, which had Labour MPs such as Frank Field and Gisela Stuart as members. But the Bruges speech also marked the beginning of the end for Thatcher herself. She'd been elected three times: as Hugo Young wrote in This Blessed Plot, his book about Britain's relationship with Europe, 'she was not a fading force, nor had she suffered the kind of parliamentary defeats that begin to unpick the position of a leader in place for more than a decade, as she had been. All these were points of astonishment when her assassination occurred.' Thatcher was thrown out of Downing Street because what she said about Europe didn’t reflect the views of the majority of the Tory Party in 1990. 'No, No, Yes!' had been her approach to European discussion prior to Bruges; afterwards, it was 'No, No, No!'

The astonishment at Thatcher's going in November 1990 is nothing like the astonishment at David Cameron's, who until last week looked as if he would be in power until he chose to step down. Power was on Cameron's terms, until very abruptly on Friday morning it wasn't, when he recognised that he too had been undone by Europe. The scale of the two prime ministerial defeats is different; one saw the end of leader, the second will prove to be the end of very much more than just David Cameron. In the Bruges speech, Thatcher took Britain for granted when she spoke about Europe, and when she spoke about rolling back the powers of the state she referred to the denationalisation and deregulation of the economy. Roll back one thing and you can always roll back another, and in 2016 rolling back the powers of state has assumed another meaning: independence for Scotland, a chance for Northern Ireland to join the Irish republic, and who's to say even Wales won't find its own way, too.

'The end of the Republic has never looked better,' Barack Obama joked at the White House correspondents' dinner in April, the prospect of a Donald Trump candidacy then looking certain. The prospects of the end of Britain have never looked more likely: calling it the United Kingdom now seems just about the least true thing you can say of a country divided as it is by between north and south, between city and country, by class and by age. 'A vote from the old people’s home' was how I heard one person describe the outcome of the referendum (Michael Young, the author of Labour's 1945 election manifesto, wrote about the politics of old age in the LRB the year Thatcher left Downing Street.)

The European Union was formed with the idea of diminishing the power of any country to wage war; the nation state was believed to be part of the problem. Britain, one of the oldest nation states in Europe, may be the first to shatter. Spain, even Italy, according to Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times, could be next. Is Britain more likely to be absorbed in Europe after it has broken itself up? One thing that's certain is that Thatcher’s idea of Britain as a brake on European integration is over, as the unrolling of state power in Britain is replaced by its unravelling.


  • 27 June 2016 at 4:11pm
    Michael Carley says:
    "Britain [recte United Kingdom], one of the oldest nation states in Europe" has actually only been in its present form since 1922. It was only founded in 1707, attained its maximum extent in 1801, and began breaking up in 1922. It has never been a `nation state' but explicitly a federation of nations, and is not all that old compared to say Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, or other countries with some reasonably long history as an identifiable polity though possibly with shifting borders.

    Maybe all that is happening is that the English empire is fracturing, more peacefully than might otherwise have been thought possible. London managed to hold things together for 120 years or so, and now might manage to give up its last imperial possessions with some good grace.

    Also, for strict constitutional accuracy, it's the `Republic of Ireland' not `Irish Republic'.

  • 27 June 2016 at 5:31pm
    West Briton says:
    The great untruth of the whole Brexit movement was - and is - that it is the first great roar of English nationalism, the petulant, ill-conceived act of a nation pushed to its limits by an obtuse ruling class which still, even at this late hour, just doesn't get it. Whether the European Union will survive or not, only time will tell. The British state, however, cannot and by all rights must not. The very idea that England can impose its will without considering the needs and interests (let alone wishes) of the other constituent nations of the UK shows how dysfunctional the state is, as is the idea that an unchecked majority in a ludicrously unrepresentative legislature could somehow reject the expressed will of the electorate, no matter how fraudulently obtained. Such an act shows the blinkered thinking of self-serving elite which has always viewed political power as something to be imposed downwards on the masses. Surely, no more. The greatest of all Brexit's unintended consequences is that it's high time for all of us Englishmen, Scots, Welsh and Irishme (and others) to stop being to 'take our nations back' not from the straw men of Brussels, but from the interlocking elites of the City of London and Westminster.

  • 28 June 2016 at 3:42am
    farthington says:
    Thatcher would have been proud of what the EU has become. Essentially thatcherite, with minor concessions to a 'social' Europe that are steadily being wound back.
    The destruction of Greece has been a criminal enterprise.
    And this is before TAFTA hits.
    Thatcher failed to understand that neoliberalism needs not merely a strong state but an unaccountable one.
    Brussels has it in spades.
    The English elite used the EU for its own narrow purposes (not the only ones of course, witness the intra-EU tax havens - or should one say, more accurately, the intra-EU tax havens other than the City).
    Europe is a scapegoat for Brexit, but the elite, especially those walled off in London, have been too smug.
    The Remain cognoscenti, now writing furiously on the foolhardiness of the Brexit crowd (vide the contemporaneous Kadri blog, as if the 52% were all led by buffoon Boris' nose), still avoid confronting that the current Europe, unreformable?, is on the nose not only to odious little Englanders.