Margaret Thatcher began as a supporter of UK membership of the EU but the more she learnt about how the EU operated the more sceptical she became of its ability to reform itself.
Jacques Delors seemed to her to be as isolated from political and economic reality in Europe as Arthur Scargill and the rump of the Labour Party were back in the UK. On both she was proven right by the test of history. Labour reformed itself because it was not only Sir Gerald Kaufman who had grasped what had gone wrong. It really does seem that many EU leaders have not yet grasped the situation and are pursuing a policy doomed to failure – and an expensive failure at that in terms of nations and lives. It remains to be seen in the European Union and the Troika can do the same. The signals are not good. And one wonders what the man on the street in Athens, Madrid or Nicosia will be saying about the EU and the Troika in twenty years time – or even whether the EU will still exist. Spain is now reporting unemployment at over 25% with benefits being cut and no immediate hope for relief. It may be argued that Spain still benefits form EU and Euro membership because its young people can move to work in Germany. But let us not accept this received wisdom but exercise a little commonsense. I am sure the young people themselves and their families benefit and I suspect Germany does by skimming the cream of an entire generation – but is Spain benefiting? If so how? How is Cyprus benefiting from its membership of the EU let alone the Euro? The EU has not even managed to end the Turkish occupation. In the Thatcher examples it might at least be argued that the nation as a whole gained from the exercise but it is hard to see this as entirely true. Manufacturing in Britain never recovered and an overdependence on banking led partly to the recession.
The miners suffered from their loyalty to Scargill but not all miners were communist militants. Manufacturing industry suffered but not all who worked there were mindless and strike-happy insurgents. Let us compare to Cyprus where the economy has now been deliberately and systematically destroyed by the European Union led by Germany’s “Iron Lady” and the somewhat less metallic but equally shrill, IMF Director, Christine Lagarde. It will be a race to the finish to see which of these European Grandes Dames will have the “Wicked Witch of the West” title in ten or fifteen years’ time. It remains to be seen how the hatred felt now in so many parts of Europe will manifest itself. I suspect the rumblings at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will be nothing compared to the mass movements which will emerge in time to protest the destruction of lives and economies by the Troika. I listened this week to Christine Lagarde on the BBC’s “Hard Talk”. Stephen Sackur is a gentleman and he gave her a gentle time. What was clear was her avoidance of questions – including those about her own probity. I do not agree with all Angela Merkel says, and in recent months I think she is badly out of touch and seriously dangerous, but she presents herself as an intelligent woman and whilst her views may be challenged they are certainly well informed. Lagarde on the other hand offers no new ideas.
Many of our worst political leaders are compromise candidates who got where they are because they are not someone else! Margaret Thatcher overcame the various compromise candidates which Heath’s ex-cabinet men tried to put in her place. For two decades after her – the Conservative Party returned to the election of compromise leaders. Cameron was one such though he may yet turn himself into something better. But one senses that much of the EU operates in this way. I suspect that Catherine Ashton was appointed in order to be ineffective in creating a united European foreign policy, an objective which has been entirely successful. Though not an EU leader, Lagarde was probably appointed not only because of who she was not, but also because she had no new ideas.
Margaret Thatcher’s legacy then is to warn us of what we do as we create a sense in vast areas of the EU of oppression, abandonment, injustice, alienation… when this happened in Ireland – a long time before Thatcher - we saw the violent campaign of the IRA. God knows we pray we do not see the like in Europe, but it is not impossible if the powerful Germanic centre continues to operate in a way which sows hatred and aggression in other parts of the so called Union. The danger of nationalist and populist political movements tearing Europe apart is also an increasingly real one. As Margaret Thatcher’s hour came and then went, so has Angela Merkel’s, and we need to see a softer face at the heart of the European Union and at the IMF we need inspirational and aspirational leadership. There has been little sign of that from Lagarde. She speaks of herself as a “liberal” in the Adam Smith tradition. If by “liberal” she means “laissez faire” then I wonder if she has actually read Adam Smith and understood his moral philosophy. I do not think he would have approved of her comments about Greece or some of the finance matters currently under investigation in France.
Europe faces a gathering storm as great as anything which was brewing in the late twenties. History does not repeat itself and many mistakes are made by those who think it does. On the other hand there is nothing new under the sun. While we are looking for new Nazis or some other historical manifestation we may miss the warning signs of a different kind of political threat and one just as sinister. My judgement is that it will arise from the primarily German policy of bankrupting EU states and then encouraging asset stripping mainly by Russians and those from the ex-Soviet states not always known for their financial probity. This new Europe is not the capitalist vision of Thatcher – the nation of shop-keepers with shares in the major services and ownership of their own homes – this is a European model of ownership by oligarchs and international corporations. This is not an ethical standard which Smith would have recognised or supported. After the German revival in the fifties and sixties many asked “who won the war?” In a few decades we may ask who won the Cold War. Already the people of Cyprus believe the Russians are their friends and the Germans are the enemy. I seriously wonder how far that will go and how dangerous it may be.
No politician is ever right all the time and many are not even right some of the time. The crucial thing is to learn the lessons from their mistakes. Those who set up the Euro and those who now insist of its being maintained in its current and unworkable form, have learnt nothing from their mistakes. Those who would treat recession with further recession have not learnt from the lessons of the Great depression and seem to be earnestly seeking to recreate it. Europe’s leaders, and the IMF, have no new ideas. Those who do currently offer us a reactionary retreat to a Balkanisation of Europe and the old nationalisms. Margaret Thatcher and indeed David Cameron, differ from say Nigel Farage in that they challenge Europe not to destroy it but to save it. Can the vision be saved? I suspect the Euro in its present form must go and how that can be achieved will depend on whether it can be planned and structured by intelligent leadership or whether it will happen as a finally unavoidable crash. We shall see. The signs are not good. The crowds will have put their “Wicked Witch” posters in the cupboard for use on another day. Margaret Thatcher’s final defeat happened because she could not accept she was wrong; another lesson for Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde? The EU may still be the great hope for Europe, but it may perish on the bonfire of its leaders’ vanities.