Brexit has destroyed Thatcher’s European legacy. Will Churchill’s be next?

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Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a divisive character, I know, but bear with me. Examining her attitude to the EU will help us understand Brexit since arguably her greatest legacy was the European single market, which brought both the UK and the other member states of the European Union (EU) greater prosperity. Now, it may be that over the years that prosperity was not distributed fairly, but that was one hundred per cent down to each (sovereign!) domestic government, as it was in their remit to decide how to share out the wealth through taxation, investment and benefit policies.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1 January 1973, it was essentially a customs union —the Common Market. Studying newspaper articles and political pamphlets of the time, it is clear that there was always an intention of “ever-closer union” on the part of pro-EEC British politicians, although whether the voting public understood this is an open question.

Some say we were better off in the 1970s because a man could buy a house with a mortgage of only three times his salary and still have change. This was only true in the early part of the decade, when the Bank of England eased credit restrictions and Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Tony Barber introduced his go-for-growth strategy. Average house prices, which had risen from £2000 in 1950 to £5000 in 1970, doubled in the three years from 1973 to 1976, and by the end of the decade inflation was rampant, pushing mortgage interest up to 16% – unaffordable for many.

Across many measures, the 1970s were grim. British decline looked irreversible. The Commonwealth was a poor replacement for Empire as an engine of economic growth, the economy was struggling and the UK was known as “the sick man of Europe”. Terrorism on the island of Ireland spilled over to mainland UK, and would eventually “travel” as far as overseas territories like Gibraltar. Equality was still a distant dream, with women actively discriminated against in the work place, earning far less than men doing equivalent jobs and barred access to basic rights, like taking out a mortgage on their own, in their own name. Ditto for members of ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.

Growing up working class was a struggle; both parents would have to work just to keep a roof over the family’s head and put food on the table – although the range of work available to working mums was narrow, often poorly paid and menial. There was industrial unrest as workers struggled to be treated with respect and even for their very livelihoods. The three-day week and power cuts meant homework by candlelight, cold baths and no telly (three channels in black and white) for the kids. Pollution was rife and buildings were blackened. Those of us who lived in coastal communities had to put up with raw sewage in the sea, and those near rivers saw the survival of wildlife threatened with discharges of untreated toxic effluent.

First EEC and then EU membership changed all that. Britain brightened up and became ‘cool’, as we imported the best of Continental culture here – cuisine, cafés with terraces, and a sunny outlook, even if our weather didn’t always cooperate. Perhaps those who look back on the 1970s with fondness are remembering when they were young and hot-to-trot? Life can feel good despite politics and economics when you’re in your prime.

Whatever her other sins, Mrs Thatcher facilitated and accelerated the UK’s transformation with the creation of the Single Market in 1986. For her it was a trade liberalisation project. Based on the 1985 White Paper “Completing the Internal Market” drafted under the supervision of the UK’s EU Commissioner Lord Arthur Cockfield, it was referred to as the “Thatcherisation of Europe”. Under Cockfield’s proposals, each member state’s economy would become fully open to that of other member states by bringing down non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade in goods and especially services. This was principally achieved through “mutual recognition” whereby products deemed acceptable in one member country were to be recognised by all the others. 

The BBC’s Economics Editor Faisal Islam has described the Single Market as: “Margaret Thatcher’s rallying call for European reform, her calling card to unleash a wave of Japanese investment in post-industrial Britain.” Why then are Britons not more proud of it? It is extraordinary that 52% of those who voted in the 2016 referendum were persuaded to believe that re-establishing non-tariff barriers would lead to even greater trade liberalisation and prosperity by members of Lady Thatcher’s own party – although to be fair, polls suggest many Leave voters never wanted to leave the Single Market and did not interpret Brexit as obliging us to do so.

The anti-EU cause was justified in part by a twisted interpretation placed on Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech. Eurosceptic politicians and their client journalists only heard one line of it, the now infamous, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Chris Collins, of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, revealed that Margaret Thatcher was very unhappy with the way that Sir Bernard Ingham, her official spokesperson, had spun her speech.

“An exposition of ‘Europe des patries’ had been written up by the press simply as an attack on federalism and Bruges became famous as an anti-European speech rather than one that set out a workable alternative European ideal to compete with that of the federalists,” he says. 

Indeed, the Bruges speech was chock-full of pro-European sentiment.

“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community,” she said in that same speech.

Her vision meant being in the EU, not outside it, fabricating a silly, spiteful culture war against it, all the while hurting our businesses, our industries and our standing in the world.

It is important to point out too that the Iron Lady, who perhaps did more than any other British Prime Minister to elevate the UK’s “special relationship” with the USA, did not see being in the Single Market as an either/or choice between us being European or ‘global’.  “How we meet the challenge of the Single Market will be a major factor, possibly the major factor, in our competitive position in European and world markets into the twenty-first century”, she said in her Mansion House speech launching her Single Market campaign in 1988. “Getting it right needs a partnership between government and business.” Contrast that with Theresa May’s red lines and Boris Johnson’s “F*** business”.

Former government lawyer and constitutional expert David Allen Green perhaps expressed it best when he said, “The road to Brexit began not with the Bruges Speech, but with the rejection of it.”

If the Tories can so easily cast aside Baroness Thatcher’s legacy, even as they proclaim to be implementing “Thatcherism 2.0”, what will they attack next?

The answer to that question is even more astonishing, given Boris Johnson’s reverence and near hero-worship of Sir Winston Churchill. Does he know that his idol was one of the prime movers behind setting up the Council of Europe, establishing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and setting up the European Court of Human Rights to give it weight? He must do; he wrote a book on the great man…

Unfortunately, Johnson’s biography is short on facts. It’s more about drawing parallels between himself and Churchill, with a view to his future as leadership of the Conservative party. He gets all sorts of historical details wrong, including who won the Battle of Stalingrad! He mis-attributes beliefs, policies and initiatives to Churchill, which is ridiculous, because he was an extraordinary man whose achievements need no embellishment. As Cambridge History professor Richard J. Evans said, anyone who has the time or energy to press a couple of keys on a computer to look up Johnson’s assertions will find his “sweeping claims vanish in a cloud of inconvenient facts.” 

Johnson is clearly in denial over Churchill’s pro-European credentials. He takes an acerbic Eurosceptic quote from the 1930s, before Churchill had gone through the life-changing experience of World War II and experienced his Damascene conversion to the idea of European Unity, to undermine his post-War Europhile sayings. Brexiters would later take up that quote, add a line paraphrasing something Churchill once yelled at de Gaulle in the middle of a blazing row (that he would always choose Roosevelt over him) and say it was from Hansard 1953 to lend it an air of credibility. The Churchill family was upset by the misrepresentation. It was despicable. Even now, if you Google images of Churchill quotes, that one comes up.

Rewriting history will not undo the fact that Churchill played a major role in the ECHR, which he saw as an opportunity to infuse a Europe ravaged by war, fascism and communism with the British values of decency, tolerance and liberal democracy. He attended the Congress of Europe at the Hague in May 1948, along with over 750 delegates including leaders from civil society groups, academia, business and religious groups, trade unions, and leading politicians such as future French President François Mitterand.

In his speech to Congress, Churchill said: “In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.” 

The following year, the Council of Europe drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, led by David Maxwell-Fyfe, who had served as Churchill’s Solicitor General during the war and later went on to distinguish himself at the Nuremburg Trials. The final document was mostly drafted by Maxwell-Fyfe together with former French Resistance fighter Pierre-Henri Teitgen whom he had met at Nuremburg. The UK was the first signatory in March 1951.

Who would want to give up these rights? Well, since the Human Rights Act brought the ECHR into UK law twenty years ago, and new rights started to be appended, such as the right of prisoners to vote in elections, the Conservative party has been deeply unhappy about it. They only focus on its few imperfections. For example, Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was constantly running up against it, and lied to parliament that she had been prevented from deporting a criminal because he had a cat and so human rights legislation protected him. The public’s perception of the ECHR is dominated by such stories, true and false, and without knowledge of all the very many positives, will vote for another act of monumental self harm.

The last time the Tories made a serious attempt to gun down Human Rights legislation was in 2014. Chris Grayling – yes, he of the ferryless ferry company, multi-million-pound railway service failures and the collapse of a major outsourcing company managing public contracts – drafted a paper setting out the Conservatives’ stall. It was all about sovereignty, which is peculiar, because decisions of the Court of Human Rights are not binding and parliament was always sovereign.

Nevertheless, the next year Michael Gove, the senior Tory who seems to be at the root of all that is evil in Tory doings, took up the cause with his announcement of a Bill of Rights. There was near universal derision beyond the ranks of the Conservative Party. Politicians warned it could unravel the constitution, while celebrities took to social media and the mainstream media to denounce it. Patrick Stewart’s clip of “What have human rights ever done for us?” achieved cut-through, and it was enough to make the Tories shelve the Bill of Rights — for the time being.

The problem with bad Tory ideas is that they never go away. They fester and eventually return like rabid zombies. No sooner had he got Brexit ‘done’, due in part to the public confusing the ECHR with the EU and transferring the anger the press had whipped up against it to the EU, Dominic Cummings threatened “we’ll be coming for the ECHR… and we’ll win that by more than 52-48.”

Cummings has gone, but the threat has not. Every now and then a story pops up in the press stating that Johnson is going to opt out of this, that and the other bit of the ECHR. This is nonsense. You are either a signatory or you are not. There is no opting in or out. Such reports are likely a balloon to test public opinion, or a tried and tested vector of the culture war to wheel out whenever the current dead cat (distraction from what is really going on in government) is waning.

The Tories could, however, repeal the Human Rights Act, and it is likely that it was with this in mind that Justice Secretary Robert Buckland announced a “review”. If recent review exercises are anything to go by, this is a piece of theatre designed to present recommendations that perfectly encapsulate what the government wants to do, but feels it can’t get away with without a seal of approval form some posh-sounding quango. If he were serious, Buckland would be looking at the positives as well, and analysing how effective the HRA has been at protecting our rights.

It’s a good story to tell, and one we must get across to the public. Asked to explain the benefit of the HRA after twenty years of operation, Professor Colm O’Cinneide of University College London replied,

“The HRA has deepened the capacity of UK law to do justice by building in substantive rights protection into a legal system that Anthony Lester once described as “ethically aimless”.  In so doing it has provided minority groups – often voteless and largely voiceless, like migrants, prisoners and the severely disabled – with an effective legal avenue to challenge discriminatory and sometimes degrading treatment. If the Act were ever to be repealed, that avenue would be largely shut down.”

Some of the many benefits of the HRA include:

  • It has made proportionality part of the UK law, enhancing decision-making. Above all, it has injected a greater degree of dignity into the treatment of people at law. (Prof. Jonathan Cooper)
  • It has revolutionised criminal procedure in England and Wales, developing our existing common law traditions and entrenching constitutional rights (Prof. Paul Roberts)
  • It ensures that state culpability in deaths is fully investigated, for example in the Hillsborough Inquests (Prof. Adam Wagner)
  • It gives judges a chance to do what was right as well as what the law requires. (Prof. Conor Gearty)
  • It has led to a huge change in the way that people with learning disabilities are treated; this has been so empowering, especially with regard to independent living. (ex-MEP Julie Ward)

Although the Trade and Cooperation Agreement Johnson signed with the EU locks us in to continued commitment to the ECHR, we cannot be complacent. Johnson also signed us up to the Irish Protocol and a border in the Irish Sea, and look how that is going.

Sadly, we have an amoral prime minister who acts in bad faith and cannot be trusted. We must do all we can to help people understand how the ECHR protects our rights and why this time we must not be seduced into giving it up for baseless promises of the grass being greener on the other side. We don’t want to have to find out (yet again) what we’ve lost because it’s gone.