Monday, 1 January 2018

Book review: On Europe, Margaret Thatcher, 2017 (2002)

This extract, published this year, from a book Thatcher wrote in 2002 is interesting to read today for several reasons, foremost among which is the extent to which the arguments she advanced for reforming or terminating the UK's membership of the EU, and for the likely success of that endeavour, were adopted by the Leave campaigners in the UK's 2016 EU referendum, warts and all - and warts there are in plenty.

Take for example "The rest of the EU needs us more than we need them" and "EU workers are going to bring pressure on them [EU politicians] to keep our markets open". Both of these were uncritically parroted by the Leave campaign, and both are utter nonsense.

In support of the former assertion, Thatcher cites the fact that the UK is a "substantial net importer from the rest of the EU". Well, as well as this ignoring that British consumers want to purchase these EU goods, and would be unhappy at not being able to do so, it also ignores that the proportion of UK exports to the EU is much higher than the proportion of EU exports to the UK. Meaning the EU has the UK by the short and curlies. The latter assertion has now been disproved by history, as Germany's car manufacturers have lined up to emphasise the importance of the integrity of the EU's Single Market.

Indeed, On Europe is full of the kind of subjectivity, hypocrisy, wishful thinking, woolly logic, appeals to authority, and outright falsehoods that characterised the Leave campaign. For example, Thatcher complains that when she became PM, the UK was "on the verge of becoming the EEC's largest net contributor, even though we were then only the seventh richest nation per head". This of course is comparing apples with oranges: the net contribution of the UK, which is a total for the country as a whole, and therefore dependent on population size, and the UK's wealth per head, which is an average. To give just one more of the many examples of unsound argument, Thatcher compares unemployment in the UK, USA, Germany, France and Japan in order to attack Europe's stronger social protections, which she says hinder job creation. But she does so for just a single time point, rather than over a prolonged duration, and she ignores any consideration of whether, for example, France's citizens might prefer early retirement to low national unemployment.

But the book's biggest problem is its near-complete failure to engage with what ought to be the main question of any debate about the EU, which is: what is the ideal scale at which democracy should take place? Thatcher does make the occasional baseless assertion that, for example, the EU is inherently undemocratic purely because "there exists no pan-European public opinion", or that Europe is inherently divided because "it makes no sense at all to lump together Beethoven and Debussy, Voltaire and Burke, Vermeer and Picasso, boiled beef and bouillabaisse". But she makes no attempt to set out why it makes more sense for, say, defence policy or interest rates to be decided at the scale of the UK rather than that of Europe, or why Westminster should have total sovereignty but not Scotland, or why decentralisation is a good thing when it entails more power for nations but a bad thing when it means more power for regions (e.g. through the Committee of the Regions).

There may well be answers to these questions that make EU membership less attractive - it's a fascinating thought - but Thatcher didn't provide them, and nor has anyone else that I've seen, either prior to or since the referendum. Thatcher's arguments were a thin tissue full of holes that ought to have been shredded in the referendum. That they weren't says more about the nature of human decision-making and the state of British politics and journalism than we have yet dared to admit.

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