Why Europe needs more like Thatcher
April 17th, 2013
10:38 AM ET

Why Europe needs more like Thatcher

By Nicholas Walton, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Nicholas Walton is the communications director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.

Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s sternest critics (and the days after her death have shown just how many there are) should be able to concede one point about her legacy: she gave us plenty to argue about. Did she save an ungovernable Britain from the grip of the unions, or unleash an unparalleled wave of self-absorbed consumerism that reached its crescendo in the financial meltdown of 2008? Was she a good European who fought for an EU that concentrated on the areas where it mattered, or an exemplar of the pesky British habit of sticking a spoke through the wheels of European progress?

For those Brits still thrashing out these arguments as her funeral took place today, the debate is more or less inexhaustible. But whatever side people find themselves on, the arguments all stem from Thatcher’s recognition that times had changed and her resolve to do something about it, and that is something that Europe’s leaders could learn from today.

Thatcher’s hairstyles alone reflected how in 1979, when she won her first general election, the country felt closer to the immediate post-World War II period than our modern age. But this was also an age when British car makers competed to sell the most spectacularly ugly cars (badly built to boot), British food was largely inedible and potatoes usually came in powdered form. This was a Britain that did not need Instagram to look old fashioned.

More from GPS: Thatcher's legacy in Europe

By the time she was defenestrated by her own ministers in 1990, Thatcher had pulled and cajoled Britain into a recognizably modern age, for better or worse. Finance and the City of London had been given its wings, and women started appearing in offices (and ashtrays began to disappear). Whisper it quietly to the rest of Europe, but the Brits even started to learn to cook: olive oil migrated from the pharmacy to the kitchen.

The rest of Europe, of course, had also been forced to take notice of this remarkable woman. Back in 1975, Thatcher had campaigned to keep British membership in the European Economic Community. In office, she maintained the connection between Britain and the European “family of nations,” while wielding her handbag in favor of the Europe she wanted, based around the single market but shy of political integration. She saw the euro as paving the way to German domination, and was scornful of the French affection for European bureaucracy and agricultural protection. She also championed enlargement to take in the states of the former Soviet empire. Through it all, Thatcher remained clear that her priority was Britain, with its interests and democratic institutions always outweighing those of Europe – hence the resistance to the Maastricht Treaty and her warnings about a European super state (“No, no, no,” she famously told parliament).

Some of this sounds fairly convincing, given the crisis that the continent has been trying to deal with since 2008. But the obituaries also make clear that they see Thatcher at the root of some of the continent’s current problems, from an over-reliance on a “speculative” financial sector to the inability to forge a united Europe that could deal with the challenges thrown up by incomplete integration.

But another reading of her time in office might prove instructive and useful to many Europeans. The Britain that she became leader of in 1979 was built upon an earlier time, and, having recognized this, she changed it. Not everybody would agree that the changes were for the better, but most now recognize that some form of radical change was overdue. There are obvious parallels with Europe.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU is a clear nod towards its genesis as a union built to bring nations together in the wake of a horrifying conflict. The backdrop was Franco-German enmity, the rebuilding of a devastated continent, an Iron Curtain that ran from Stettin to Trieste, and nuclear oblivion. It is as relevant to the multipolar world of 2013 as Victory in Europe and the end of empire were to Thatcher in 1979. Certainly, if you wanted to design a multinational organization that brought the Europe of today together to face the challenges of competition with Asia and developing a low carbon high tech economy, you might not start from here.

Beyond the pub arguments, this is what the death of an 87-year-old woman can mean to Europe now. Margaret Thatcher was a politician who inhabited history and tried to change it, rather than bounce along on its waves. She recognized that Britain was still stumbling about in a post-war, post-imperial malaise. She also recognized that Europe was moving towards bigger questions that would outstrip the political and ideological ambitions that were the main drivers behind integration.

The EU is now struggling to deal with those questions while also confronting the challenges of a much more competitive world than before. If it is to find a compelling vision that allows it to answer those questions and confront those challenges, it could do worse than look at the controversial example of Britain’s Iron Lady.

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Topics: United Kingdom

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soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. wjm

    I remember "if you don't have anything good to say ......

    April 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  2. john walsh

    I do not wish to get opinion pieces like this. This is hypothetical and God forbid the Iron Lady was at work in Europe today so there appears no way to unsubscribe from this site please give me the information as an unsubscribe link is not provided. I do not need all these emails .


    April 17, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  3. matslats

    And all England (except for the Murdoch propaganda rags) says:

    April 17, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • Reader

      Had to get off the dole, did you?

      April 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Marine5484

    Here we go again with all these right-wing "hosannahs" over what a "great job" Margaret Thatcher did as Prime Minister of Great Britain. What Europe needs these is not more right-wing nut jobs like Margaret Thatcher, but more reasonable men like Charles de Gaulle of France who put his own country first. Today, all the European leaders are little more than puppets for the right-wing thugs in Washington!

    April 17, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  5. Tammara

    � tenże sam sir Roger. W krótkim czasie zaranie. Tammara Najgorsza
    termin na rzecz straży, zmęczonych całonocnym czuwaniem.

    Teraz! Łozy skończyły się migiem, sir Roger wypełznął na łąkę.

    Chociażby w ciemnościach cze.

    April 17, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  6. Maria

    We need Great Britain's leadership more than ever. British Prime Minister David Cameron enjoys great respect, has excellent knowlege and deserves recognition in Europe and World-Wide. Great Britain is one very trustworthy partner to United States America and should be the leader in EU-NATO-USA relations. In contrary South Korea is no valuable and no reliable partner to USA.

    April 18, 2013 at 6:54 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Who are you to say that the world needs Great Britain's leadership now or ever, Maria? If you look at history, you'll find that the British did far more harm than any good with their past leadership. For instance, had the British not won the French and Indian War(1754-1763) the French Revolution(1789) probably would never have occurred. Another was the illegal seizure in 1833 of the Malvinas which belonged to Argentina in direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine(1823)!

      April 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Ivo

      It this a joke.if yes...you have a nice sense of humour....if not you are......crazy

      April 20, 2013 at 5:02 am |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Does the author really believe that an ordinary Brit, let alone Margaret Thatcher think of him/herself as "a good European"?
    That the Brits had discovered their joy of cooking and the London became an international financial centre had much to do with its joining the European Economic Community in 1973. In fact Britain under the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan wanted to join the EEC, but was vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle in 1961.
    As with every grand idea, it all depends on the people who execute it. The post-war European history has seen a huge number of both good and bad politicians. That's why we are seeing this Euopean supranational organisation in different shapes and shades.

    April 18, 2013 at 7:22 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: and THAT London became an international ........

      April 18, 2013 at 7:23 am |
      • Ivo

        London is a big ,depressive,shameful ghetto.

        April 20, 2013 at 5:00 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      By the way, Mr. Walton, Europe has its "Margaret Thatcher" already: the German chancellor Angela Merkel. It's a pity that the two women didn't have the opportunity to "do business" together.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:32 am |
  8. machinemommy

    With Angela Merkel we already have our Iron Lady revived. The problems come from too much greed in the upper classes.

    April 19, 2013 at 7:00 am |
  9. alby1

    It is simply preposterous to even imply Margaret Thatcher’s governing style will work today. Her leadership style can be summarized in one word ‘authoritarianism.’ Her views will not only alienate most European countries but also the rest of the world. We live in a an interconnected complex world in which cooperation is the key in solving world's critical issues. There is no room for ethnocentric and divisive ideas.

    April 19, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Ivo

    This woman is the best example of the enormous gap between civilised Europe and barbarian England.just another medieval creature

    April 20, 2013 at 4:58 am |
    • wjmccartan

      Well said, Ivo. It would do well to remember how Ireland fared under English rule for over 300 years, too. The Irish suffered just as bad as the Greeks did under Turkish rule and the Poles did under the Russians.

      April 20, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  11. Karl

    Great Britain has the best leadership capabilities, great tradition, great leaders, have great expertise with different culture, are not rascists, have great corporations, great banks, successful businessmen. In contrary, USA is playing it with everybody, does not have a sound compass, no knowledgable orientation, and since WWII did not achieve anything, but messed up the world. We in Europe support GREAT BRITAIN leadership.

    April 22, 2013 at 4:18 am |
  12. zaubern

    Keep up the superb work , I read few content on this internet site and I believe that your blog is very interesting and holds circles of wonderful info .
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    November 9, 2013 at 8:06 am |

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