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The Bruges speech, 20 September 1988

 

Events are too easily described as 'turning points' or 'defining moments', but MT's speech at Bruges in September 1988 is one that deserves the label.

The speech began the transition by which the Conservatives ceased to be "the party of Europe" in British politics, moving fitfully, by lurches, lunges and sidesteps, to a position now known as 'Euroscepticism'. The term itself was invented in the process.

These events proved deeply divisive within the party and did more than anything else to destroy the relationship between MT and Geoffrey Howe, her Foreign Secretary. That, in turn, ended her premiership a little over two years later.

Bruges helped Labour to heal (or conceal) its long-standing divisions over Europe and to make political capital from the issue, almost for the first time. As the premiership of John Major wore on, European policy became an all-consuming concern for many Conservatives, leaving the impression that the party was at war with itself over a question many voters found remote at best, incomprehensible at worst. Part of New Labour's electoral pitch in 1997 was to deride such arguments as destructive, irrelevant or absurd, victory leaving Tony Blair a free hand to shape Britain's European policy for a full decade (aside from the single currency, where the promise of a referendum tied him down). But for the first time since Britain entered the Community in 1973 there was genuine debate as to the merits or otherwise of membership.

The Foreign Office file on the preparation of the Bruges speech was quietly shown to the journalist Hugo Young when he was writing his book on Britain's role in European integration, "This Blessed Plot" (1998). It has now been formally released under FOI at the request of margaretthatcher.org. We publish it in full for the first time on this site.

1988 march - june: original conception

On Geoffrey Howe's own account the Foreign Office had for some time been looking for an opportunity for MT to make a 'positive' speech on Europe, contriving an invitation from the College of Europe in Bruges to give its 1988 commencement address. The College was a small postgraduate body funded by member states but independent of the Community. President Mitterrand had spoken the previous year. Yet there were reservations in the FCO from the first, Stephen Wall of the European Department warning "not to try to sell the idea too hard". His immediate boss, John Kerr, commented: "Worth a run, I think".

As urged by the FCO, the speech would focus on economic issues, stressing British-inspired reforms within the Community - the single market to the fore - "and bringing Britain's economic success to the attention of a wide European audience". Number Ten accepted immediately and invited the FCO to provide a draft by mid-July.

With MT signed up to speak, the suggested economic focus immediately began to fall away. Instead FCO officials worked up a wider assortment of themes and fragments, from reflections on "the state and individual in Europe" to the beneficial influence of European cuisine ("spurs British cooks to higher endeavours"). Defence emerged as a strong focus ("Europe needs to develop its identity in security as in other areas").

1988 june-september: the impact of m. delors

By the end of June Wall had assembled a set of notes, but Kerr held them back. Events were proving unhelpful. On 6 July Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, told the European Parliament that within ten years he expected 80 per cent of economic legislation, and perhaps social and taxation legislation, would be made by the European Community. On 20 July he called for the germ ('amorce') of a European government. MT delivered a sharp riposte on The Jimmy Young Show a week later, condemning people "who spend far too much time talking about these airy-fairy ideas" and saying that Delors "was wrong ... he went over the top and I do not think he should have said it". With impressive understatement Kerr discerned from these remarks that "the No.10 market for constructive language on the Community may still be poor", but acknowledged that time was running out (it was now 28 July) and that a draft would have to be submitted more or less straight away. He favoured focussing on two areas known to command prime ministerial support: "enterprise Europe" and the need for greater European efforts on defence.

Notes were sent on 29 July and a full month passed. MT visited Australia and the Far East before taking a brief Cornish holiday curtailed by the Ballygawley bomb. Finally, at the end of August, Charles Powell produced the first draft of the speech proper, owing little if anything to the FCO's efforts, remarking that MT had read the text, "and is quite attracted to it, but will no doubt wish to do some further work on it closer to the time". Comments were invited by 7 September.

The Bruges speech is commonly spoken of as a something close to an anti-European manifesto. But of course that was far from the case. "Britain", it declared, "does not dream of an alternative to a European Community or of a cosy, isolated existence on its fringes. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community". But, matching that, was the warning: "Forget a United States of Europe, it will not come!" The Commission was directly attacked for its centralising tendencies, the focus of angst in Downing Street since the passage of the Single European Act, and directly addressed Delors's recent remarks in an early version of the now famous statement:

Let me say bluntly on behalf of Britain: we have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of the state at home, only to see a European super-state getting ready to exercise a new dominance from Brussels.

Kerr's annotations on the Powell draft show some resistance to this formulation (rejecting the phrase "European super-state"), as well as a defence of federalism as a decentralising philosophy. It noted the absence of reference to liberalisation of capital controls already achieved under the Single European Act. Howe himself was far more critical, so much so that his remarks received the narrowest possible circulation within the FCO:

The Secretary of State's overall comment is that there are some plain and fundamental errors in the draft and that it tends to view the world as though we had not adhered to any of the treaties. Nor does the speech accommodate the diversity of visions of Europe - even in one country. ...

The Secretary of State agrees that a stronger Europe does not mean the creation of a European super-state but does, has and will require the sacrifice of political independence and the rights of national parliaments. That is inherent in the treaties.

Wall quietly warned Powell where Howe stood, and Kerr noted on 6 September that he (Powell) "was reasonably responsive to the argument that it would be counter-productive to make the speech so controversial as to guarantee that it evokes replies/rebuttals". A heavily revised version was prepared by the FCO to which other Whitehall departments were quietly signed up, though No.10 was to be kept in the dark about that in the hope (surely vain) that Powell would not realise responses were being orchestrated.

Ironically Kerr's revision moves a step closer to the phrase in the speech now judged most provocative:

And we have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of the state at home, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a new European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.

But Delors was not yet done. On 8 September he won a standing ovation at the TUC Conference in Bournemouth by urging that collective bargaining should take place at European level and inviting them to join the "architects of Europe", a seminal event in Labour history that led many union leaders to wonder whether their interests might more effectively be advanced in Brussels than in London. He thereby laid one of the foundation stones of New Labour. Delegates sang "Frère Jacques". According to Nigel Lawson's memoirs, The View from Number 11, the Foreign Office had encouraged the TUC to invite him, so this was less an unfortunate accident than an own goal.

That same day, Delors passed to David Hannay, Britain's permanent representative to the Community, "his great regret" that he would not be able to attend MT's speech at Bruges. According to Hugo Young he had been warned what was coming (This Blessed Plot, 350).

1988 september: final draft & reactions

Against this unhappy background No.10 prepared the final draft. Kerr's hope of avoiding controversy now seemed almost absurd, Delors having rebutted the speech in advance and the British press geared itself up for a bare-knuckled confrontation.

In fact, comparing the texts, the main element introduced at this last stage of drafting was far from negative. MT anticipated the events of 1989, then unglimpsed, and reflected on the European ideal in its widest sense:

The European Community is one manifestation of that European identity.

It is not the only one.

We must never forget that East of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots.

We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.

Although the Foreign Office had intended her to make a 'positive' speech about Britain's place in Europe, their concept had never extended beyond the Cold War boundary. In a recent review of the speech, Stephen Wall makes generous tribute to this element, discounting the notion that the British commitment to enlargement was merely tactical, a dilution of the strong and - to British eyes - unwelcome impulse towards deepening.

Receiving the text, Kerr consoled himself with the thought that 80 per cent of the Foreign Office draft had been adoped, ten per cent might yet be won and the remainder barely mattered "and concern areas where No.10 are probably incorrigible". Briefing the official head of the Foreign Office, in the absence of the Foreign Secretary himself, he wrote: "It thus looks as if our damage limitation exercise is heading for success. While it isn't going to pick up many tricks across the Channel, I don't think that the Bruges speech is now likely to cause trouble with Community partners, and I see no need for you to trouble the Secretary of State in Africa". And in fact Stephen Wall recalls Geoffrey Howe thinking the final draft of the speech "95 per cent all right".

Of course such judgments proved to be wishful thinking: the speech proved hugely controversial. Although the Foreign Office later blamed Bernard Ingham for spinning things in the most unhelpful way, Delors's remarkable interventions made it all but impossible for MT's response to be anything other than incendiary.

It must be doubtful whether Delors fully anticipated the impact he would have in domestic British politics. His memoirs make no reference to these events at all, though "Mme Thatcher" features again and again, "une personalité riche et complexe". He had a guarded respect for her, as she did for him.

Howe's conclusion on the episode in his own memoirs pointedly foreshadows his resignation speech of November 1990:

It was, I imagined, a little like being married to a clergyman who had suddenly proclaimed his disbelief in God. I can now see that this was probably the moment in which there began to crystallise the conflict of loyalty with which I was to struggle for perhaps too long.

Read the Bruges documents