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MT's private files for 1988 - (5) the Bruges speech I

If MT's doings in 1988 are remembered for a single thing, it is probably the Bruges speech, an important moment in the long history of British 'Euroscepticism'.


Draft of Bruges speech: "our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community"

The speech did not seem so vital at the time, and indeed for many years afterwards, when events such as the budget, violence in Northern Ireland and Lockerbie all bulked large in perception and recollection of 1988. But from the perspective of 2018, with Britain convulsed by Brexit, Bruges grows ever larger in significance, to a degree that could cause us to overplay the speech. MT did not expect or intend it to have quite the role some would now suppose: in no way was Bruges a manifesto for withdrawal. Indeed, she expressly and emphatically asserted the opposite, lest other elements in the speech leave any doubt on that question. She could hardly have put the point more strongly than this:

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.

Plainly she was not making a truistic statement of geographical fact here, playing on words - never her style in any case. There is no ambiguity. Destiny she says.

The documents we are now releasing undoubtedly throw some light on the speech. They include, crucially, the speechwriting files maintained by No.10, not surviving for previous administations. We can trace the drafts and also contributions from outsiders, notably the Europhile chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, Lord Thomas. Hugh Thomas was the foremost British scholar of Spanish history, a friend and speechwriter of MT’s since Opposition days. He and Charles Powell were effectively co-authors of the speech.

Another part of the story - one might almost say the other side of it - can be traced from the FCO file on the speech, which was released to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation under freedom of information in 2009. Documents from that file can be found, with commentary, at this page:

Discussion of FCO file on the Bruges speech

Please note that no attempt has been made (nor will be) to revise that page, which long predates the referendum.

The role of Hugh Thomas is perhaps a good place to start. Isn't it odd that a Europhile should have played an important part in the drafting of this speech? Not really is the answer, because in its conception Bruges was never intended to be an anti-European speech. Anti-federal, certainly, but if someone responds: "same difference", the answer is: "No. That is the whole point of the speech. You can be anti-federal without being anti-European".

In early June Thomas sent a note to MT setting out his thoughts for future work at CPS, including "the Europe speech", as they were calling it at that stage. (The invitation to deliver it was accepted in late April, but No.10 kept the venue quiet). They then met on 6 June, fragmentary notes surviving from their conversation. “Europe – must be positive in order to knock down federalist ideas. United Europe but not European Union. National provincial cultures v. important – must not be lost”. The jottings don’t record who said what, but in fact that barely matters because Thomas and MT largely agreed on these points. In a pre-meeting note, Thomas wrote:

The implications of the present moves in Europe - towards "open frontiers", a common European currency, even a European Central Bank, and the Franco-German defence collaboration - have not, it seems to me, been thought through. The people who have thought continually about Europe seen to be the federalists and they, I suspect, did their original thinking thirty years or more ago. Britain determined to enter the Community and make the best of the institutions which were there, and we are doing well. But is there not a case for a really deep consideration … The "Europe of Nations" has never been carefully worked out, to my knowledge. We could be at a turning point in our history. Have we thought adequately about it?

Thomas’s words are a fair summation of MT’s purpose in making this speech, or a large part of it at least. The reference to a “Europe of Nations” of course nods at de Gaulle, who famously put the case for a “Europe des Patries”. MT had no problem placing herself in that tradition.

This is not to say there was perfect agreement between the two of them: she put a cross against the suggestion that Thomas's reflections on the creation of a common European identity represented her views and queried the notion that there could be a European Union that reconciled diversity and liberty. Thomas was asking the right question from her point of view, but not supplying entirely the right answer. Bruges would not be a speech wholly on his lines.


Another political purpose of the speech was surely to balance MT’s strong commitment to the Single Market, to which she devoted a great deal of time and political capital during 1988. Reading her statements on the Single Market is a sobering corrective to any simplistic idea of her as a proto-Brexiteer. Her enthusiasm for that project seemed almost boundless, scarcely an interview or speech going by without an obligatory, upbeat mention of ‘1992’ – the date the Single Market would come into effect. Of course, it was more closely associated with her than any other politician: the Single Market was her baby, and she loved it. She even raised the topic in a speech to the Canadian House of Commons, connecting it to the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement recently signed by Reagan and Mulroney (the forerunner of NAFTA), greatly to the annoyance of Canadian MPs on the Opposition side, some of whom later attacked her speech for interfering in domestic politics and staged a walk out. The New Year Message she drafted in her own hand that year gives her preferred formula for European policy, the two elements balanced neatly: “progress toward the Single Market in Europe within the framework for the future which we have set out in the speech at Bruges”.

The Bruges speech contained a famous phrase warning against the imposition of a European super-state, but it did not use the word ‘socialist’ to describe it. Anyone knowing MT’s mode of thinking would suspect that there was a deliberate act of restraint here, because this is precisely what she meant by socialism. Her files confirm as much. Perhaps the College of Europe was not the right place to make what might sound too much like a party speech: the intention was to lay out an alternative idea of European cooperation, not rally the rank and file or score points at the despatch box. She made a whole series of strong statements about European federalism during summer 1988, most notably an interview for the Jimmy Young Show on BBC Radio 2 when she attacked Delors’s “airy fairy ideas”, but she always held back from using the S word (though on that occasion Powell put it in her briefing). It is in her party conference address, in October, that ‘socialism’ figures in her public critique of the EC for the first time and one sees immediately how well it fitted her point of view, even allowing her to become the defender of the Treaty of Rome against its latter day enemies in the Commission. She mentioned the arguments her speech had caused and went on:

… I welcome the debate, because it has brought into the open an equally fundamental question. The choice between two kinds of Europe: —a Europe based on the widest possible freedom for enterprise or —a Europe governed by Socialist methods of centralised control and regulation. (Clapping).
There is no doubt what the Community's founders intended. The Treaty of Rome is a charter for economic liberty, which they knew was the essential condition for personal and political liberty.
Today that founding concept is under attack from those who see European unity as a vehicle for spreading Socialism. (Clapping).
We haven't worked all these years to free Britain from the paralysis of Socialism only to see it creep in through the back door of central control and bureaucracy from Brussels. (Clapping).

The speech certainly had an intended audience within the European Community, particularly the Commission and its President personally. Part of its purpose was as a warning shot in fact. This is explicitly confirmed by a minute we are releasing written for MT on European Commission “empire building” which was sent her in early Oct. Interestingly it was available before the speech but Powell held it back from her, perhaps because there was more than enough combustible material to hand. In a covernote to this incendiary information, Powell suggested she should “be prepared to ‘terrorise’ the Commission politically on the lines of the Bruges speech”. And certainly its members took careful note of what she had said. Several Commissioners later made critical responses in public. Delors himself refrained from direct comment, but made his views known in another way. Learning what was in the offing before the speech he politely excused himself from attending, which he had originally been expected to do with his colleagues and the whole corps of EC Ambassadors.

One might add that from MT’s point of view there was a particularly pressing reason for seeking to ‘terrorise’ Delors at this point – not what he had just said, but what he had the power still to do. At the Hanover European Council in June 1988, at which Delors was appointed for a second four year term as Commission President, Britain unhappily acquiescing in the absence of any alternative, the Council “confirmed the objective of a progressive realization of economic and monetary union” and established a Committee of central bank heads under his chairmanship with the purpose of “studying and proposing concrete stages leading towards this union”. MT did everything she could to gain leverage over the Delors Committee, as the official files at TNA show, without much success, of course, to her vast frustration. Bruges was part of that failed effort to head off EMU. Charles Powell comments on this point that the speech came two years too late.

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

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