MT's private files for 1988 - (6) the Bruges speech II

Drafting of the speech took place largely in No.10. For once MT had rather more time available for the work than had been planned, having cut short her holiday in Cornwall owing to the IRA bomb at Ballygawley.


Hugh Thomas draft: genesis of the most famous line

The first draft of the Bruges speech was written in No.10 by Charles Powell in the last few days of August, drawing as little as he decently could on suggestions received from the FCO. And once again, Hugh Thomas comes into the frame. He sent Powell notes for the speech on 27 August (thinking by this stage it was to be delivered in Brussels). As one reads through, on p9 there leaps from the page the following sentence:

We have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of the state at home only to have a super nation state getting ready to exercise a new dominance.

Not only did a Europhile Conservative contribute the fundamental idea behind the speech, he wrote the most famous line, or something very close to it. The “European super state” is also his phrase, a little earlier on p9.

Thomas made another striking contribution, the germ of a powerful thought inserted by No.10 in the second draft, a declaration of British commitment to the eastward enlargement of the EC, when the Cold War permitted: “Whatever happened in 1945, we shall always look on Warsaw, and Prague, as great European cities, along with Budapest and the capitals of the Balkans” (p12). In truth, he contributed as much if not more to the speech than the FCO itself.

MT was sent Powell's text on the 30th, and looks to have read it quickly, jotting down only a few changes of wording. A shorter version was also prepared, but looks not to have been submitted to her at all. It was the longer one that Powell despatched to the FCO on 31 August and which did the rounds in Whitehall.

Invited to submit comments, the FCO instead sent back a lengthy "revised version" of the speech on 7 September, largely the work of John Kerr. The FCO file adds to our knowledge here, because it shows that the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, had personally read the speech and reacted very negatively, so much so that his remarks were given only the narrowest circulation within the Foreign Office. Other departments sent conventional letters offering views on particular points. Powell despatched all this paperwork with customary efficiency, sending MT a revised draft the following day, 8 September. The result, as he put it, was "to tone down the original a bit, but not too much".

The FCO file also shows Howe's officials quietly worked to secure backing from other departments for their competing draft, hoping to conceal this fact from No.10, surely in vain. The system was not performing quite as it was supposed to, to put things politely.

There is a further instance of machine malfunction in a minute to MT in the No.10 files from a familiar name at the DTI, Alan Clark, breaking ranks with his own boss, David Young, who had signed up to the FCO draft. Even by Clark's outrageous standards this is a surprising document: for a junior minister to address the PM directly in such a way was not far short of a hanging offence. (He opened with a mild apology, as if airily acknowledging a minor social gaffe.) The minute was undated but was stamped on the back as received by No.10 on 14 September. It carried a now familiar shorthand as its title: "The Bruges Speech". This was a very early use of the phrase in writing, conceivably the earliest.

There are absurdities in this document - for example, Clark's appeal to his knowledge of Brussels, which was meagre by the standards of the woman he was addressing - but he can honestly claim to have seen the full importance of the speech, of what it might become or be made into, perhaps as well as MT herself at this point, or better. He told her:

This speech is of crucial importance. It will signal our attitudes to developments in the Community both micro and macro over the next decade. Ministers, certainly of my own rank, need this to fortify their resolve; the public need it for reassurance.

Clark backed the No.10 draft over the FCO's, urging her to stick to her guns and to put the boot into Delors, who spoke to the TUC on 8 September - "what to all intents and purposes is an Opposition Conference, offering them the 'deal' of a return to their old non-elective privileges if they support him". Clark was deeply hostile to Europe, of course, and always had been: he saw the speech from the opposite end to Hugh Thomas. MT saw it a little from both ends.

MT may or may not have been shown Clark's minute: she did not initial it as such, which she usually would have done. Even if she didn't see it, she probably got wind of the contents, but there is no evidence in these files that Delors' TUC speech actually influenced the drafting in a significant way, no matter how much it annoyed her and others. In fact there look to have been efforts all through to avoid 'personalities'. Direct references to Delors and the Commission were steadily removed from the speech as it progressed. Delors was named in the first draft, but his name went altogether and reference to "the Commission" was later changed to "the Community".

MT worked extensively on Powell's 8 September text. Her personal contributions to the speech emerge most clearly from this version.

  • She rejected Powell’s opening metaphor - asking her to speak on this subject was like inviting King Herod to discuss nursery education. MT objected, “bearing in mind this was about children – I think we should find something as telling but different”. They hit on asking Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful coexistence.
  • She queried but finally decided to live with the idea (from Thomas) that Europe had been “the dominant factor” in British history.
  • The historical section of the speech was significantly cut, taking us quickly to the World Wars. The point that de Gaulle had rallied the French from London in 1940 did not survive into the speech.
  • She added the phrase that Europe “must not be ossified by endless regulation”.
  • She paid no attention at all, made not a mark, against the most famous lines in the speech on throwing back the frontiers of the state at home, etc.
  • The “identikit European personality” looks to have been her phrase.
  • The section of the speech offering guidelines for the future proved the most difficult. The FCO had knocked back a Thomas-inspired clarion call from Powell’s first draft (“forget a United States of Europe, it will not come!”) but it was a struggle to find a replacement. A formula like "Strength through Diversity and Individual Freedom" did not satisfy her: she seems to have disliked the word 'diversity', preferring "Willing co-operation between sovereign states".
  • She wanted to expand at length on the virtues of the US, but her efforts in this direction dropped out by the final draft.
  • She toned down references to Europe’s responsibility for its own security, perhaps thinking that would amount to inviting the US to pull back or encourage new European initiatives in the defence field.
  • She weakened the suggestion that Europe should speak with a single voice where it can, substituting the idea that it should speak with a single voice on many great issues.
  • In this draft the Conservatives have embarked on throwing back the frontiers of the state. By the final draft they have succeeded.

There was a four hour speechwriting session on Tuesday 13 September, just her and Powell, running from late morning over lunch in the No.10 flat, till 4pm. It would seem likely that the reference to Eastern Europe was added at this point. Powell quickly wrote up the changes and submitted the text to MT for approval later that day. She worked carefully through it and made some further changes, probably that evening or in the early hours of the following day before surrendering it for retyping.

This revised second draft was despatched to the FCO on 14 September, drawing a three page response urging further changes. The FCO file shows the department at this point privately congratulating itself on having got 80 per cent of what it wanted and saying of these new comments "we are in effect trying to secure another 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent don't really matter (and concern matters where No.10 are probably incorrigible)". "It thus looks as if our damage limitation exercise is heading for success", a strong claim even at the time, and not one that has worn well.

MT's last changes to the speech appear on a copy marked "As at 19/9/88", the day before the speech was delivered. She made some fairly substantial cuts (e.g., on agriculture), probably for the most part to shorten the length of the speech rather than because she had last minute doubts. At 78 pages, the text had outgrown its intended dimensions. There were perhaps two cuts of substance: she took out a reference to Britain being as wholeheartedly part of Europe as any other member state, and removed a sentence suggesting that talk of a European Central Bank was a distraction from the kind of practical steps she was urging the EC to focus upon. "We must stick to reality not rhetoric". The FCO had registered discomfort with that paragraph in an earlier form, when it was all too obviously aimed at some of her fellow heads of government, but even in toned down form the phrase still smacked of personalities perhaps. The text was then sent off for translation, at which point further changes of any significance became impossible.

There are some undated handwritten notes by MT sketching some of the themes addressed in Bruges. It is probable they were compiled for the party conference speech a month later; she often wrote important sections of that speech by hand. They add nothing of substance to Bruges. Aside from holding back the word 'socialism', she had already spoken her mind.


There is little in the files on the delivery of the speech. She had planned originally to use an autocue, as she usually did for major speeches late in her premiership. Autocue had great advantages when speaking to a large audience, especially on tv - you could appear to be looking directly at them when you were reading - but she was never entirely comfortable with the device. Records show provision was made for her to rehearse with it at No.10 on the morning of 20 September before flying to Belgium, although it is not clear whether this session took place or not. As it turned out, the venue rendered the issue moot. The Bruges Belfrey is a fine medieval city building, of sufficient size for the purpose, but it required the audience to sit to her left and right rather than ahead of her, a far from ideal layout which she, and probably they, found uncomfortable. Much of the point of using an autocue was lost, since she couldn't really look at the audience anyway. So she spoke in the end from a paper text.

She began the speech with a few grace notes, undoubtedly sincere, gratefully recalling the care given by Belgian and Dutch medical staff to the British victims of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster the year before, sentiments far from Europhobic. But she seems to have been uncomfortable all through and her delivery suffered, the audience obviously not in sympathy with her views. A question and answer session after the speech had been part of the original plan, but got dropped somewhere along the way. She was not, however, the only one to speak. There was a short lecture before she spoke by the Rector of the College, a Polish academic who talked about Christopher Dawson, an obscure English Catholic historian of the interwar years who was a friend of T.S. Eliot and Tolkein. Dawson’s most famous book was a curious study of European unity, which characteristically MT wanted to hear more about. In her thank you letter to the Rector she reminded him that he had promised to send her a copy of his remarks. But the public perception of their dealings was different, of course. The Rector used the phrase "a United States of Europe", and journalists detected a riposte from MT when she departed from her press-released text to add a line close to the end of her speech, one cut from the final draft in fact but resurrected at the last minute: "Utopia never comes, because we know we should not like it if it did".

Then she drove to Brussels, where DT caught up with her: a funeral had delayed him in London so that he had not been with her at Bruges. She had a brief audience with the King, followed by dinner with the Belgian Prime Minister, Martens, and assorted cabinet members, the FCO explaining to her that one had to invite a far number of the latter to get one’s views across because in a coalition government like the Belgian, ministers do not talk to each other. And at dinner there was a row, predictably enough, the veteran Belgian Foreign Minister making a federalist retort to her speech. She wrote later to our Ambassador:

I get rather depressed about Europe’s future when I listen to Leo Tindemans’ federalist views: but I hoped we managed to get across some points to the others. The speech in Bruges has certainly attracted attention. I hope it will start a serious debate after the first wave of trivial comment. There is a good piece in the Economist.

MT was always punctilious about thank you letters. Careful study of her files suggests she did not send one to the Belgian Prime Minister after her visit. Perhaps that is because, formally, they met at a dinner hosted by the British Ambassador in a restaurant. But then why did we host, and not they? And if Martens was our guest, even in his own country, where is his letter of thanks? In the refined style of high diplomacy, slaps were being administered on all sides.

Unfortunately we lack lobby briefings or press digests for the time of the speech. The No.10 Private Office felt afterwards that Bernard Ingham’s spin on it left something to be desired, and MT's reference to "the first wave of trivial comment" perhaps registers discomfort on her part too. But to be fair to him, there was a degree of tension between key goals of the speech, setting out an alternative vision for European development and frightening the Commission at the same time, the dual meanings evident in the role of Hugh Thomas and the reaction of Alan Clark. Besides, the press was always likely to see "Maggie bashes Europe, again" as the 'real' story. Interestingly, the speech secured some surprisingly negative comment in Conservative newspapers, although, on the plus side, there was a lot of attention all round, several British papers reprinting long extracts. Even MT was a little awed by the scale of comment, as implied in her conference speech where she joked that it felt as if she had reopened the Hundred Years War. She kept relatively few private letters about the speech (perhaps there just weren’t many). One notable letter Powell sent on to her, urging her to file it away, was from George Shultz, the US Secretary of State, suggesting something of a shift in US policy from the pro-Europeanism generally prevailing at the State Department:

Dear Margaret

I have just read the full text of your speech made at Bruges last week. It is clear, compelling and convincing. Your five guiding principles are just right.

I am never surprised when I hear or read a brilliant statement by you, but I am always delighted.

With my admiration and respect,
Sincerely yours,

Charles Powell recalls that Hugh Thomas was unhappy with him after the speech. Although it owed a great deal to Thomas, the outcome of Bruges was not what he had hoped for. An exposition of “Europe des patries” had been written up simply as an attack on federalism, and thus 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. Although Hugh Thomas remained at the CPS until MT left office in 1990, and the two were on good terms long into her retirement, after Bruges he began to feel isolated in his European views within the Conservative Party. Thomas had far more to do with the writing of the speech than Clark, but it was Clark - and those who thought like him - who ended up owning it.

Selection of documents mentioned on this page

All documents on the Bruges speech

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