Here is a quite splendid and magisterial view of the rise and rise of Brexit as seen through many different speeches down the decades, written by John O’Sullivan.
John has been tackling this question ever since the UK joined the EU. He has form:
I first became a Brexiteer (or, as we were then confusingly known, an “anti-Marketeer,” because the European Union, then the European Economic Community, or EEC, was known colloquially as the Common Market) in the late 1960s. The Tories were then the pro-Europe party in substance even though all parties were formally undecided. In the course of attending discussions of the Tory leadership on the EEC (as a junior aide, I hasten to add), I reached the heretical conclusion that the economic case for “joining Europe” was weak and the case against surrendering our sovereignty to do so was therefore strong.
In the 1970 election, in which I stood as a Tory candidate for Gateshead West, I stressed the conditional nature of our manifesto pledge on Europe: “Our commitment is to negotiate, no more, no less.” My Euroscepticism was firming up.
Time passed. The UK had its first EU referendum::
If the Yes campaigners looked like a group of “suits” who had just emerged from too good a lunch at the Savoy, the Noes seemed to be an odd blend of left and right eccentrics in denims and hunting pink, respectively … As a result of this unbalanced campaign, the British people were being pushed to stay in this modernizing New Europe in the resigned spirit of “If you know of a better airport lounge, go to it.”
My article, however, ended with a warning: “In supporting Europe, the entire British establishment has put all its money on one horse — admittedly the favorite. But what if, like most of the establishment’s fancied runners in the last twenty years, it comes in fourth?”
Margaret Thatcher came to power and brought in radical economic reforms. Meanwhile over in Brussels the appetite for More Europe was growing fast:
Jacques Delors, newly chosen as the EU Commission president, told the British labor unions this good news in a famous 1988 speech. Within ten years, he said, 80 percent of economic and social legislation would be determined by Europe.
The Iron Lady eventually toppled over, many of her own Party dismayed by her attitude to EU integration. She carried on making her case, railing in 1992 against the putative Eurozone:
“Huge sums would have to be transferred from richer to poorer countries and regions to allow them to take the strain. Even then, unemployment and mass migration across now-open frontiers would follow. And a full-fledged single currency would allow no escape hatch.”
She then laid out the political consequences, too:
“… the growth of extremist parties, battening on fears about mass immigration and unemployment, offering a real — if thoroughly unwelcome — alternative to the Euro-centrist political establishment. If, in addition, you were to create a supranational European federation, and the people could no longer hold their national parliaments to account, extremism could only grow further.”
If that’s not prescient, what is?
In her accurate prediction of how the country would respond to escaping from the ERM, did she perhaps also predict the likely response of Britain to Brexit?
The histrionics of this time will soon be forgotten. The benefits will be increasingly appreciated. Dire warnings of what will happen when the economic straitjacket is removed will quickly prove false.
The patient may perhaps wave his arms around a bit at first. He may even make a noise. But his odd behavior reflects the torture of the straitjacket, not an inherent disordered condition. And the long-concealed truth quickly dawns that this patient was perfectly sane all the time.
And so to the conclusion:
Some years ago I was asked by an Italian political conference to assess how history would judge Margaret Thatcher on Europe. I replied that she would prove to be either ahead of her party or behind history. If Brexit occurred successfully, then Thatcherism would be seen as the start of a new phase of British history, leading either to an adventurous independent English nationalism in the style of (though in very different circumstances from) Elizabethan England or perhaps to a renewed closeness to the countries of the Anglosphere straddling the world.
If Britain voted to remain in Europe, Thatcher would seem to have been behind history, and Thatcherism would look like a glorious last stand by Old England, the England that more or less invented classical liberalism in 1689, before it was subsumed into a collective European nonidentity.
In either event, she deserved well of the people she governed for eleven years. Without her they would have been given no choice in the matter.
This long piece by someone who has followed the issues and personalities closely but from differing vantage-points down the decades is especially interesting (to me) in the way it weaves key speeches into the story, and shows how great speeches and great speakers convey great ideas, helping define the issues for the wider public on a grand scale indeed.
Read the whole thing. And marvel at John’s own unwavering and principled contribution.