Would the late Margaret Thatcher have voted for or against Britain’s EU membership? The Iron Lady is pitting Conservatives against each other from beyond the grave ahead of a referendum expected this year.
The row over the European allegiances of the former British prime minister deepened on Friday as pro-European Conservatives unearthed an old letter written in 1997 in which she wrote: “The majority of our people want Britain to be in Europe, and so do I”.
The publication of the document was a response to a private letter from 1993 uncovered by veteran eurosceptic MP Bill Cash in which Thatcher underlined her opposition to the EU’s Maastricht Treaty.
In the note to Cash she described it as “contrary to British interests and damaging to our parliamentary democracy”.
The debate over the hugely contested British leader, who was ousted from power 26 years ago, reflects the magnetic attraction that the Conservative icon still has on Prime Minister David Cameron’s party.
“What would Thatcher do? All political movements, however secular, have their pantheon of deities, saints and inspirational figures,” columnist Matthew d’Ancona wrote on The Guardian newspaper’s website.
“In the modern Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher is still the magnetic north, against whom all subsequent Tory leaders have positioned themselves.”
The back and forth over Europe within the governing Conservative Party is nothing new and the issue helped undermine Thatcher’s own position when she was forced out after 11 years in power in 1990.
Thatcher was initially supportive of Europe — a photo of her during the campaign for a 1975 EEC membership referendum shows her in a colourful jumper emblazoned with member states’ flags.
But her position progressively hardened and one of the reasons for her ouster, along with her perceived mishandling of the economy, was her trenchant opposition to further European integration.
Her pro-European successor John Major was in turn forced out of power by eurosceptics within the Conservative Party, whom he branded “bastards”.
– ‘Speaking from the grave’ –
The latest chapter in the debate was kicked off on Sunday by Lord Charles Powell, a key foreign policy adviser to Thatcher.
Thatcher, he wrote in The Sunday Times newspaper, might have “raged more mightily” in Brussels than Cameron.
But “she would have gone along with what is on offer, indeed negotiated something similar herself.
“Margaret Thatcher’s heart was never in our membership of the EU. But I am convinced her head would continue to favour staying in on the conditions now on offer,” Powell wrote.
“The one thing I never heard her propose was Britain’s withdrawal from the EU,” he said.
Norman Tebbitt, a loyal Thatcher cabinet minister, retorted with her famous refrain against widening European powers: “I think it is more likely that were she alive, then she would be saying: ‘No, no, no’.”
Cameron is expected to call a referendum for later this year following agreement on a series of EU reforms he has requested as a precondition for campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU.
The polls show voting intentions for and against evenly matched, although many are still undecided.
Thatcher, who was prime minister between 1979 and 1990, died in 2013 at the age of 87.
The debate over how she would have voted has riled some Conservatives.
“We have heard a lot of unadulterated nonsense already. I’m amazed that we’re invoking the dead, Baroness Thatcher,” said Anne Main, a Conservative MP who is in favour of leaving the EU.
“She apparently was speaking from the grave and I’m amazed that anybody is invoking those sort of comments now.”
But Main could not resist her own contribution, referring to a 1988 speech in which Thatcher warned against “a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
“I’d say ‘hear hear to that’,” Main said.