Brexit, EFTA and Mrs Thatcher

Would Mrs Thatcher have backed Brexit?

During the course of the EU referendum campaign, both sides have claimed that the former British Prime Minister, the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher would have supported their campaign.

The ‘Remain’ campaign say that it is clear that Mrs Thatcher would be pro-remain. They cite three main points – firstly, that Mrs Thatcher campaigned on the ‘remain’ side in the EEC referendum of 1975.

Secondly, that while in office, Mrs Thatcher signed the Single European act, a treaty that substantially moved forward the process of European integration and regulation.

Thirdly, they say that if alive today the former Prime Minister would have made a hard-headed decision to remain based on trade and other economic factors.

In this short essay we will attempt to address each of these issues and detail, with annotations and citations why we believe beyond doubt that Mrs Thatcher would not only would vote for Brexit today, but would be actively campaigning for it.


Changing views

Mrs Thatcher’s views on ‘Europe’ (by which we mean the EC, EEC and later the EU) can be described in terms of four broad phases:

Phase one – her views before she became Prime Minister, Phase two – her views on Europe during the height of her powers as Prime Minister, phase three – her views towards the end of her premiership; finally, her views after the EEC became the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was enacted. 

Phase one – before Number Ten

In her book ‘the path to power’ Mrs Thatcher writes about this period:

“I was an active member of the European Union of Women – an organisation founded in Austria on 1953 to promote European Integration. But I saw the EEC as essentially a trading framework – a Common Market – and neither shared nor took very seriously the idealistic rhetoric with which ‘Europe’ was already being dressed in some quarters.”[1]

Famously photographed while dressed in an eye-catching jumper made up of the flags of the then European Community, it is a matter of public record that Mrs Thatcher campaigned on the ‘remain’ side of the EEC referendum of 1975.

Mrs Thatcher’s daughter Carol Thatcher recalled in her biography of Denis Thatcher that:

“Heath’s one undisputed success was to take Britain into the EEC. Margaret supported this as best for Britain, although she didn’t have any grand vision of being a ‘good European’.”[2]


Phase two – height of her powers as PM

It is during this time that Mrs Thatcher’s views of ‘Europe’ moved from the generally supportive to the ambivalent. A series of gruelling battles with the European Commission and other European leaders infuriated the Prime Minister – especially over the vast contributions that the UK was forced to make to the European budget.

After fierce debate, Mrs Thatcher was able to secure a significant annual rebate on our budget contributions; but during her time in office she often found herself railroaded by European politicians and sometimes her own civil servants into agreeing to integrationist or federalist schemes.

While she did sign the single European Act during this period, it was largely because she believed it would be good for business and free trade.

Writing about this period, former Chancellor of the exchequer Lord Lawson wrote:

“I shared her (Thatcher’s) conviction that the political constitution of Europe must remain what it had so successfully become, a Community of nation states, rather than be transformed, contrary to the profoundest instincts of most of its people, into a single European state, albeit of a federal nature”[3]  

He writes that at the time, the then-President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors antagonised Mrs Thatcher:

“I doubt if Jacques Delors had deliberately set out to inflame Margaret, but if he had, he could not have done it better. He boasted to the European Parliament that, in ten years’ time, 80 per cent of all the key economic and social decisions would be taken in Brussels rather than the member states.”[4]


Phase three – her views towards the end of her premiership

Enraged by the comments of Jacques Delors and the planned Maastricht Treaty Mrs Thatcher planned to veto the treaty. In a letter to Bill Cash MP[5], Mrs Thatcher wrote:

“I understand it is being suggested in some quarters that I would have agreed to the Maastricht Treaty. May I make it clear that I would NOT have done so.”[6]

In a famous speech in the Commons in October 1990, Mrs Thatcher said:

“the [European] Commission wants to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers at the expense of the House, so of course we differ. The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.

Perhaps the Labour party would give all those things up easily. Perhaps it would agree to a single currency and abolition of the pound sterling. Perhaps, being totally incompetent in monetary matters, it would be only too delighted to hand over full responsibility to a central bank, as it did to the IMF. What is the point of trying to get elected to Parliament only to hand over sterling and the powers of this House to Europe?”[7]


Phase four – after the EEC became the EU once the Maastricht Treaty was enacted

Mrs Thatcher’s dismay at the way the EEC changed into the EU was clearly evident in her ‘Mummy returns’ speech of May 2001. Speaking to a Conservative Election Rally in Plymouth she said:

“Mr Blair says he wants to `lead in Europe’, but the price of that is that he’s expected to lead Britain by the nose into the single currency. And he’s prepared to do it! I would never be prepared to give up our own currency.

The greatest issue in this election, indeed the greatest issue before our country, is whether Britain is to remain a free, independent, nation state. Or whether we are to be dissolved in a federal Europe. There are no half measures, no third ways – and no second chances.

Too many powers have already passed from our Parliament to the bureaucracy in Brussels. We must get them back. Above all, we must keep the pound.

Keeping our currency is not, as Labour would have it, just a matter of economics – though the economic case grows weaker, as the Euro grows sicker, by the day. No: a country which loses the power to issue its own currency is a country which has given up the power to govern itself. Such a country is no longer free. And neither is it truly democratic – for its people can no longer determine their own future in national elections.

To surrender the pound, to surrender our power of self-government, would betray all that past generations down the ages lived and died to defend.”[8]


In her final book, Statecraft, Mrs Thatcher made it clear that the UK should leave the EU.

She wrote: “I am conscious that much of my energy as Prime Minister was also taken up with Europe – and, if my time again, still more would have been so. As I shall seek to show, Europe as a whole is fundamentally unreformable.”[9]

She also wrote that:

“The movement towards a bureaucratic European superstate – for no other term adequately serves to describe what is emerging – has huge implications for the world as a whole”[10]


“Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the fledgling super-state is that it is not, will not be, indeed ultimately cannot be, democratic.”[11]



It is clear that over time, Mrs Thatcher’s views on Europe hardened and ultimately she believed it would be best for the UK to leave. Indeed in her final book she spoke of alternatives.

“There are, though, useful precedents. In 1992, Norway Iceland and Liechtenstein – that is the remaining EFTA countries bar Switzerland – concluded negotiations with the EU which established a European Economic Area (EEA). These countries now enjoy free trade with the European Union; that is the freedoms of movement of goods, services, of people and of capital. They also enjoy the unhindered access guaranteed by the operation of the European Single Market. But they remain outside the customs union, the CAP, the CFP, the common foreign and security policy and the rest of the legal/bureaucratic tangle of EU institutions. But Britain is in a different league from countries like Norway (population 4.4 million) or Iceland (population 270,000), let alone Liechtenstein (population thirty-two thousand.) We could press for Britain to be represented in the drawing up of all Single Market Legislation.”[12]

Mrs Thatcher also wrote that “Switzerland is unique in many ways. But whatever Switzerland has secured in its dealings with Europe, Britain too could certainly obtain without great difficulty. Switzerland enjoys free trade with the EU. The EFTA model is perhaps not ideal: but it is certainly an acceptable option.”[13]

So there you have it. Mrs Thatcher would, if alive today not only be advocating Brexit, but would seek a bespoke relationship for the UK within EFTA, based on the precedents set by Switzerland and Norway.


[1] The path to power, Page 127

[2] ‘Below the parapet’ by Carol Thatcher pages 99-100

[3] ‘The View from No.11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical’ page 900

[4] Ibid, page 907





[9] Statecraft, page 321

[10] Ibid, page 324

[11] Ibid, page 342

[12] Ibid, page 405-406

[13] Ibid, page 408

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