The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
When one considers our historic, ever-changing and uneasy relationship with the European project, one can’t escape the conclusion that it’s predicated upon a post-war diminution in national self-confidence brought about by the decline and fall of the British Empire.
Our victory in the great twentieth-century struggle against nazism, fascism and Japanese militarism may have led to unbridled celebrations and unprecedented feelings of national pride, but, ultimately, and quite unexpectedly, it introduced a period of national decline and soul-searching, punctuated by the odd awakening, until 1979, when a more long-lasting and irreversible revival took place.
Indeed, the referendum result and Boris Johnson’s election victory, culminating in our departure from the EU last week, were the long term consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution and the resurgence in national pride and confidence that accompanied it.
During World War Two, the contradiction immanent in Britain’s fight for freedom against Nazi imperialism whilst presiding over the largest seaborne empire in history was necessarily ignored. After victory, however, this was no longer possible. It had to be confronted.
The British empire had become morally unjustifiable and consequently unsustainable, as well as, after the financial strain of the war, economically unviable to boot. In 1947, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown was granted independence and violently partitioned into Pakistan and India; Ghana gained independence in 1957 and Nigeria in 1960; indeed, throughout the 1950s and 60s, Britain’s imperial possessions fell, like dominoes, into the hands of charismatic, indigenous leaders armed with the language of liberty devised by the British themselves.
Britain had become a shadow of its former glory. Britannia no longer bestraddled the world, mistress of the seas, trident in hand; instead, she sat passively, seeking handouts from her new creditor and master on the other side of the Atlantic – an ocean once dominated by the imposing guns of her navy. In 1956, in a final coup de grace, her master and patron chased her out of Suez with a swift, humiliating reproach. Britain’s hegemony was at an end.
Let’s just imagine for one moment what this meant to its people, how disorienting it must have been. Everything they had known, everything they had taken for granted, their identity and the sense of self that came with it, had been turned upside down. It is unsurprising that a great loss in national self-confidence ensued and, to make matters worse, Britain, exhausted and demoralised, peered across the English Channel and enviously observed the economic miracle taking place in Europe.
In West Germany, for example – as a result of Marshall Aid, currency reform and responsible labour relations, as well as the opening up of global markets -, industrial output doubled and Gross National Product grew by 9 to 10 per cent each year between 1950 and 1957. Between 1947 and 1973, moreover, the French economy grew by, on average, five per cent per annum. Both countries, along with Italy, which also experienced phenomenal growth rates during this period, caught up to and eventually exceeded Britain’s GNP. Furthermore, from 1950 to 1965, Britain’s GNP per capita slipped from 7th to 12th in the world. By 1975, it was down to 20th.
Riddled with inflation, beset by poor productivity, declining industries and truly dreadful labour relations, not to mention a precipitously haemorrhaging empire and concomitant decline in global prestige, Britain’s leaders desperately sought to find a new role in the world and forge a new identity by joining the Common Market and, they thought, tying themselves to Europe’s economic miracle.
After Britain was refused entry in 1961, Edward Heath’s Conservative administration finally joined the European Economic Community in 1973 – a decision ratified by the British people in a referendum two years later. The loss of national self-confidence that resulted from our post-war imperial retreat and relative economic decline had led to a decision made of desperation and fear. We indeed joined the EEC in a fit of anxiety-induced panic.
However, Thatcher changed everything. Her radical reforms, unapologetic patriotism, uncompromising will and remarkable character lifted the nation out of its post-war torpor and restored its self-confidence. The unions were tamed, fiscal profligacy was replaced by fiscal restraint, markets were liberalised, inefficient nationalised industries privatised, inflation was controlled and, consequently, annual growth exceeded four per cent during the late 1980s.
A British ‘economic miracle’ was being enviously mooted on the continent – a truly remarkable turnaround from the stagnation and misery afflicting the nation just 10 years earlier. Successive governments, even Labour ones, refused to reverse the Iron Lady’s reforms and, in 2015, Britain became the fifth largest economy in the world, largely thanks to her courageous endeavours – wisely left to bear fruit by her successors.
Most important, though, was the national pride restored by Thatcher’s indomitable spirit and sense of moral purpose. Along with Ronald Reagan, she led the free world’s fight against the inhumanity of Soviet communism; in 1982, she ignored her doubters and successfully dispatched a task force to wrestle back the Falkland Islands from Argentina’s military junta; and in 1990, just before her downfall, she encouraged George Bush senior, then American president, to dispense with the wobbling and stand firm against Saddam Hussein after his unprovoked attack on Kuwait. Like Britannia, Thatcher bestrode the global stage, handbag in hand, and gave Britain back its pride and self-confidence.
That this national revival led to rising public disaffection with the EU cannot be gainsaid. Why should a wealthy, self-confident country like Britain sacrifice its sovereignty to a sclerotic, unresponsive, undemocratic, supranational and meddlesome bureaucracy like the European Union? On 23rd June 2016, the answer was clear: it shouldn’t – a decision that, after three and a half years, was reaffirmed by Johnson’s election victory.
If Britain joined what was to become the EU in a moment of disorientation and self-doubt, it voted out as a confident, self-assured, optimistic, outward-looking and independent nation state. For this, we have Thatcher to thank. And as a delicious accompaniment, she posthumously drove a stake through the heart of her vampiric nemesis, Michael Heseltine. Victory has never been sweeter.