COLUMN

Britain’s vexing ties with Europe

BARBARA AMIEL December 18 1989
COLUMN

Britain’s vexing ties with Europe

BARBARA AMIEL December 18 1989

Britain’s vexing ties with Europe

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

A friend of mine works with Margaret Thatcher on her wardrobe. Well, actually, she does the prime minister’s shoes. “We got her out of those high heels that made her totter forward,” my friend explains. “She’s a full-breasted woman and needed a more moderate heel for balance.” I had never really thought about Thatcher’s figure myself. All the same, I think my friend is wrong. The prime minister’s peculiar gait doesn’t have anything to do with her superstructure, physically speaking. That waddle she has, with the head moving about 10 inches in advance of her bottom, has to do with her absolute absorption in her thoughts. I know several other people who concentrate like that, and they all share the same affliction. Their minds are on the next appointment and their bodies lag behind.

Thatcher is single-minded and totally absorbed in her idea of where she wants Britain to be. That has got her into one frightful mess. The political roots of her current trouble stem back to the disagreement more than a year ago between the prime minister and her thenchancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), Nigel Lawson. He wanted to join the European Monetary System, she didn’t; he wanted to support the pound after the stock-market crash, she wanted to let it float. Those matters are absolutely key to the vision of Thatcher, a vision which excludes Britain from the dominance of a collectivist Europe or a currency regulated any more than absolutely necessary. Astonishingly, her feelings of absolute loyalty to her then-chancellor prevailed, and by the time they parted so acrimoniously in October, inflation was roaring along in Britain and the bandwagon for joining the EMS had speeded up.

But underneath this political argument is the usual viper’s nest. At play against Margaret Thatcher is the attitude of Tory aristocrats who might almost prefer to lose the next election in their own style rather than win it with a grocer’s daughter. Since that day in 1975 when Thatcher and her backbench sup-

porters triumphed over her predecessor, Edward Heath, she has always had the drawback in the eyes of the Eton, Harrow and Oxbridge educated elite that she is not an aristocrat. She is not even a shopkeeper’s son, but a shopkeeper’s daughter. Her winning streak was her strength, but when it appears to be waning, the drawback remains. The sneers are palpable. Thatcher doesn’t like shooting, opera or serious theatre. The quintessential words of her former closest adviser, William Whitelaw, in his recently published memoirs gave the game away: “Nothing that was basically social could

ever go on with us____Ours is only a political

friendship, and I have never been someone who has shared her life in any way, and she has certainly, most certainly, never shared mine.” Currently, the complaints against Thatcher are directed at her stand on Europe. Thatcher, said former prime minister Heath on a BBC television program last week, is a “narrow little nationalist” who is opposed to the great and good idea of one Europe. Well, that’s rich from Heath. It was he, after all, who, upon signing the Single European Act which brought Britain into the Common Market in 1973, was at pains to establish that his vision of Europe was one of a collection of nation-states—pre-

cisely the vision of Thatcher now. At the time, you may remember, the British Labour Party was adamantly against going into the European Economic Community, fearing that membership in Brussels would muck up Labour Party plans for a socialist Britain.

Now that Labour sees the direction in which the EEC has developed—a planning bureaucracy led by the avowedly socialist commission president, Jacques Delors, rather than an enlightened free trade association—they are more European than knockwurst.

In fact, there is no dispute that the thrust of the EEC at the moment would seriously cripple British sovereignty. The EEC's proposed social charter, for example, lays down the law for each member country on what its working hours, minimum wages, free movement of labor, pensions, health and safety regulations ought to be. It also ventures into vague “quality of life” areas that could mean anything. But even if those rules and regulations of the EEC were entirely Thatcherite or entirely to my liking, the essential flaw of the current form of European unity would remain: the rules are made by bureaucrats, unelected and unaccountable to Parliament and the citizens of each country.

It may be that Thatcher’s confrontational method of fighting that drift in the EEC is wrong. There is a good argument to be made that persuasion and patience are the best tactics in weaning Europe away from the socialists who currently control the EEC bureaucracy. What does Britain have to lose, it is argued, by joining the European Monetary System and supporting a single European currency? Those ideas depend upon, among other things, all EEC members passing certain currency reforms, such as the abolition of exchange controls. Britain, as it happens, has enacted these measures—but not the French. In fact, some economists think the sky will have turned to yogurt and the moon to cheese before the French drop exchange controls.

Thatcher is not alone in her concern that the direction of the EEC is awry. It is said that the Dutch and many prominent Germans are very pleased that she is doing the up-front fighting for them. A group of German liberal economists sponsored by the Frankfurt Institute recently warned against “the unnecessary centralization and bureaucratic harmonization in the European Community.” Echoing Thatcher, they continued: “The project of the European market must not become a pretext for unrelated transfers of powers and international standardization by decree. It would be a tragedy if we forgot this lesson of history just at the moment when the East is discovering it.”

Perhaps Thatcher’s real allies in her fight against her opponents in the Conservative party will be found in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and East Berlin. I suppose they alone have been to the future, and they know all about how badly it works. But, for the moment, Thatcher will have to put on her flat shoes, slow down her gait and concentrate on tedious matters of the body politic before that posterior moving 10 inches behind her mind comes a cropper and we all fall down.

Thatcher is singleminded and totally absorbed in her idea of where Britain should be. That has got her into one frightful mess