Thatcher said to me in private: "We must leave the European Union"
Journalist and writer Charles Moore, author of the authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher, discusses Brexit, Britishness, why Theresa May is a “very, very incompetent leader” and why the UK will not descend into chaos once it leaves the European Union – with or without a deal.
I'm calling you from a country that is not a member of the EU and it's a country that is very used since many years to have referendums. We watched you very carefully in 2016 when you went to the polls about Brexit. The British people voted out. Now, many Swiss are wondering, “Why does your parliament in Westminster not follow suit with the will of the people? Why does it not just say, ‘Let's move on. Let's leave the EU, if necessary with no deal.’" Where is the problem?
In a way, the answer is quite simple which is that the majority of MPs are Remainers. They don't want to carry out the wishes of the vote. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that because they will say, "We are carrying out the wishes of the vote but there are different ways of doing it." There's a dispute about exactly what you do. The basic problem is that we got a Leave result, but we didn't get a Leave government. People sometimes say the Leavers have been proved wrong and that it made a mess of the negotiations. That's not the right way to look at it because the Leavers are not in control of the government. We've never had Leave people running our government. We've always had Brexit being either thwarted or negotiated by people who don't believe in it.
We, in Switzerland, are great admirers of Great Britain. This is not only because you gave us alpine tourism. We find it very hard to understand why your leaders seem to be so weak in this hour that requires brave leadership. I call them the enemy of the people because they do not implement the will of the people. Who is to blame for that situation?
Well, I think a lot of people. But, really, you have to focus this on the government itself because, after all, it is responsible. I would say that the two people most to blame are Mrs. May and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. They're to blame for different reasons. Philip Hammond is actually against Brexit. He won't say it because he can't say it because his party is committed to Brexit in formal terms. In fact, he's doing everything he can to prevent it all the time and so are several other ministers in the cabinet, but he's the most important one.
He's always done this because he's determined to keep Britain in the customs union, come what may. Mrs. May is to blame because, though I think she began sincerely wishing to bring Brexit about, she never understood it because she herself was a Remainer. She didn't know how to negotiate it and she didn't know what she wanted. She took away the foundation of the negotiation, which is that if we don't like what we're offered, we can walk out with no deal. Though she still says we can walk out with no deal, in fact, we all know that she's determined to avoid that.
The EU has known that, and therefore, it has given us a hard bargain, a bad bargain because they know we don't have a bottom line. I think between those two, that's the main explanation. But also, which I know is a problem in Switzerland as well, you have very pro-European establishment all through the civil service, big business organizations, the universities, the BBC, the governor of the Bank of England, and so on and so on. The 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit are very badly represented in the higher echelons of the country.
How do you review the strategy of the EU in this divorce process? Are they making it as hard as possible for Britain in order to set an example so no country will dare what the British dared to do?
I think that is their position. They don't all completely agree with one another because some of them are much more pro-British than others. For example, the Dutch are pretty pro-British, and the French are pretty anti-British, or the French government anyway. I think you're right in what you're saying, really. They're frightened that Brexit might lead to a wider fragmentation. Of course, in a way that's happening anyway because of Italy and the Eastern countries and problems with the Euro there and so on, the so-called populism.
Yes, they want to make it hard for us, and also they have a theological position about this. My feeling about them is that if we did leave with no deal, we would actually be able to make all sorts of arrangements with them. They'd be quite practical in reality, but they hate the idea of what they call cherry-picking in which we get a bit of being in the EU without being in it. If we try for that, which is what Mrs. May has always been trying to do,they want to give us bad cherries. If we took Mrs. May's deal, we will be inside the trading system without having a voting part.
We won't be able to get out of it because of the Irish backstop. She has devised a way of tying us down - worse, in a way, than if we are just as ordinary members of the EU.
You are the distinguished author of the authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher. What would Thatcher do in today's situation?
Well, the way you put your question is a way I always refuse to answer because what I always say is, I don't know what Margaret Thatcher would've done. My only selling-point is that I know what she did do. I can tell you what she did do, and you can draw your own conclusion.
All the time she was prime minister, she never said that she wanted to leave the European Community as it then was. However, she got more and more annoyed with the European Community. She never liked it very much and by the end of her time, she prophesied what would happen with the doctrine of progress in one direction and the creation of a single currency and the attempt to have a much more integrated, almost United States of Europe. She said this was bound to go wrong. Personally, I think she was right. Her prediction was right.
What exactly did she predict?
She said to the French, "You think you're going to tie down the Germans by inventing the Euro but you're not." It wasn't called the Euro then, of course, but the single currency. "You're not. You are going to give Germany supreme economic control of the whole European system." Particularly because the Germans were just being. I think even if her analysis was too hostile to Germany for some people, I think her prediction was correct.
That is what's happened. When she left office, she became explicitly anti-EU but she never said it in public because she was advised that she's an old lady by this time and it would be too controversial. She never said it in public but often when I saw her in private, and many other people will say this too, she said, "We must leave the European Union." In fact, she was one of the first, perhaps the first important leader who said we should leave. Nobody else used to say that until about 20 years ago. She said it before that, she said it to me in 1990 or '91, I would say.
Elaborate on that, please. Did you discuss this topic with her in further details?
Yes, because her main argument was not an economic one though she thought the economics of the European Union were bad. She was completely opposed on national sovereignty grounds and representational democratic grounds to the continent of Europe being run by bureaucrats in Brussels and a council of ministers rather than their own parliaments and their own government.
She took a classic view about that. Also, she took a particular British view which is to do with the need to divide power in Europe rather than unite it. The traditional British view is, as I'm sure you know, is that united power in Europe is dangerous for Britain, and for Europe. One of the things she would say is Europe has only been united under a tyrant. Napoleon, Hitler and so on. Therefore, she was entirely against the trend that was there from the beginning, I would say, in the Treaty of Rome.
When was the last time that Britain faced a similar difficult situation as it does today?
Well, of course we did have very fierce arguments when we went into the European Community in the early seventies. They weren't as bad as this but they were very fierce. In a way this crisis about what should happen is more like 1940 when Neville Chamberlain had been in favor of appeasement of Hitler in the 30s, and he was still prime minister even though he declared war in September the year before.
In May 1940, basically it looked as if Hitler might invade Britain and already was invading France, and by June 1940 he had invaded northern France. That's when the House of Commons which had been very anti-Churchill became pro-Churchill. In the famous no-confidence debate, Chamberlain he didn't actually lose the vote but he lost the confidence of his party, and so Churchill came in. This time, the people, not Parliament, voted no-confidence in our EU policy.
The comparison is very inexact. In terms of parliament breaking down, it's more like the arguments we had before the First World War about Ireland, actually, when the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Then, you couldn't get parliamentary majorities for anything. There were endless rows about home rule for Ireland. Those are the nearest parallels. If you're a pro Brexit person, you're looking for the emergence of a Churchill who will give voice to Brexit.
By the way, this is one reason that Boris Johnson wrote a book about Churchill because he wanted to make people think of him as Churchill. He's hoping that that effect will benefit him. When Mrs. May came in, some people thought she was going to be like that but, in fact, she hasn't been like that at all. She's been very unsure of herself and trying to lean to both sides at once and hasn't really given leadership.
Moving back to today, we hear a lot of analysts on the continent turning sour towards Britain. They say, "It's a tragedy, it's a farce what's going on in Britain." They say a no-deal Brexit would cause “chaos”. The word “chaos” is everywhere. Are you not afraid of a chaos?
No. I'm not afraid of the chaos. I think a no-deal Brexit would be difficult. Obviously, it will be particularly difficult for some people. There are some types of agricultural products, for example, which will face very high tariffs. Any big change like that is bound to have difficulties when it starts, but I think if you had a government that wanted to do it, it would do it fine. The polls, by the way, are very high for no-deal. When you think that almost all our politicians say how terrible a no-deal would be, the latest poll says 45% are in favor of no-deal and only 30% are against it, and the rest don't know.
They've been lectured, day after day after day, by everybody really apart from a few Brexiteers about how terrifying no deal is. A lot of them think this is just playing a fear game and trying to frighten us. I agree with them. I'm not very old but I'm old enough to remember when we were not in the European community. I'm 62. It's perfectly obvious that Britain can manage without being in the EU. The idea that we can't do it is just ridiculous. It's just ludicrous. Of course, no-deal is not really no-deal. It's WTO rules. It's not as if we're being excluded from all markets or anything like that.
We have very successful trade with countries which are not in the EU. Indeed, most of our trade nowadays is not with the EU. We trade with United States, Australia, indeed yourselves. We know how to do that. I would rather that we didn't have to change in this overexcited way, but I'm not at all frightened about no-deal.
Let’s look at the core element of Brexit beyond economy. Do you consider national sovereignty as the key element of this?
Yes, I do. But I don't see it in nationalistic terms. I see it in representative terms. I'm not saying the British a better race than the other people, or some such nonsense. What I'm saying is that we want to be ruled - and we've had a good tradition of it - by the people we choose. We want to be able to get rid of them when we get fed up with them, which is, by the way, the situation now. We do not want to be ruled by people whom we didn't choose and whom we can't get rid of. That's what happens in the European Union. You can't choose them, and you can't get rid of them.
It's really simple, though not easy. There's a big historical aspect to this. There is something similar, I think, though in a very different form, in your country. We have a particular way of doing things, and a lot of our identity is bound up with the idea of being a free people with a free Parliament. Just as you're a free people because of your very confederal system and your very independent cantons. It's a particular type of history. I'm sure you have similar sentiments about why you want to be a free people. That's what all this is about.
I don't believe the EU could ever achieve representative democracy. I know we have a European Parliament, but, actually, it's controlled by the big bosses of the system. It's not really representative democracy, and I don't think it will be.
You've been speaking about British-ness. What is the quintessential British-ness in these times of turmoil and eroding values? What is British-ness today?
I'm always a bit resistant to those definitions like British-ness, French-ness, and so on. The way I put it is rather different, which is that to understand the country you must understand its history. A country really is its history
Its present arises from its past, so does its future arise from its past. Our history tells us that we have a particular contribution which is to be both open to the world and independent from it. We don’t have a traditional isolation like Japan. We’ve always been an open trading nation. When people say Britain is going to be isolated, Britain is ridiculous to think it can manage all by itself in the world, they misunderstand us. the world isn’t like that.
We are not trying to manage all by ourselves. We’re just trying to be free. Britain is a combination of being open to the world, - and you can tell that very much particularly in London. It is very important with things like the English language. On the one hand, being very open to the world; on the other hand, being free, ruling ourselves.
This is the lesson of our history. It is the character of our history. Therefore, I believe the character of our future. And we don’t suffer from the fears of most of the continental countries suffer from, which is why they are more enthusiastic for the European Union. They fear either their neighbours or their own people, and so they wish to get away from their national identity because it frightens them.
The Conservative party is governing Britain. When you look at the party over the past years, in what shape do you see the Conservatives in?
Right now, it’s very bad in its arguments within itself. I think if it became a clearly moderate Brexit party, which is what it is in the country, what its voters are, I think it would do very well. If it had a calm pro-Brexit leadership, it would win and it would go on winning. The polls suggest that. Unfortunately, Mrs. May, though she tried hard, is, I’m afraid, a very, very incompetent leader. She doesn’t understand the issues and she’s rigid in her way of doing politics. She’s not at all extreme, but she has a rigid method. I’m afraid she just got it wrong.
Even today, after all this, a lot of the top of the Conservative party is very pro-Remain, but the supporters and voters in the country are not. That’s the way it will go. And when this is over, I think almost whatever happens, we will have a Leave leader of the Conservative party.
At the same time we see Jeremy Corbyn being quite popular with the youth. You see similar phenomena in America where you have young socialist politicians being quite popular.
I start to question that, now. I think it is very clear Mr. Corbyn, given the crisis we’re in, the Labour party ought to be 15, 20 points ahead in the polls. In fact, it is behind. It’s doing very badly. Mr. Corbyn has exposed himself, among other things, as an anti-Semitic leader and also as an incompetent leader in this process. I don’t agree that he is the coming trend. I think he’s the falling trend. It is very hard for Labour to win under him.
Looking into the future, do you see a person who has the ability to articulate to values and aspirations of the British people and has actually the intellectual and charismatic authority to lead Britain?
The short answer is “No.” Boris Johnson has got some of these capacities. He’s a very intelligent man, and he’s very good at communicating with the public. He’s controversial, but he does understand the feeling of British people about this issue, and he can put it well. He's an extremely recognizable, charismatic figure. There are a lot of problems with him: he's quite confused, quite lazy, quite unreliable. He's got some of the qualities needed, but I don't think we can really see the obvious leader. We can't see the Churchill right now.
Charles Moore, 62, is one of the most distinguished journalists and commentators in Great Britain. He is a former editor of “The Daily Telegraph”, “The Sunday Telegraph” and “The Spectator”. He still writes for “The Daily Telegraph and “The Spectator”. Margaret Thatcher selected Moore as her biographer. The first volume of his authorized biography Not For Turning appeared in April 2013 shortly after she died. The final volume Herself Alone will appear in October.