I BLAME the whole thing on Margaret Thatcher. When she came to power in 1979 she broke Britain’s spine and it just can’t repair itself. She broke the spirit of internationalism forged by the war and she broke the post-war consensus on social solidarity. She alienated the post-industrial heartlands.
During the 11 years she held power, the gap between the rich and the rest which had narrowed since the war burst apart and shot skywards so that the top 10% of the population were again taking close to 30% of the wealth.
She took from the British ownership of their gas, their airline, their telecoms, their electricity, their water and after her time but as an extension of her policies, their iconic transport system.
She alienated Scotland. When I was travelling around Scotland in 2014 at the time of their independence referendum I kept coming up against the idea that yes voters were voting no to Margaret Thatcher.
“I’m no nationalist,” a Glasgow taxi driver told me. “But Margaret Thatcher destroyed Britain. The next thing they’ll do is bring us out of Europe.”
Next time the yes side may carry the day. Maybe it won’t, because the implications of being an EU head on a British body may be more frightening than being the same jurisdiction with the same currency on one island. Either way huge damage has been done to Scotland as it has been done to the rest of Britain.
She alienated Ireland in a way which sums up the hubris of the Brexit camp. Take a look at that smug expression under that rigid bouffant as she announces, at the press conference after the 1984 Anglo-Irish Summit: “A unified Ireland. That is out. A second solution was a confederation of two states. That is out. A third solution was joint authority. That is out.”
She embodied that British presumption of authority and superiority forged during the period of empire and made it mainstream.
Her latest biographer, Robin Harris, who was a speech writer for Thatcher for many years, stresses that she was very close in her views to Enoch Powell and advocated that prime minister Ted Heath should not dismiss him for his racist speech which said the Commonwealth immigration policy was “like watching a nation piling up its own funeral pyre”.
Harris suggests that Thatcher made her own anti-immigrant comments in 1978 because the Tories needed a boost in the opinion polls and “low politics had to be part of the answer”.
She spoke of “people of a different culture” who threatened to “swamp” the British character: “And the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react…”
Clearly she did not grasp the irony of boasting about what Britain had done “around the world” and then complaining when the inhabitants of the countries brutally colonised came home to mother. It is astonishing to think of a future prime minister sincerely believing that her countrymen are some sort of master race.
But she did. And she thought of the English-speaking countries of the West, particularly the US, as inheritors of this superior character to which world domination was owed.
Even a fond biographer like Harris makes clear that she had a visceral hatred of Germany.
He quotes her hilarious dismissal when asked to consider the form of social partnership which existed in Germany: “We should recognise that the Germans talking shop works because it consists of Germans.”
Harris makes a clear distinction between the “internationalism” of the generation which had served in the war and Thatcher’s “nationalism”, which focussed in the post-war period on disarming and punishing Germany.
This nationalist element in the Tory party triumphed under Thatcher, leaving the internationalism of the “wet” Tories to Tony Blair’s Labour. David Cameron is a wet Tory but he was too frightened of the “dry” culture mainstreamed by Thatcher to make an emotional plea that the people might stay in the EU.
That was what was missing from the Remain campaign. Without it the vote would always be Leave. What we needed to hear from Cameron was an emotional story of the British in Europe: Their brave alliance with ancient enemy France to defeat not one but two psychopathic German despots for the sake, not just of themselves, but for all of Europe, including the Germans.
The Europe which many of us love would be unthinkable without the work and the sacrifice of the British.
And while the Reformation is a historical forbear of the Leave vote, the centuries of co-operation between the royal families of Europe who are all related could have offered an emotional pathway to remain.
I know it sounds stupid but the stupid arguments had to be made for Remain because they were being made for Leave.
Eleven years of Thatcher’s rule eradicated all public displays of affection towards Europe in the Tory party.
All Thatcher cared about when it came to the EU was that big hand-bag of hers and how much was in it. She was originally in favour of the “common market” because it seemed to offer commercial opportunities for Britain.
In truth I think it is likely she would have advocated a Remain vote last week because Leave will be economically damaging.
But she confronted the EU as if she were still at war with Germany and the destructive relationship with the EU which she began was always likely to end in a messy divorce.
From 1979 when her premiership began, coinciding with a European Council meeting in Dublin, she consistently threatened to withhold British payments to the EU unless Britain got a rebate of 70% of payments already made.
This success apparently emboldened her to be the dominatrix who “saved” the Falkland Islands for Britain and thus saved her own political skin.
This imperial power could never assent to being part of an EU which was anything more than a loose association of trading states.
Sterling’s entry into the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) became a huge political football.
There was, by the time Thatcher was booted out in 1990, no chance that the UK would subscribe to the European Social Charter much less monetary union.
The hardened candy-floss of beige gold has set in a sort of halo now above the head of Margaret Thatcher, regarded as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century.
I think she was an ignoramus who got lucky, a virtual man in drag who leveraged her femininity, a closed-minded bigot commissioned by circumstances to rewrite the script of an entire nation.
When we read the finished script in the early hours of last Friday morning I blamed Thatcher.
And though some may say it’s unfair to blame any individual for the UK’s ills it’s better than blaming a Polish hairdresser or a Syrian child.