How Margaret Thatcher's government paved the way for Brexit

Today, Britain in the early 1980s feels so remote it might as well belong to ancient history. And to anybody under the age of about 35, the Sinclair ZX81, Botham’s Ashes and the Battle of Goose Green probably seem no more relevant than the building of the Great Pyramid or the career of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer.

But as we grapple with the most divisive political imbroglio in modern British history, there is a strong case that our journey towards Brexit began rather earlier than many commentators imagine. Indeed, if you want to understand why Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, I think you should start with the extraordinary political and economic turbulence that followed Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory.

There are essentially two stories about the Britain that elected its first woman Prime Minister in 1979. One points out that contrary to the doom and gloom of the day, most people were better off than ever. The other, which dominated public debate at the time, holds that Britain was nevertheless in pretty poor condition. The empire had gone, manufacturing was in deep decline, productivity had fallen behind, Northern Ireland was racked by sectarian violence and three successive governments had been holed beneath the waterline by conflict with the trade unions.

In effect, Mrs Thatcher won in 1979 because she played on both of these themes. Recognising people’s growing individualism and obsession with the home, she promised them higher wages, an end to strikes and the chance to buy their own council houses. But she also promised to make Britain great again. ‘I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t,’ she told the BBC just before polling day. ‘We who either defeated or rescued half Europe, who kept half Europe free, when otherwise it would be in chains! And look at us now!’

Yet at first, the prospect of a great patriotic rebirth seemed very remote. In 1980 Britain plunged into the deepest recession since the war. Unemployment surged, peaking at about 4 million. Far from abating, the conflict in Northern Ireland seemed more intractable than ever. And in the summer of 1981, riots convulsed the inner cities, the blazing buildings and bloodied policemen symbols of a nation apparently ripping itself apart.

But then, famously, the mood changed. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Mrs Thatcher seized the chance to wrap herself in the Union Jack. The Task Force sailed, buoyed by polls showing that eight out of ten people wanted to fight for the islands. The ten-week campaign was a triumph, and the fleet returned to a heroes’ welcome. Almost every commentator in the land agreed that something had changed. As the right-wing populist Enoch Powell mordantly put it: ‘A change has come about in Britain. We are ourselves again.’

Those last four words perfectly captured what many people thought about the Falklands War. The British, wrote the Daily Express’s George Gale, had ‘almost lost track of our history, had almost given up the roots of our past. But now we have fought again for what is ours, and the blood is up, the heart is strong.’ Mrs Thatcher agreed. ‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,’ she told the Tory faithful that summer. ‘Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.’

Not everybody believed it, of course. There were always doubters, critics, citizens of the world, ashamed of the Sun’s belligerent front pages and shocked by the warlike enthusiasm of their fellow citizens. And as they pointed out, the economy was still desperately weak, while more than 3 million people were still unemployed.

Yet the war still felt like a genuine turning point, the first for decades: a break from the prevailing psychological narrative of failure and decline, as well as a revival of the patriotic populism that would have been so familiar to the eighteenth-century mob or to Edwardian newspaper readers. After the summer of 1982, nobody talked of Britain as the Sick Man of Europe. Even the Guardian, no admirer of the Prime Minister, admitted that the prevailing feeling was ‘pride that Britain can still kick back hard at those who kick us’.

In that moment, Britain’s politicians rediscovered the allure of patriotic populism, in which a silent majority of ‘ordinary’ people would be pitted against the spoiled, stuck-up elites who supposedly hated their country. One Express cartoon showed Mrs Thatcher hounded by a mob of critics: the Labour left, the Guardian, the Foreign Office, a ‘TV Trendy’ and a priest with the banner ‘God Bless Our Enemies, Right or Wrong’. It is easy to imagine the same paper running a similar image today, with a different face beneath the Prime Minister’s blonde mop.

And there was one more legacy of the summer of 1982. When Britain had joined the European Community in 1973, many had seen it as a symbol of decline, an admission that the country had failed to find a new identity after the end of empire. Even the strong Remain majority in the first European referendum, two years later, owed much to a prevailing sense of economic crisis and overwhelming national failure.

But once Britain had, in Mrs Thatcher’s words, ‘found herself again in the South Atlantic’, a deeply buried sense of national exceptionalism began to stir. ‘I do know one thing,’ one Tesco shelf-stacker wrote to Mass Observation that summer, ‘the EEC were not exactly a pillar of strength during our last little bit of trouble. With friends like these, who needs enemies?’ And perhaps it is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that with those words, the road to Brexit began.

 

  • Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and journalist. His latest book, Who Dares Wins, tells the story of the early 1980s: the most dramatic, colourful and controversial years in our recent history.
  • Who Dares Wins

  • The acclaimed historian of modern Britain, Dominic Sandbrook, tells the story of the early 1980s: the most dramatic, colourful and controversial years in our recent history.

    Margaret Thatcher had come to power in 1979 with a daring plan to reverse Britain's decline into shabbiness and chaos. But as factories closed their doors, dole queues lengthened and the inner cities exploded in flames, would her radical medicine rescue the Sick Man of Europe - or kill it off?

    Vivid, surprising and gloriously entertaining, Dominic Sandbrook's new book recreates the decisive turning point in Britain's recent story. For some people this was an age of unparalleled opportunity, the heyday of computers and credit cards, snooker, Sloane Rangers and Spandau Ballet. Yet for others it was an era of shocking bitterness, as industries collapsed, working-class communities buckled and the Labour Party tore itself apart. And when Argentine forces seized the Falkland Islands, it seemed the final humiliation for a wounded, unhappy country, its fortunes now standing on a knife-edge.

    Here are the early 1980s in all their gaudy glory. This is the story of Tony Benn, Ian Botham and Princess Diana; Joy Division, Chariots of Fire, the Austin Metro and Juliet Bravo; wine bars, Cruise missiles, the ZX Spectrum and the battle for the Falklands. And towering above them all, the most divisive Prime Minister of modern times - the Iron Lady.

  • Buy the book

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