Warning: I am very likely to alienate almost everyone with this article. You have been forewarned.
As most of us know (although there are still holdouts on the Left on this subject, which will become relevant later on), Britain was in a bit of a mess in the 1970s. The “sick man of Europe” the UK was dubbed on account of stuff like the three day week, the ’76 IMF bailout, and the Winter of Discontent (rubbish piling up on the streets was a highlight). A common trope amongst Remainers these days is that it was joining the EEC that saved Britain – at least, eventually, after being inside the Common Market had a few years to begin to work its magic. I see what they are doing with this, but it omits half the story. For it was the combination of Thatcherism and being inside the EEC that really turned the country around.
When Thatcher became prime minister, she faced a largely dysfunctional country. Trade union power had gone crazy, grinding everything to a halt; several industries, nationalised under the Attlee government, had ceased to function in any real economic sense. Thatcher fixed these problems in her own inimitable way.
Having liberalised Britain’s economy, the country could take advantage of being within the Common Market in a style that wasn’t possible before Thatcher’s reforms. The financial sector in particular grew massively as a result. Blair realised this and adapted Thatcherism as opposed to trying to reverse it, attempting to soften the blow that it had had on many communities while deepening the economy’s ties with Europe. Cameron’s government continued in the same vein, rolling back state spending from where it had been under New Labour, but basically sticking to the same formula used since 1979. Without Thatcher, the full value of being inside the Common Market could not have been realised; without Commom Market membership, the full value of Thatcher’s liberalisation could not have been realised either.
As I eluded to above, Thatcher’s record is a very long way from ideal: many communities were damaged, sometimes irreparably, to the point that we are still picking up the pieces almost 40 years later. In her mission to change the country, there was a lack of care about who bore the brunt. However, an economy that was the pride of Europe was the result – at least, for the people who stood to gain from it.
I bring all this up in order to unpick the mess we’re in now. Thatcherism and the benefits of being in the Common Market are disputed by both the Left and the Right, all in ways that generally don’t hang together at all. Although I’m usually very critical of the man, Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few exceptions to this at present. He always hated Thatcher, and he has always been a Eurosceptic. He thought the 1970s were great and would be happy for us to return to that place. His views on this matter contain no contradictions and are entirely self-contained. Almost everyone else has some thinking to do, however.
Many Remainers on the Left should ask themselves why they love the EU so much. Many Leavers on the Right should ask themselves why they dislike it at all. If the current political situation made any sense whatsoever, it should be Corbyn leading a change of young lefties in getting Britain out of the EU so that state aid rules can be dismantled and the socialist utopia, impossible under the centrist EU, could begin to be assembled. All while the Tories argue the importance of Single Market access, without which the economy will be heavily destabilised. This is what would make some semblance of political sense. Instead, we have young lefties draping themselves in EU flags while free market Tories decry the world’s most free market. All of that goes a long way to explaining why things are so confused in British politics at the moment. At some point, these contradictions will become unbearable. What happens then will be interesting to watch.