+44 (0)20 7799 6677

Standing Up to the EU Despots

  • Britain’s long-standing traditions of freedom and democracy are at risk
  • Margaret Thatcher bears a significant responsibility for the loss of powers to Brussels
  • David Cameron must learn the lessons of Thatcher’s mistake

Since joining the European Economic Community in 1973, successive British governments have steadily ceded the right of self-rule to Brussels. Even Margaret Thatcher, despite her popular reputation as a bulwark against European encroachment, contributed to this process by surrendering the UK’s veto in 12 key areas. But while British democracy has been weakened it has not yet been destroyed, and it now falls to the present and future generations to win it back.

In a pamphlet for the independent think tank Civitas, Dr David Green shows how the transfer of powers to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels in recent decades has been a betrayal of 1,000 years of history. With the European Communities Act of 1972 and then Mrs Thatcher’s Single European Act of 1986, the EU has been given control of swathes of British life in return for little if any democratic accountability. The 1972 Act incorporating the Treaty of Rome into British law laid down that EEC laws were to prevail over future Acts of Parliament.

But a key turning point was the 1986 Act under which the UK’s national veto was replaced with qualified majority voting (QMV) in a dozen important areas. Mrs Thatcher agreed to this in the hope she could outvote other countries in the removal of non-tariff barriers to trade in the pursuit of the single market. But she fell into a trap set by the centralisers and her mistake – acknowledged later by the former prime minister in her book Statecraft – allowed Britain to be coerced into giving up ever more powers of self-government.

Dr Green, the director of Civitas, warns that her experience in being outmanoeuvred by her European partners should be a warning to David Cameron, another Conservative Prime Minister, as he seeks to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Brussels over the coming years.

“In his January speech on the EU, Mr Cameron made ‘completion’ of the single market a top priority,” Dr Green said.

“But the single market is a Brussels code word for harmonisation. Mr Cameron should learn from the experiences of Lady Thatcher, who concluded later that harmonisation had led to the imposition of heavy regulation on British enterprise.

“She came out in favour of regime competition, so that each European country could try out its own approach. Then we could all learn from one another instead of enforcing one policy on everyone.”

Setting the EU debate in its historical context, Dr Green traces the evolution of British freedom and democracy from the Anglo-Saxons to the present day. Over successive centuries, the absolute rule of despotic monarchs was gradually broken down and representative democracy began to hold sway. By 1689 and the Bill of Rights, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was largely settled.

“As we learned the hard way during the long centuries of growing up as free people, the essence of a democratic system is to be able to dismiss the government of the day and demand an immediate election whenever there is good reason for supposing that the government does not reflect the views of the majority,” Dr Green writes in What Have We Done?

This cannot be said of the EU, despite the fig-leaf of accountability the European Parliament is meant to provide, and yet Brussels has become the ultimate authority in significant areas of British affairs. Open Europe estimates as much as 72% of the cost of regulation in the UK is the result of EU decisions. Countless regulations whose future effects can only be guessed at are constantly being forced into law after the barest examination by parliament. The EU officials who drafted them never face the British electorate; the Brussels bureaucrat has taken on the role of the absolute monarch.

Dr Green writes: “The EU has power in many areas vital to our freedom. It can force us to implement laws to which our government is opposed, to which the majority in parliament is opposed, and against the will of the majority of the British people. This transfer of power touches a nerve.

“We now face a fundamental choice as a people. Do we allow the erosion of our democracy to continue? Or do we take back the responsibility that earlier generations wrenched from the grasp of recalcitrant absolute rulers?

“Under our constitution the fact that the government can be removed immediately by either the Commons or the Crown changes its behaviour. EU officials have been handed powers by parliament at a time when the constitutional importance of being able to oust the government has been forgotten.

“But, while our free system has been weakened, it has not yet been destroyed, and it falls to the generations now living to be more reliable custodians of liberty and democracy, and to restore our heritage before it’s too late.”


A PDF of What Have We Done? The surrender of our democracy to the EU can be accessed below. Hard copies are available on request.

Download Associated PDF


Keep up-to-date with all of our latest publications

Sign Up Here