Former Europe Minister David Davis, whose political savvy and pleasantries abound earned him the name of “the charming b*****d” among his European counterparts, believes those taking the decision at the time were blinded by free market Tory ideals.
Reflecting on the European journey embarked upon by Mrs Thatcher, and the about-change led by John Major, Mr Davis believes those at the heart of Conservative Government had no idea of the consequences of what they were signing up to.
Now a central voice in the campaign to leave the EU who debated Labour veteran Alan Johnson in Hull last night (May 27), the MP for Haltemprice and Howden believes the single market broke the European project and Britain should not be afraid to remove itself from an organisation that isn’t working in the country’s interest.
He said: “It was a mistake. There is no doubt in my mind that if Thatcher had known the consequences of the Single European Act that she signed and which was put through in 1993, she wouldn’t have done it.
“It sounded like a terribly Tory idea. A bigger free market was the way it was seen. Of course it isn’t a free market, it is a highly regulated market and that is the problem.”
In 1986 Margaret Thatcher signed Britain up to the Single European Act that set out how the European Community would enter into a single market with other member states by 1992.
However by 1988 she had cold feet, and in an infamous speech she gave to the College of Europe she likened a planned centralised bureaucracy for Europe to the Soviet Union.
Within two years she had been toppled by her party.
Fast-forward to 1992, and Mr Davis was a Government whip trying to shepherd dissenting Conservatives into backing the Maastrict Treaty, which would put the Single European Act into play.
A backbench rebellion of Conservative MPs supposedly influenced by the ousted Thatcher almost brought down the pro-EU John Major Government but the Treaty was eventually passed in the House of Commons in 1993 - a year late. Thus, the European Union was born.
Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post in his Westminster office over looking the Thames, Mr Davis said he never liked the ideas set out in Maastrict personally but by the time he arrived in Government and to his whip role, it was already on the table.
Yet he maintains signing up to Maastricht did prevent Britain from being taken into the Euro because if Labour had won an election in the early 1990s they would have signed up to a single currency in a heart-beat.
He said: “The point about Maastrict is it gave Britain opt outs on the social chapter and the Euro and if we had lost the Treaty the Government would have fallen and the Labour Party would have then won the ensuing election and they were in favour of joining up to the Euro and social chapter.
“In fact eventually they did join up to the social chapter but by then it was beginning to be obvious that Europe was not such a good idea.
“My concern was at the time that we would have been in the bloody Euro and we would have fallen out of Government and been the euro and we would have been in a terrible state. That was the reasoning for the Maastricht Treaty.”
Despite his own personal Euroscepticism, John Major asked him to become Europe Minister in 1994, and Mr Davis set about making friends with continental counterparts as they set about trying to steer the foundling union.
He said: “I tried to turn down the job of being a foreign office minister. I said to John Major I’m your most eurosceptic minister and after two hours he spent trying to find somebody else and eventually he said “no, you do it”.”
“People conflate being against the EU with being anti-European. One of my nicknames when I was Europe Minister was the “charming bastard”. That was a headline of the Financial Times.
“That arose because the British press were trying to find division in the group that was doing the negotiating on the Treaty and I was the Brit on it.
“The press were going around and everybody was saying, “no, no, no I’m not going to criticize David” . It was a friend of mine, the ex-Portuguese foreign secretary and he’s a very mischievous character.
“He told the reporter: “Of course David is the master of constructive obstruction. He’s a charming bastard!”
“But the point about it was I was friends with all of them. They were my mates.
“I consider myself a European citizen in the broadest sense in terms of European civilization but it doesn’t mean I want to sign up to European bureaucracy and people don’t make that distinction.”
As the ‘new Europe’ lumbered into existence, it took some time for the cracks to show and eventually there were two issues that crystallized in Mr Davis’ mind that the Maastrict Treaty had not worked for Britain.
One was the inability to make reforms, and the second was the decline in trade when the European Community became the European Union with a single market.
Mr Davis, who challenged David Cameron to lead the Tory Party in 2005, said: “There is no doubt in my mind that when we joined in 1973 and joined the Common Market that it worked. The common market did massively increase the exports we made to Europe. About four years ago when I started to look at the numbers, the proportion of trade that goes to Europe dropped from 61% to 40% over a ten to 15 year period. So I said “what is going on here?”.
“Most Tories being free marketeers would think common market, good, single market, even better! Margaret Thatcher thought that. That’s how she gave up her sovereignty. She did it, her fault!
“I’m only joking because I am supposedly the great living Thatcherite, but what we thought was there was going to be more free market. But for lack of a better phrase, it is instead, a single regulatory space.”
Burdensome regulation which he believes is shown off to comic effect in the campaign film Brexit: The Movie, in which he plays a staring role, and was launched with a red carpet event at Leicester Square’s Odeon cinema in May.
While his euroscepticism smoldered away quietly in the mid 1990s, it is now at fever pitch, and he wants others to realise that at the June 23 referendum, they have a chance to break away from an institution that simply does not work.
He said: “Twenty years ago I would have been firmly on the other side. Ten years ago I would have been on the other side, but not quite so firmly.
“But after 20 years of watching us try and say “it’s a flawed organisation but we will reform it”, after 20 years of trying to centralise, then decentralise and then centralise it again, and after trying to make it less intrusive, it becoming more intrusive I’ve come to the conclusion - it doesn’t just not work, it works in the opposite direction. Which is really how I arrived where I am.”