With Brexit drawing nearer this an important moment to note that the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has not been a passive observer of the awkward association between Britain and Europe. On three separate occasions, at critical moments in the UK's relationship with Europe, the Council provided a platform for leading Conservative Party politicians to make waves from across the ocean. From the Council's archive emerges a curious tale of treachery, tantrums, angry editors, and airport pizza.
Monday, June 17, 1991
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a major scoop for the then-Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The Iron Lady had been forced from Number 10 Downing Street just the previous November after a pitiless putsch by senior members of her governing Conservative Party. Still smarting from her betrayal, the ever-outspoken former leader had not retreated quietly to the backbenches, but rather was “sniping, privately and publicly, at her successor John Major,” Richard Longworth recorded in the Chicago Tribune the day before her speech.
This would be Thatcher’s first major address on Europe for several months. The previous October—just weeks before her dethronement—a deeply skeptical Thatcher had been pressured by her own cabinet to take Britain into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the first step on the path to what would become the Euro. With Thatcher now out of the government, Major was hinting at even closer integration, but was all too aware that his predecessor exerted a powerful sway over his party's Eurosceptic wing. He feared her remarks may rouse them to rebellion.
The speech caught the attention of the political press in London. “Thatcher Told to Keep the Peace: Tone Down Speech on Europe, Aides Plead,” ran the headline of The Sunday Telegraph on June 16. Party advisers were worried about the prospect of the former prime minister “shattering the fragile truce on Europe.” Under the headline “Maggie’s New Euro Salvo,” The Sunday Express anticipated “a keynote address in Chicago tomorrow will explain [Thatcher’s] total opposition to the European Community dream of a federal Europe.”
At the Chicago Hilton, before an audience of 3,000, Thatcher at least avoided direct criticism of her successor. But she didn’t mince her views on European project, which she predicted would come to be viewed by historians as “a curious folly.” Thatcher unflatteringly compared Brussels’ centralization of power to the Soviet Union, which by this point was entering its final, spluttering months of existence. After the event pro-European Conservative politicians went on the offensive, with former Prime Minister Edward Heath claiming Thatcher’s remarks were “full of falsehoods, or in ordinary English, lies,” reported The Independent. Caught in the middle, Major was forced to walk a tightrope (fittingly, perhaps, as the son of a trapeze artist) for the remainder of his time in office.
Speaking of curious follies, Council archives reveal an intriguing side bar to this event. Printed copies of Thatcher’s highly anticipated speech were to be handed to the press as she took to the stage at the Hilton. But someone—no name given—failed to print enough. Journalists, eager to begin filing their reports, jostled in an unseemly scrum for the few available texts, leading to a rather pointed letter from a leading Fleet Street editor, and an exchange of damage-limiting communications between the Council, speaker’s bureau, and UK consulate.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
A quarter of a century after Margaret Thatcher's speech at the Hilton, the former prime minister, who passed away in 2013, would likely have been satisfied with the turn of events. Britain never did join the Euro, and on June 23, 2016, it voted to leave the bloc altogether.
Shortly after Britain’s second female prime minister, Theresa May, took the helm of state in July 2016, the Council hosted another Conservative member of parliament recently relieved of senior ministerial rank. George Osborne had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer—the number two in the UK government—throughout David Cameron’s six years as prime minister, but found himself without a seat at the table when May debuted her cabinet on July 14. Just over two months later, Osborne delivered the Louis B. Susman Lecture on Transatlantic Relations at the Council. Much like Thatcher before him, Osborne would be talking in Chicago, but speaking to London.
Osborne was a Remainer, and his dire warnings about the economic costs of Brexit had been dubbed “Project Fear” by the Leave campaign. He is rumored to have been far more skeptical about the wisdom of holding a referendum than Cameron, who was confident the country would vote Remain, thereby silencing his Party’s Eurosceptics, and fending off a growing electoral challenge from Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party. In a strange Chicago twist, the history-making decision to proceed with the referendum is rumored to have been made by Cameron and his closest advisors as they dined in the unlikely surroundings of a pizza restaurant at O'Hare International Airport (just don’t go looking for a historical marker).
As with Thatcher's speech, Osborne's was also marred by logistical challenges. A freak late-summer storm marooned Osborne on the tarmac at Newark Liberty for several hours, and he was unable to deliver his public lecture (a remarkably rare occurrence at the Council, thankfully). He finally arrived, slightly ruffled but still in surprisingly good spirits, all things considered, just in time to address a Director's Circle dinner.
In his speech, published online after the dinner, Osborne lamented that Referendum night had been “one of the low points” of his time in government, and he warned the country now faced its weightiest set of decisions since World War Two. Although it wasn't clear at this point when May would trigger Article 50, thereby initiating the two year exit negotiation period, Osborne was clearly keen to influence Britain's preparations for these talks. As reported by the BBC, Osborne implored May to keep Britain as close to the bloc as possible and “resist the false logic that leads from exiting the European Union to exiting all forms of European cooperation.” The former chancellor reminded the audience: “Brexit won a majority, hard Brexit did not.”
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Just over a year after George Osborne didn't quite speak on the Council's stage, another Conservative Party bigwig visited. Unlike Osborne or Thatcher, Sir Alan Duncan spoke as a current government minister, with a portfolio covering Britain's relations with Europe and the Americas. Duncan was touring the United States on a roadshow to promote Global Britain, something akin to the UK's idealized post-Brexit brand identity.
Despite his ministerial position, Duncan was no less candid than Osborne. In voting for Brexit the working class had thrown “a bit of a tantrum” over immigrants and jobs, Duncan said. And he brazenly criticized the Leave campaign—which had been led by his boss, foreign secretary, Boris Johnson—for stirring up opposition to immigration. Duncan’s frank remarks received widespread coverage in the UK press, and did not escape the attention of Nigel Farage, who tweeted “If Mrs May is serious about Brexit, she will sack @AlanDuncanMP immediately for his outrageous & arrogant comments.” But Duncan wasn't fired. In fact it was Johnson who would depart first, resigning from the government in the wake of May's Chequers summit, in July 2018 (although in all likelihood we will see him again). May herself hangs on, in arguably the loneliest and most thankless job in global politics.
If the Council’s trivial role in the Brexit saga illustrates anything, it is the enduring tug of war in British politics between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. This likely won’t end with Brexit, no matter what form the final divorce takes (or doesn’t take). And the Council will continue to provide a platform for British politicians to inform, debate, or simply stir things up from across the pond.