Thanks, in part, to her handling of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be remembered as one of the weakest heads of state in modern times. When the British people voted to leave the E.U. in 2016, the former empire was in a uniquely strong position to obtain a favorable Brexit agreement. Amazingly, May managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and negotiated a deal that is so awful that it compares to the Versailles Treaty that Germany was forced to sign after being defeated in World War I.
What else could she have done? Perhaps a look at Britain’s Iron Lady, former PM Margaret Thatcher, can be instructive. During her terms, she faced far greater adversaries than a weak E.U., and she became a legend for the way she handled them.
The Falklands War
Just like Venezuela, Argentina was once one of the richest and freest countries in the world. They abandoned the free market in favor of socialism and fascism, which destroyed the economy and created popular discontent and riots. In a desperate attempt to avert attention away from their failing economy, the leaders of the military junta decided in 1982 to invade the British territory of the Falkland Islands.
They thought that the U.K. was weak and wouldn’t care about a little rock in the south Atlantic far away from the British Isles. They were mistaken. Thatcher resolutely sent warships to the Falklands, and 74 days after the invasion, the Brits had won the war.
The Trade Unions
Socialism wasn’t just destroying the Argentinian economy; it was also ruining Britain, and the unions were particularly nasty. Rather than acknowledging how socialist policies were suffocating economic growth, the unions grew ever more confrontational and totalitarian during the 1970s.
Their stranglehold on society was a key reason that Thatcher won the election in 1979. In office, she secured legislation that dramatically reduced their power. In 1984 she expressed her views on the leaders of the trade unions as follows: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
The unions tried to resist in a final major conflict in 1984 and 1985 but to no avail. The government shut down all the unprofitable coal mines and liberalized the energy markets.
How would Thatcher have handled the Brexit negotiations? We can never know, but some educated speculation may be in order. Northern Ireland is the thorn in Britain’s side. After a decades-long civil war between Protestants and Catholics, relations have finally started to normalize. The E.U. saw this as an opportunity to force a lousy treaty on the U.K. Unless it accepts an awful agreement, the E.U. would erect a toll and passport barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland, thereby potentially disrupting the fragile peace and reigniting the conflict.
Based on her past behavior, a typical response from Thatcher would have been to threaten to retaliate with erecting toll barriers of their own through areas that neighbors U.K. territory. That includes two of the busiest shipping lanes in the world: the English Channel and the Gibraltar Strait.
By threatening to send warships to enforce a toll and passport control through these routes, she would likely have been able to scare the E.U. into making significant concessions and reaching a reasonable Brexit deal.
We will never know for sure if this is what she would have chosen, but the thought experiment illustrates the ocean of cowardice that separates Thatcher and May.
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