WHAT fools we’ve been. There we were, fretting about a no-deal Brexit and the consequences for jobs and prosperity and we needn’t have been worrying at all. Addressing the subject of a no-deal at the weekend, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ludicrous but dangerous MP for North East Somerset, suggested a cliff-edge Brexit would be absolutely fine. And it will be – for a while. Britain will make a huge success of jumping off the cliff. Right up until the moment we hit the ground.

Of course, one of the reasons Mr Rees-Mogg and his type are relaxed about a no-deal Brexit is that wealthy MPs are not the ones likely to suffer the economic consequences. But it’s also because a no-deal scenario would guarantee leaving the single market. Membership of the single market means accepting what the Brexiters can’t stomach – the free movement of people – whereas a no-deal removes the risk altogether of Theresa May compromising on the issue. Therefore, they are prepared to jump, and take us with them.

On the whole, the MPs who are the most keen to jump off the cliff and experience the sadomasochistic joys of an extreme Brexit are from the most right-wing, free-market end of the Conservative Party – MPs like Mr Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove (although for the moment Mr Gove is still backing the Prime Minister). In another age, these are the kind of men who would’ve been called Thatcherites (and been proud of the label) for their love of capitalistic freedom and hatred of regulation – indeed, on the whole, you will find that the most Brexity Brexiters are the most Thatcherite Thatcherites.

But what would Prime Minister Thatcher have made of their antics? Perhaps she would have approved – after all, Mrs Thatcher is the PM who warned of the European superstate, the woman who said “no, no, no” to Brussels, and the leader who, once out of office, became a figurehead for anti-European sentiment, perhaps even the Britannia who spawned the Brexit phenomenon in the first place. Mrs Thatcher still gets the blame for most things (and in Scotland for almost everything) so Brexit is just another thing to add to the list.

There’s also no doubt that the longer Mrs Thatcher was out of office the more Eurosceptic she became and, in her later years, she favoured renegotiating the UK’s membership of the EU to exempt us from increasing federalisation and, to her, that meant threatening to leave if necessary. In her last book, Statecraft, published in 2002, she wrote that “it should be made clear right at the start that in order to secure our objectives, we would be prepared, if it became necessary, unilaterally to withdraw from EU membership”.

However, I wonder if that accepted view of Mrs Thatcher’s stance on Europe gets it quite right and whether we shouldn’t instead take a much closer look at her legacy and beliefs because I’m not sure she would approve of where we are, or what we’re doing. More than that: I think her ideals can explain how we got here and a possible way forward.

For a start, Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t have got us into this mess in the first place. She was certainly keen to fight the EU for a different type of union – and proved she was good at it when she negotiated a rebate on the British contribution to the EU budget in 1984. But, unlike David Cameron, she would never have countenanced a vote on leaving the EU because she agreed with Clement Attlee that referendums are a device of dictators and demagogues.

The cache of papers concerning Mrs Thatcher’s famous Bruges Speech, released in the last few days, have also underlined an important point about her attitude to the EU. That speech in 1988 is often seen as a diatribe against Europe and, in some ways, the starting point of Brexit, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. It was a speech that calmly – and accurately I think – diagnosed the problem many British people have with the EU (even Remainers), but more importantly it came to a different conclusion to the Brexiters.

On the problem that many British people have with the EU, Mrs Thatcher was really clear-sighted. She said one of her guiding principles was that willing co-operation between sovereign states was the best way to build a successful organisation and that to try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of Europe was damaging. Working more closely together, she said, did not require decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy.

Many British people instinctively agree with this, even many of those who voted Remain. On page eight of The Herald today, you can read my interview with the historian Sir Antony Beevor and he neatly summed up the situation. The EU was established as a bulwark against nationalism, he said, but there is also a paradox at work, which is that the more Europe centralises its power, the more it creates the very nationalism that it’s trying to get rid of. It’s why Sir Antony describes himself as a Eurosceptic who voted Remain.

It’s this concern about centralisation that Mrs Thatcher captured so well in her Bruges speech, whereas on the economics of Europe, she came to a conclusion that the Brexiters will not like one little bit. The aim of the creation of the European single market, she said, was to make the continent open to enterprise and that meant no barriers to trade. “We want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers,” she said, adding: “Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community.” In other words: free movement of goods, free movement of people, the single market.

In retrospect, why would anyone expect anything different from a champion of the free market like Mrs Thatcher? “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes – our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community” she said, and she said it because staying in the single market makes trade easier and the British economy stronger. Obviously, 30 years on from the speech, Remainers can see that – they know it. But surely even some Leavers – and especially those who admire Margaret Thatcher – can see it too.