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6 January 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 8:17am

The rupture between Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors lives on in Brexit

The 1988 split between prime minister and European Commission president explains where Brexit came from - and where it might go

By Jeremy Cliffe

When historians look back at 11pm on 31 December 2020, when Brexit took effect, who will they say had set Britain and the EU on the path that led there? David Cameron and Boris Johnson? Jean-Claude Juncker? Angela Merkel? Tony Blair? I suspect that, more than any of these figures, the two names with which any longue durée history of Brexit will start and end will be Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors. Understand the two of them, and particularly their rupture, and you understand where Brexit came from, and where it might go.

The British former prime minister and the French former European Commission president were strikingly alike in some ways. Both born in 1925 to lower-middle-class families with ambitious fathers, they were devout Christians and outsiders among their countries’ political elites who took pride in their modest roots. Both combined establishment pragmatism with modernising radicalism. And both were forged by the intellectual contests of their young adulthoods, as postwar Europe swept up the rubble and debated its future.

Thatcher read Hayek and the Victorian constitutionalist AV Dicey, who venerated the “illimitable” sovereignty of parliament and the unitary nation state (“federal government means weak government”). Delors, as his biographer Charles Grant explains, was shaped by the Catholic left and its philosophers. From Emmanuel Mounier he took a “personalist” outlook that proposed a third way, neither materialist nor individualist, between Marxism and liberalism. From Jacques Maritain’s 1951 book Man and the State, Delors took a profound scepticism of the sovereign state in favour of what would today be called federalist subsidiarity: liberty protected by the distribution of power through heterogeneous institutions and groups.

[see also: Has Brexit killed British manufacturing?]

Their methods, too, differed starkly. Thatcher, a Protestant economic liberal in the Weberian mould, spent her years as a young barrister marinating in the adversarial for-or-against style of the British legal system. Delors, the young Bank of France and Catholic trade union official, came to vest an almost mystical faith in negotiation, compromise and social partnership.

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All of which would prove decisive three decades later, when they both ended up at Europe’s top tables. Thatcher had been prime minister for six years when, in 1985, Delors became Commission president. The two worked together on the Single European Act in 1986, the first big initiative of his tenure that completed the single market. On that subject, Thatcher’s economic liberalism and Delors’s personalist federalism elided. But their world-views propelled them in opposite directions on what Delors saw as the obvious next steps: to give the single market a social dimension and a single currency. In a series of speeches, committee meetings and reports over the summer of 1988, he blindsided Thatcher with his dynamism on both fronts.

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In September that year, Delors gave a speech to the Trades Union Congress; the audience responded rapturously to his call for pan-European trade union rules to protect a “uniquely European model of society”. Thatcher fired back two weeks later with her Bruges speech, attacking attempts to “introduce collectivism and corporatism” and to “concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate”.

Thatcher’s attitude to Delors soured fast; influenced, among other things, by lurid Telegraph dispatches from Brussels by a young Boris Johnson. She was ambushed and isolated at two major summits (Madrid in 1989 and Rome in 1990) as the end of the Cold War accelerated the Delors agenda. The drama would culminate in Thatcher’s “no, no, no” speech to the House of Commons, her defenestration, the psychodrama of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and a Tory-led campaign to take Britain out of Europe that would, of course, triumph in 2016.

[see also: Is the government’s Brexit deal any good? Even Boris Johnson can’t tell you]

Britain is, in many ways, still Thatcher’s country: its welfare state limited, its geopolitical instincts Atlanticist, its economy services-based and its society markedly libertarian (though she herself was a social conservative). It has been and is still governed by children of Thatcher like David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove; politicians marked by her Eurosceptic turn in the 1980s and who, along with some Labour counterparts, have enjoyed cosplaying her uncompromising, stick-it-to-Brussels postures.

Likewise, the EU is Delors’s creation more than anyone else’s. Expansion, subsidiarity, European industrial policy, the rise of the European Parliament, the incomplete edifice of monetary union, the social chapter and Schengen – it all dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier are all children of Delors.

Their insistence, during the Brexit talks, on a “level playing field” was rooted in Delors’s goal of a social Europe that prevents a race to the bottom in standards. The union’s opposition to cherry-picking, meanwhile, was rooted in his notion of a package-deal single market. Recent shifts towards further integration and a more political EU are also consistent with Delors’s federalist long-term vision.

The trade deal finalised on 24 December still leaves much to decide and negotiate. Above all, it presents the UK with a choice. Should it stay closely bound to a project with which its political leaders are so deeply, philosophically, at odds? Or should it take the Thatcher-Delors rupture to its logical conclusion and emphatically diverge (at a cost in tariffs) with the European social model? It also poses a related question for those who hope for some future Bre-entry: would Brits, one day, really forgo a future scripted by Thatcher for one scripted by Delors? 

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control