Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1978 May 6 Sa
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to the Bow Group ("The Ideals of an Open Society")

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Delaware Room, Royal Commonwealth Society, Northumberland Avenue, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: The press release (622/78) was embargoed until 1000. As usual to improve delivery MT made stylistic modifications to the text released to the press. A section of the text has been checked against BBC Radio News Report 1300 6 May 1978 (see editorial notes in text). Most unusually MT delivered this section precisely as written. The text of this speech published in Alistair Cooke’s The Revival of Britain is taken from the press release. Long excerpts were printed in some of the broadsheets - e.g., Sunday Times, 7 May 1978 and The Times, 8 May 1978.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 3794
Themes: British Constitution (general discussions), Parliament, Civil liberties, Commonwealth (general), Conservatism, Defence (general), Economy (general discussions), Education, Higher & further education, Industry, General Elections, Privatized & state industries, Foreign policy (general discussions), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Health policy, Housing, Labour Party & socialism, Law & order, Local government, Religion & morality, Society, Social security & welfare, Trade unions, Strikes & other union action

The Ideals of an Open Society

Sometimes Britain and the free democracies of the West seem to be suffering more from a failure of nerve than from anything else. “After the fall of Athens, in 404 BC” wrote C. M. Bowra (The Greek Experience) “something was extinguished, not merely a zest for life and a boldness of enterprise and experiment but certain assumptions which had never been seriously questioned now lost their authority and their hold” .

The evidence of every kind proves that our free democratic system is superior in technology to the communist one.

We are infinitely quicker to take advantage of promising inventions than they are. Since 1945, our system has brought benefits to large numbers. [end p388]

The population of their countries, on the other hand, has suffered horribly and unnecessarily from the deadening hand which the State has held over them. No communist country, for example, has made a success of collectivised agriculture. Russia, before the Revolution, used to be a great exporter of wheat. Recently she has often had to import that staff of life from the USA.

The writings of Solzhenitsyn made obvious even to the wilfully blind that it was not simply Stalin who was an evil man, but that communism, in practice, is an evil system, which gave birth to Stalin. [end p389]

Prosperity in the West can also be measured in direct relation to the role which the State had played in the economy concerned. West Germany and Japan, for example, where the part of the State has been modest, are more successful, measured in terms of output, than are Britain and Italy, where the hand played by the State has been strong.

Even so, morale among the free democracies is low. Prominent people have publicly wondered whether Democracy can survive. Very few people describe themselves willingly as ‘capitalists’. [end p390]

By contrast, the communist states seem to be entrenched and communists have a strong position in several Western European countries. The Left of the Labour party is stronger within that organisation than it used to be when the country's standard of living was less good. The Labour Left has also shown itself, astonishingly, more friendly to Russia even than some of the European communist parties.

There are also many who, while rejecting the system as it has worked in Russia, openly despise the old ideals of the West: anarchists, trotskyists, revolutionaries of the most diverse aspirations have made an appearance in almost every university in the free world. If it is not always easy to know what these sects want, it is usually easy enough to understand that they do not want democracy. [end p391]

Reasons for Disillusion

The reasons for the disillusion or even despair in the West are various.

First, many suffer from a certain historical shortsightedness.

People forget that democracy in the sense of a universal franchise is new. Even in Britain, it is only fifty years old. [end p392]

Thus, our version of democracy is not an old, ramshackle building which, after many generations, is beginning to fall down. It is a system still with growing pains—an infinitely new system in comparison with absolute systems, such as practised by our enemies.

A hankering for absolutism, like a hankering for a single leader, is a throw-back to the past, not a foreshadowing of the future.

Second, spokesmen for democracy too often allow their opponents to choose the ground for debate. [end p393]

It is not enough to say that private enterprise gives a better material life, true though that usually is. We should look more to ideas and realise that people respond to them often more than they respond to appeals to their material interests.

Communists know the power of ideas, despite their doctrine of historical materialism. We too should show we are aware of their importance despite our material success.

Third, a generation of easy liberal education has accustomed many to suppose that Utopia was soon to be achieved. Such education left the belief that, with the welfare state, all ills would soon vanish and, with the UN, all tyrannies would soon crumble. [end p394]

That has proved an illusion.

Each generation has to fight for its own liberties, in whatever way is appropriate. The ideal solutions of one generation may even become, unless refurbished and brought up to date, the cause of bondage, or at least bureaucracy for the next.

Fourth, we may have underestimated the shocks given by the two world wars, the loss of empire, and the threat of nuclear weapons.

The long series of set backs suffered by the West in the Middle East, the Far East, Cuba, and now (it seems) Africa must also be having an effect. [end p395]

The loss of empire did not mean the eclipse of everything for which this country stood in the past. On the contrary, if all the various achievements of Britain in history were totted up, our role in evolving a political democracy with a record of tolerance second to none would probably rank first.

It would be followed by our role in initiating the industrial age.

Then, what of the glories of English literature?

The Empire, magnificent construction though it was, surely did not exceed the greatness of these achievements. [end p396]

Fifth, the friends of the free society have also too often accepted the argument of their enemies that the dominant issue in politics is a matter of social class. Policies with that as a basis are both divisive and meaningless.

Those who, in the nineteenth century, worked out a theory of history based on class did so at a time when there were comparatively few urban wage-earners dependent on a powerful employer. Neither Marx nor Engels could possibly have recognised their ‘working class’ in present-day Britain or indeed elsewhere. [end p397]

Of course, many workers of the mid-nineteenth century did feel lost, if they were working twelve hours a day, with the protection neither of unions nor of social legislation. But modern workers in Detroit, Coventry, the Ruhr, even Moscow, are now primarily citizens of their country, like everyone else. They are not members of an under-privileged and internationally recognisable ‘class’.

The moral of all this is simple: Marx was wrong about the working-class when he wrote his books; and his prescriptions have as little use today as other mid-Victorian arguments have as to what should, or should not, be done.

Let us now try and express some of the foremost ideals of an open society. [end p398]

The Rule of Law

First in importance among the things for which we stand must be the Rule of Law.

This phrase means much more than a pious hope that everyone will be law-abiding.

In the eighteenth century, foreign visitors, such as Voltaire, were particularly struck by the fact that England was governed, as was not then the case with any other European country, by the Rule of Law. They meant by that not that our laws were specially lenient, nor even specially logical. They meant, that no-one should be punished, nor could lawfully be made to suffer in body, or suffer loss of goods, save for a definite breach of the law, established in the courts of the land. [end p399]

Our tradition is that a man can only be punished for a breach of the law, nothing else.

The second characteristic of the Rule of Law in this country is that everyone, whatever their rank, should be subject to the ordinary law of the land. The law applies to the governors and the governed alike.

Now, in the last few years, these principles have begun to be ignored and eroded.

I don't mean simply to refer here to the Labour party's curious attitude to the councillors of Clay Cross, nor even to the Labour Left's astonishing attempt to make martyrs of the Shrewsbury pickets. [end p400]

Nor even do I mean Mr. Michael Foot 's attack on the judges on the occasion when the Attorney General seemed to have been worsted in the course of their party's interventions in the affair of the Grunwick film-processing factory.

No, the fact to which I refer is that, as a result of the growth of trade unions, [Beginning of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 1300 6 May 1978] men and women can be punished, even to the extent of losing their livelihoods, by kangaroo courts set up under those same unions, or by other action undertaken by those unions.

Some would freely admit that they have joined unions not out of conviction but out of self-protection. Others fear flying pickets and similar manifestations of the power of unions more than they fear the Law. End of section checked against BBC Radio New Report 1300 6 May 1978. [end p401]

It is essential to restore the traditional way of conducting these affairs.

The Greeks, during the golden age, knew perfectly well that what distinguished them from the barbarians of that day was their respect, and the respect of their leaders, for the Law.

John Locke put the matter plainly when he said ‘Where Law disappears, tyranny begins’.

Unless we restore and guard it the Rule of Law will generally fall into disrespect. If that were to happen, there is no certainty whatever about who would profit in the end. [end p402]

Time and again in history, a political system which surrenders on this sort of point has been overthrown, and has deserved to be, but not always by its most obvious enemies.

There is a fashionable theory, deriving from Marx, that law and lawcourts exist to protect the rich and powerful. Experience suggests on the contrary that the poor and weak need law more than anyone else.

Our faith in the Rule of Law has a long ancestry. I have mentioned the ancient Athenians' understanding of the question. The desire to restore the Rule of Law was an important allied aim during the last war. We were not then insisting on the establishment of any particular law, but on re-establishing systems of government in which the Rule of Law would prevail in place of the Rule of Force. [end p403]

Limits on the Role of the State

Our second main principle is our sense of the limit which we must impose on the power of the State.

The State should not be allowed, and should not allow itself, to spill outwards, upwards and outwards in every direction in Ramsay Macdonald 's famous formulation, as if it were the only institution to be relied upon. We should have far too great respect for the State to allow it to extend its tentacles too far. [end p404]

The State has, it seems to me, three main roles:

first, to defend the population against its enemies within and without and to act as the force behind the law: In this, the State should have a monopoly of power,

second, its function in social services, where it can play a big part but should not have a monopoly,

and third, its role in the economy, where not only should the State refrain from a monopoly but its every activity should be scrutinised to be sure that it cannot be carried out more effectively by private enterprise. [end p405]

I wish to say a word about each of these three roles in turn.

First, defence, and law and order. If a potential enemy seems more formidable than we can reasonably be expected to cope with alone, it is the first business of the State to ensure alliances which will enable us to withstand any such menaces.

The Forces concerned must also be adequate to ensure essential services if the worst comes to the worst, whether that derives from a breakdown of order which the ordinary police cannot cope with (as has been the case since 1969 in Ulster) or from a strike, say, in the fire services. [end p406]

The other role in which the State should have a monopolist position, is to provide the sanction to ensure that Rule of Law which I earlier described as the first of our principles.

In both these departments, the performance of the Government in the last four years has been inadequate. Our armed services are not properly provided for and our Police are below strength. The National Executive of the Labour Party scarcely bother to hide that they would prefer to run down our defence so much that an unbridled appeasement of Russia would be the only way out. [end p407]

The second role of the State is in respect of the social services. Whether it be in cash benefits, health, or education, the State should not be the only agency concerned. Voluntary organisations, private pension and insurance funds, personal health provision, and above all family and friends, will always have a vital part to play.

Consider Housing—an expensive area of government initiative. It is also one where the effect of government has been to create new problems without solving existing ones. Council housing provides low-rent accommodation at high cost to the public and does more than any other single factor to stress class divisions in the community. [end p408]

Anything which helps council tenants to become owners of their houses must be encouraged.

We should surely wish to look forward in the long run to a Nation in which only a small minority of the population live as municipal tenants. Yet we are in danger of moving in the other direction.

Much the same applies to education where given the history of the last 100 years the State's contribution will always be much larger than the private sector. There is cause for alarm at the extent to which greater State involvement, to the point of virtual monopoly in higher education, has coincided with a decline in educational standards. [end p409]

In medicine, we are dealing in Britain with a myth, as well as an achievement. The achievement is the Health Service, and the myth is that its establishment necessarily creates a system of public health superior to that elsewhere, where a higher proportion is financed through private insurance, including occupational and trade union schemes.

The third role of the State is its involvement in the economy.

Now some of its activities are so old (for example, in relation to the currency and tariffs) as to be a part of the history of the concept of statehood. But most of the State's intervention in the economy is new. [end p410]

The habit of intervention derives as much as anything else from the taste acquired by governments for regulation of private enterprise during the abnormal circumstances of the two World Wars. Indeed, it was during the Wars that the Government—or rather its economic advisers—first began to believe that one of the State's duties was to “manage” the economy; an idea which would not have occurred to any administration during the days of our economic greatness. [end p411]

The role of private enterprise in ensuring a successful economy is something which can be proved from history time and again. In the nineteenth century, the German economist List (no friend of free trade) wrote: “The enormous producing capacity and the great wealth of England are not the effect solely of national power and individual love of gain. The people's innate love of liberty and justice, the energy and the religious and moral character of the people have a share in it” . (The National System of Political Economy)

The fact that Britain was a free country was plainly one of the main reasons why she was able to be the initiator of industrialisation at the end of the eighteenth centruy. [end p412]

In his essay On Liberty, J. S. Mill points out that if the main economic institutions of the country are run by the government “not all the freedom of the Press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name” . (On Liberty)

Some of our economic problems now stem from nationalisation. The motives for nationalisation were variously explained in the 1940s as being to achieve better labour relations, to ensure greater efficiency and to prevent private shareholders from profiting from undertakings of national importance. [end p413]

All those arguments sound strange today, as indeed does George Brown 's remark, in the 1960s, that his party would only then nationalise industries which were “failing the Nation” . But as we now know, no provision was made for nationalised industries which might fail the Nation.

The State's concern in economic affairs must be primarily to service the nation. Its task should be to ensure that as few obstacles as possible are placed in the way of our own pursuit of enterprise, not to try and organise how we should do that. [end p414]

Thus the State should be concerned with such matters as the enforcement of private contracts, the encouragement of competitive markets, the guarantee of fair trading, maintenance of incentives regulation of health and safety standards. It must concern itself with the abuse of monopoly. The State may also feel constrained to mitigate the effects of industrial change.

Inevitably, arising out of a national emergency or a past commitment, the State may feel called on to do more than this. But in every such venture there may be some disadvantage to the community as a whole, though it may benefit a comparatively small number. The balance of advantage must be definite and considerable and be looked at in the long as well as the short term. [end p415]

We are not anti-State. On the contrary we seek a proper balance between State and society. The more the State's powers are extended the less its authority is respected by the people.

Only if the State's role in our society is kept to modest dimensions, will respect for it be combined with respect for the large number of private associations which contribute so much to the stability and richness of a society, associations ranging from business to charity, and from voluntary organisations to the family.

The essence of a free society is that there are whole areas of life where the State has no business at all, no right to intervene. The spontaneous coming-together of people in a common interest leads to creative relations between people in a way with which authority's forced [end p416] groupings cannot compete.

Many of the best achievements of our history derive from this. De Tocqueville, writing over a hundred years ago, thought that such associations would be essential in mass democracies above all, if tyranny were to be resisted.

Sovereignty of Parliament

Our third national ideal should be our respect for the sovereignty of Parliament.

This respect for Parliament has a very long and dramatic history, marked by a continuity which differentiates this nation from all others in Europe. [end p417]

Like the ideal of the Rule of Law, the ‘sovereignty of Parliament’ is a deceptively simple phrase, often repeated without recognition of its real meaning. That meaning can best be grasped by recalling that, in the old struggles of parliament against royal power, our ancestors never tried to destroy the authority of the Crown. Their aim was to bind the Crown to recognised ways of procedure by recognised checks and balances which would ensure the supremacy of law and the sovereignty of Parliament.

We are of course proud of the parliamentary institutions which have resulted. They are also much admired abroad. But institutions are like all fortifications, they need to be well maintained. [end p418]

In the last few years, governments have often treated Parliament in a very high-handed manner. The enormous mass of legislation, the sudden changes in Parliamentary rules during the passage of Bills, and the use of marginal majorities to force through highly contentious legislation, have sadly diminished Parliament's standing.

Two years ago, the then Minister for Employment, Mr. Michael Foot, accepted the amendments which the unions wanted on the closed shop, while he rejected those that the House of Commons put forward, even the ones designed to safeguard the freedom of the press. [end p419]

The difficulties of ensuring the accountability to parliament of nationalised industries are now well known to all.

There is also the Labour party's attitude to the House of Lords.

Many would not regard that chamber as being ideally constituted at the moment, but having helped to defeat every positive effort to reform that House, the Labour Left now desires to abolish it.

That would mean single chamber government despite the fact that there is general acceptance among constitutional lawyers and historians, here as in most countries of the old commonwealth (based, of course, upon our experience here) that a second chamber is an essential part of the constitution. [end p420]

It is an institution designed to give time for tempers to cool and to allow the revision or at least the reconsideration of legislation which may have been hastily passed through the Commons. There are, of course, instances in history (for example, the Convention in the French Revolution) where unicameral legislatures have imposed dictatorships.


In conclusion let me touch on the Christian basis of our national way of life. [end p421]

We cannot claim that our society is entirely a Christian one. Nor indeed would we claim that Christian societies are necessarily always good.

But we are the heirs of a society whose religion and whose way of life has been Christian for century on century. Most of us whether Christian or not are thus inspired directly or indirectly by the absolute value which Christianity—deriving in part from the Old Testament and Greek philosophy—gives to the individual soul, and hence to man's innate responsibility for his own actions and omissions, and his duty to treat other men as he would have them treat him. [end p422]

These teachings underlie the essential values in our society. No effort is too great to preserve them and to ensure that new generations understand their heritage.

All these values and their underlying ideas are old and well-tested.

They were relevant two thousand years ago in the Athens of Pericles and the Holy Land of the prophets. They will be as relevant in a hundred years time as they are now.

Do you remember socialists used to say that the Labour Party was “a crusade or it is nothing” ? [end p423]

We by contrast, believe in a society whose solidarity and integration are provided by individuals in free association, sharing common values.

The classical lines of our political philosophy may seem more harsh, more demanding in that they leave much to individual conscience, and they promise less. But I have no doubt whatever that they will be more enduring.

Our generation has lived through the great illusion of socialism, seeing its promises falter and turn sour, its human mask fall away to show envy, hatred destruction. [end p424]

You will begin where we have left off.

Your main task will be to rediscover, restore, restate and re-apply creatively traditional values based on the full human spirit.

The clash of philosophies has come to be embodied more closely in the party line-up than any of us foresaw or wished. But battle is joined and we must win.

For this reason the next general election will be a watershed in our national history.

We are, as it were, today on a ridge from which streams flow down to different seas. [end p425]

The ridge-path itself is narrow, so that the springs of the streams are close together, as close, let us say, as those whom it is customary to call the “social democrats” seem to be on some important matters to the Conservatives.

But actually the streams flow down in different directions: one stream flows to a dark cold sea of further collectivisation, the other to the warm and bright sea of the Open Society.