Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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1980 Mar 3 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

Airey Neave Memorial Lecture

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 174/80
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1845.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3356
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Conservatism, Conservative Party (organization), Conservative Party (history), Economy (general discussions), Education, Industry, Monetary policy, Privatized & state industries, Public spending & borrowing, Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Health policy, Northern Ireland, Society, Social security & welfare, Terrorism

I - Introduction

It is now almost a year since Airey Neave was brutally murdered. We have missed him more than we can say. The last ten months have been a time when the Party which Airey Neave served so loyally while he lived has been able to begin to put into practice again the ideals for which he stood. Airey would have been as invaluable a counsellor in Government as he was in Opposition. He is irreplaceable.

His long and varied public service began with one of the most famous feats of the Second World War: his escape from Colditz. He learned much from that extraordinary experience. The prisons of Nazi Germany taught him all that he needed to know about the character of totalitarian rule.

Afterwards, Airey did not have to speculate how a brutal police state behaves when freedom falters: he had himself suffered at the hands of the Gestapo. Nor did he have to read Dostoievsky to know what it means to be told (falsely) that he was about to be court-martialled and shot: it had happened to him.

Airey did not need to study history to know the truth about intolerance, for he had seen Jews being, literally, kicked off the pavement into the street in Munich by SS men. He had seen the Nazi movement at its zenith before the Second World War, with its mass marches and compelling fervour. He also saw that movement in its death-throes when, by what he himself described as a strange reversal of fortunes, he, the successful escaped prisoner-of-war, personally served the allied indictment on the major war criminals in their cells at Nuremburg. He later pondered deeply the historical and legal significance of those famous Nuremburg trials at which he played such a remarkable part; and he reached a firm, grave and considered judgement that they did indeed constitute “a sincere effort to bring compassion and decency to the conduct of war.” [end p1]

During the war itself, Airey Neave's escape gave him many precious intimations of truth. There is a fine passage in his book where he describes how he felt an “exquisite unburdening of the soul” when he knew that he was, miraculously, outside the prison gates, and free.

Airey went on to tell his readers that escape “is not a technique but a philosophy.” The real escaper from a prisoner-of-war camp, he said, “is not just a man equipped with compass, maps and so on.” He “has an inner self-confidence, a serenity of the spirit which will make him a pilgrim.”

Airey carried that inner confidence and serenity of spirit with him all his life. A philosophy of freedom was an integral part of his character in peace, and in war.

II - Ireland

That experienced, thoughtful and valiant fighter for freedom was brutally killed at the end of March 1979, within the precincts of the House of Commons which he loved so well, and where he had so many friends in all parties. That murder, of course, appalled and angered all those friends and the many, many others whom he had throughout the nation.

It shocked too all those survivors of Hitler 's war to whose cause Airey had devoted so much of his time since 1945.

Airey's death was a severe blow to me. I had come to value his friendship and advice very greatly. That terrible crime may have been intended to disrupt the election. It did not do so. For whatever the sorrow and grief, we were all determined that the election should go ahead normally. The cause which the murderers claimed to support was not advanced in any way by their barbaric violence.

We steadfastly refused to allow this accumulation of menaces to trap us into intolerance. The challenge which the IRA has been mounting against our political system in Northern Ireland is still being contained by the patience, stoicism and courage of Northern Irish people with the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the front line. We often use adjectives such as “heroic” too loosely, but the endurance of Ulstermen and women, in the face of danger, and over so long, fully entitles them to that designation. We should remember that tonight, as we remember Airey. Nor should we forget that, whenever the terrorists have struck in the homeland of Britain itself, they have met a united response from a nation which has shown once more that, when faced by a clearly identifiable menace, it can respond with wisdom and fortitude. [end p2]

Despite these years of bloodshed in Ulster, the IRA are no closer to achieving their aims. It is recognised in the Irish Republic and elsewhere that there has always been a clear majority of the population of Northern Ireland which continues to want to remain part of the United Kingdom. A survey carried out in 1978 and published by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Dublin clearly showed that three-quarters of all the people of Northern Ireland, including nearly half the Catholics, wished to retain their links with the United Kingdom. The moral of those findings is worth pondering very seriously. No democratic country can voluntarily abandon its responsibilities in a part of its territory against the will of the majority of the population there. We do not intend to create any precedent of that kind.

I hope that the Conference which is now being held in Belfast under the Humphrey AtkinsChairmanship of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will suggest ways whereby the people of Northern Ireland can, within the United Kingdom, exercise greater responsibility over their own affairs. They want and deserve that opportunity.

We are all conscious of the contribution by Irishmen from North and South to politics and literature over many centuries. Where would even British Conservatism be without the great Edmund Burke, or English literature without Sheridan, Shaw, Joyee and Wilde? Englishmen and Irishmen alike have been inspired by Yeats, so that many Irish placenames like Innisfree or Kiltartan Cross are well known to us even if we have never been to that country.

Nor can we forget the contribution of soldiers from both parts of Ireland in the great wars of this century. In the Second World War 165,000 nationals of the Republic fought for democracy; 750 of them were decorated, of whom eight were awarded the Victoria Cross. The part played by the great Irish Generals: Alanbrooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Templer and others, was beyond compare. [end p3]

Despite our differences over the years, relations between the Republic of Ireland and Britain are still closer than those of most independent sovereign states.

Our common membership of the European Community has added an extra dimension to this connection. On the basis of this and our shared past I believe that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will build a future in friendship.

III - The State

I spoke a moment ago of the underlying philosophy which Airey Neave believed to be essential in order to make a successful escape from a prison camp.

The political philosophy which guided Airey Neave in his life's work is close to mine.

This philosophy does not, and cannot, exactly reflect that of any one great Conservative thinker or statesman of the past, for the obvious reason that our circumstances are utterly different from anything hitherto known.

We read Burke, for example, with pleasure and profit, about the role of the State, but at Burke's death the Civil Service had no more than 16,000 members in all, including sinecures! Even the prisons were privately managed on license!

The great Lord Salisbury 's theory of balance will always assist the thinking of Conservatives. Many of his comments even on the industrial scene may still seem relevant to us: for example, he once spoke in strong sympathy for the movement in favour of an eight-hour working day.

He added: “But from that position to an Act of Parliament telling a man that if he wishes to work ten hours a day he should not do so is a difference as far from the North Pole to the South” .

(Nottingham, November 26, 1889). [end p4]

The great speeches of Winston Churchill will also always inspire Conservatives—as when, after Munich, he adjured the House of Commons “to say exactly what we think about public affairs.…this is certainly not the time when it is worth anyone's while to court political popularity” . (Speech, October 5, 1938)

It is impossible to know what those or other giants would have said about our problems had they been with us now.

Circumstances change but some values are unchanging and the art of politics is to combine the two.

Just as Burke and Salisbury added creatively to tradition for us, so we in our turn must re-interpret and extend those traditions to meet contemporary needs.

Future generations will then be able to draw on our experience too.

I have no doubt whatever that the statesmen whose names I have recalled would have been strongly behind the first principle of this government, which is to revive a sense of individual responsibility.

It is to re-invigorate not just the economy and industry but the whole body of voluntary associations, loyalties and activities which gives society its richness and diversity, and hence its real strength.

We are convinced that a society of this sort is the best one in which to live.

Since Burke's time the activities of the State have penetrated almost every aspect of life. Among other things the State has become responsible for huge nationalised monopolies employing hundreds of thousands of men and women.

The trouble is that when the State becomes involved in every strike, price or contract affecting a nationalised industry, people tend to associate the State with those things rather than with its higher traditional and necessary role.

Consequently its authority is not enhanced, it is diminished.

In our Party we do not ask for a feeble State. On the contrary, we need a strong State to preserve both liberty and order, to prevent liberty from crumbling and to keep order from hardening into despotism.

The State has, let us not forget, certain duties which are incontrovertibly its own: for example—to uphold and maintain the law; [end p5] to defend the nation against attack from without; to safeguard the currency; to guarantee essential services.

We have frequently argued that the State should be more strongly concerned with those matters than it has been.

But strong government is quite different from total or absolute government.

A modern Conservative Philosopher, Anthony Quinton put this point in a nutshell: “What is essential to conservatism is that it would confer absolute power neither on the individual nor the State…Law is the collective and historical element that is needed to control the actions of individuals, whether rulers or subjects, living and acting in the present” .

Further, though ideal government has to be strong “It is not charged with the direct control of all the activities of the community” .

The Conservative, “unlike the political theorist of idealism neither identifies the State with society nor absorbs society within the State” .

The State also is the custodian of national traditions, institutions and customs because they are part of our way of life and our national heritage. They are justified not on any basis of abstract logic—few, if any, of them could have been constructed that way—but because over the years they have worked and we should be cautious before changing or discarding them.

These are the things which only a government can do and which a government must do. Today, many other services—pre-eminently health and education—are the object of Government participation or supervision.

But however important, they should not in a free society be Government monopolies even though Government may be responsible for the larger part.

What we need is a strong State determined to maintain in good repair the frame which surrounds society. But the frame should not be so heavy or so elaborate as to dominate the whole picture. [end p6]

Ordinary men and women who are neither poor nor suffering should not look to the State as a universal provider.

We should remind ourselves of President Kennedy 's great injunction: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” .

We should not expect the State to appear in the guise of an extravagant good fairy at every christening, a loquacious and tedious companion at every stage of life's journey, the unknown mourner at every funeral.

IV Economic Approach

The relationship between state and people is crucial to our economic approach. Our understanding of economics, our economic philosophy is an extension of our general philosophy.

Airey's philosophy was suffused by a sense of personal responsibility and by a determination not to run away from reality. The two are inseparable For if, during recent years, we have in Britain done so much less well than we might have done, it is not because we are bad or incompetent, but because a layer of illusion has smothered our moral sense.

Let me list a few of the illusions which have blinded us:

The illusion that Government can be a universal provider, and yet society still stay free and prosperous.

The illusion that Government can print money, and yet the nation still have sound money.

The illusion that every loss can be covered by a subsidy.

The illusion that we can break the link between reward and effort, and still get the effort.

The illusion that basic economic laws can somehow be suspended because we are British.

For years some people have harboured these illusions which have prevented us from facing the realities of the world in which we live. It is time we abandoned them so that we can tackle our problems. Government and people both have a part to play. [end p7]

For Government, facing our national problems entails, above all, keeping the growth in the amount of money in line with the growth in the amount of goods and services. After years of printing too much money, to which the economy has become addicted, this will take time: but it must be done.

But it is not only the total amount of money that matters. It is how that money is distributed between on the one hand the public sector, which produces little real wealth, and on the other hand industry and commerce, the mainstays of our economy.

At present too much is spent on the public sector. It follows that the Government's second most important task is to reduce state spending, so that more resources can be put to investment in industry and commerce. This too takes time but it must be done.

Too much money spent by Government has gone to support industries which have made and are continuing to make heavy losses. The future requires that industry adapt to produce goods that will sell in tomorrow's world. Older industries that can't change must be slimmed down and their skills transferred to new products if they are to serve the nation.

This too takes time but it must be done.

Economics means harnessing change instead of being dominated by it. But Government cannot do it alone. These policies are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for recovery. The British economy is the British people at work—their efforts and their attitudes. Success will only be achieved

in so far as—people relate the rewards they receive to the efforts they make

in so far as—managers, freed from restrictions imposed by previous Governments, respond to their new found freedom to manage.

They and their companies are responsible to those who invest. They are responsible for their fellow employees and responsible to the customer for the quality, delivery and price of their goods. I believe that they are welcoming this new challenge. [end p8]

Among management and wage-earners alike, there is a widespread sense of relief that the potential of this great people is now matched by the resolve of the Government. This was Airey's dream, of a people not dependent on Government, but a people exercising initiative independently of Government.

This is a daunting but exhilirating mission. One which requires men and women of courage and conviction. We shall see it through. We owe that to our people. We owe it to Airey. Airey's life encompassed much more than national politics. [end p9]

The International Dimension

So I want to say a few words about the international setting of the drama in which we are living in this country. The division of responsibility between State and society of which I have spoken is one of the essential conditions of liberty everywhere. Of course, we need to be sensitive to other cultures, and their traditions. But we believe that they will be best able to reach both happiness and prosperity if they seek similar distinctions.

This belief is the main reason for our scorn for totalitarian societies, whether Nazi, Communist or anything else. For they sought and seek, utterly to fuse State and society. They prohibit private associations. They circumscribe religion. They organise culture to conform to the purposes of the State.

We would do well to remember the closing passages of Airey Neave's last book. Recalling that it would be many years before any of us, who had lived at that time, could begin to forget the Nazis, he reminded us that “before our eyes the problems of race and terrorism are a frightening reminder of Hitler's example. He lived by terror and his methods appeal to the young and rootless all over the world. Those who use terror to gain their political ends are the heirs of his Revolution of Destruction, however much they may claim to represent opposing doctrines.” How bitter that the man who wrote so clearly about one of the curses of our time should himself die because of it.

Airey Neave looked on the tyrannies which were established in his lifetime in so much of the world, even in Europe, not only as a threat but as a warning. Although deeply English, and devoted to English things, he was not so foolish as to think that tyranny could never be established here. He knew as well as anyone that vigilance is the condition of liberty. He knew too that the Nazis established themselves in a country which had been one of the best educated in the world. He saw only too clearly that despotism persisted after 1945 in another nation: Russia, which, for many generations has been territorially the largest state in the world.

That nation now poses the main external threat to our way of life. The Soviet Union is a totalitarian power greater in military strength than was Nazi Germany at the height of the last war. We are seeing in Afghanistan the fulfilment of the warnings which the farsighted among us have been seeking to give for several years. The threat which the Soviet Union poses indirectly to the West's sources of energy in the Middle East is obvious. Indeed, the continued uncertainty in the Middle East [end p10] as a whole in the aftermath of the fall of the Muhammad Reza PahlaviShah of Iran offers evident opportunities to the Soviet Union. Whether or not Russia's old desire for a warm water port in the Indian Ocean was a determining factor in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan, that aim is now easier of achievement than it was before. I think that in this country the truth about the growth of Soviet power has been generally appreciated. Increasingly it is now being understood elsewhere and, in this respect, the tragedy of Afghanistan has been salutary. The vote in the General Assembly of the UN in January condemning the aggression of the Soviet Union must surely come to be seen as an historic one, perhaps marking the beginning of a more realistic era, in Islam and in the non-aligned world generally.

The increase of realism in domestic affairs seems, therefore, as if it may be balanced by an equal growth of realism internationally. That is encouraging. Sir Isaiah Berlin, in a justly famous study of Russian thinkers during the nineteenth century wrote that Alexander Herzen considered the destruction of freedom neither inevitable nor, of course, desirable “but highly probable unless it was averted by deliberate human effort” . I think we can say that that need for deliberate human effort is more and more realised, at home and abroad.

It would be wishful thinking to make any more claims. We know that we are still in the early stages of our great journey to national recovery. We have a clear notion in our Party of our destination. We have a vision of a State which will be more effective because it will be more modest.

We know that once we have conquered our domestic troubles we shall be able to make a more worthy contribution to the safety of the West. We see, in our mind's eye, a nation of responsible citizens proud of their independence, resolved to remain free: worthy of their valiant and true fellow countryman, Airey Neave.