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1988 Jul 29 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to British Society of Magazine Editors

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Meridian Hotel, Piccadilly, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1300. MT’s next appointment was at 1435. Questions followed the speech.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4491
Themes: Agriculture, Autobiographical comments, Parliament, Conservatism, Defence (Falklands War, 1982), Primary education, Employment, Industry, General Elections, Monetary policy, Privatized & state industries, Environment, Taxation, Trade, European Union (general), European Union Budget, European Union Single Market, Foreign policy (general discussions), Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Media, Religion & morality, Society, Transport, Women

Prime Minister

Madam Chairman,

Thank you for that lovely introduction. I must say I am glad I am this side of the face and not the other! I think the bit about Denis ThatcherDenis in the morning shouting at the Pinkos is really rather right, but I must tell you, therefore, that we both find it very much easier to switch off at 6.30 and get on with the work of the day!

You asked me to give you some idea of what we have been trying to do during our first nine and-a-half to ten years and the direction in which we wished to go. As I have to leave for a tour of Australia at 2.25, I will try to do it very quickly indeed, because I know that you do like to ask questions as well, so I will do it very broad brush, but it is an opportunity for me. You are an enormously influential group of people and you are the people who help to set the standards by which our country lives. [end p1]

I remember, long before I became Prime Minister, doing several lecture tours and starting out to try to make up a particular lecture: “Who sets the standards which our country abides by? Who sets the standards by which society lives?” I gave it up. It was too difficult, but I do know that the media are some of the people who not only reflect and report standards, but which also set them, and so I am very glad to have this chance of telling you what we have been trying to do, why we have been trying to do it, and the way we want to go, and then just to leave you a little task which would, I think, help all of us if you carried it out! (laughter)

Some of you are too young to remember nearly ten years ago, some of us are not! But we did come in at a rather critical time and if I might start by saying that there was one saying which always irritated me enormously. It is that “politics is the art of the possible” . Now, once you lower your sights by saying “politics is the art of the possible” , you lower what is possible and you lower your whole capacity to lead and to have vision of the future.

So we changed that. We said: “Politics is the art of achieving the impossible! Now let us have a go!” because at that time, Britain had lost all of its energy, its initiative, its confidence in itself. It was in decline. The great empire it had [end p2] built, the great war it had won, somehow that had become a thing of the past and we were known as the “sick man of Europe” . We were known as the “disease of Europe” and people had lost confidence in themselves and we had to change that whole attitude around and how were we to do it?

There were a mass of restrictions, controls—a mass of them. Taxation was high. Quite a lot of powers were in the hands of the unions. How were we going to turn it round?

I have always myself had very great faith in the British character. That is the way in which I was brought up. I remember being brought up in a small town. We were really a rather unusual people. We did not have to be told what to do. We had something called initiative and responsibility and duty and yes, you worked hard; and yes, you supported the police; and yes, you were honest; and fundamentally, I have always believed that our institutions were built up and our empire was built up because there was something rather special in the character of this people, whose shores and country was not large enough to contain its character, and if only we could revive that—you work with the grain of human nature, with the grain of everything that is best in it—then we would once again get the confidence back to our country and if we could get the economy and confidence back in Britain, then once again we would [end p3] have influence abroad, and I really still thought and still think that the rest of the world is really rather pleased when Britain does have influence once again, because they know there is something rather special about this country.

Now that is really rather how we started out and so, yes, we got rid of a mass of controls. We got rid of a mass of nationalised industries. Let me tell you something! There are not many people in politics who know how to run a business. If they did, they would be doing it! But there are not many who know how to run it and the moment they start to run nationalised industries, they are making all sorts of decisions which they are highly removed from, highly removed from the consumer, and I have noticed with countries round the world that once they start making those decisions they are not doing the really big work of government.

We got rid of a lot of the controls. We started to bring taxation down. We started to restore initiative. We started to privatise quite a lot of industry.

I believe that people work for their families more than for anything else. Yes, they are prepared to pay their fair whack of tax, but mainly, they work for their families, maybe to help to keep their old folk, but we had to get that top rate of tax down and we had to get the standard rate of tax down and we had to get the threshold of tax-free allowance to get the incentive going. [end p4]

We did! We started to help people who wanted to start up on their own. That was the main thrust of the economy. We had to live within our means. As far as national government was concerned, we had to get inflation down—it had been up to 27 percent a year. We had to get it right down.

Our job was to get the finances of the country right, to get the framework of law right within which you could operate, to have strong defence, to encourage initiative, encourage incentive. That was our job at home.

We also had to go into Europe, and I remember very well my first visit to the Council of Europe—the prime ministers—and we had to make Britain's voice heard again. We did! Its budget was in a mess. We were paying too much. It took us four years to get it right. We did!

We also had to strengthen our defences, because Britain as a free country has still a very special place in the defence of freedom and justice in the world. That was our task during the first term as we started out to do it.

We also had to tackle whatever came up. I was not to know that the Falklands would ever happen. I was not to know. It never occurred to me the day I walked into No. 10 that I might have to be in charge of a government where there was a terrific battle, where [end p5] there was a war on one's hands. Thank goodness we had spent well on defence. Thank goodness they were all extremely well trained. Thank goodness their morale was restored. Thank goodness the pride was coming back to Britain, because we did it together.

We had to start to tackle the problem of Hong Kong, because the leases fall in 1997 and you could not leave it anything like (that), so we had to go to China and tackle that. That was our first term.

As we came to the second term, we extended. We had the other part of what I passionately believe in. I believe that every earner should be an owner. I do not believe that there is a difference between employers and employees. I do not believe you should divide life up into the CBI, the trade unions and various other things. I think you look at people as each equal in democracy, each entitled to equal rights of opportunity, each equal before the law, and if we could get capital more widely spread with a fantastic responsibility for property and therefore the future which it brings, if we were going into a society when so much was going to be done by machinery, then people had to have shares in what the machinery produced, so they wanted shares in equity, they wanted shares in industry, and so we started on our capital owning [end p6] democracy, ownership of houses, ownership of shares, and we started then to embark upon the great thing which has continued through in the beginning of our third term—to get opportunity to the people who have not had it before. That is why we are opening so much time now on education, why we are spending so much time on trying to raise the standard of living in some council houses, whereas before we have done so much in owner occupation. That is coming up to our third term.

You can never leave foreign affairs alone, so in Europe, having tackled the budget we had to tackle the agricultural surpluses and believe you me, it would not have been tackled without us; without that enormous streak of British common sense saying: “Don't be so damned stupid! How can you produce food and pay for it, only to store it in stockpiles when no-one wants it to eat and paying enormous sums and then you are paying great big export subsidies which ruin the agricultural economies of the Third World?” “Ah well, we have got to pay our farmers!” I said: “Look! There is no-one else in the world you pay to produce goods regardless of whether or not there is a market for them!” and so, as you know, during our second term we started to sort out the agricultural policies—the surpluses are coming down and the cost of it is coming down. [end p7]

That left us free to do what we went into Europe for: to have a single market of 340 million people, bigger than the United States, bigger than Japan, fantastic opportunity, and although many things are said about me, people never realised that we do the practical things and it was us who started the Channel Tunnel, itself totally privately financed, very exciting—the first time in history that Britain will have a boundary with a country that speaks a different language. The trouble is it will not be easy for us to learn the different languages, but never mind, that will come!

The other thing I wanted to say to you is that during our second term we started to look at East-West relations. I went to Hungary at the beginning of the second term, because one realised it was a rather different community, a rather different country, with a little bit more freedom.

We began to say: “What is going to happen with the next generation in the Soviet Union?” because hitherto our relationship had been NATO, Warsaw Pact, defence, arms control—rather hostile to one another. “Let us have a look at the next generation! Maybe they will be different!” [end p8]

We were lucky. We spotted Mr. Gorbachev before the Soviet Union spotted him and he came over and we had a fantastic day at Chequers, which is a country house. It is not a stately home. It is a country house. It is warm. It is a home. Mrs. Gorbachev came too and she is a very formidable lady and I mean “formidable” in the nicest possible sense. I am a very formidable lady (laughter) so I don't mean it in a nasty sense at all. She is a very able person indeed.

I realised straightaway that we had got a person who was quite different from any other Russian we had ever met. He did not come with sheets and sheets of briefing and read it out because that was the accepted line. He came to debate, to discuss, to see if we could find a way through, and we started to debate and discuss on a basis of mutual respect. At four o'clock, I said: “Now look! I know you have got another “do” at the Soviet Embassy within about forty-five minutes!” “No, no, no!” he said. “I will stay!” and he stayed until six o'clock. It clicked and thank goodness it did, because we started on a basic of mutual respect saying: “We are different. You have communism. I don't like it, but you have as much right to defend it as we have to defend our way of life, but we have got one great thing in common: we have both lived through a terrible conflict. We remember it. Let us see that such a conflict never across Europe and part of Asia again! Now, let us start really to see how we can build a positive peace!” [end p9]

It was astonishing and he is a remarkable person as you know I have always said, because he has realised that the kind of total government control that you have over the Soviet Union is not right. It is not right for individuals; it does not produce the goods; it does not produce the technology. Russia's strength depends upon military might, not on what her people can do for her country, so that too has been very different.

Throughout these years—and of course you have to go through elections in between and it was very important to win them!—(laughter) I always got just a little bit worried at some time. Having got the background right, would this spirit of enterprise, would this sense of obligation, this sense of duty, still be there or was I barking after something that had been long since lost and it was silly to try for it?

After about six years—it was about two years before the last election—it was obvious that it was working. Manufacturing industry started to bubble. The number of small businesses started up (increased), many many people became self-employed; prosperity started to spread to the North, unemployment began to fall all over the country in every region. Scotland was one of the last to respond and Northern Ireland always has particular difficulties, but [end p10] about eighteen months before we actually took the last election, I knew it was working and I think the country knew that it was working and I felt that my faith had been abundantly rewarded.

And so we went into the last election with the extension of opportunity to people who had not had it, and to tackle the things which—may I put it this way? When I was young and in politics and very idealistic, I thought along with a lot of other people that if everyone had a good education, eleven years compulsory education, everyone had reasonable housing, everyone had a reasonable standard of living, everyone had access to good health, then most of the problems would be over and people would normally live a rather good life and we should not have anything like the number of problems that we have known in the past.

That, of course, is not right. When you have got those things right, you are then up against the real behavioural problems of human nature and they are far more difficult to cope with, as we all know, and that is where you come in, because they are the standards of society, what is acceptable and what is not, rising to your obligations and not putting quite so much emphasis on your entitlements because no one has an entitlement unless someone else has previously met an obligation. [end p11]

Now I come to the two things I wanted to ask you specially to do, because I know how influential you are. May I just say this?

The Chairman was asking me what magazines I read. Well, quite a lot, but I do remember this: at home, we always read, every week in my home “Woman's Weekly” and I must tell you it upheld excellent standards, it really did, and it had quite an influence over what people believed in this country and what were the acceptable standards. Yes, I see one or two smirks going round this room, but it has done a very great deal and I must tell you I read also quite a lot else.

The two things I wanted to ask you to do:

When you come back from abroad and you come round London and some of the suburbs, the streets are not clean. The rubbish, the litter, is appalling. Why? Because people throw it down. They have not understood that the best thing you can do for the environment is what you can do—make it a really clean place and not have the graffiti. London is just not clean enough. I just sometimes look, when we come back late at night and you will pass a restaurant where there are polythene bags outside on the pavement. I wonder why they do not have them taken away immediately and cleared and tidied up before they are kicked over! [end p12]

But yes, when we went to Toronto for the Economic Summit, the streets were clean. They naturally are. There is very little crime, and I said: “Why?”

They said: “Well, they are very proud people here. Whether it is a school, whether it is a group which has come from one particular country or another, none of us will let our city down!” I hope you can help in building the necessity for really restoring Britain to the cleanliness and tidiness it should have.

The second one I want to ask you is rather more exciting!

I have been thinking of what we should do to celebrate the Millennium, the year 2000. We are really going to be rather lucky if we live to that day and really rather lucky to have that turn of the Millennium. We must celebrate it by something special.

I am very well aware that if we are going to build anything great or do anything very special, it will take about ten years to do it, but at the same time I think we should not only build something special or do something special—we should be able to do something which affects every town, city and every village.

I would like you if you could, some of you, either to run some competitions or to get some ideas as to what we should do. Of course, part of my idea, when I saw the Thyssen Collection possibly going, I thought: “It is a marvellous collection, let us get it here; that would be something very tangible.” It would not have [end p13] been enough. Is it that we get some of the traffic out of Parliament Square? (laughter) Is it that we have something really rather special with young people? Is it that we have something which we can look back on and say: “Yes, that is how we celebrated the Millennium!” It is special. You will understand one wants to do something special. I think that come up the 1990s, we will have to set up a group of people to really take this in hand, but if we had a lot of ideas to work on it really would be marvellous because we are all working for the future.

Can I thank you? Can I now say “Questions!” . I will take the questions quickly. We have got about ten minutes because I have got to get to a helicopter to get to Heathrow to start on my way to Australia.

Yes, first question! [end p14]

Question

May I ask you please to …   . your attitude to the smirking that you saw and referred to just now because I will have you know “Woman's Weekly” —and I do not work for it and never have—has set an example to most of us and I think if we were smirking in your eyes, what we were doing—what we were agreeing—was that you were absolutely right! (applause)

Prime Minister

Thank you very much. Well said! Can we have the next person?

Question (Free-Lance, Self-Employed)

Prime Minister, you have been quite fortunate in one way, in that you never had a really strong Opposition. There is no alternative.

Is there anybody—man or woman—in politics today who might worry you as a possible contender for your job? [end p15]

Prime Minister

You say I have not had any opposition. Have you ever been in and listened to Tuesdays and Thursdays in the House of Commons? (laughter)

I quite agree that the Opposition is really rather noisy because it likes to drown out what one says, but you know, when you are there and facing people, if I might put it, the hard left, who believe very different things from us, oh yes, there is an Opposition.

Same Questioner

I mean somebody people would vote for.

Prime Minister

Well if there were I would not tell you, but I cannot see it at the moment (laughter).

I cannot really see it at the moment but you know, you always have to bear in mind that in politics there is a natural tendency to vote against the Government, because however much it may have done, it is always the things which it has done which you disagreed with and I just only relied to try to win elections on the way in which we continue to go forward and as we climb one peak so we see others, and right now—it is only a year after the last election—I am not too worried, but I do not rely on their weaknesses. We have got to fashion our own strengths. [end p16]

Question (Table 14)

There was a speech in a recent film which …   . a New York financier that began: “Greed is good!” I wonder to what extent your vision of society is based upon an appeal to individual material acquisitiveness and how you feel about the statement “Greed is good!”

Prime Minister

I do not accept or have anything to do with a statement that says greed is good. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

What is good is to have sufficient self-reliance and responsibility, to want to do things for your own family, for your old folk, meet your obligations to your community.

I am sure that you would think that some people here earn very well. They are not greedy. It is not the wealth. It is what you do with it that counts. What you do with it is part of your character.

I would totally reject that. I hope you won't think we are greedy because we are here to a very nice lunch today!

Michael Clayton (Horse & Hound)

Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

I do read it sometimes! (laughter) [end p17]

Michael Clayton (Horse & Hound)

The foxes are on your side, as you know! (laughter)

Prime Minister, is the present economic problem just a little incident on the way or is it not a reflection of the fact that perhaps we have not really got it right in large areas of industry by allowing our manufacturing base to deteriorate so much?

Prime Minister

No. The battle to keep inflation down is a constant battle. It is never won.

About the time of the last election, I was quite worried when people said: “Well, we have defeated inflation! We are all right! We have got a surplus balance of trade. We have got this, that and the other!” The battle is never won, anymore than it is ever won in keeping your business sound, whatever your business is. It is a battle you have to win anew every year.

Right now, we were growing faster than our European neighbours. Therefore, our propensity to import from them was greater than their propensity or capacity to import from us, but what in fact has happened is that there is a massive amount of investment going on last year and this—I think the greatest investment we have ever known—in industry, in new equipment, in new machinery; companies coming here because we are the springboard for Europe and a massive amount of construction. The construction industry this year is ten-and-a-half percent up on last year. That, together with the propensity of people not to save as much but to buy imports, has given us a current account deficit. [end p18]

The way you have to get down inflation, I am afraid by putting up interest rates which takes a certain amount of demand out of the economy because it makes some things more expensive, is the way in which you also get your Current Account down, but the massive investment we have got now will not in fact continue year upon year and so we are acting on two things:

Investment tends to go in big cycles, for very obvious reasons, but it will give us a much greater capacity to produce at low cost in the future, so it is difficult at the moment, but it will be good for us, but so long as we were prepared to take the necessary steps.

I must make it clear that we have no deficit on Government finance. It is quite different from the United States. On the contrary, the amount of taxation we are still taking in from the growth that we have in fact gives the Government a surplus, so we are in fact buying-in debt and not creating debt for future generations to repay.

Jill Church (Family Circle)

My own magazine does not run caricatures or lampoons, but I was talking to a cartoonist recently on a newspaper who told me that when he draws a caricature of a male person he invariably gets telephone calls asking for copies afterwards. When he caricatures a female person, be she in the theatre or politics, she is invariably very upset. [end p19]

I wondered whether this is something that is to do with our upbringing with women or something you would like to comment on?

Prime Minister

I have several originals. I think they are absolutely terrific!

Judith Hall (Woman's Weekly Art Editor) (laughter & applause)

Lord Whitelaw is recently quoted as saying that it is not true to say you have no sense of humour. Indeed, I think it has been demonstrated here today.

I would like to know, therefore, how importantly humour figures in your life and I would love you to tell us your favourite joke!

Prime Minister

I could not possibly! That is a question of which you need miles and miles of notice and then go and look up the joke books to see which one fits.

You could not get through sometimes without a sense of humour. The days are very very full, enormously full. Even I sometimes wonder how one gets through them, but you just could not get through without a sense of humour. I don't think you could get [end p20] through without a family, but a sense of humour is really what tends to break the tension and you have got to break the tension in order to go through.

Sorry I cannot just give you the joke at the moment. I have remembered one but I could not possibly tell that here! (laughter)

Linda Kelsby (Cosmopolitan Magazine)

A recent report submitted to your Employment Minister suggested that by the mid-1990s the shortfall in the number of teenagers would have to be made up by working women and encouraging women back into the workplace after having children.

I wondered what you intended to do, apart from retraining, about the appalling lack of day care facilities and whether you felt that State-run nurseries might become the Government's responsibility in the future.

Prime Minister

No. I have no intention of having State-run nurseries. I do not want State children in State-run nurseries. There are plenty of private nurses and there are plenty of companies that will do it. I do not want State children and State nurseries and it is no part of our job. I remember going round and someone saying: “Well I [end p21] could go round as a State nursery!” I said: “But look! If you are earning well, there will be some other person who will start up, under licence, because there have to be certain standards, a nursery, and it is not unexpected for a person to pay for someone properly to look after her child as she goes out, but in fact, many women you will find will prefer to stay at home and keep in touch with part-time work until the children go to school and then, of course, they go to school at five and you know full well the problems, as I had to face them. They do go to school. It does give you a much greater degree of freedom but you have to arrange for someone to be there when they come back, but stop thinking in terms of State-run things. There are many many women—as part of their career—who have been a nurse who would in fact run a proper nursery very effectively.

What we shall have to do with the smaller number of people coming out of school is make certain that the training is there, because a bigger proportion of life is going to be skilled and therefore we must make certain that the skilled training is there. The employers will do most of it, but we will do quite a lot.

The YTS is being run by the Government with employers, but the employers will take over more and more of it. [end p22]

Sally …   .

Could you say, Prime Minister, do you think the EOC still has a function?

Prime Minister

Well it is there! (laughter) I think it would be a great mistake to disband it. I think the fact that it is there still reminds certain parts of the country that women in some areas do not quite have equal opportunities, although you cannot necessarily break down any prejudice by more legislation. The way prejudice is broken down is by women of the right qualifications, the right personality, coming along and just getting on with the job, but I think the fact that it is there is really very important. (Applause)