Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech receiving Freedom of City of Westminster

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Westminster
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1381
Themes: Parliament, Conservatism, Defence (general), Family, Foreign policy (Middle East)

My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am enormously honoured to receive the Freedom of the City of Westminster. My appreciation of that honour is increased by the knowledge that I follow in the footsteps of the City of Westminster's first freeman—and how appropriate the word seems—Sir Winston Churchill.

No British statesman had a deeper understanding of this nation's history than he. And nowhere is that history given more evocative expression than in Westminster—where our monarchs are crowned, our country governed and the great issues of the day debated down the ages. So you will not perhaps be surprised if I reflect today on some of history's lessons—and particularly on the lessons of our times.

It is commonly held nowadays, I know, that history does not teach lessons—or at least lessons of practical use to politicians. I am not so sure.

There is certainly that well-known danger of fighting the last war rather than preparing for the next.

Would France have been so committed to an unsustainable and outdated defensive military strategy in 1939 had her generals not sought to draw lessons from the campaigns of the First World War? [end p1]

Would the West have regarded with such relative equanimity the advance of Soviet-backed communism in central Europe in the closing stages of the Second World War if Germany had not seemed the eternal aggressor?

Would Saddam Hussein have committed his flagrant aggression against Kuwait had he not imagined that the Western stance of mildly benevolent neutrality, shown in his war against Iran, would be repeated?

We cannot know.

But, in any case, just because some made miscalculations from often misunderstood events, we ourselves must not fail to draw the true lessons of our past.

Today I would like to draw to your attention six such lessons which should, I believe, influence us as we plot out the way ahead.

The Power of Ideas

The first is this: our century bids us remember the power of ideas.

For Marxists, history is to be explained by economics—or at least Marxist economics—and by struggles between classes. Others have sought to explain events by struggles between races. Still others by the impact of technology. [end p2]

But as we look back over the troubled years of this century—and indeed as we reflect on the course of the last decade—we can surely see that it is the force of ideas which is most striking.

In particular, collectivism and its most extreme form, communism, infected the minds of intellectuals, politicians, businessman and bureaucrats alike.

The growth of state power, matched by a reduction in individual self-confidence and self-reliance, was not as some have sought to argue an inevitable consequence of economic or social change. Rather it was the result of one point of view—a wrong point of view—gaining dominance in the battle of ideas.

Similarly, the reversal of that trend—the dismantling of socialism and communism—which is evident across the continents—most graphically in Eastern Europe—was not just the result of the practical successes of capitalism and socialism's practical failure. It also constitutes victory for our ideas.

It is because writers, politicians and economists were convinced that freedom and free enterprise were the way forward—and that they were morally and intellectually right—that Marxism was eventually overcome. The battle of ideas has to be fought anew every year, every day.

Limited Government

Second, our century shows the need for limited government. You [end p3] remember how the opposite was argued. Some people told us that only an all-powerful state could reconcile competing interests and secure the common good. Others told us that only a state planned economy could ensure that resources were efficiently distributed and used. Still others promised that only an expanded role for the State would eliminate poverty and deprivation.

Every one of those arguments has been disproved.

We now know that it is not government, but free enterprise, which is capable of creating wealth, providing jobs and raising living standards.

Indeed, we know that what passes for ‘government’ is often a clutch of individual and collective interests, who seek as much their own advantage as the common good.

Above all, we realise that there is so much which we politicians just cannot know—about the circumstances, the opportunities or the needs of individuals at any time. That is why power must be dispersed to the people who do know—and who can respond.

That is the case for the limitation of government. Not, of course, for weak government—but government which concentrates [end p4] its energies on those things which it alone can do—and leaves maximum freedom to the citizens.

Strong Defence

Third, there is the need for strong defence. And this, of course, is something which is the ultimate test of any government. One lesson from this century's wars cannot be misunderstood: it is that credible deterrence works to keep the peace—and that it is weakness, not strength, which tempts the aggressor.

Liberal democracies are inclined to relax and cut back defence expenditure when yesterday's threat recedes, without paying due heed to tomorrow's. And that particularly applies in times like ours when the political map looks so uncertain.

It is right to reduce spending on defence, but only when that is prudent.

Moreover, do not let go of the nuclear deterrent which has kept our peace; and do not let slip the lead in technology which allows us to deter conventional war or defeat aggressors.

The Family

My fourth lesson is a very different one: it is that the family must be kept strong. [end p5]

The Twentieth Century will be looked back on as perhaps the only time in the history of our civilisation when some people imagined they could successfully run an economy and sustain a society with weak families.

The extreme Left fought an ideological battle against the family, which they regarded as a bourgeois institution.

Modern liberals merely ignore the needs and interests of the family in formulating policy—pursuing the impossible goal of social policies without a moral content.

Family breakdown, however, has now become such a pressing financial and social problem that not even the Left can afford to ignore it. The family does not need some special raft of subsidies and privileges to stay afloat. Instead, we must give back to families power and responsibility.

And remember: it is through the family that one generation gives the benefit of its wisdom to the next.

National Loyalties

The fifth lesson which our century surely teaches is the enduring power of national loyalties.

Communism sought to substitute ideology for national pride. For a time it appeared to be successful. But under the glacier of socialism the old emotive landscape survived. And, as the ice has shattered, the reality of proud, self-conscious nations, [end p6] aware of their past and ambitious for a future has been exposed.

Let us never forget that stability and freedom depend upon popular loyalties to traditional institutions. And the most powerful and pervasive traditional institution which the political world has known is the nation.

The Westminster Parliament

The sixth and final lesson I want to draw to your attention is one which will never be more easily learnt than here in Westminster: it is the value and vitality of our ancient United Kingdom parliament.

Our parliament is rightly called the Mother of Parliaments. And her offspring—sometimes strong and healthy, sometimes struggling to survive, and nearly always noisy—are to be found scattered across the continents.

When we see how difficult countries like the Soviet Union or countries in Africa find it to create parliamentary institutions with real roots we begin to appreciate the value of our unique parliamentary legacy. Our parliament was not created: it grew, acquiring greater powers and wider authority, passing through crises of war and peace, developing into the undisputed custodian and symbol of the nation's liberties.

Let us renew our resolve: [end p7] that the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament will never be lightly relinquished; that the sacrifices and struggles of previous generations which won that sovereignty will not be forgotten; and that we will never grow weary or become complacent when the inestimable advantage of being ruled under laws made by our own representatives in our own parliament is put at risk.

My Lord Mayor, ladies and gentlemen: that is the spirit in which I so gratefully accept the honour you do me today.