Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech on investiture as Chancellor of William and Mary College

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Williamsburg, Virginia
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2958
Themes: Civil liberties, Education, Higher & further education, Foreign policy (USA), Religion & morality

To be Chancellor of a university is always a great honour, for the purpose of a university is to transmit the best of the past to future generations, to unlock the secrets of science and of creation which have so far eluded us and to blend the truths which are timeless with circumstances which are forever changing. There is no more noble enterprise. But to be invested as Chancellor of the College of William & Mary is an even greater honour, for one cannot hold this office without feeling an affinity with those giants of the past who were associated with this college, and whose leadership helped to found this, great country. Indeed, to walk the paths trod by the likes of Jefferson and Marshall and Washington is its own honour.

It is a special privilege to follow to this distinguished office Chief Justice Warren Burger, a man who has made enormous contributions to the heritage of both the College of William & Mary and his beloved republic. His leadership as Chancellor will be a constant inspiration to me as I seek to fulfil my duties to you.

In my famous handbag, when I am visiting the United States, I carry two books. One of them, which I treasure, is signed by Chief Justice Burger. It is The Bicentennial Keepsake Edition of the United States Constitution which includes a wonderful commentary by him on your Constitution. In that essay he reminds us that for the first time in the world a constitution embodies not a grant of power from the rulers to the ruled, but a grant of power by a sovereign people to the government they had created.

The splendid handiwork of those 55 men of Philadelphia— “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man,” as Gladstone put it—marked the beginning of the end of the tyranny of unchecked power over people. From that time forth, whenever anyone [end p1] has asked “But what can a few men do to change things?” the reply has been clear: look at Washington, Madison, Mason and Randolph—those men changed the world by having the courage of their convictions. They proved once and for all that men really could create good government out of “reflection and choice;” we are not doomed to accept whatever “accident and force” may bring.

The second volume I carry with me is a selection of the wit and wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill—and he had an abundance of both. This little book contains his speeches on liberty, speeches which inspired a whole generation and brightened our darkest days with their hope. In his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, he said “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.” Here, he said, is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind.

It is precisely this message, our joint inheritance and its relevance to the coming century, that I wish to enlarge upon today.

But I must first say, however, that one cannot walk about this lovely city, most assuredly not down Duke of Gloucester Street, without at least a pang of historical memory. After all, it was from this place that the late unpleasantness of your separation from my native land began. Those revolutionary sentiments that issued from the Raleigh Tavern and ignited the minds and hearts of your forebears echo still on the well worn cobblestones of these ancient streets. But let me hasten to add that all is forgiven; you've done such a wonderful job. No hard feelings. [end p2]

As we think back upon the history of this nation, and upon the history of this institution and town, we cannot but be amazed at how greatly things have changed. Colonial Williamsburg, a great international treasure, stands in sharp contrast to the cities and towns that surround it. Yet, at a deeper level, we must be even more impressed by how much stays the same. The permanent things in life tend somehow to surprise us more than the great changes we see around us. And as we walk down Duke of Gloucester Street we see everywhere reminders of those most permanent aspects of human kind.

In one neat mile there stand the three great institutions that elevate mankind—education, government, and religion. The College of William & Mary, the Governor's Palace, and Bruton Parish church, each in its own way draws our attention to the very things that make civilization possible: knowledge, justice and faith. And we cannot reflect upon these great pillars of our civilization without realizing how very much Britain and America have in common, how very many moral sentiments and political principles we share. From the beginning, through good times and bad, for better or worse, our cultures, our politics, and our futures have been inextricably linked. Our long and sturdy relationship is a very special one.

The Roots of the Special Relationship

The historical roots of our relationship are many. A shared language, a shared literature, a shared legal system, a shared religion, and a finely woven blanket of customs and traditions from the very beginning have set our two nations apart from others. Even when the founders of this great republic came to believe that the course of human events had made it necessary for them to dissolve the political bands that connected them to Britain, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitled them, it was [end p3] from our Locke and Sidney, our Harrington and Coke that your Henry and Jefferson, your Madison and Hamilton took their bearings.

The twentieth century especially has demonstrated the historical closeness of our nations. The rise and fall of the monstrous fascist and communist tyrannies have joined us in common purpose; and as recently as the Gulf War, we have seen the political closeness of our friendship. Together we decided that the aggression must not be allowed to stand—and the other countries followed our lead. Throughout this calamitous century we have stood together and found both strength and direction in our cooperation. It may have been expedient for us to do so; but the real vitality of our relationship goes far deeper than temporary interests or the necessities of the moment.

Beyond the mutual advantages we find in culture and commerce, diplomacy and national security, we are joined in a much more fundamental way. The reason our interests have so often coincided is not merely expediency but because we stand upon the same hallowed moral ground: an abiding belief in the sanctity of the individual, a commitment to democracy and representative government, and an unfaltering dedication to the rule of law.

These principles do not change from day to day, or even from era to era. Ignorance of them does not refute them; denial of them does not weaken them. Circumstances may change but these true principles never vary. And it is in our willingness to defend those principles, and when necessary to fight for them, that Britain and America serve as a beacon to the whole world. And that beacon has never been more important than now. As the nations of Central and Eastern Europe navigate new and often treacherous waters, it is vital that, by our lights, they are warned away from the further shoals of despotism. But just as important, it is essential that we show them the way safely into the harbour of freedom and democracy. [end p4]

It is ironic that at this very moment the great historic relationship between Britain and America is being called into question. There are those today, both here and in Britain, who believe that our special relationship has waned, that the world has changed irrevocably, and that our interests no longer coincide. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the demise of that communist dictatorship, they argue, means that our special relationship is no longer necessary, no longer expedient. The fashionable opinion of the moment holds that our future lies more with Europe and yours more with the Pacific rim. To them, the great age of British and American cooperation has passed.

I must respectfully but firmly disagree with such views. Such prophets of change are false prophets; they are to be believed only at our peril. For they turn a blind eye not only to the past, but to the future.

There is no denying that the world without the Soviet Union and its constant threat is a very different place, but the substantive evils that confronted us for so long have not vanished. Tyranny has not been extirpated but has only found new soil in which to grow. Even the most cursory glance around us gives the lie to the unbridled optimism of those who question the special relationship. The world may indeed be a different place, and a freer place but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

There was, and I believe there always must be a special relationship between Britain and America.

The Moral Foundations of Freedom

The ties that bind us can be expressed in one simple phrase: Freedom under law. Not just freedom for ourselves, but a dedication to freedom for all peoples. This is not a matter of simple national interest. This is a moral [end p5] obligation: We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. These are not principles to be left to the vicissitudes of the moment; these are principles to be fought for—and won—all around the world.

The greatest of all commentators on America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted that in his time, half a century after the American founding, the world seemed destined to follow either the path of Russia or the path of America. The great age of democratic revolutions had, he pointed out, unleashed new ways of thinking that were unlikely to be contained or turned back. The quest for equality was an inexorable march, but it was not clear where it would all end. From Tocqueville 's vantage point Russia and America each seemed “called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.” How the nations of his day chose to order themselves would determine the future of all mankind. They could choose between roads that would lead either “to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.” How extraordinarily prescient he was—and this thirteen years before Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and a full four score and two years before Lenin ploughed those perverse and poisonous teachings into the Russian soil.

Our commitment to the right side of Tocqueville 's prophetic equation—to freedom, knowledge and prosperity—has seen us triumph over calamities his generation could not have imagined: a holocaust of unspeakable evil; purges and pogroms in the name of Godless ideology; a cold war of paralysing chill; and countless atrocities in nearly every corner of the globe in the pursuit of the totalitarian state. Yet the principles fundamental to both America and Britain have withstood these terrifying times. And we have [end p6] been blessed to see in our lifetime the annihilation of Soviet communism and the crumbling of the symbol of that vile oppression, the Berlin Wall.

What led to the ultimate triumph of the principles we hold dear is the simplicity of their truth. The individual is a moral being, capable of the exercise of free will, and able to know right from wrong; he has a right to be free. Neither the dampest cells of the most oppressive regimes, nor the harshest winds of ideology could extinguish the often small and flickering flame of hope generated by those simple principles. Under the most degrading and dangerous of circumstances, the human spirit prevailed. In the end, the great lies of the dictators were no match for the natural strength of that spirit.

Yet our victory should not inspire false confidence. As my greatest predecessor Winston Churchill said, speaking here in Virginia in 1946:

“Peace will not be preserved by pious sentiments expressed in terms of platitudes or by official grimaces and diplomatic correctitude, however desirable this may be from time to time. It will not be preserved by casting aside in dangerous years the panoply of warlike strength. There must be earnest thought. There must also be faithful perserverance and foresight. Greatheart must have his sword and armour to guard the pilgrims on their way. Above all, among the English speaking peoples, there must be a union of hearts based upon convictions and common ideals” .

In many ways, the collapse of the Soviet Union has left a more confusing world than before. Indeed, in many ways, the world is still a very insecure place. The uncertainty of relations between nations and the battles for power within nations have left us at a precarious point in world affairs. The next few years, indeed the next few months, will be critical for those new nations struggling with the responsibilities of their unaccustomed freedom. It is for [end p7] this reason above all others that the special relationship between Britain and the United States must be nourished and nurtured. For its guiding principles remain, as Abraham Lincoln said, the “last, best hope of earth” to the cause of freedom. We must continue to hold the beacon high lest a new generation of tyrants succeeds where others have failed in “blowing out the moral lights around us.”

Each generation must learn anew the harsh lessons of history; each generation must re-dedicate itself to the principles of individual liberty. It is in a commitment to educate for liberty that the moral foundations of freedom, that great and sturdy bond of our special relationship, will be secured.

Education for Liberty

One of my illustrious predecessors as Chancellor, George Washington, whose second job was as President of the United States, understood well how liberty depends upon education. “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion,” he said, “it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” For that reason, he argued that “Knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness” for it teaches “the people themselves to know and value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; … to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the l* and …   . (to have) an inviolable respect to the laws.”

How true: but Washington could not have envisaged how some intellectuals [end p8] since his time have employed their intellect to debunk and destroy the values he prized. He could not have envisaged the educated apologists, let alone the intellectual architects of tyranny like Marx and Lenin.

Thus as we stand upon the threshold of a new century, we confront a world in which the common sense of George Washington 's generation is too often dismissed or denied. Our generation has gone a long way towards unlearning history. The great and abiding truths are sometimes reduced to little more than quaint artifacts, appropriate to the time in which they were written, but of little or no relevance to our day.

This historical conceit has been worsened by another petnicious premise of our century, moral relativism. As Paul Johnson has pointed out “At the beginning of the 1920's, the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, and above all of value.” The idea that there is no truth to know has become a troubling feature of some schools of thought in this century. Indeed, to those of us who believe passionately in the value of education, it is an appalling thought that education could be used to subvert and mock the very possibility of a knowable truth. We too must ask, as T. S. Eliot asked:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

We must move in the other direction, to seek knowledge in information, and wisdom in knowledge.

All too frequently as a result of such doctrines contemporary education, in [end p9] the name of humanity, has ignored those things which most distinguish human nature. As Professor James Q. Wilson has reminded us, people “have a natural moral sense, …   . (which) shapes human behaviour and the judgments people make of the behaviour of others.” It is this sense that serves as the personal foundation for the public principles we hold so dear and gives rise to what Washington 's generation would have called simply “civic virtue.”

These virtues as Mary Ann Glendon has recently written, are “its time-honoured ideals of tolerance, respect for others, public deliberation, individual freedom and responsibility, and the mandate for restraint implicit in the rule of law.” In the end, it is values such as these that make society possible, fundamental values that transcend both time and place.

This great university of William & Mary connects us to the past in order to prepare us for the future. Bearing the name of two British monarchs, it began its life by Royal Charter in 1693. It now lives as part of the university system of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It would be hard to think of a place that better exemplifies the relationship between Britain and America, not only in name but in moral purpose. And at William & Mary we must dedicate ourselves to that grand and noble tradition that nourishes our civilization and offers hope to the world. It is in this spirit, that I am proud to serve as your Chancellor.

Thank you.