Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at Buckingham University ("Challenges of the 21st Century")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Buckingham University
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments: Between 1030 and 1515.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3648
Themes: Defence (general), Economic policy - theory and process, Trade, Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Science & technology

It is a great honour for me as Chancellor to accept the Queen's Award for Export Achievement on behalf of our university. Buckingham extols the qualities of excellence and enterprise which lie at the very heart of the Queen's Award scheme and it is a testament to our success over the years that today we attract some of the finest students from around the world.

Our students will be the leaders of their generation. They will take us forward into the next century well prepared for the challenges ahead and as we near that century I should like to examine some of the challenges which face us.


As we approach the final years of this century there is no disguising the fact that the pace of economic and political change has quickened. Not only has the tempo accelerated, but following the end of the Cold War the unfolding drama of events appears more complex and unpredictable. Indeed, far from having come to an end, as one Francis FukuyamaAmerican essayist curiously suggested, history seems sometimes to have lurched into a kind of erratic over-drive.

The underlying cause of this change is evident. The momentous forces set in train by the collapse of Soviet communism–the most dramatic and profound event of my lifetime–are still at work and will continue to resonate down the years. When asked of his opinion as to the significance of the French revolution, the Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung replied that it was too soon to say. Historians will no doubt continue to understand the causes and consequences of the Soviet collapse for centuries to come. Though lacking their detachment and perspective we must also try to understand the great continuing processes of change, of which our stance and policies form part.

For as most of us are taught, those who do not understand the past are destined to repeat its errors. In the words of Thucydides “History repeats itself” or of Dionysius “History is philosophy teaching by example” or perhaps my favourite from Edmund Burke, “History is a pact between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.”

The better our understanding of events, the better placed we shall be to influence them for good. Therefore we should be active instigators of change, not passive bystanders.


In seeking to assess the challenges of the twenty-first century it may be instructive and wise to recall the expectations and hopes with which our forebears approached the dawn of the twentieth century.

They were optimists and they had every reason to be. They had witnessed:

progress towards a universal franchise,

improving education, health and social conditions,

rising standards of living,

quickening technological advance,

and developing global communications.

All these were later described by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The Secret of the Machines” :

“We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,

We can print and plough and weave and heat and light

Would you call a friend from half across the world?

If you'll let us have his name and town and state,

You shall see and hear your crackling question hurled

Across the arch of heaven while you wait.”

All contributed to a mood of confident expectation. In a rather similar vein to those who have recently anticipated a peaceful and harmonious New World Order, prominent thinkers could see–or thought they glimpsed–a world governed by reason, in which material abundance was plentiful and from which the prospect of war had been banished. Modern man had too much to lose to go to war, they thought. Modern weapons were so destructive that territorial aggrandizement no longer paid, or so it was said. In future men would settle their differences by means of conciliation.

But events turned out very differently. Perhaps the optimists had forgotten the evil which vies with the good in human nature.

In spite of all their hopes, those born in the early years of this century have been witness to two world wars and to the rise and defeat of the two most cruel and systematic tyrannies of all history:

Nazism, when 6 million people were brutally murdered in the holocaust, and many more souls gave their lives to ensure the triumph of liberty; and

the Communism of Lenin and Stalin which took away all land and all liberty and which resulted in the senseless slaughter of millions of its own people under its reign of terror.

How could the hopes of civilisation have resulted in such concentrated savagery?

I have spoken of the need to understand history. We might have avoided the worst atrocities of Nazism had we learned the lessons of the First World War that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

The mood of general confidence and hope that existed at the beginning of this century stands in marked distinction to the tragedies which followed. By contrast an attitude of sombre realism, accompanied by grim determination, to uphold the ideals of liberty, generally characterised the policies of the West towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. As a result it brought about the collapse of Soviet Communism, representing a victory over the forces of tyranny and oppression without a shot being fired. A victory which was achieved partly by the strength of the West, its technological supremacy, its sense of purpose, and also by the quiet courage of all those who spoke out from within, so many of whose names we shall never know.

It was not just a battle for power like those of bygone days, but a battle for the dignity and liberty of man.


Across the Borders

But as one great ideological victory is won, so old hatreds emerge. Injustices which had been suppressed but not erased from the memory, led to new conflicts. Such are the tensions we now see in the states of the former Soviet Union, made worse by the compulsory transportation of peoples at Stalin's diktat; made worse in the former Yugoslavia an artificial state whose composition was determined by diplomats at Versailles from the disparate peoples of the Balkans, some of whom had always looked East to Russia, while the others looked West, to the lands of Europe.

We are still trying to grapple with the consequences of large ethnic minorities displaced or separated from their homeland. These cannot be settled by conflict: there are so many, that the consequences would be devastating. Assuming understanding and good-will, of the kind we have seen in Czechoslovakia whose peoples divided amicably into two sovereign states, these problems can be resolved.

Contrast this with Yugoslavia where the ambitions of Serbia, its largest state, led to open aggression, first against the newly recognised sovereign state of Croatia, and then, similarly, against the sovereign state of Bosnia. As in the days of Hitler, the mother state has used its minorities elsewhere as an excuse for its own expansion. The result in Bosnia has been two million people driven from their homes and 200,000 massacred. NATO and the UN have not only exposed our failure to stop the aggression but that failure may tempt others to take advantage of our lack of resolve.

What is happening in Bosnia is not, repeat not, a civil war, as we are so often told. A sovereign state recognised by the international community is under attack planned and launched externally, though using forces within Bosnia as well as Serbs outside.

The Muslims of Bosnia have no weapons of their own to defend themselves, nevertheless a resolution of the Security Council denies them the requisite arms. The principle of self-defence precedes and underlies the UN Charter. The legitimate government of Bosnia has every right to call upon the international community to allow it to have arms to defend its territory and the lives of its citizens. We shame ourselves by our refusal to acknowledge the nature of the conflict, we damage ourselves by undermining NATO through the issue of empty threats and we injure the UN by pursuing contradictory policies. And the Bosnians suffer.

Inevitably, hardline nationalists in Russia will ask themselves why they should conform to civilised norms when little Serbia–which does not possess Russia's inheritance of nuclear and conventional weapons–can treat Western pleas and idle threats with crushing contempt.

And all this just when I thought we had learned the lesson of this century that aggression must be stopped in its tracks.

It is against this background that I remain concerned that the reduction of the armed forces in almost every Western country may be taken too far. Strong defences must not come to be regarded as an obsolete relic of a bygone age of ideological struggle. They are a permanent necessity, and any restructuring should take place in the context of a proper discussion about the demands we are likely to make of them. Otherwise either we will expose the members of our armed forces to unacceptable risks when we need them to defend vital interests, or those interests will go undefended as we remain impotent on the sidelines.

Russia and China

One of the great challenges left over from the end of the Cold War is how to bring the former Communist states to liberty under a rule of law. Russia has always been an important country, and always will be. There is a tendency to regard her only as European–but her borders extend from the Baltic to the Pacific, occupying 11 time zones.

She is the largest country in the world. Her global status must be respected and the pride of her people taken into account.

The most difficult thing in politics is to manage the transition from a tyranny to a democracy. It requires new institutions and new laws, independently adjudicated. It needs a stable currency, sound finance and an efficient economy run on free enterprise lines. All this takes time and will only be achieved by going steadily in the right direction.

We could, and should, have done far more to help though the International institutions to which all countries can apply for help. Ten years ago we would have given almost anything for the Cold War to end. When it did, we were too absorbed in our own problems to give sufficient help. The Russian people–and the Ukrainians–are good people who have suffered mightily–they deserved better than they have received from those who claim to be the guardians of liberty.

Perhaps the main difference between the Russian and the Chinese people, both of whom have suffered under Communism, is that the Chinese are born traders. Moreover, Deng Xiaoping since 1978 although denying political liberty has steadily encouraged a market or enterprise economy. “I wish we had started that way “, the Russian leaders used to say to me–but historically, the Russians had little taste for enterprise and their brief experience of it was snuffed out by Lenin in 1917. In addition, there is no Russian diaspora similar to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore to pour investment into Russia as has happened with China. Internationally we should not lose sight of the fact that while the end of the Cold War has made possible the resolution of conflicts which could not be resolved earlier, such as the Middle East, Namibia and Nicaragua, it has also removed the fear that regional conflicts if embarked upon might develop into general wars. To that extent, the end of the Cold War has made a more confused and complicated world 'safer' for regional wars: Yugoslavia and the Gulf conflict are cases in point.

Nuclear Proliferation–The Need for Strong Defence

The mention of China reminds us of the dangers of nuclear proliferation in North Korea. The sobering facts of missile proliferation add to our concerns. Their spread has the potential to upset regional power balances and to create fears of surprise attack. Fifteen or more Third World countries currently possess ballistic missiles and several more may have them by the year 2,000, a chilling prospect. Eight of these could have nuclear systems or advanced programmes to acquire them by the turn of the century.

Thus, on present trends a number of Third World states, including terrorist states, could upset all our old defence assumptions and calculations. The problem is magnified because those who obtain nuclear weapons in the future may have fewer scruples about their use than the current nuclear powers.

It is not just a question of more advanced weapons in the world. What matters is who has them and what for. In several instances those nations who have the most serious ambitions in this regard are led by despotic, aggressive and unstable leaders. Under those circumstances, although the number of nuclear weapons in the possession of the United States and Russia is being reduced drastically, we cannot invest great faith in the arms control and monitoring process with other nations.

What then? We need to have a more effective ballistic missile defence such as the SDI can provide. Nothing could give us more freedom of action in the 21st Century. If we have the means to prevent an aggressor from hitting his target we may well deter him; we may even diminish his desire to build up his missile stocks in the first place.

In all this, the role of an active, confident and outward-looking United States is vital. It is vital by virtue of America's technological base, her formidable military power, her economic strength and her tradition of being prepared to transcend considerations of national interest in support of those struggling to maintain or obtain freedom. But we must all bare our share.

A strong US may prove as vital to the resolution of problems within Europe as well as those which may emerge elsewhere. Some Western European leaders may have grown complacent about the US military presence. But ask a democratic leader in what we formerly referred to as Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or the Baltic States, and you will get the same answer. They will say that America's presence in Europe is a vital factor in ensuring stability and that the former Eastern European countries should become full members of NATO.

The fact is that there is no New World Order. As events in Bosnia have painfully shown there is no substitute for American leadership with the loyal support of her friends and allies, in the struggle against aggression. And let us never forget that it has been the Anglo-American Alliance which has been the most powerful force for liberty the world has ever known.

This is why Europe must weigh very carefully the likely impact of its policies on US intentions. This is especially true for Britain; if, for example we were to run down our defences for reasons of economy or short-sightedness our relations with the US would suffer. The ‘special relationship’ would continue to exist at the level of values and culture. But we could find that the relationship ceased to operate effectively at the political level because would lack the military weight necessary to be a useful ally at times of crises.


The economic challenges of increasing prosperity for all peoples should be easier to respond to in the 21st Century than they were in the 20th Century because of the collapse of the centrally planned and controlled systems. The tendency in many countries for ever more demands to be made on the state must be resisted. As the power of the state increases, so the liberties of the citizen decrease. Taxation replaces incentive, dependency replaces responsibility; more people look to the Government for their standard of living than to their own efforts. That way lies social decay and economic weakness.

Democracy is not about giving in to every demand but about recognising the hard economic truth and sticking to it. That effort requires the understanding both of the Member of Parliament and of the electorate.

The Choice Between Systems

For many peoples of the world the question is what system of political economy will not only raise the standards of living in the West but create enough wealth to help raise others out of poverty?

Countries are not rich in proportion to their natural resources; if that were so Russia would be the richest country in the world; she has everything, oil, gas, diamonds, platinum, gold, silver, the industrial metals, timber, and a rich soil. Countries are rich whose governments have policies which encourage the essential creativity of man who in order to succeed must work with others to produce goods and services which people choose to buy. So Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and so on have no natural resources but are now among the most prosperous countries in the world. The market is not a new- fangled invention of some academic economists, it is the oldest trading organisation known to man.

Only a flourishing free enterprise economy can generate the higher living standards at every level and the jobs which people need if we can honestly say that they are enjoying the benefits of freedom.

But don't take my word for it: listen to the Pope John Paul IIPope in his Encyclical, Centesimus Annus where he talks of the collapse of Communism, stemming from its economic inefficiency as “not to be considered simply as a technical problem, but rather a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector.”

Perhaps we in business have been too slow to point out that capitalism is therefore not only about material things, it is about the human spirit and its creativity. Freedom is a moral quality with which we use our God-given talents to further knowledge and its application for a better way of life. In seeking to liberate people from poverty and servitude it is the business ethic in action which is the cutting edge of progress.

Moreover, economic freedom provides the soundest possible basis for democracy.

These are the lessons which by now the world should have learnt. Ours should be an age in which democracy and capitalism work together for the benefit of all.

Freedom House, an organisation which monitors these things, found that in 1993 there were 75 democratic countries, up from 55 a decade earlier; but 31 per cent of the world's population, the greater part in China, still lived under repressive regimes, this is down from 44 per cent a decade ago. And from history we learn that democracies almost never go to war with one another. But just before we raise the roof with shouts of joy let me add a further reflection on this connection. Wherever we finds signs of a reversal of free enterprise economic reforms, we must be on our guard against threats to political liberty also. To put matters in the language of the philosopher, free enterprise is the necessary but not sufficient condition of liberty. There are few authoritarian societies which permit a significant measure of free enterprise–China is one of them.

But I do not believe that closed politics can co-exist with open markets for very long.

Open the door to new investment and you open the window to new opportunities. Dismantle controls over what people buy and you have less control over what they think.

The Case for Free Trade

Allied to this is the need for open trade. Every nation pulled itself up by the effort of its citizens. We should not through protectionism, now deny others the opportunity to do the same. The more they sell, the more resources they will have to buy from others.

That is the importance of the GATT Round which came so perilously close to failure. So long as the trade highways of the world are free, small businesses in small countries have the same opportunities to compete as those in large countries. With free trade you can have the large scale economic efficiency it provides and the small scale political identity so often preferred.

We are now at one of those watersheds in economic affairs which occur perhaps once in a lifetime. The pressures between open trade and protection are finely balanced. We still have to convince popular opinion in the West that opening markets to foreign goods and services raises living standards and generates jobs. We still have to win the argument that just as economic and political freedom go together, so too do open trade and international harmony.


Freedom solves many problems but unbridled it can also create others. As we look ahead some of the most acute problems will be as much within our societies as between them. The values and virtues which we prize in free countries are honesty, self-discipline, a sense of responsibility to one's family, a sense of loyalty to one's employer and staff, a pride in the quality of one's work. All these flourish in a climate of freedom.

But that freedom is threatened, in the West certainly, but I believe also more widely, by a lack of respect for the rights, freedom and property of others which manifests itself most clearly in rising crime and violence. The truth is that you cannot have freedom without order: and order requires both justice under a rule of law and moral and social authority.

It was one of the great American Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, who wrote in 1798, not many years after the Declaration of Independence and at the very inception of their constitution:

“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Weighty words, Mr Chairman, but wise ones.

We have to re-establish the balance between freedom and order and strengthen the institutions–the family, the courts of law, democratically elected governments–which provide authority. That means recognising that people's role in democracy does not end when they cast their votes. They have to live up to and apply in daily life the standards and values which are the foundations of democracy. Otherwise democracy itself will disintegrate and decay.


At the beginning of this century the advance of science and of democracy gave cause for optimism about the future.

No-one could have foreseen the events which happened.

Some would call it the Century of the two terrible wars, of concentration camps and the Gulag, of totalitarian enslavement.

Others would see it as the time when freedom fought back, when 100 more nations became independent and took their place in the United Nations, when democracy extended its frontiers and former enemies began to build the structure of friendship.

We must not assume that the danger of conflict is over. Just as in medicine, viruses develop new virulent strains which have to be overcome, so in politics new tyrants await to test our resolve, and new problems arise to challenge our will.

As I look around this room I see many who will be leaders in the future. In the 21st Century, as in this, leadership will consist of making the impossible happen by acting on clear principles and persevering until they succeed. As we have defeated the external tyrannies of the 20th Century may we entrench the values of civilisation in the 21st Century.