Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at National Press Club (The Path to Power)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Washington DC
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2318
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Autobiography (childhood), Defence (general), Trade, European Union (general), Economic, monetary & political union, Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Religion & morality, Society

As every journalist knows, there is no better way to clarify your own thoughts than to try to explain yourself to someone else. I found this too in writing the latest volume of my memoirs, The Path to Power. This covers my early life in the small town of Grantham, my time as an MP, as a Member of the Shadow Cabinet and the actual Cabinet and then as leader of the Opposition — in fact, the whole period up to becoming Prime Minister in 1979. And, as I had always intended, I have added four more chapters about the world and the future as I see it now.

It's about that second section of the book and the ideas it contains that I want to speak mainly today. But first I would like to say something of the influences which shaped my views, made me the kind of politician — I became.

I grew up against a loving but strict family background in a small town. We were a hard working family and my Alfred Robertsfather was a successful grocer. We were Methodists and religion was a very strong influence on our lives.

But so also was politics. My father would in earlier years probably have been a Liberal Party voter, but that was when the Liberals stood for small government and private enterprise economics. For as long as I remember our family was true blue Tory — rather the exception in non-Conformist circles at the time. Every week my father and I would borrow books on political subjects from the local library. We read the newspapers. And when the wireless came in that was almost as much the centre of our lives as Finkin Street Methodist Church.

But it was the War years which most affected my wider outlook on events. Just as some people saw the thirties as proof that only the state could manage economic progress, so others saw the War as proof that nationalism was the ultimate threat to peace and so nationhood must be suppressed. For my family, with our patriotic belief in Britain, that was absurd. It was not the nation but the government which had failed — failed because it had not stood up to aggression at an early stage but appeased it. The remarkable oratory of Winston Churchill was now indeliby imprinted on my mind. I believed then (and I believe now) that the principle that aggression must not be allowed to pay is fundamental to a just and orderly world.

These were the events and people who shaped my early years and my fundamental beliefs, but there was another person who was instrumental in guiding my political thoughts, Keith Joseph.

I had known Keith for many years, indeed our paths had crossed very soon after I entered Parliament as MP for Finchley in 1959, and we built up a friendship and rapport which remained firm to the end.

In 1970 we found ourselves together as colleagues in Ted Heath's government.

The events of 1970 to 1974 — for which I as a member of that cabinet must take my share of the blame — were a marvellous demonstration of how not to govern. They taught me three important lessons. First, it is by control of the monetary cause of inflation — not the prices and wages which are symptoms of it — that you attain financial stability. Secondly, incomes policies lead to destructive confrontations with wage bargainers which government cannot win. Thirdly, when you set out to tame trade union militancy by reforming the law, you have to choose your own ground and your own timing: don't rely on appeals to common sense or common interest to see you through. They won't.

In 1974 after we had lost the election and Labour came to power, Keith started to set out a real Conservative analysis. He said that for thirty years under Governments of both parties we had been moving in the wrong direction towards too much state spending, borrowing, taxation and regulation and too little incentive for enterprise. I joined him in the Centre for Policy Studies where he advanced a new approach — or rather an old approach whose merits had been forgotten — of limited government, individual freedom, private property ownership and a rule of law. One unfortunate speech sunk Keith's chances and so, as the only other public spokesman for that approach, I put my name forward to challenge Ted Heath for the leadership of the Party.

I fought my campaign on these same themes. And to the shocked disbelief of the Conservative Party hierarchy I won.

[MT handwritten note:] Story about Keith and DT's approach. [+note ends]

By now my own intellectual and moral approach to politics was more or less complete. I knew what I believed and where I stood. That said, the experience — often turbulent and troubled — of leading the Conservatives in Opposition was immensely useful. I presided over a deeply split Shadow Cabinet in which those I might call the true believers, who shared Keith's and my analysis, were always a minority. I learned a great deal about tactics and campaigning. Yet it was only in the so-called Winter of Discontent — when Britain ground to a halt through waves of strikes in the Winter of 1978/79 — that I managed to seize the initiative and commit the Conservative Party to the kind of policies which I already knew were necessary, and which I had worked out — particularly policies to lessen trade union power. This argument would have to be won time after time against the unconvinced within my own Shadow Cabinet — and later Cabinet — over the years.

Even during the 1979 election campaign an attempt to muzzle me was made for fear I would sound too radical and provocative in my attacks on socialism and union militancy. But in May that year we won a solid election victory and I was given the chance — my only chance — to put things right.

Nowadays the 1980s receive what might politely be termed mixed reviews. But I believe that when the historians get down to their serious work, perhaps some time after I have stopped mine, they will judge that decade in both our countries very favourably.

Both Ronald Reagan and I deliberately set out to reverse state control, liberate individual initiative and stand up to a Soviet Empire which was every bit as evil as he described it — and a great deal more serious threat to our way of life than today's revisionists pretend. His main task lay in foreign and defence policy — which was only natural for a superpower. My main task was in economic affairs — to roll back collectivism in all its forms. This included, of course, a campaign against communism everywhere — the most total tyranny in the world.

But our starting point was very similar. I am glad to note that the fashion for disparaging the Reagan years has passed and that today's Republicans are trying to build on Reaganism. I suspect that something similar is about to happen in my own country. But just at the moment discretion forbids my enlarging that point.

That, however, does not prevent me — sixteen years after entering Downing Street and four and a half years after leaving it — from setting out, from the perspective of that experience, some thoughts about the future. I offer them to encourage and, I hope, to stimulate the next generation of political leaders in different countries, including my own.

Part II

When I left office there was more than a touch of complacency in the West. The Cold War had been more or less won. And especially after the outcome of the Gulf War, the talk was of new world orders and peace dividends. There was a renewed tendency for governments to believe they could spend their way out of political problems at home at the expense of defence capabilities for action abroad — a tendency which is still with us. For Britain, the emphasis was on consensus not confrontation — particularly as regards our relations with the increasingly federalist European Community.

Most of these chickens have now well and truly come home to roost. The shameful failure of the West to prevent or reverse aggression in the former Yugoslavia has discredited and divided us. The new Russia shows more and more signs of behaving like the old Soviet Union. The dependency culture continues to absorb more and more from fewer and fewer people active in the work force. What is to be done?

Let me take Europe first. As someone who believes in Britain — our identity and institutions, our history and destiny — I reject the notion that we should effectively cease to govern ourselves, as more and more powers are passed to the European Institutions. I also take this opportunity to warn the United States, as I have done on other occasions, that the agenda which the European federalists have set cannot be pursued without damaging American interests and ultimately jeopardising harmonious international relations. It is only by staying united that the West — that is the Americas and Europe — can ensure we are the dominant influence in global affairs. And that must be our goal. The European federalists, who still find much support among European politicians though less among European peoples, aim to create a united states of Europe with its own government, currency, foreign policy and defence forces which can only be — and is intended to be — a rival to the United States. I propose that Britain negotiates its way out of those aspects of the present financial arrangements which bear heavily upon us, acts to protect our parliamentary and legal sovereignty, declares openly against a single currency, and urges the creation of a North Atlantic Free Trade Area covering NAFTA and the EU which would underpin NATO and reverse European protectionism.

That leads directly on to wider international affairs — what I call the New World Disorder. There is, I know, a lively debate here in the United States about the scope and purpose of international interventions. That is as it should be: for recent experience in Somalia and ex-Yugoslavia suggests that much is wrong. The danger is that an over-ambitious policy, conceived in the wake of the Gulf War and the Cold War, has led to such comprehensive failure that there will be a reaction against overseas military involvements of any kind.

Unlike some other conservatives, I do believe that it is right to consult moral principles, particularly human rights, and not only a restrictive view of the national interest when making decisions about intervention. But I also believe that in even the most tragic circumstances it is necessary to be strictly practical. In some cases, probably like Somalia, there is little that outside intervention can accomplish when conducted by states, and the best thing is to wait until conditions are achieved locally for humanitarian work by international agencies.

But in other cases — I think above all of Bosnia — moral principles both coincide with wider geopolitical interests and can be implemented by effective military means. We should and could have stopped the Serb aggressor in 1991 in Croatia and in 1992 in Bosnia before the situation got out of control. I was always against the sending of ground troops and in favour of lifting the arms embargo on Croatia and Bosnia, supplying them with training and arms, and using massive airpower to force Serb compliance with United Nations Resolutions relating to protecting and provisioning civilians. This is still the policy to which we have to return — though perhaps with some greater role for ground forces in the short term, mainly to protect our men on the ground.

Another error of the false internationalism which has done so much damage is the tendency to disparage nations, nationhood and national sovereignty. Nationalism, as long as it is accompanied by democracy and respect for human rights, is generally a force for durable and flexible stability in world affairs. Without strong nation states dictators and aggressors cannot be defeated. The day of the multi-national empires is past. There is no point and much danger in trying to re-create them — whether in a European super-state or a resurgent Russian empire.

Defence has been cut back too far in our Western countries. Combined with a lack of resolution among some Western leaders, this is giving the wrong signs to dubious political figures in the ex-communist world and dangerous exponents of force in the Islamic world.

This is not unconnected with the social malaise that is affecting our countries, where we see family breakdown, growing illegitimacy, rising crime and a huge dependency culture. A society which puts a higher value on state hand-outs to its able bodied citizens than on measures to protect those citizens from internal crime and external threats is one which risks becoming decadent. And such decadence is itself a standing invitation to other states — more barbarous but also more self confident than us — to chance their luck. We have to get our priorities in taxation, in spending programmes and in wider social policy back into line. We have to support families not penalise them — and deter irresponsible behaviour, like never-married single parenthood, not reward it.

Finally, I want us to renew our faith in free market economics as the very best route to prosperity and progress. Of course, I accept that social and cultural factors are important too. But the stark contrasts between countries which embrace free enterprise capitalism and those which reject it must never be disguised or forgotten. We have seen which of the two systems works and which does not. What we have to do now is to apply the wisdom of the market to places like Sub-Saharan Africa where too often state planning and controls have kept the people impoverished. And we must hold our markets open to the goods and services of developing countries — not least because as they develop they will provide new markets for our goods and services. And if they can't sell to us, they have no money to buy from us.

In spite of the problems and uncertainties, this is an exciting time to be alive — and nowhere more exciting than the United States. Unlike previous generations we have no excuses: we know what system works and what does not. We know what deters aggression and what invites it. We know which vision inspires and which enslaves.

The great questions of political, social and economic life have received their answer. The open question now is whether we have the courage to resolve it.