Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to the First International Conservative Congress

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Washington DC
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1330 local time.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4031
Themes: Arts & entertainment, British Constitution (general discussions), Parliament, Union of UK nations, Conservatism, Defence (general), Economic policy - theory and process, Education, Higher & further education, Elections & electoral system, European Union (general), Economic, monetary & political union, Foreign policy - theory and process, Family, Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Labour Party & socialism, Media, Northern Ireland, Race, immigration, nationality, Religion & morality, Social security & welfare, Terrorism

Conservatism Now

There is something odd–as well as something stimulating–about the discussions we have had at this International Conservative Congress. And since there's no doubt about the stimulation, I shall immediately reflect on the oddness.

It lies in this: in the past, wherever and whenever conservative true believers used to come together, the refrain was always the same. It was that we had office without power, or, differently put, power without influence; though the faces changed when we won elections, the policies didn't. Still more bluntly put, it was that while conservative politicians were quite happy to be in fact office they were much less happy to implement a conservative agenda. In fact, if anything the so-called `ratchet effect', as my old friend Keith Joseph christened it, meant that our countries proceeded fairly steadily in a left-wing direction.

Come the 1980s we changed all that. We fought not just for power, we fought for our true beliefs–and we were really quite successful. We were successful at home–transforming our economies and liberating the energy of our people. We were successful abroad–bringing to bear the full force of freedom against the socialism which had pledged to bury it. And we know the result–even if others are now studiously determined to forget or even deny that it was the result–namely that the communist prison-house of nations collapsed in a grubby, ruinous chaos that the world is still trying to clear up.

So great have been those changes that even our political opponents have had to recognise them. Sometimes cynically and–let's be gracious about this–sometimes sincerely, many on the Left acknowledged the errors of their ways. To quote the doyen of American Marxist historians, writing in 1990, “Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won” .

What more is there to say? …Well, quite a lot actually, because conservatism is about more than capitalism.

I leave the judgement about American politics to others, though you'll not be surprised that I have my own opinions on the subject of President Clinton's Administration. But certainly in Britain Tony Blair shifted the Labour Party so far to the Right that at the last election there appeared little to distinguish Labour from the Tories. Presented with a choice of two apparent conservative parties, the British people chose the newer one, with the nicer face and better script, and with such a distant record as to inspire the hope that for once re-habilitation had worked. And it has to be said that in Britain in 1997, just as earlier in America in 1991, one of Thatcher's laws also came into play: conservative governments which increase taxation lose elections.

So the 1990s, were for many conservative believers, something of a let-down. It wasn't so much that the policies were wrong, in fact some were rather good. It was that there was a quite deliberate positioning of Right-of-Centre Governments towards the Centre rather than the Right, in pursuit of a media-led consensus. And I'm tempted at this point to suggest another law: namely that the Media Class in general will always gravitate to the left, because it needs big government to legitimise its all-intrusive power.

Yet there still is an enormous difference between now and the position conservatives were in during the 1970s. For in the 1980s we moved the world, once and for all, in our direction.

The old arguments of the Left have been discredited.

Collectivist economics is seen as a dead-end.

The terrible threat posed to the West by Communism in the form of the Evil Empire is a thing of the past.

And this is what is odd. For we conservatives now find ourselves in precisely the opposite position to that we were in for most of the post-War period–our ideas have been successful, but our Parties recently have not. That's true of conservative parties almost everywhere. My own Conservative Party suffered a severe defeat in the last general election. Here, the Republican Party again lost the Presidency; and though Republicans still thankfully control both the Senate and the House they seem–to a friendly foreigner–more afflicted with self-doubt than circumstances warrant.

But I must qualify this reflection in an important way–which forms the starting point for my argument today. For while we have converted our opponents to quite a large extent as regards economics, we have not done so on anything much else.

And, as conservatives above all should never forget, there is more to politics than economics. Indeed, if government is small enough, the infinite inventiveness of human talent will see to it that, in general, the economics take care of themselves. Of course, in very backward countries like Albania, where people have no experience of markets, lack of regulation can cause a crisis. But just look, rather, at Russia, where for all the problems of corruption, every gloomy economic forecast has been confounded. The old truth still holds: there is much harm and only modest good that governments can do to promote a successful economy. And the more sophisticated the global economy becomes, the truer that will be.

Conservative Core Values

So if conservatism is not ultimately about economics, what is it about?

“The defence of the West” –this in one short, simple phrase is as near as I can come to expressing the over-all mission of conservatives now. That defence involves securing our nations against internal and external threats alike. I shall enlarge on those themes in a minute. But what are the core convictions we are defending? Not having time to pen a treatise, or even speak as long as a German politician, I shall set out my views with English brevity.

We conservatives believe that man has a basic sense of right and wrong and an amazing creativity when free to apply his talents; but we also believe that his nature is flawed, such that without restraints applied by convention and law he will destroy himself and others.

We believe in free, limited democratic government, as the framework most likely to minimise opportunities for mischief and abuse of power; but we scorn the association of vox populi with vox dei, knowing that no mere majority vote can make what is good bad or what is bad good; and we recognise–like the authors of The Federalist Papers–that what they called Republican Government (and what I would call true democratic government) can only work with a nation founded on religious belief and moral values.

We understand that in some areas government has to be strong; has to be prepared to use force to defend the nation's security; we appreciate the majesty and rituals and pomp of the state, operating in its proper sphere. But we also believe that what is public ultimately exists for what is private–that it is the family (not the state or nation or even Church), which is the basic institution of our society, without which all the rest collapses.

We are suspicious of attempts at institutional change, unless those institutions have become in their present form a threat to the whole future of the country–as the trade unions and nationalised industries were, for instance, in Britain when I became Prime Minister.

We view the world in which we live as in need, not of re-ordering according to master-plans devised by enlightened experts, but rather of constant renewal according to timeless truths and rich traditions.

And so we are unashamedly patriots. For as Edmund Burke wrote two hundred years ago, in words that have been more often quoted than understood:

“To be attached to the sub-division, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affection. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind” .

So here we stand. Rock solid. Rooted in a clear, tried, tested view of the world and the heavens and everything in them.

Holding True to Our Convictions

These reflections immediately demonstrate, of course, one temptation to be avoided at all costs–not least because it is, in fact, the oldest temptation that conservative parties face. That is the desire to be what we are not–in search of expressions of approval from those who are our sworn ideological adversaries, while showing a reluctance to listen to our proven friends.

Nothing would be more foolish than for conservatives to seek refuge in aping our opponents' policies, rhetoric–or Heaven forbid–even identity. After all, if people really want social democracy they won't be voting for us conservatives in any case.

It can, of course, happen that some political sea-change occurs against which no Party can stand. This means that it has to adapt. But generally, and particularly in the modern age of mass politics, it is essential to be distinctive. Adaptation for a conservative Party does not, therefore, mean becoming less conservative–it does not necessarily mean becoming more conservative, though it often may–it means expressing one's fundamental conservatism in different ways. And I thought Steve Forbes did it wonderfully this morning.

From this it also follows that it would be absurd to deviate from the conservative fixed points which are now accepted in theory, if not always fully in practice, even by our opponents. Let me remind you of some of these.

We must have small government, in which as many functions as possible are carried out by the private, not the public sector.

We must insist that the state concentrate on its core tasks–upholding law and order at home, maintaining a sound currency and defending the nation's interests abroad.

We must question remorselessly the measure, manner and method of the government's involvement in the provision of health and education and social benefits, because there is no eternally valid ordinance that private enterprise shall in these areas go “thus far and no further” .

We must constantly remind ourselves and others of the creative potential of markets, not least the markets opened up by international free trade.

And we must be alert to the dangers of over-regulation and creeping control, which any number of fashionable and politically correct agendas demand and which any variety of power-hungry politician will eagerly supply.

All this is necessary. But equally all this is not enough. Not enough to bring conservatives back to power. And, still more important, not enough to respond to the fundamental challenges faced by the West.

If I were to sum up the international conservative position today I would say it was sound but unimaginative. It is sound because there is no need for a fundamental re-thinking of basic principles, as had to happen in the 1970s. It is unimaginative because conservatives have been slow and timid in applying those principles to new challenges.

In the time left to me I can do no more than list five of these internal and external threats to which I referred earlier and sketch out a conservative response to them.

Threat 1: to the Constitution

The first is “the threat to our traditional institutions of government” .

In the United States, conservatives are concerned about the judicial imperialism of the Supreme Court and the sweeping social and economic changes it has imposed on the country. You are right to be so, as has been eloquently explained. The framework within which this controversy takes place is different from that in Britain. But the issues have a familiar and ominous ring.

In the United Kingdom we see something perhaps still more far-reaching–an attack by different forces on the foundations of our Constitution. These foundations are under attack on all sides; for some people this is part of a calculated programme; many more, I suspect, are unaware of where the path which they are urging others to tread may lead.

First, the British House of Lords, an organic part of our Constitution which has served us well, has been singled out for conversion into an entirely politically appointed Second Chamber, strengthening government patronage and weakening legislative scrutiny.

Second, as part of an eerily obsessive programme of rationalising change, our traditional first-past-the-post electoral system is under attack by those who would prefer to have horse-trading politicians choose governments, rather than leave that choice to electors.

Third, the future of the Union with Scotland is now in the balance as a result of the strains which creating a Scottish Parliament will generate. And on this matter those who think that the consequences are both limited and predictable may be in for a shock.

Fourth, the Union with Northern Ireland is also under attack by increasingly self-confident Republicans, who have never disowned or abandoned the men of violence. Bringing the political wing of the IRA into talks on the future of Northern Ireland when the IRA themselves still retain their arms and refuse to disarm shows how serious the British Government is in its search for peace! But it surely represents the last concession that prudence could commend. Even now we should understand that this approach risks weakening the position of Ulster's constitutional politicians–Unionist and Nationalist alike.

And, last but not least, day in day out, power and influence continue to be drained away from the House of Commons by the working of European institutions from Brussels to the benefit of an embryo European super-state.

hese are dangerous developments, even more sinister taken together than they are taken separately. In resisting them, we conservatives have to go back to the very heart of our Toryism–to our belief in tradition, in legitimate authority, in not tinkering with what works.

America has a written constitution, the United Kingdom an un-written one. But in both cases they are rooted in history and enshrined by practice. A constitution is not something you change on a whim. We don't wish to go the way of that famous Punch cartoon of the last century which depicts an Englishman entering a public library and asking the librarian for a copy of the French Constitution–to be given the reply: “Sorry, Sir. We don't stock periodicals” .

Threat 2: to National Identity

This threat leads on to a second, which also has, I believe, an echo here in the United States–the threat to our national identity. Here in America I have followed the controversy about immigration and ethnicity which has preoccupied many, and which has even divided some, in the conservative camp. In Britain we too know the consequences of mass immigration in past years. In both our countries we must recognise the priceless asset of a common language which forges national unity out of the multi-ethnic variety, and so makes democratic debate possible–the more so because the English language is soaked in the values of liberty.

The main challenges to our British identity, however, are directly related to our powers of self-government, now under attack from European federalism. The current preoccupation in European capitals with the proposed single currency and its appalling implications for participants and non-participants alike should not for a moment distract our attention from the fact that this is, and always has been, not an economic but a political project. Nor is it a matter of administrative or institutional politics only: it is about deliberately fashioning a new sovereign political unit with a new artificially-created supra-national identity. The fact that this has never been proposed in such terms to the British people is only one example of the catalogue of deceit that has accompanied the venture. It is a source of sadness to some of us that still so few American conservatives have grasped both the inherently objectionable nature of what is intended and its implications for America's role as the single global super-power and ultimate guarantor of the West's security.

The irony is, of course, that while America and Britain have ever more apologetically to defend the right to our national identities against those who would subordinate them to the banality of the global village, almost everywhere else in the world nationalism is on the rise.

Now, nationalism is always a bit uncomfortable for other nations, often neighbouring nations. It can be abused, like other powerful political emotions. But national pride offers people a genuine identity in a world of cardboard cut-outs. It offers an anchor against the pull of bureaucratic internationalism, against that cultural “globalisation” which conservatives rightly fear, as opposed to economic globalisation which, in my view, they should not. We conservatives must applaud attachment to the values and institutions which unite us–and that means we should promote a sense of national identity.

Threat 3: to Western Culture

I have already touched on the third threat I have in mind–this is the threat to our Western culture. Let me immediately say that we are right to be sceptical of some aspects of what is called “cultural politics” .

The undermining of our traditional education systems, which has gone on longer in Britain, but which in the New Age of political correctness seems to have gone into over-drive here, is now a very grave danger. It threatens the collective memory of our society from which its habits and even its identity flow.

When a Stanford University English professor describes Milton as “an ass [and]…a sexist pig” , and when Shakespeare is only on the syllabus of Duke University (in the words of another professor) to illuminate the way seventeenth century society mistreated women, the working class and minorities–I think we can say that university education is effectively coming to an end.

We should be warned. A society only needs one generation to abandon the task of learning and transmitting its culture, for that culture to become an alien, lifeless, irrelevance. A powerful, radical left-wing clerisy is bent on destroying what every past generation would have understood to be the central purpose of education–that is, allowing (again in the words of Edmund Burke) individuals to “avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” . No amount of fiddling with structures will alter what is happening. Only by ensuring that we have the right teachers with the right training and the right ideas will we stop the rot. Otherwise, the cultural revolutionaries with their jarring cacophony will drown out for ever what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” .

Threat 4: to the Family

The fourth threat to the West is very closely linked to educational failure: it is the systematic attack on the traditional family.

Of course, the family has also been attacked in unsystematic ways. In both our countries, and under parties of both left and right, the effectively unconditional supply of social benefits to those who were thought incapable of coping undermined the incentive to work and provided an alternative and seemingly endless income from government. It thus undercut the family unit. It promoted habits of idleness and delinquency. It permitted single-parenthood to become a financially sustainable, alternative way of life. By undermining the self-respect of so many of the most vulnerable members of society–the respectable poor struggling for decency against the odds–the dependency culture poisoned and weakened society as a whole.

Then on top of all that there has been a full-scale and deliberate assault on the institution of the family itself. The exaltation of violent and explicit sex increasingly coarsens the content of films and books and–eventually and inevitably–life itself. This is not progress. It is not liberation. It is decadence. We conservatives are not, most of us, saints: but even as sinners, we have a duty to fight–as whole-heartedly as our enemies promote–the attack on the family that threatens the West at its foundations.

Threat 5: to Western Security

So much for the threats from within: but finally, let's not forget the threats from without. In meeting these, it makes no more sense to abandon traditional institutions and proven methods than it does in any of the other areas I've mentioned. For: yes, there have been profound changes with the end of the Cold War. But, equally, there's a still more profound continuity–for there is always a Present Danger.

After all, no-one can nowadays doubt the potential for death and damage of today's international terrorist. We ought, similarly, to have heard enough stories–most recently from none other than General Lebed, who ought to know–about “lost” nuclear weapons and materials, to fear the consequences of proliferation in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sight of Chinese troops moving into Hong Kong should have reminded us that in the Far East communism is not yet vanquished–indeed that a sinister and so far successful experiment in combining economic freedom with political servitude confronts us. And we do not yet know where it will lead.

Strong defence, supported by heavy investment in the latest technology, including ballistic missile defence, is as essential now, when we don't know who our future enemy may be, as in the Cold War years, when we knew him all too well. So we were right to preserve but widen NATO, and right to resist Russian threats aimed as stopping us doing so. NATO must remain the basis for Western defence and no rival institution or alternative set of priorities be allowed to challenge that.

But NATO, unless it is to become a mere institution for collective security rather than an effective alliance, must be led. And only America–with the support of staunch allies–has the resources, the reach and the reputation to lead it. I can't see that changing–and I am fearful of any attempt to make it change, because such a change could threaten peace. following section omitted on delivery

Just try to cast your minds ahead a century. Consider the number of medium-to-large states in the world that have now already embarked on a free-market revolution: India, China, Brazil, possibly Russia. Add to these the present economic great powers: the USA and Japan, and, if the federalists get their way, a European superstate with its own independent foreign and defence policy, separate from and perhaps inimical to, the United States.

What we see in 2097 is, therefore, an unstable world, in which there are more than half a dozen “great powers” –all with their clients, all vulnerable if they stand alone, all capable of increasing their power and influence if they form the right kind of alliance, and all engaged willy-nilly in perpetual diplomatic manoeuvres to ensure that their relative positions improve rather than deteriorate. In other words, 2097 might look like 1914 played out on a somewhat larger stage.

That need not come to pass if the Atlantic Alliance remains as it is today. Such are the realities of population, resources, technology and capital that if America remains the dominant power in a united West, and militarily engaged in Europe, then the West can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole. end of section omitted on delivery

Understanding and accepting this will always be easier for us in Britain than for our European neighbours: for the Anglo-American relationship is not some out-dated romantic notion, it reflects shared history, language, values and ideals–the very things which generate that willingness for sacrifice on which the outcome of every military venture ultimately depends.

Western cooperation will also be easier if we re-assert, as I have been suggesting, the moral and cultural foundations of our Western world. In the Cold War years we were able to persuade our populations that our values were worth fighting for. By re-iterating those values, we conservatives offer the best prospect of security, stability and peace.

The Defence of the West

The whole of this programme, like any political programme in the real world, has to adapt to circumstances. But what gives it such relevance and weight today is that it is the only one which recognises the over-riding importance of keeping the West strong and united. Western civilization would not be the first to re-shape others in its own image, only to discover that it had lost the identity, confidence and will to survive: on this matter the historians of the Classical World could provide some useful lessons to today's Western liberal politicians.

The decline of the West has been predicted before, and it has not occurred. It need not occur. And it will not occur–if we conservatives keep faith in everything we have achieved and the bedrock principles which inspired us to prevail.