Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Lecture to the Heritage Foundation ("The Principles of Conservatism")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Washington DC
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4230
Themes: Conservatism, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Economic policy - theory and process, Public spending & borrowing, European Union (general), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Society, Social security & welfare

Mr. Simon, Your Excellencies, Justices, Members of Congress, Ladies and Gentlemen


It is a great honour to be asked to be the inaugural speaker of this series of Lectures on the Principles of Conservatism, organised to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Heritage Foundation. Heritage has flown the flag for conservatism over this last quarter-century with pride and distinction. [end p1]

I've always considered America fortunate in having an apparently inexhaustible supply of conservative thinkers prepared to challenge the fashionable liberal consensus. That is a tribute to the intellectual energy and the taste for debate which are so characteristic of this great country and which sometimes seem distressingly absent in [end p2] contemporary Europe. But it is also a tribute to Heritage (and in particular to Ed Feulner) that these conservative thinkers have been motivated and sustained in their mission. [end p3]

It is no less an honour—and, dare I say, still more of a pleasure—to be invited here on the occasion of the presentation of the Clare Booth Luce award to my old friend Ronald Reagan.

President Reagan is one of the greatest men of our time, and one of the greatest American Presidents of all time. If that is not fully appreciated today, and [end p4] sadly it is not, it isn't really surprising. After all, so many people have been proved wrong by Ronald Reagan that they simply daren't acknowledge his achievement. Forests have already been pulped to print the revisionist analyses of the eighties. Those who were once so confident of the superiority of the Soviet system that they advocated appeasement of it, [end p5] now pretend to believe that it was doomed to inevitable collapse. Tell that to the Russians! The former Soviet ministers didn't and don't doubt the seriousness of the struggle, even if Western liberal commentators do.

No-one in the West appreciates all this better—and no-one served the President and this [end p6] country more loyally—than Cap Weinberger, here to receive the award on Ronald Reagan 's behalf. He was also a great friend to Britain, above all during the Falklands War. It's nice to be among conservatives. It's still nicer to be among friends.

When the Heritage Foundation asked me to make the virtue of Courage the centre-piece of this [end p7] Lecture I was not displeased. Of the four cardinal virtues—courage, temperance, justice and prudence—it is the last—prudence—that the ancient philosophers traditionally placed at the moral apex.

They did so because they understood, quite rightly, that without that practical, seemingly rather dull, virtue none of the others could be [end p8] correctly applied. You have to know when and how to be brave, or self-controlled or fair-minded, in particular situations Prudence—or what I would prefer to call a good, hearty helping of commonsense—shows the way. [end p9]

Ronald Reagan

But in my political life-time I believe that it is fortitude or courage that we've most needed and often, I fear, most lacked.

Today we are particularly conscious of the courage of Ronald Reagan. It was easy for his contemporaries to ignore it: [end p10] he always seemed so calm and relaxed, with natural charm, unstudied self-assurance and unquenchable good humour. He was always ready with just the right quip—often self-deprecatory, though with a serious purpose—so as to lighten the darkest moments and give all around him heart. The excellent recent study by Dinesh D'Souza refreshed my [end p11] memory about some of these occasions and told me of others which I didn't previously know.

Right from the beginning, Ronald Reagan set out to challenge everything that the liberal political elite of America accepted and sought to propagate. [end p12]

They believed that America was doomed to decline: He believed it was destined for further greatness.

They imagined that sooner or later there would be convergence between the free Western system and the socialist Eastern system, and that some kind of social democratic outcome was inevitable. [end p13]

He, by contrast, considered that socialism was a patent failure which should be cast onto the trash heap of history.

They thought that the problem with America was the American people, though they didn't quite put it like that.

He thought that the problem with America was the [end p14] American government, and he did put it just like that.

The political elite were prepared to kow-tow to the counter-culture that grew up on American campuses, fed by a mixture of high-brow dogma and low-brow self-indulgence. Governor Reagan would have none of it and expressed his [end p15] disdain in his own inimitable fashion. On one occasion students, chanting outside the Governor's limousine, held up a placard bearing the modest inscription, “We Are The Future” . The Governor scribbled down his reply and held it up to the car window. It read: “I'll sell my bonds” . [end p16]

In those days, of course, there were not many people buying bonds in Ronald Reagan. But from the very first time I met him I felt that I had to invest. I was leader of the Opposition—one of the most tricky posts in British politics—when Governor Reagan paid me a visit. The impression is still vivid in my mind: not so vivid that I can remember exactly what he said, [end p17] only the clarity with which he set forth his beliefs and the way he put large truths and complex ideas into simple language.

As soon as I met Governor Reagan, I knew that we were of like mind, and manifestly so did he. We shared a rather unusual philosophy and we shared something else rather unusual as well: we were in politics [end p18] because we wanted to put our philosophy into practice.

Ronald Reagan 's Achievement

Ronald Reagan has changed America and the world, but the changes he made were to restore historic conservative values not to impose artificially constructed ones. Take his economic policy, for example. [end p19]

It was certainly a very radical thing to do when he removed regulations and cut taxes and left the Fed to squeeze out inflation by monetary means. Supply side economics, Reaganomics, Voodoo economics—all these descriptions and mis-descriptions testified to the perception of what was proposed as something [end p20] outlandish. But it really wasn't and Ronald Reagan knew it wasn't.

After all, if you believe that it's business success that creates prosperity and jobs, you leave business as free as you possibly can to succeed. If you think that it's governments—taxing, spending, regulating and printing money—that distort the [end p21] business environment and penalise success you stop government doing these things. If, at the deepest level, you have confidence in the talent and enterprise of your own people, you express that confidence, you give them faith and hope: Ronald Reagan did all these things—and it worked. [end p22]

Today's American prosperity in the late 1990s is the result, above all, of the fundamental shift of direction President Reagan promoted in the 1980s. Perhaps it's something of an irony that it's an administration of instinctive spenders and regulators that now is reaping much of the political reward. But we conservatives shouldn't really be that surprised; for it [end p23] was the departure from some of those conservative principles, after Ronald Reagan and I left office, that left conservative politicians in both our countries out in the cold. One of Thatcher's iron laws is that conservative governments which put up taxes lose elections. [end p24]

It is, however, for fighting and winning the Cold War that Ronald Reagan deserves the most credit—and credit not just from Americans, but from the rest of what we called in those days the Free World, and from those in the former communist states who can now breathe the air of liberty. President Reagan 's “expert critics” used to complain that he didn't really [end p25] understand communism. But he understood it a great deal better than they did. He had seen at first hand its malevolent influence, under various guises and through various fronts working by stealth for the West's destruction. He had understood that it thrived on the fear, weakness and spinelessness of the West's political class. Because that [end p26] class itself had so little belief in Western values, it could hardly conceal a sneaking admiration for those of the Soviet Union. For these people, the retreat of Western power—from Asia, from Africa, from South America—was the natural way of the world.

Of course, there were always some honest men struggling to [end p27] arrest the decline, or at least to ameliorate its consequences. The doctrine of “containment” was envisaged as a way of conducting a strategic resistance to communist incursion. Similarly, the doctrine of “detente” also had its honourable Western advocates—none more so than Henry Kissinger. But the fact remains that it meant different things to [end p28] different sides.

For the West detente signified—as the word itself literally means—an easing in tension between the two super-powers and two blocs. This made a certain sense at the time, because it reduced the risk of a nuclear confrontation which Western unpreparedness had brought closer because we had allowed [end p29] our conventional defences to run down. But it also threatened to lead us into a fatal trap. For to the Soviets detente signified merely the promotion of their goal of world domination, while minimising the risk of direct military confrontation. So under the cloak of wordy communiques about peace and understanding, the Soviet Union expanded its nuclear arsenal and [end p30] its navy, engaged in continual doctrinal warfare and subverted states around the globe by means of its own advisers and the armed forces of its surrogates. There was only one destination to which this path could lead—that of Western defeat. And that's where we were heading. [end p31]

This was a message which few newspapers and commentators wanted to hear. It was at this time—the mid-1970s—that after one such speech I was generously awarded by the Soviet military newspaper, Red Star, the soubriquet of the “Iron Lady” .

You might imagine that it would be easier to call for a return to [end p32] military strength and national greatness in the United States—a super-power—than in the United Kingdom—a middle ranking power. But, oddly enough, I doubt it.

America, as I found from my visits in the seventies and early eighties, had suffered a terrible decline of confidence in its role in the world. [end p33]

This was essentially a psychological crisis not a reflection of realities. We now know that the arms build-up by the Soviets at that time was an act of desperation. The Soviet Union was dangerous—deadly dangerous—but the danger was that from a wounded predator not some proud beast of the jungle. [end p34]

The more intelligent Soviet apparatchiks had grasped that the economic and social system of the USSR was crumbling. The only chance for the state that had so recently pledged to bury the West, but which was now being buried by its own cumulative incompetence, was to win an arms race. It would have to rely for its survival on the ability to terrify its [end p35] opponents with the same success as it had terrified its own citizens.

A totally planned society and economy has the ability to concentrate productive capacity on some fixed objective with a reasonable degree of success; and do it better than liberal democracies. But totalitarianism can only work like this for a [end p36] relatively short time, after which the waste, distortions and corruption increase intolerably. So the Soviet Union had to aim at global dominance, and achieve it quickly, because given a free competition between systems no-one would wish to choose that of the Soviets. Their problem was that even though they diverted the best of their talent and a huge [end p37] share of their GDP to the military complex they lacked the moral and material resources to achieve superiority. That would be apparent as soon as the West found leaders determined to face them down.

This was what Ronald Reagan, with my enthusiastic support and that of a number of other leaders, set out as President to [end p38] do. And he did it on the basis of a well-considered and elaborated doctrine.

The world has, of course, seen many international doctrines—Munroe, Truman and Brezhnev have all made their contributions, some more positive than others. But for my money it is the Reagan doctrine, spelt out very clearly in the [end p39] speech he gave to British Parliamentarians in the Palace of Westminster in 1982, that has had the best and greatest impact. This was a rejection of both containment and detente. It proclaimed that the truce with communism was over. The West would henceforth regard no area of the world as destined to forego its liberty simply because the Soviets claimed it [end p40] to be within their sphere of influence. We would fight a battle of ideas against communism, and we would give material support to those who fought to recover their nations from tyranny.

President Reagan could have no illusion about the opposition he would face at home in embarking on this course: he [end p41] had, after all, seen these forces weaken the West throughout the seventies. But he used his inimitable ability to speak to the hearts of the American people and to appeal over the heads of the cynical, can't-do, elite. He and Cap Weinberger made no secret of the objective: military superiority. The Soviets understood more quickly than his domestic critics the [end p42] seriousness of what was at stake. The Russian rhetoric grew more violent; but an understanding that the game was up gradually dawned in the recesses of the Politburo.

It is well known that I encouraged President Reagan to “do business” with President Gorbachev. I also still give credit to Mr. Gorbachev for introducing [end p43] freedom of speech and of religion into the Soviet Union. But let's be clear: the Soviet power brokers knew that they had to choose a reformer because they understood that the old strategy of intimidating and subverting wouldn't work with Ronald Reagan in the White House and—who knows?—even Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street. [end p44]

The final straw for the Evil Empire was the Strategic Defense Initiative. President Reagan was, I believe, deliberately and cunningly tempted by the Soviets at Reykjavik. They made ever more alluring offers to cut their nuclear arsenals and the President, who was a genuine believer in a nuclear-weapons-free world (it was one of the [end p45] few things we disagreed about), thought he was making progress. There was no mention of SDI and it appeared that the Soviets had tacitly accepted that its future was not for negotiation. Then at the very last moment they insisted that SDI be effectively abandoned. The President immediately refused, the talks ended in acrimony and in the media he [end p46] was heavily criticised. But it was on that day, when a lesser man would have compromised, that he showed his mettle.

As a result of his courage, work on the SDI programme continued and the Soviets understood that their last gambit had failed. Three years later when Mr Gorbachev peacefully allowed Eastern Europe to slide [end p47] out of Soviet control Ronald Reagan 's earlier decision to stand firm was vindicated. The Soviets at last understood that the best they could hope for was to be allowed to reform their system not to impose it on the rest of the world. And, of course, as soon as they embarked upon serious reform the artificial construct of the USSR, sustained by lies and [end p48] violence for more than half a century, imploded with a whimper.

The idea that such achievements were a matter of luck is frankly laughable. Yes: the President had luck. But he deserved the luck he enjoyed. Fortune favours the brave, the saying runs. As this hero of our times faces his final and most [end p49] merciless enemy, he shows the same quiet courage which allowed him to break the world free of a monstrous creed without a shot being fired. President Reagan: your friends salute you! [end p50]

New Challenges for Old

Democracies like human beings have a tendency to relax when the worst is over. Our Western democracies accordingly relaxed—both at home and abroad—in the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was, of course, right that in this period there should be a [end p51] new look at priorities. The threat from the Soviet Union was much diminished—both directly in Europe and indirectly in regional conflicts which they had once exploited.

At least the worst errors of the past were avoided—America stayed militarily committed to Europe; NATO remained the linchpin of Western security; [end p52] and in spite of the protectionist instincts of the European Union, progress continued with reducing barriers to trade. These elements of continuity were crucial to the relative security and (in spite of the turbulence in the Far East) the considerable prosperity we enjoy today. These were the positive aspects. [end p53]

But there are also worrying negative ones. Each will require new acts of political courage to overcome.

First, lower defence spending in America, Britain and elsewhere was used not to cut taxes and so boost prosperity, but rather the so-called Peace Dividend went principally to pay for welfare. This in turn has harmed [end p54] our countries both socially and economically, worsening trends which had already become manifest. Welfare dependency is bad for families, and bad for the taxpayer. It makes it less necessary and less worth-while to work. The promotion of idleness leads, as it always does, to the growth of vice, irresponsibility and crime. The bonds which hold society [end p55] together are weakened. The bill—for single mothers, for delinquency, for vandalism—mounts. In some areas a generation grows up without solid roots or sound role models, without self-esteem or hope. It is extraordinary what damage is sometimes done in the name of compassion. The task of reversing the growth of welfare dependency and repairing the [end p56] structure of the traditional family is one of the most difficult we in the West face.

Secondly, the post-Cold War slackening of resolve has led to a lack of military preparedness. Understandably, with the end of the Cold War the sense of omni-Present Danger receded. Less excusably, the fact that the Soviet Union and its successor [end p57] states no longer challenged the West's very survival led Western countries to behave as if other, new threats could be ignored. Yet the truth is so obvious that surely only an expert could miss it: there is never a lack of potential aggressors.

We now have to reassess our defence spending, which has [end p58] been cut back too far: still more significant has been the failure to grasp the vital importance of investment in the very latest defence technology.

The crucial importance of keeping up research and development in defence is the great lesson of SDI. It is also the lesson—in two respects—of today's confrontation with Iraq. [end p59]

The original defeat of Saddam's forces was so swift—though sadly not complete—because of our overwhelming technical superiority. The fact that we are still having to apply constant pressure and the closest scrutiny to Iraq also bears witness to the lethal capability which science and technology can place in a dictator's hands and the enormous difficulty of [end p60] removing it. Chemical and biological weapons and the components for nuclear weapons can be all too easily concealed.

The proliferation of ballistic missile technology also greatly adds to the menace. According to the Defence Studies Centre at Lancaster University in Britain, 35 non-NATO countries [end p61] now have ballistic missiles. Of these the five “rogue states” —Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea—are a particular worry. North Korea has been supplying ballistic missiles to those who can afford them, and it continues to develop more advanced long range missiles, with a range of 2,500 to 4,000 miles. According to US sources, all of North-East Asia, South- [end p62] East Asia, much of the Pacific and most of Russia could soon be threatened by these latest North Korean missiles. Once they are available in the Middle East and North Africa, all the capitals of Europe will be within target range: and on present trends a direct threat to American shores is likely to mature early in the next century. [end p63]

Diplomatic pressure to restrict proliferation, though it may be useful, can never be a sufficient instrument in itself. It is important that the West remain able and willing—and is known to be able and willing—to take pre-emptive action if that should ultimately become necessary. [end p64]

But it is also vital that progress be made towards the construction of an effective global defence against missile attack. This would be a large and costly venture to which America's allies must be prepared to contribute; it would require a rare degree of courageous statesmanship to carry it through. But it is also difficult to over-state the terrible [end p65] consequences if we were to fail to take measures to protect our populations while there is still time to do so.

Thirdly, political courage will be required constantly to re-state the case for Western unity under American leadership. America was left by the end of the Cold War as the effective global power of last resort, the [end p66] only super-power. But there was also a widespread reluctance to face up to this reality. The same mentality which Ronald Reagan had had to over-come was at work. Large numbers of intellectuals and commentators, uneasy at the consequences of a victory whose causes they had never properly understood, sought to submerge America and the West in a new muddled, [end p67] multi-lateralism. I suppose it's not surprising. As Irving Kristol once noted, “No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals” .

In fact, it is as if some people take a perverse delight in learning the wrong lessons from events. It was Western unity, under inspiring American [end p68] leadership, which changed the world. But now that unity is at risk, as the European Union, with apparent encouragement from the United States, seems bent on becoming a single state with a single defence—a fledgling super-power. Such a development would not relieve America of obligations; it would merely increase the obstacles to American policy. [end p69]

Today's international policy makers have succumbed to a liberal contagion whose most alarming symptom is to view any new and artificial structure as preferable to a traditional and tested one. So they forget that it was powerful nation states, drawing on national loyalties and national armies, which enforced UN Security Council Resolutions and defeated Iraq in [end p70] 1991. Their (international policy makers') short term goal is to subordinate American and other national sovereignties to multi-lateral authorities; their long term goal, one suspects, is to establish the UN as a kind of embryo world government.

Surely the crisis in the former Yugoslavia should have shown the folly of these illusions. There the tragic farce of European [end p71] Union meddling only prolonged the aggression and the United Nations proved incapable of agreeing effective action. We are still trying to make the flawed Dayton Settlement—which neither the EU nor the UN could have brought about—the basis of a lasting peace in that troubled region. The future there is unpredictable, but one thing I do venture to predict: the less [end p72] America leads, and the more authority slips back to unwieldy international committees and their officials, the more difficulties will arise.

International relations today are in a kind of limbo. Few politicians and diplomats really believe that any power other than the United States can guarantee the peace or punish [end p73] aggression. But neither is there sufficient cohesion in the West to give America the moral and material support she must have to fulfil that role.

This has to change. America's duty is to lead: the other Western countries' duty is to support its leadership. Different countries will contribute in different ways. Britain is closer [end p74] to the United States by culture, language and history than is any other European country; British public opinion is therefore readier to back American initiatives; moreover, Britain's highly professional armed forces allow us to make a unique practical contribution when the necessity arises. [end p75]

But the fundamental equation holds good for all of us: provided Western countries unite under American leadership, the West will remain the dominant global influence; if we do not, the opportunity for rogue states and new tyrannical powers to exploit our divisions will increase, and so will the danger to all. [end p76]

So the task for conservatives today is to revive a sense of Western identity, unity and resolve. The West is after all not just some ephemeral Cold-War construct: it is the core of a civilization which has carried all before it, transforming the outlook and pattern of life of every continent. It is time to proclaim our beliefs in the wonderful creativity of the [end p77] human spirit, in the rights of property and the rule of law, in the extraordinary fruitfulness of enterprise and trade, and in the Western cultural heritage without which our liberty would long ago have degenerated into license or collapsed into tyranny.

These are as much the tasks of today as they were of [end p78] yesterday, as much the duty of conservative believers now as they were when Ronald Reagan and I refused to accept the decline of the West as our ineluctable destiny. As the poet said:

“That which thy fathers
bequeathed thee
Earn it anew if thou
would'st possess it.”