Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at the 33rd Churchill Memorial Concert at Blenheim Palace

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
Source: Thatcher Foundation: press release
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3114
Themes: Autobiography (childhood), Conservative Party (history), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Leadership

Speech by the Rt. Hon. The Baroness Thatcher LG OM FRS at the 33rd Sir Winston Churchill Memorial Concert at Blenheim Palace on Saturday 6th March 1999

the Duke and Duchess of MarlboroughYour Graces, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am conscious of the honour of being asked to address this distinguished gathering on a topic so close to all our hearts - the character and achievements of Britain's greatest statesman, Sir Winston Churchill.

But the topic is so vast and so fascinating that even the most garrulous speaker would be hard put to cover much of it. And tonight, as the political ham in a predominantly cultural sandwich, my time is strictly limited.

Winston Churchill is for me and so many of my generation the quintessential hero. At home in Grantham, when I was a school-girl, we used to gather round our wireless of an evening to listen to those words whose very cadences gave hope and strength. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat". "Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terror". "We shall seek no terms - we shall tolerate no parley". "This was their finest hour". "Never in the field of human conflict".

Just to touch the keys is to release the whole symphonic swell of memory. For me, and so many others, our ideas of liberty, of honour, of sacrifice, of fellowship, of valour - our idea of Britain herself - have been formed by Churchill's words.

For a few short years, I also came across Sir Winston as a politician. But in 1959 when I entered the House I was still very young and he was old. It is the Churchillian war-time magic that continues to cast its spell.

Everything about Churchill was heroic, and his heroism was catching - as Leo Amery remarked, "no-one ever left his Cabinet without feeling himself a braver man". Churchill was made through and through of what today is called "the right stuff". He was immensely strong - both physically and mentally. His stamina at an age when most of us are happily putting our feet up was truly Gladstonian. He had a zest for life that seemed unquenchable - unless that cursed "black dog" was around, and somehow it was always finally sent away yelping with its tail between its legs. He was, in that over-used but inevitable phrase, "larger than life". A leader. A man among men.

But this was a hero who was also a prophet, and it is about Churchill as prophet that I want to speak now. It was his consciousness that he had been right when others were so wrong that gave him the strength to take charge in the darkest crisis. There are heroes - tragic figures, often - who find themselves facing death and disaster without understanding why. But the prophetic hero, by contrast, grasps the whys and wherefores of his predicament. For him, the struggle is itself a kind of vindication. This was Churchill's mould.

In 1982, fate gave me a little insight into the terrible strain faced by Winston Churchill as war-leader when Britain stood alone and at bay, in defence of freedom and civilization.

But Churchill was the man for that hour, a true figure of destiny, and himself profoundly conscious of the fact. Here, in his own words, is his reaction to becoming Prime Minister in that dreadful crisis:

"[When] I went to bed at about 3 a.m. I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial....... My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no-one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly...."

Winston Churchill was unusual among prophets in having a sense of humour. Of the Old Testament prophets, the only one I can recall was Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, and what subsequently happened to them ensured that they had no time to see the joke. But, yes, Churchill was a prophet. He didn't just think, he actually knew - he "saw" - that he was right.

After the Austrian Anschluss, he warned of Britain "descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf". After Munich he spoke of "the first sip, the first foretaste of the bitter cup, which will be offered to us year by year". And so it proved.

Yet why, after all, should he have been so convinced of the dangers of appeasement of Nazi Germany in the thirties? Most people certainly weren't. The preservation of the Empire and of peace seemed to appeasers such overwhelmingly important objectives that to take the risks involved in resisting Hitler at any stage - and of course the price of doing so grew steadily - just never seemed worth it.

I believe that what Churchill had "seen" was the moral truth about Nazism, namely the depth of evil it embodied. For this was the paradox. In international power politics Winston Churchill was a hard-bitten realist; he was sceptical of lofty aims unsupported by force; and he kept on demonstrating as much in his pronouncements till the end of his career. But he also understood that only a fool ignores the moral dimension. When in 1940 he spoke of "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime" this was not mere rhetoric: it was a reflection of his sober judgement of the enemy's true nature. When he warned that defeat would herald "the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science" he revealed his understanding of that enemy's aims.

But I need hardly labour the point. There are very few today who doubt the prophetic importance of Churchill's speeches attacking the appeasement of Nazism in the thirties. (And even if their lessons have not always been applied, they have least been absorbed.) But no such praise is heaped upon Churchill's warnings about Communism. Why, I wonder?

After all, the parallels are clear. Winston Churchill believed in his bones in liberty. Like any politician whose career was as long as his - and let's not forget that his Maiden Speech in the House of Commons was delivered in the reign of Queen Victoria - Churchill could be, and often was, accused of inconsistency. But in his love affair with liberty, he was always true and steadfast. It entirely coloured his view of domestic politics. He believed passionately in economic freedom. As a free trader, he had changed parties; as a believer in free enterprise, he changed back again.

But, unlike some other economic liberals then and since, he also fully grasped that the preservation of liberty required military preparedness and the resolution to stand up to aggression. Perhaps it was his American roots that more easily allowed him to see liberty as a seamless whole. In any event, this was the political imperative that drove him on. He saw liberty threatened by the rise of Nazism, and so he denounced that ideology and he fought it. And when he saw liberty threatened by Communism - in so very many ways national socialism's sibling - he fought that ideology too - and had, indeed, done so from the earliest years of his political life.

In the War years, after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Churchill strained every sinew to turn the might of one tyrannical system against the more immediate danger posed by the other. As he put it "If Hitler invaded Hell I would make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons". But I doubt whether he ever at any point lost the conviction that (as he put it) "Bolshevism is not a policy: it is a disease".

It was not, of course, that he ever cherished an animosity against the Russian people collectively - he admired their courageous patriotism; nor did he even express animus against Stalin personally - though perhaps he would have done, if he had known the ways of that jovial psychopath better. But the fact was that by 1946 Winston Churchill was firmly convinced of the danger posed to the West and to peace by the Soviet Union's ambitions, and so of the need to rally opinion against them. Hence the speech he delivered on 5th March 1946 at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri.

Let me recall in outline the events which lay behind Churchill's decision to speak as he did. In Moscow in 1944, he had, of course, accepted a de facto parcelling out of influence between the West and the Soviets in the Balkans - the famous half sheet of paper he himself called that "naughty document". The following February's agreement at Yalta about the fate of Central and Eastern Europe was in much the same vein. Churchill, ever the realist, was most concerned about the way in which the Americans had in the closing stages of the War allowed the Red Army to advance so far into European lands: he knew that no-one among the war-weary Westerners would have the will or indeed the means to recover them. Poland had already been lost to freedom and democracy. Czechoslovakia was still in the balance -and shortly to go the same way. Relieved of the responsibilities of office, and observing the brutal assertion of Communist control irrespective of international and local undertakings, Churchill now felt it imperative to sound the alarm.

He had originally intended that the Fulton lecture be entitled "World Peace". Sensing perhaps that it was somewhat sterner stuff than that, he decided rather to call it "The Sinews of Peace". But it was almost immediately christened, and ever afterwards known, as the "Iron Curtain Speech" - for, as he put it:

"A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory....It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe...[A]ll are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow...Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy".

Churchill went on to accuse the Soviets of putting pressure on Turkey and Iran, of building a pro-communist regime in their zone of conquered Germany, and of building up Communist Parties and fifth columns in Western Europe. He noted, shrewdly and accurately: "I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines".

His speech offered due obeisance to the role of the newly created United Nations in maintaining peace under these conditions. But Churchill clearly had no doubt from whence the great counterweight for liberty must come in the inevitable struggle - it was from the unity of "the English-speaking peoples". Moreover, he emphasised, behind this defensive pact lay something greater and deeper, for said Churchill..."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...".

Prophecy is a treacherous business: the public generally prefer platitudes -and the professional politicians repartee. Accordingly, Churchill's courageous and far-sighted warning of what the future held was greeted with hysterical attacks. In America, both left-leaning Democrats and isolationist Republicans denounced it. President Truman, who had privately seen and approved the speech, denied he had ever done so. Dean Acheson delivered a public snub. Ninety-three Labour MPs, including a future Prime Minister, signed a motion of censure. The Times magisterially observed that Churchill's contrasting of Western democracy with Communism was "less than happy", because the two creeds had "much to learn from each other". The Communists themselves were blunter. Stalin described his old comrade-in-arms as a "war-monger".

But Churchill was right. From his ground-breaking speech there later sprang a series of valuable initiatives, each spurred on by ever more brutal evidence of Soviet Communism's aims and methods. And from these initiatives came eventually - long after Churchill's own death and while Ronald Reagan and I were in office - the fruits of Western victory in the Cold War.

As with his denunciation of appeasement of Nazism, so with his denunciation of the appeasement of communism, the purpose of Churchill's wake-up call was action. In each case, the rhetorical fireworks were only designed to light up a vision of the future. Strength and resolution, skill and effort, resourcefulness and cunning, must also be applied to create a grand strategy that would serve the national purpose.

Of course, in the thirties the threat was so dire and so immediate that re-armament was more important than any other instrument of statesmanship. In 1946, however, there was time to work more systematically to overcome the emerging danger. Perhaps the greatest difference between the two prophetic calls to action is that the second, contained in the "Iron Curtain" speech, was heeded.

Opinion, at first so widely hostile, quickly changed on both sides of the Atlantic. Shortly before Churchill spoke, George Kennan's famous Long Telegram had been sent from Moscow, the crucial document on which the doctrine of containment would be based. Churchill's message, based on similar analysis, lent weight to its prescriptions. Among the Telegram's readers would be President Truman. Indeed, the same Truman, who had treated Churchill so shabbily in the aftermath of the Fulton speech, would himself propound the doctrine that still bears his name - by which it became (I quote) "the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures".

The Marshall Plan - that great testimony to American generosity and far-sightedness - laid the foundations for Europe's post-War economic recovery.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation of 1949 provided the fundamental framework for American commitment to the defence of Europe.

The European Iron and Steel Community became the nucleus of the later European Common Market.

But I return to my earlier question: why is it that for all its seminal importance Churchill's Iron Curtain speech receives less attention and approbation even now than do his earlier warnings? After all, the sheer numbers who lost their lives as a result of Communism far outstrip even those who did so as a result of Nazism - by a factor of four according to some recent calculations. Moreover, it's still not quite a decade since the Berlin Wall tumbled. The dangers and difficulties of post-communism - or indeed in China of communism itself - are our real and continuing preoccupations.

Perhaps the somewhat disturbing answer is this - that while our victories over the Axis powers were sealed in the blood of our fellow-countrymen, our victory in the Cold War was just that - "Cold" - and so it leaves too many people "cold" as well. And am I alone in suspecting that those in the West, in whose hearts lurked some sympathy with the system the other side of the Berlin Wall, have since been trying to re-write the history of those years? We should remember - and remind others more often - of the scale of the threat to us and the depths of the suffering endured by generations in those countries which found themselves enslaved by the Soviet system. Perhaps on occasion we might remember too that those who promoted and profited by this repression, unlike their Nazi equivalents, have rarely seen the inside of their own prisons, and are frequently enjoying the benefits of past plunder and present respectability in comfortable retirement.

What Winston Churchill would have made of all this it is hard to know. He had the prophet's fiery belief in righteous judgement. Yet he also considered revenge demeaning and grudges small-minded. This applied to his attitude to previously hostile nations.

But it was especially true of his attitude to political opponents.

It's characteristic of Churchill's stature that, by common consent, the most moving speech he ever made in the House of Commons was his eulogy on the death of Neville Chamberlain. The words are worth repeating, because in a way they apply to Churchill himself, to me too I suppose, indeed to all of us who for any length of time occupy the seats of power:

"It is not given to human beings - happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable - to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion, there is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions... without this shield we are so often mocked by the failure of our hope.... with this shield, however fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour."

But in the case of Sir Winston Churchill I must add one thing more. This great Englishman - I might equally have said this greatest Englishman - was not just honourable in intent, he was effective in action. His words and his work preserved his country, dignified it, regenerated it. Above all, perhaps, they inspired people across the globe to strive for a share of that legacy of freedom to which, as Churchill saw it, the English speaking peoples had a special historic claim.

I believe that, near the end, the old statesman remarked of his long life that it had been... "a grand journey - well worth making once". But, Ladies and Gentlemen, what a journey!