Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York ("The Language of Liberty")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: New York
Source: Thatcher Foundation: press release
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3320
Themes: British Constitution (general discussions), Civil liberties, Conservatism, Conservative Party (history), Defence (general), European Union (general), Foreign policy (USA), Religion & morality

The Language of Liberty: The Inauguration of The Thatcher Lecture Series

English-Speaking Union, 7 December 1999, New York

Thank you for that kind and generous introduction.

Your decision to honour me with the establishment of this new lecture programme moves me deeply. For I am a staunch believer in the English-Speaking Union and the ideals for which it stands. There is simply no other group that does the same good work in bringing together the English-speaking peoples. Throughout this tumultuous and often calamitous twentieth century, the ESU has been vital in strengthening the important ties that bind us. It is a great honour indeed which you bestow upon me this evening.

Your kindness is also humbling, for the Thatcher Lectures in the United States will be a parallel programme to the Churchill Lectures in Great Britain. For a British politician, there is no higher honour than to be linked with Sir Winston Churchill, who was not only one of our greatest prime ministers, but also an outstanding historian of the English-speaking peoples.

A Union of the English-Speaking Peoples

As we stand on the threshold of a new century - indeed, of a new millennium - it behoves us to remember what led to the creation of the English-Speaking Union in the first place. Evelyn Wrench’s idea to form a society for the co-operation of the English-speaking peoples came amidst the carnage and chaos of the First World War. He was prescient. He believed then - and history has borne him out - that the security of the world would largely depend on the close co-operation of the English speaking peoples. Europe’s first great war had made that much clear; its second, only a little more than two decades later, would confirm it.

It was in the 1930s that Winston Churchill set out to write A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Having served as chairman of the English-Speaking Union from 1921-1926, he knew well the importance of drawing together those who had stood their ground against Germany during the Great War. When he was finally able to return to his task in the 1950’s, after the defeat of Hitler’s tyranny, he was more convinced than ever of what he called the English-speaking peoples’ “common duty to the human race.” In his commitment to the English-speaking peoples, as in so much else, Churchill displayed what President Ronald Reagan would later describe as “that special attribute of great statesmen - the gift of vision, the willingness to see the future based on the experience of the past.”

From its official launch on the Fourth of July, 1918, the ESU has prospered and grown into the international organisation we know today, bringing together in common cause over one billion speakers of the English language. Through your programmes and publications, your scholarships and exchanges, the ESU does so much to insure that we will remain united and continue to promote the fundamental principles inherent in our English-speaking cultures. For English is not only the language of politics, diplomacy, and finance, of international business and travel; it is also - and most important of all - the language of values.

The values of the English-speaking peoples which we celebrate are of ancient origin. In the preface to his History, Churchill pointed out that “by the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the American continent” Britain had already come to be characterised by a body of legal principles and institutions including “parliament, trial by jury, local government by local citizens, and even the beginnings of a free press.” These values which we share as English speaking peoples have come together in what we call the rule of law.

Law Governed Liberty

Our abiding commitment to the rule of law is the very bedrock of civilisation. It is that which makes all else possible, from the flowering of the arts to the steady advance of the sciences. The idea that men must govern themselves not by the arbitrary commands of a ruler but by their own considered judgement is the means whereby chaos is replaced by order, violence by the peaceful resolution of differences, and tyranny by freedom. The rule of law - and the institutions of representative democracy that make it possible - is what stands between civilization and barbarism. As John Locke pointed out so long ago, “where there is no law, there is no freedom”; and “where law ends, tyranny begins.”

It is through law-governed liberty as spread by the English speaking peoples that mankind has been able to achieve so much. But it has not been simply by positive law itself - the Nazis had law, the Fascists had law, the Communists had law, every petty tyrant has law - but it is by a law rooted in, and springing from, the deepest values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Edmund Burke put it: “There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law - the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity, the law of nature and of nations.” It was the moderating influence of this belief that gave rise to both the English common law and to the American Constitution, those two great beacons of hope to oppressed peoples throughout the world.

What unites the English-speaking peoples is not mere political expediency or immediate economic interests. No, what links us is far more fundamental than either of those things, important as they may be. For we share a hallowed moral ground. We take seriously the sanctity of the individual; we share a common tradition of religious toleration; we are committed to democracy and representative government; and we are resolved to uphold and spread the rule of law. In short, we believe, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is this moral commitment, above all else, that has made us, and will continue to make us, distinctive.

It is, of course, the English language itself that makes it possible for us to stand together and pledge ourselves to those principles we deem permanent. For English is a language soaked in values; it is the language of liberty. It enables us to share those ideals of justice and fairness that lie at the heart of our political philosophy. Our common tongue allows us to come together in civic purpose; and it enables us to live together peaceably. For as Locke rightly said, language is “the great instrument and common type of society”. And that is especially true of the English language amongst the English-speaking peoples.

As we prepare to embark on a new century we must ask ourselves how we may rise to Churchill’s challenge to perform our “common duty to the human race”. What role must the English speaking peoples play in the years ahead? And how might we effectively accomplish our objectives? We must begin our answers to those questions by recalling all we have accomplished so far.

Defending Freedom

Twice this century it fell to the English speaking peoples to defend world peace against in wars of European origin. The great British - American alliance led the way - morally as well as militarily - in both world wars. And in the wake of the Second World War, it was again our duty to face down the “evil empire” that was the Soviet Union. This year we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. There could be no greater symbol than that, of what the English speaking peoples together can achieve. Barbed-wire tyranny crumbled and was carted away by a new generation inspired by the values we hold so dear. Our history during this century proves one thing clearly. As Churchill urged us, “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.”

This is of greatest importance lest we lose sight of the true horrors of the Cold War. While our joint 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 lacks in some ways the passions that were unleashed during the world wars. This is fertile ground for those whose ideological interests would be served by revising history. We have an obligation never to let that happen. We must keep alive the memory of the scale of the threat to us and the depths of the suffering endured by generations in those countries which were enslaved by the Soviet system. We must never forget, or allow future generations to forget. In sheer numbers those who lost their lives as a result of Communism far outstrip even those who died as a result of Nazism - and Communism, despite the fall of the Soviet empire, has not yet been eliminated from the world.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have hardly left the world a perfect place. The new world order only means that many of our current problems are new ones - or, rather, old ones that now come in new guises. We have looked on in horror as new tyrants have deliberately stirred ethnic hatreds in those countries where Communism once fiercely imposed an artificial order. We have witnessed the rise of repressive regimes whose clerical leaders seek to wrap their brutality in the raiment of ancient religious beliefs. We have watched with concern as rogue states seek to acquire a nuclear capability by rummaging through the dusty arsenals of the former Communist-bloc states. We have realised, grimly, that the willingness to use terrorism as a political tool has not abated. And we look with dismay at the rise of organized crime and gangsters in many of the emerging democracies now finally freed from Communism’s cruel yoke.

It is in considering these problems that we can see the path we must take in the years ahead. Most of these things can be remedied by the steady spread of the fundamental values of the English-speaking peoples. For by their light the peoples of the world will be able to find their way from chaos and confusion to constitutional order. We can help others to do what we have done for ourselves. We can show them how to create a realm of freedom where they achieve those virtues which the eighteenth-century French statesman and financier, Jacques Necker, saw in the British constitution of his day: “public strength and individual security.”

A Message of Hope

This will not come easily or quickly. Liberty is a plant of slow growth and one that demands constant and careful attention. Yet there seems to be an inevitability about it, for liberty is man’s natural and desired condition. I am reminded of James Bryce’s observation in The American Commonwealth that “the institutions of the United States . . .disclose and display the type of institutions towards which, as if by a law of fate, the rest of the civilized mankind are forced to move, some with swifter, others with slower, but all with unresting feet.”

This is what kept alive the flame of hope in the hearts and minds of all those who suffered the ruthless oppression of the totalitarian dictatorships that were necessary to keep Communism in place. No one would choose to live as they were forced to live during those dark decades. No one would willingly abandon democratic freedom for Communist order. That is why, when the end came for the Soviet Union and its satellites, it came not with a bang but with a whimper. It had decayed from within. To help rear the structures of freedom where the scaffolding of tyranny formerly stood is now the obligation of the English speaking peoples. That is indeed our “common duty to the human race.”

But this is no small task. Creating the practical circumstances in which freedom can flourish requires more than the mere parroting of empty phrases like “human rights”. The challenge is to limit the powers of government even though the politicians wish to see them expanded. Private property must be secured even though the egalitarians and the socialists are fuelling envy. Taxation must be restrained even though the interest groups want ever greater public expenditure. And above all, the means have to be devised to create and administer an honest and clear rule of law, even though temptations to sell influence, barter privilege and wriggle round constraints are never greater than in times of fundamental change.

There is, of course, a problem even deeper than that of devising the institutional arrangements for freedom - namely the need to change socialist outlooks where they still exist. And few things are more difficult than to inject a sense of personal responsibility in those peoples where the all-pervasive, all-providing, all-controlling state has all but obliterated such qualities. The preference for independence and risk, rather than dependence and security, can only be acquired over time. Indeed, freedom and responsibility have to become second nature before they are truly safe. For in the end, the institutions of freedom can only rest on the moral commitment to freedom.

Teaching the World

Those of us who enjoy the traditions of freedom have an obligation to teach others among the newly emerging democracies how to be free. This will best be achieved not simply through politics and diplomacy but through civic education.

For example, each summer for the past two years the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London, of which I am Chairman, supported by grants from the United States government, has hosted a four-week institute for scholars from Eastern and Central Europe on “Civic Education and the Practice of Democracy”. The participants spend the first week reading and discussing the great works of democratic theory, including John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexis de Tocqueville. They move on to read and consider the history of constitutional rights and liberties as they have been handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States, then to compare different forms of democracy. They end their four weeks by considering those institutions that bring the practice of democracy to life - parliament, political parties, law courts, polling, public relations, and the media. During their time in London they meet and discuss the problems they face back home with leading figures in politics, media, business, and law. By the end of their visit the participants return to their homelands with a renewed appreciation of the intellectual foundations as well as the institutional arrangements of liberal democracy.

The fact is, the English-speaking peoples are, above all others, uniquely situated to impart these lessons of liberty to those who seek to emulate our successes. We boast, after all, the worlds’s oldest systems of representative government; we were the first to recognise fundamental rights and individual liberties; and we have preserved our institutions of freedom for centuries, often against overwhelming odds. And, perhaps most important, we have shown by our example how political liberty and economic progress go hand-in-hand. A new political alliance of the English-speaking peoples would allow us to foster those values that have been so important in our peace and prosperity and thus encourage that same peace and prosperity around the world.

The European Union - Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Anything which stands in the way of that relationship is an obstacle to progress. But even more worrying it could constitute a risk to our security.

That is why I am so concerned about the current attempt to create a new, autonomous European defence structure which must, if taken much further, pose a threat to trans-Atlantic defence cooperation. Of course, superficially, it sounds splendid that the Europeans are now willing to concern themselves more with the continent’s defence. As the Kosovo conflict showed, and as the figures for defence spending confirm, European defence capabilities are lagging dangerously far behind those of the United States. This is particularly true in the vital area of advanced military technology.

The problem is, however, that the impulse towards developing a new European defence and separate European armed forces has little to do with the fact that Europe is cutting its defences while America is increasing hers. It has even less to do with any serious European response to the global dangers of proliferation, which can only properly be met by ballistic missile defence. No: the real drive towards a separate European defence is the same as that towards a single European currency - namely the utopian venture of creating a single European super-state to rival America on the world stage.

This has been a long-standing French aspiration. The fact that the present British government, in pursuit of a doomed ambition to “lead Europe”, has reversed Britain’s traditional hostility towards such ideas should worry our American allies and indeed the wider English-speaking world. After all, NATO has worked so well in the past for two reasons - namely, the acceptance of American leadership, and the understanding that, in any crisis within the Alliance, Britain could be relied upon to support America. The creation of a separate European defence, whatever the qualifications and assurances, threatens both these conditions, and so poses a serious long-term danger to NATO’s cohesion and effectiveness.

Professor Robert Conquest has recently argued the merits of a new political alliance that he would call - with thanks to this fine organization - the English Speaking Union. Such an international alliance, he suggests, would redefine the political landscape and, in the long term, transform “politically backward areas [by] creating the conditions for a genuine world community.” Unlike the European Union, first brought together by common interests in trade, and now riven by the ambitions of bureaucrats in Brussels to control almost every aspect of policy within each of its member nations, an English-Speaking Union would be united by those deeper values - our common moral commitments to democracy and freedom tied together by our common language.

Into the Twenty-First Century

The twentieth-century has been called the American century. And indeed it has been that. Not only has the United States been a great world power, both economically and militarily, but it has been nothing less than a great moral example. And it has been supported in that role by its allies, especially those nations of the English-speaking world - the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Together we have withstood the forces of evil and tyranny in whatever form we have found them. Together we have shown the world the strength of our democratic beliefs and of our political institutions based upon them. We have no reason to think that the twenty-first century will depend any less upon our commitment to those self-same values that have encouraged the spread of freedom around the world.

As we begin this new century we must devote ourselves anew to those “laws of nature and of nature’s God” that have brought us so far. And as we renew that devotion, so, too, must we renew our commitment to meet our “common duty to the human race”. And in meeting our obligation, the ESU will continue to play an important role in promoting around the world that great language of liberty which is the English tongue. And I hope that in the years ahead those who speak to you as part of the Thatcher Lectures will add their voices to our proud and noble chorus of freedom.