REMARKS BY RT HON THE BARONESS THATCHER AT AN EVENT TO MARK THE SEVENTY-FIFTH BIRTHDAY OF MR ROGER DE CLERCK IN BELGIUM ON 27 JULY 1999
Mr De Clerck, President Bush, President Gorbachev, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure to have been invited to attend Belgium’s most distinguished birthday party. And the very first thing I want to do is to congratulate Mr De Clerck who marks his seventy-fifth birthday today. George Bush has also seen his seventy-fifth, I have seen my ….. well perhaps as I woman I shall be forgiven for not dwelling on that, and Mikhail Gorbachev is still young by comparison. But we can all agree that there’s nothing better than to celebrate a birthday among family and friends.
Mr De Clerck has an extremely impressive record in business. He is one of the great entrepreneurs of Belgium, and indeed Europe. I don’t actually know much about making carpets. I used on occasion to give colleagues a carpeting at Number Ten, but that’s a rather different matter altogether.
I do, however, know something about what it takes to run a successful business. I was born above a grocer’s shop and spent my earliest years serving in one. I was for a while a research chemist at one of Britain’s largest food manufacturers. And, throughout my political life, I’ve consistently stressed that governments don’t create wealth, businesses do – or at least they do as long as government doesn’t get in the way.
The story of this century can be written from many aspects – and I’ll mention two in a moment – but we should never forget the importance of enterprise.
It is enterprise that satisfied markets at home and abroad, generated profits and jobs, and so produced higher living standards.
It is enterprise that ensured that what were originally luxuries for the few quickly became the necessities for the many.
It is enterprise that generated the wealth that governments then taxed to build schools, roads and hospitals. The successful businessman – big and small - is the unsung hero of our age.
Of all the tasks of government – maintaining order, enforcing justice, defending the country from external attack – nothing is more important than its role of creating the right framework for enterprise. Alexis de Tocqueville expressed it well, when he wrote:
“Do you want to test whether a people is given to industry and commerce? Do not sound its ports, or examine the wood from its forests, or the produce of its soil. The spirit of trade will get all these things, and without it, they are useless. Examine whether this people’s law gives men the courage to seek prosperity, freedom to follow it up, the sense and habits to find it, and the assurance of reaping the benefit”.
Tocqueville was right – and please note, as he says that governments must allow people “to reap the benefit”, which means not taxing away all the fruits of effort and success.
Perhaps the greatest achievements of our age are to be measured in scientific progress. Government has an important, though limited, role to play in the funding of pure scientific research. But government’s main interest in science has usually been somewhat different. I am reminded of the story of our great Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who on one occasion visited the laboratory of the no less great scientist, Michael Faraday. Faraday demonstrated to Mr Gladstone his new electric generator – for, as you will know, it was he who first discovered electricity and its relationship with magnetism. Mr Gladstone was not, it seems, particularly impressed. “Tell me”, said the Prime Minister, “ will this new discovery of electricity be of any practical use?” “Oh, yes”, replied the quick-witted scientist, “one day you will tax it”. And, as we all know, Faraday was right.
So much of the progress of the century has been due to science – it’s really extraordinary to think how different the world was in 1900 – a world without antibiotics, plastics, aeroplanes, computers, and knowing little of genetics. But this century has not, of course, only been about progress.
It has also seen two terrible wars. It has spawned two appalling ideologies – communism and nazism – that murdered or enslaved millions. In 1924, the year of Mr De Clerck’s birth, Stalin took over from Lenin in the Soviet Union, while an apparently absurd little figure, called Adolf Hitler, was released after serving a light sentence for the so-called “beer hall putsch.” The seeds of evil had already put down roots: and the first poisoned foliage was appearing.
In fact, it is sometimes forgotten that communism and nazism had much more in common than their adherents admitted. They each represented a system of total control by government over the people. And they were each in sharp and inevitable conflict with the opposing system – one which relied on control by the people over the government, and individuals over their own lives. This second system, whose essential features are limited government, an honest rule of law and private property, was for years on the defensive. In fact, there were quite large numbers of intellectuals who wrote it off altogether. After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, the American journalist Lincoln Steffans even declared “ I have seen the future; and it works”. But at the end of the twentieth century our way has undoubtedly triumphed. We now know – and we have no excuse for not knowing – what works.
Yet the triumph of liberty was not inevitable: it required strong and capable leadership, which at crucial moments was never wanting.
One of the greatest contributions to the successful resolution of this twilight struggle was made by someone who will, sadly, never again be seen on such a platform as this – my old friend Ronald Reagan.
But all three of the guests here today – President Bush, President Gorbachev and I – were also deeply involved in different aspects and phases of that conflict.
My own collaboration with President Reagan is well enough recorded for it to need no elaboration from me.
President Gorbachev, brought freedom of thought and expression to the Soviet Union, where the extinction of individuality had for decades been at the very heart of the system.
And let me pay warm tribute to President Bush, who so skillfully managed the last phase of the Cold War, and then successfully fought the first battle of the new order, and reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Both these Presidents are men with whom I was proud to do business.
Leadership comes in many forms, but it’s not I think so different between politics and business. I note that Mr De Clerck started his first factory in 1959. That was the year I was first elected to the House of Commons. As someone said, the first step is always the hardest – though some of the later ones are none too easy either. Whether it’s practiced in politics or in business, leadership requires certain distinct qualities. You have to be prepared to stand alone, and when necessary to be unpopular. Once you’ve made a decision, you have to stick to it and to be able to persuade your colleagues that you were right. You have to possess the instinctive judgement to be able to weigh, and take, risks. And, I would add, on top of all that, it is a great advantage to be lucky. And perhaps the world was lucky also to have the leaders it did at the crucial moments of the Cold War.
Those difficult moments, in fact so recent, now seem light years away because of the huge changes that have taken place.
But simply because so much has changed, and for the better, we are more acutely aware of the new dangers.
Dangers from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Dangers from the fanatical creeds and rogue states that the old Cold War system kept in check.
Dangers also within our societies from the breakdown of families, from the fact so many children are growing up without the guidance of a father, from the problems of drugs and juvenile delinquency.
In such a world, the qualities of leadership, combined with commitment to the values and virtues that lie behind our century’s achievements, are no less necessary.
I think that in the end that other great American President, Teddy Roosevelt, expressed the thought best, when he said:
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life”.
That has been Mr De Clerck’s doctrine too.
To which I’d only add: strenuous lives in my experience turn out to be remarkably happy ones.