First, here’s a short reflection 20 years later by Ron Manners:
It was my honour to join a small group of sponsors to bring Lady Margaret Thatcher to speak at the 50th Anniversary Dinner for the Foundation for Economic Education (Waldorf Astoria Hotel – New York City, April 11, 1996).
Lady Thatcher, fresh off the flight from London, traveled directly to the pre-dinner cocktails and stimulated our enthusiasm, even before her speech.
Later she then joined us for a post-dinner party where she was among the last to leave.
I remember being inspired by her intellect and stamina and thinking to myself, “Ron, make sure you are still in fine form when you too are 71 years of age.”
Next morning was seeing Dr. Hans F. Sennholz (President of FEE), being soundly criticized at the FEE Board meeting for inviting Thatcher (a conservative politician) who did not qualify as a hard-core Austrian style economist.
I defended Sennholz’s choice as it resulted in a sell-out audience bringing a reasonably sound message to a large number of new enthusiasts of the benefits of smaller, less intrusive government.
29th April, 2016
Video, 37 mins, never before digitised or transcribed:
Mr Chairman, Mr Buckley.
The most difficult thing a speaker ever has to do is to address an audience sitting looking at its dinner. However, I note that some of you have fortified yourselves by eating the first course. I hope for my comfort the second and third will not be served until I finish after some 20 or so minutes.
It is a great honour to receive an invitation from the Foundation for Economic Education. I have been associated for many years with the Institute for Economic Affairs in Britain under the able leadership of the late Antony Fisher and Ralph Harris, and later with the Centre for Policy Studies which Keith Joseph and I set-up to revivify true conservative thought.
Your foundation was the first conservative foundation on economic affairs and was founded 50 years ago, a very judicious time to study the principles of a free society and the dissemination and implementation of those principles.
I was very glad to be introduced by Bill Buckley, a modest man with nothing to be modest about. For years he almost alone carried the banner for the way of liberty, law and limited government. He has been freedom’s most consistent assistant and staunch champion. [Bill Buckley’s introduction to this speech, “The Mother Hen of Modern Conservatism: Remarks Introducing Lady Thatcher at the Golden Jubilee of the Foundation for Economic Education,” Waldorf-Astoria, New York, April 11, 1996, is published in Buckley’s Let Us Talk of Many Things (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 426-29, online free here.]
Here in this audience we know that in politics you can never sit back and say that our beliefs and policies have won the battle of ideas. We have to constantly renew their vitality and see that they are implemented by effective political parties. That was a task that fell to me when I became Prime Minister in 1979.
At the beginning of this century, following the many scientific advances of previous years, the advent of mechanisation and a steadily rising standard of living and of education, our forbears must have expected to enjoy a peaceful and progressive future.
Of course, it was Mark Twain who said, “Never prophesy, especially about the future.” He was right. But who could have foreseen, at the beginning of this century, two terrible World Wars against tyranny, the one starting only 21 years after the end of the other and extending the world over? And who could have foreseen, at the beginning of this century, the rise of a new despotism in 1917, as Lenin seized power in Russia and imposed ruthlessly the most total tyranny the world has known.
Thatcher’s law of politics is that the unexpected happens. In this century it certainly did. Thatcher’s corollary to that law is that when the unexpected does happen you’d better be prepared for it. And that is what I tried to put into action in my time.
We just have to remember that when this new despotism came in 1917, it had not arised from the people. Lenin seized power when Kerensky had won the first democratic election Russian ever held. He was not allowed then to continue to govern. Lenin seized power and imposed his terrible tyranny.
Unwittingly, the world at that time had entered into the greatest economic experiment it had ever known. One between the total state control of communism with no freedom for the individual and our way of life of free enterprise economy based on liberty and rule of law the true counterpart of democracy. The only system that gives everyone a say.
Sometimes I say when talking about communism, it couldn’t have happened in the United States or Britain, it couldn’t, we’re not that kind of people. Your organisation was formed with great foresight in 1946 at the end of the war.
I remember it so very well. We had won in Britain with Winston Churchill. And to think that he and everything he believed in might have been defeated, was horrific. Nevertheless, we were in Britain defeated, and Britain had elected with a large majority its first socialist government.
Socialism, the first cousin of communism, substitutes government action and judgement for that of the individual. It substitutes nationalised industries for industries run by free enterprise. And that socialist government did. It kept taxation very high. It planned everything. It nationalised industry after industry. It kept rationing the whole time it was in power. And war-time rationing did not cease in my country until we got back and abolished it in 1953.
How come this attraction for socialism, still in some countries, how can we say that the battle for freedom has been won? I think there are three reasons for this kind of attraction.
First, the views of Karl Marx had an attraction for a number of intellectuals. Never think that intellectual ability alone will solve all the political problems we face. Intellectual ability, unbridled by a good dose of common sense and humility and without a belief in religion and things beyond yourself, can in fact make matters far worse. And of course Karl Marx was an intellectual.
It is very interesting that one of your great journalists visited Russia in 1919 at Lenin’s invitation, Lincoln Steffens. He came back and said, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Very strange. It didn’t, of course. As he would have known had he visited it later.
My friends, creativity, which you need for progress, is necessarily a quality which pertains to individuals not to the State. And indeed recently we were all very pleased when our views received religious confirmation. It was Pope John Paul II and indeed I am not a Catholic I am a Methodist; but I recognise a great religious person. Pope John Paul II reminded us recently that the collapse of communism could not be considered simply as a technical problem, but rather it was a violation of human rights. The human right to private initiative, the human right to ownership of property, and the right to economic freedom.
In other words, it was not just that communism made mistakes, the whole system was fundamentally wrong.
In the end we always knew that it would fail, because it produced neither human dignity nor prosperity. And the time came when the truth could no longer be kept out. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous commentator wrote in the middle of the last century, “Do you want to test whether a people is given to industry and commerce? Examine whether this people’s law gives men the courage to seek prosperity, the freedom to follow it up, the sense and habits to find it and the assurance of reaping the benefit.” A marvelous summary of everything we believe.
De Tocqueville recognised that countries are not automatically rich in proportion to their natural resources. If that was so, my friends, if you were to make a table of countries in proportion to the natural resources they have, the top one would almost certainly be Russia. She has everything. Oil, gas, platinum, gold, silver, all the industrial metals, marvelous standing timber, wonderfully rich soil. But countries are not rich in proportion to their natural resources. Countries are rich whose governments have policies which encourage essential creativity, initiative and enterprise of man and recognise his desire to do better for his family.
Indeed, it is increasingly evident that man’s greatest resource is man himself. So Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, who have no natural resources, are now among the most prosperous countries in the world. I should say that when I say man having all of these things, I should say that we have in England an interpretation law, I’m not sure whether you have it, I think you got away before we introduced it. But, umm, we have an interpretation law that says where man appears in legislature they put it rather beautifully man embraces woman. So, when we refer to man, it includes women as well.
But my friend though communism may have collapsed and failed and be seen to have failed totally, I’m afraid the collectivist impulse, which at its root is a desire to force responsibility and risk to governments and not to individuals, that collective impulse is still with us.
Perhaps the attraction of socialism has been also an addition to the shallow attraction of Marxism to some intellectuals, has also been the remembrance of the hardship of unemployment during the most difficult thirties, both in your country and in mine. Wartime came and many people still blame the governments then in power for that terrible period of unemployment. But as Milton Friedman later pointed out, the Great Depression like most periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.
That government mismanagement, as many of you would know, was just when the money supply should have been expanded the decision of governments then in power was to contract it thus making worse the Great Depression.
Another possible reason for the attraction of socialism in Britain was that in wartime naturally involved the substitution of national objectives for personal ambitions. Necessity meant that we had to. There was no future unless we met our first objective of defeating the enemy. And unless we had done that and later you had done the same, liberty and democracy would not have survived.
It was, I think, in the mid-forties that we not only had Ludwig von Mises who was responsible for your founding, but we also had Hayek. And I remember very well when I was just in university reading for a science degree and Hayek, brilliant and perceptive as he was, published to an astonished world, The Road to Serfdom. He’d done the analysis. He knew where it would leave. And he turned out to be right.
Hayek wrote, and he always had long sentences I’m afraid our German and Austrian confreres do, “How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend toward socialism means becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century but in a longer historical perspective.” He continued, “We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even Locke and Milton, but one of the salient characteristics of Western civilisation as it has grown from the foundations laid by Christianity and the Greeks and Romans. Not merely nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides, is progressively relinquished.”
Hayek had rebelled against the socialist view and said it flew in the face of freedom and its history.
That view nevertheless, the socialist view, had become an orthodoxy in the earliest part of this century, and a dogma by the middle. The socialist view was that the story of human progress in the modern world was the story of increasing state power. Progressive legislation and political movements were assumed to be the ones which extended the intervention of government. What marks out our conservative vision is the insight that the state, the government, only underpins the conditions for a prosperous and fulfilling life, it does not and cannot generate them.
State’s societies, economies which allow the distinctive talents of individuals to flourish, themselves also flourish. Those which dwarf, crush, distort, manipulate or ignore them, cannot prevail.
Its only Western civilisation, my friends, that has discovered the secret of continual progress. This is because only Western civilisation has developed a culture in which individuals matter. A society in which private property is secure. A political system in which a range of competing views and interests is accommodated. The moral foundation of this system, which is so spontaneous as hardly to seem a system, is a Judeao-Christian, the biblical outlook, the systems institutional foundation is the rule of law, and that is what we believe.
Nevertheless, socialism took a hold in Britain. Heavily allied to the Trade Unions. Indeed the Labor Party started life as the political wing of the Trade Union Movement. And with a large program of nationalisation, increased expenditure and high taxation, it took power in the post-war period.
Then we came back in 1951, but such was the general feel of that time that successive Conservative Governments did not privatise the State-owned industries. They left them as the socialists had nationalised them. And they became supporters of that terrible phrase, the mixed economy.
It was under these circumstances later, that Keith Joseph and I set-up our think tank to restore our beliefs and translate them into policies through the Conservative Party. We had been semi-socialist for a very long time, even through Conservative Governments, and in 1974, after a period when we had started out as Conservative but had forsaken our beliefs in face of great strikes we were defeated. I became leader of the Opposition. It’s not a job I’d ever like to have again. I prefer Government.
And we were seeking to re-establish an understanding of the fundamental truth, which have made Western life and the life of the English-speaking peoples what they were. This was the foundation of our Conservative Revolution.
The first lesson to be drawn from our rethinking is that the principles we restated, which I’ve given to you, and which formed the basis of the policies we pursued, are as true and relevant now as they were two decades ago.
The second lesson was that avoiding debate on the large issues of government and politics leads to directionless failure. Being prepared to state uncomfortable truths is a precondition for success. And we did state what some people called uncomfortable truths.
First we stated the inherent contradictions of the mixed economy. We said that inflation had to be ascribed to excessive growth of the money supply, which didn’t suit some of our opponents. We said that you won’t rescue people from poverty by creating a dependency culture. Indeed if you do that, you’ll have a corrosive impact on the whole of personality. We said that the political parties must be founded on clear principles, not merely on pragmatism or expediency. All of these, we said, and we started once again from first principles. Splayed some disagreements and there was plenty, as Keith Joseph and I took over, over important issues. Never did a party so much harm as the absence of honest principled debate.
In 1979 we won the election. The country had had enough of the socialism in practice. It took even Britain to be a supplicant to the IMF instead of to a nation providing the means for others to benefit.
The decade of the 80s, when the policies which we reinvigorated were put into action, changed the direction of Britain and they were adapted in many other countries. Indeed I remember the day when I was having a very difficult time, when you change direction, when you change all policies, the first things that show through are all the difficulties, all the dislocation. And they show through in plenty. And it takes about three years for the benefits to show through.
And what had happened to any of my predecessors who would have attempted such a change was they gave up after about 18 months. In order to have a change, you must persevere. And my father had taught me, if you embark on any great occasion, it is not the beginning but the continuing that yieldeth the truth glory.
We put it in rather more familiar doggerel language: it’s easy to be a starter but are you a sticker too? It’s easy enough to begin a job; it’s harder to see it through.
And so, I went in, with a stubborn female determination and obstinacy, to see it through.
I remember a statesman to another country, I will not tell you which country, came to see me in about 81, two years in, we were having a very difficult time, and he said to me, “Mrs Thatcher, we’re watching you very closely.” This was a rather sort of strange way to start a conversation. I said, “Oh really, do tell me why.” He said, “Because no one else has ever tried to turn back the frontiers of socialism, and if you succeed others will follow.”
I thought that put a very great responsibility upon me. And also a very great opportunity.
It so happened I must tell you that at the time we were having problems in foreign affairs. I also had gone into office determined that the reduction in Defence expenditure the Labor Party had implemented was wrong. We were living in a dangerous world. And although I had to cut general expenditure in total within what we were going to spend, Defence must have a bigger priority. And we implemented that.
But of course that didn’t suit our opponents, nor some of our backbenchers who wanted more spent on social security and I thought the defence security was more important.
That turned out, I must tell you, I will say now Defence expenditure is going down too far. We live in a dangerous world. I was very glad I had taken the decision because by 1982 when I was having difficulty but the economy was beginning to show through, the Argentinians suddenly invaded the Falklands, 8000 miles away. We didn’t hesitate as to what to do. One of my Generals reminded me only yesterday what would happen when the Field Marshall had come into see me, to receive his instructions, apparently I didn’t know this, he went back to the Department of Defence and said I’ve never had such short instructions from a Prime Minister in my life. She said the Argentinians have invaded our islands and our people, throw them out.
We couldn’t have done it unless we had taken the right decisions earlier. So what I am saying to you is that the true Conservative doctrine, both at home affairs and in overseas affairs, turned out to be right. And again I must say to you we were the first country in the post-war world who did not appease an aggressor, but threw him out.
And so we succeeded, both in the home affairs and on foreign affairs.
Now reform of the public finances was matched by reform of the trade unions, deregulation and privatisation of industries. And a great extension of the ownership of houses, shares and savings.
You ask me to say a word or two just about the special trade union reform. It’s important the law had given the trade unions in Britain enormous privileges and advantages, so that everyone could go on strike and practically bring the nation to a standstill. And they had tried it several times. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Labor Party lost was because we had the Winter of Discontent when union after union went on strike and eventually they went on strike altogether and paralysed the country.
No one had succeeded in reforming trade union law. My predecessor, Edward Heath, had a go in the 1970s, 71, he tried to do everything at once, and the trade unions had gone on strike and we didn’t succeed. I determined that we would tackle it differently. We would not tackle it all at once. You would take it step by step and I knew that if I got the judgement right and how much we could do at each legislative measure, I would have over half the members of trade unions with me because they were fed up with being pushed around by their own officials.
And so, step by step, we tried it, step by step, 4 major legislative measures over 8 years. At first, we started in fact to remove some of the legal immunities. What had happened was that everyone had been able to go on strike. I made it law that you could not go on strike legitimately and be immune from the law of contract, you could only go on strike legitimately if you were at odds with your own employer. You could not have any sympathetic strikes at all. You’d only have a quarrel with your own employer and a legitimate quarrel. And then and only then a strike was justified. Sympathetic strikes were out.
Blacking of goods, you know what blacking is? The trade unions would prevent certain goods being sold. Blacking was out. That also belonged to what we call sympathetic strikes.
Picketing, they had picketed so many companies where the employers and the employees had no quarrel. Picketing we stopped, except at the place where there was a legitimate strike. And we reduced substantially the legitimate number of pickets.
All of these things we did. We outlawed the closed shop. Do you know what a closed shop is here? Everyone who works for …. Yes, well we outlawed it. It was wrong.
The number of strikes went down. The productivity went up. And an individual trade union member had the right not to be disciplined unjustifiably for failing to support any strike. This point had arisen when 12,000 members of a railway union had refused to go on strike. The union had therefore removed their right to hold office and to participate in certain elections. Hence our new principle: it was for the individual to decide whether to take industrial action, not the union. And an individual will be freer to make his own decision about joining a union.
We got these reforms right. The members of unions welcomed them. And we have never looked back industrially.
Many members of the unions refused to go on strike, because by the time we’d been in power a few years everyone wanted to buy their own houses. My belief was every man a capitalist. I didn’t want a gap between those who owned capital and those who didn’t.
So what we were doing was all the time to make it easier with tax relief for people to own their own houses and many of them were owning their own homes and they didn’t want to go on strike, because they wanted to continue their mortgage payments. And we made it easier, as we privatised. When we privatised, we made certain that any industry which had been nationalised when privatised a special lot of shares was put aside for those who worked in the industry. So they became shareholders too.
All this was done. We embarked on a massive measure of privatisation.
Now there were so many of the industries nationalised that we couldn’t do it all at once. You had in fact because you were going to sell them to the public and you couldn’t take more than a certain amount out of the market at any one time. So steadily we started a privatisation program. Sometimes by offering the shares for sale on the stock exchange. Sometimes through a trade sale. There were so many. There was telecommunications. There was electricity. There was gas. There was water. There was a whole car industry. There were lorries. There were British areospace. Industry after industry. 40 or 50 of them. And we had steadily to privatise them.
I believe we got it right. I was very careful, being a Conservative politician, to see that no one could throw at us any suggestion that we had forgotten about those who had to be made redundant, because many of the nationalised industries were grossly over-manned. Why shouldn’t they be; if there’s no sanction of bankruptcy, they merely came to the government for bigger subsidies. And believe you me the coal industry was having two billion pound subsidy a year. And so, in order to privatise them, we had in fact to make a number of people redundant. In some cases it was as many as half of the people. What were we to do? They weren’t to be thrown on the scrapheap, that would be fatal. And so we said that any person who had been made redundant was entitled to compensation. And you’d get compensation of 1,000 pounds for every year for which he’d worked for the organisation. And we’d call for volunteers. Well, of course, all of those who’d worked for the organisation for 20 or 30 years … we were killed in the rush.
And so they had then some capital that they had never had before. And with those things the privatisation went through, sometimes we had to have a trade sale, as with British Leyland and with certain others. By the end of it, by the time I left office, two thirds of the industries which had been nationalised were in fact privatised.
And so with those two major things, together with the fact that we were careful with money, we were able to bring down taxation. Because, my friends, when I took office, the top rate of taxation on earned income was 83%, the top rate on savings income was 98%, by the time I left office we brought the top rates down to 40%. Will you please note here that everything was a good deal more prosperous.
And so, my friends, Britain had pioneered privatisation and the reform of trade union law. As The Economist put it, “Care to buy a public enterprise? Just now you’re spoiled for choice. Governments across the globe are trying to sell their companies as fast as they can. Nationalisation, once all the rage, is out. Privatisation is in. And the followers of the new fashion are not much interested in shades of ideology; they are the left, the right and all hues in between.”
My friends, we took over in the Conservative Party a way of political life that for years had had the flavour of socialism and nationalisation. When we left, we had turned it around completely. Today the flavour, the belief, the action is the way of the free society under a rule of law and democracy and free enterprise.
My friends, the world has done a U-turn. May it be the last U-turn they do. Thankyou very much.