Delivered by The Right Honorable The Baroness Thatcher
The Heritage Foundation's "Leadership for America" Gala, December 10, 1997
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 25th anniversary of The Heritage Foundation. Heritage has flown the flag for conservatism over this last quarter-century with pride and distinction. 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 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.
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 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 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 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 centrepiece of this 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 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 common sense -- shows the way.
But in my political lifetime 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: 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 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. 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. 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 American government, and he did put it just like that.
The political elite were prepared to kowtow to the counterculture 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 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."
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, 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 because we wanted to put our philosophy into practice.
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. 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 outlandish. But it really wasn't, and Ronald Reagan knew it wasn't.
"One of Thatcher's iron laws is that conservative governments which put up taxes lose elections."
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 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.
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 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.
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 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 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 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 "détente" also had its honourable Western advocates -- none more so than Henry Kissinger. But the fact remains that it meant different things to different sides.