Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Margaret Thatcher on the Failure of Socialism, November 22, 1990

by Michael Kaplan

This is a brief video excerpt from Margaret Thatcher’s last speech in Parliament as Britain’s prime minister. Thatcher, who served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was known as The Iron Lady for her unflinching resolve to defend liberty and defeat communism abroad and socialism at home. Together with her friend and ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher restored free market capitalism and dismantled a large chunk of Britain’s social democracy—its blue model. This set the stage for Britain’s economic revival, transforming the old Mother Country from the shabby, worn out, post-imperial basket case of the 1970s, to the dynamic, wealth creating, though perhaps too multicultural, “Cool Britannia” of Tony Blair and his successors.

Here is a transcript of the of the speech, parts of which are included on the video. And here is a link to a video of the full speech at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, and at YouTube.

In the excerpt shown in the video, Thatcher takes on two Labour MPs who charge her with transferring resources from the poor to the rich, thus making the poor poorer. She responded, in classic Thatcher fashion, by accusing her opposition of wanting to keep the poor poorer so long as the rich didn’t get richer—the essence of socialism:
People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy. . . .
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have the same contempt for his socialist policies as the people of east Europe, who have experienced them, have for theirs. I think that I must have hit the right nail on the head when I pointed out that the logic of those policies is that they would rather the poor were poorer. Once they start to talk about the gap, they would rather that the gap were that—[indicating]—down here, not this—[indicating]—but—[indicating.] So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. One does not create wealth and opportunity that way. One does not create a property-owning democracy that way.
Debates in Britain’s House of Commons have always been much more in your face, substantive, and colorful than the sound bite dribble that’s been the common fare of the U. S. Congress in recent years. Mrs. Thatcher was the undisputed mistress of the parliamentary style. In this The Iron Lady was quite worthy of her great Tory predecessors, Disraeli and Churchill. Indeed, she qualifies as a leader in the Jacksonian mold. As the daughter of a small businessman (a grocer) Thatcher had a clear understanding of the importance of entrepreneurialism in creating wealth and promoting liberty. And she knew that socialism was a dead end. Thatcher conveyed this message to the soon-to-be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when she first met him in December 1984. The interchange, pieced together from various sources by Claire Berlinski in her biography of Thatcher, went something like this:
Gorbachev told Thatcher it was time to end the Cold War.
Thatcher told Gorbachev it was time to end communism.
Gorbachev told Thatcher that communism was superior to capitalism.
“Don’t be silly Mr. Gorbachev. You can barely feed your own citizens.”
“To the contrary, Mrs. Thatcher! Our people live joyfully.”
“Oh do they? Then why do so many of them want to leave? And why do you prevent them from leaving?”
After the meeting, Thatcher famously said of Gorbachev, “We can do business together.” But while they could do business together, Thatcher had let Gorbachev know that there could be no moral equivalence between democracy and communism, which was still an evil empire. And this, Berlinski argues in her biography, gets to the heart of Thatcher’s greatness as a leader: her moral imagination, a quality she shared with Reagan. While Thatcher certainly wanted to promote the economic well-being of her people, what really mattered were the moral values—individual liberty, responsibility, the rule of law, and self-reliance—that made economic prosperity possible.

Thatcher’s determination to bring down the British welfare state and her unflinching moral commitment to advance liberty, strengthen traditional moral values, and unleash the entrepreneurial energy of the British people to allow them to create prosperity and pursue happiness, put her at odds with the upper-class elite types who dominated the Tory Party leadership. Thatcher was in fact the only American-style conservative leader that contemporary Britain or Europe has produced, and she was repudiated by her party for it. Thatcher’s principled and charismatic style of leadership, like Reagan’s, is sorely needed today. Tony Blair, though he was from the Labour Party, was a principled champion of liberty and capitalism in Thatcher’s mold. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think David Cameron, the new Tory prime minister, with his aristocratic background and upbringing (he’s a fifth cousin of Queen Elizabeth), is about to launch a revival of Thatcherism in his party.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan


  1. I have read all three volumes of Margaret Thatcher's autobiography. I admire the woman immensely and also found she had a great droll sense of humor, a British trademark for sure. If only one would listen and learn from her common sense.

    gGeat article Michael

  2. Joe,

    I hate to think where we would be today if Thatcher and Reagan had not been on the scene in the 1980s. Thatcher, like Reagan, had an outstanding moral imagination: she understood that the fight between democracy and socialism/communism was a fight between liberty and tyranny, civilization and barbarism. And you're right about that droll British sense of humor. I may take a look at her autobiography--when I can find time to read three volumes. Right now I'm reading Ron Chernow's big biography of George Washington.