‘Dimensions of Conservatism’ – Margaret Thatcher’s 1977 Iain Macleod Memorial Lecture
Iain Macleod was of the 'One Nation' mould of Conservatives, and served under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan. He was editor of The Spectator, and is credited with coining the word 'stagflation'. As Shadow Chancellor in 1967 helped to found the homeless charity Crisis. He died of a heart attack in 1970, at the age of 57.
Margaret Thatcher's memorial speech gives one of the greatest insights into her own theo-political worldview:
We honour the memory of Iain Macleod by continuing his life's work, the restoration of the Conservative heritage. Some of you here today will remember him; some will have come into politics after he was taken from us. So I shall begin by trying to sum up for you the essence of his contribution to Conservative politics. He was a great pragmatist in the true meaning of the word; he saw practice as the acid test, and principles as the motivating force.
He was the practical man par excellence precisely because his every thought and act were so firmly rooted in principle. So when we ask, as all of us do, what would Iain have done in these circumstances, it is to his underlying principles that we must turn first.
He was a Tory in that he saw himself as part of a continuous and growing Tory tradition going back three whole centuries to the dawn of parliamentary government in the aftermath of the civil war, and going forward into a future, presaging changes and challenges of equal magnitude. He was a Christian, for whom Tory politics were a part – a subordinate part – of a great commitment to the Good Life and service of God.
He was a national politician, who thought in terms of Britain's needs, ways, and wider contribution to the world, drawing ideas and solutions from the British context, and seeing the statesman's task as finding political solutions for urgent British problems.
It is to these dimensions of Conservatism, which he exemplified for us, that I shall devote this talk – a Tory, a British politician, a Christian.
Every generation must restate its values in light of present challenges, but also in light of past experience. There has never been greater need for us Conservatives to do so than there is today. For we have been in danger of allowing our thinking to be dominated by socialism to a point where we even define our own position in terms of how, where and why we differ from socialism and socialists. As though conservatism was primarily an alternative to socialism. This is a compliment that I for one refuse to pay this recent creed. For we are not just anti-socialists, nor primarily anti-socialists; our opposition to socialism is just one corner of our vision, in which what we are for sets the tone, not what we are against; what we are against stems from what we are for.
The Tory tradition long antedates not only socialism but also what the socialists call capitalism and I prefer to call free economy. To describe us as the party of free enterprise as opposed to state ownership would be misleading, although we believe in the vital contribution of free enterprise to a free and prosperous Britain and have good cause to fear the deadening effect of State ownership and control. For to pose our commitment to free enterprise as our main purpose and distinguishing mark would be to describe the whole in terms of one of its many parts.
Free enterprise has a place, an honoured place in our scheme of things, but as one of many dimensions. For Tories became Tories well before the modern concept of a free market economy meant anything, well before it became a matter of political controversy.
Conservatism will, I believe, continue to be a living growing creed long after economic controversy gives way to other issues, long, after socialism comes to be seen as one of the many blind alleys of history, of interest to the historian alone.
The Conservative Party is an integral part of the British tradition, not to be explained in abstract terms, but as part of the living flesh of British life over the generations. So let me begin today, as I learned to do with Iain's help, from a sense of shared history; not just Tory history, but British history.
For we are essentially a British party. We try to the best of our ability to understand Britain's problems and do what is good for Britain, while fulfilling our obligations as members of the world community. We observe what happens elsewhere, and draw lessons from it, but aware that different national traditions, experience and religious values must affect the social, political, and economic solutions.
We know that there are certain human needs and values, not simply material needs but human rights, dignity, freedom from fear. These should be accorded everywhere. But the further we proceed from these fundamentals to political and economic arrangements, the less competent we feel to do much more than pronounce success or failure.
Our sense of history imparts caution and humility on us. You will have noted how the socialist is happy to lay down the law for all mankind, past, present and future, giving marks, usually bad ones, convinced that he could have done much better. You will have noticed how they claim solidarity with socialist parties and regimes everywhere, in the name of human solidarity, while preaching hatred towards fellow British citizens of differing background or views.
You will have noted too how socialists consider themselves qualified to lay down what is good for all countries and societies, for the Chinese and the Chileans, Uruguayans and Paraguayans, South African and South Vietnamese, Anguilans and Angolans – and never does a shadow of self-doubt cross their closed little minds.
We beg to differ from them. First, I think it arrogant to claim that our generation is any wiser than previous generations. We are here, they are gone. We can stand on their shoulders, as I hope succeeding generations will be able to stand on ours. But we should not be too hasty in judging them, not simply because we shall be judged in turn, but because to judge requires so much knowledge, such an effort of imagination to put ourselves into their shoes that could well be spent – barring the professional historian on understanding our own pressing problems.
Least of all do we feel qualified to offer advice to more successful nations, on whose bounty this government's spendthrift measures have made us dependent.
But we are more than just a British party. The Tories began as a church party, concerned with the Church and State, in that order, before our concern extended to the economy, and many other fields which politics now touches.
Religion gives us not only values a scheme of things in which economic, social, penal policy have their place – but also our historical roots. For through the Old Testament our spiritual roots go back to the early days of civilisation and man's search for God.
The New Testament takes us on through Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Church Fathers and the great flowering of a specifically Christian civilisation in the middle ages from which our own characteristic way of life emerged.
Our religion teaches us that every human being is unique and must play his part in working out his own salvation. So whereas socialists begin with society, and how people can be fitted in, we start with Man, whose social and economic relationship are just part of his wider existence.
Because we see man as a spiritual being, we utterly reject the Marxist view, which gives pride of place to economics. However much the Marxists and their fellow-travellers new and old may try to wriggle and explain away, this was Marx's stated view and a linch-pin of his whole system.
The religious tradition values economic activity, how we earn our living, create wealth, but warns against obsession with it, warns against putting it above all else. Money is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.
The letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Donald Coggan) received in reply to his "call to the nation" were recently published. One of them was from a country vicar: "I am concerned," he wrote, "that I haven't enough to do my job properly. I am concerned because my parishoners, some of them at least, are not receiving what I ought to be able to provide and be glad to give them, i.e. a visit in emergencies, just because there is no petrol in the tank and no money in the pocket to buy more; or that there is petrol only sufficient to provide transport for my wife to work".
That vicar knew that he needed money, not for itself, but for what he could do with it.
The increased involvement of government with economic life has coincided with a marked worsening of economic performance.
It has heightened tensions between different groups of workers, some struggling to keep differentials, others trying to override them; between producers and consumers, landlords and tenants, public services and the public.
To observe these things is not to deny a role to government in economic life; it is not to preach laissez faire. That was preached two centuries back when manufacture and commerce were fighting to free themselves from state monopoly and interference which were holding back their development.
There is much that the state should do, and do much better than it is doing. But there are also proper limits which have long since been passed in this country.
To understand the reason and how these limits can be adduced, we must come back to the nature of man. This is a matter where our understanding and our case, based on religion and commonsense, is so much sounder than that of the socialist doctrine. Yet the socialist travesty has succeeded in gaining wide acceptance by default, even among our own people. I refer to the question of self-interest as against the common good. The socialists have been able to persuade themselves and many others that a free economy based on profit embodies and encourages self-interest, which they see as selfish and bad, whereas they claim socialism is based on and nurtures altruism and selflessness.
This is baseless nonsense in theory and in practice; let me explain why. Let us start from the idea of self. There is not and cannot possibly be any hard and fast antithesis between self-interest and care for others, for man is a social creature, born into family, clan, community, nation, brought up in mutual dependence. The founders of our religion made this a cornerstone of morality. The admonition: love they neighbour as thyself, and do as you would be done by, expresses this. You will note that it does not denigrate self, or elevate love of others above it. On the contrary, it sees concern for self and responsibility for self as something to be expected, and asks only that this be extended to others. This embodies the great truth that self-regard is the root of regard for one's fellows. The child learns to understand others through its own feelings. At first its immediate family, in course of time the circle grows.
Our fellow-feeling develops from self-regard. Because we want warmth, shelter, food, security, respect, and other goods for ourselves, we can understand that others want them too. If we had no desire for these things, would we be likely to understand and further others' desire for them?
You may object that saintly people can well have no personal desires, either material or prestigious; but we do not legislate for saints.
Now since people in their day-to-day lives are motivated by this complex of attitudes, self-regard and fellow-feeling, group and sectional interests, personal and family responsibility, local patriotism, philanthropy, an economy will be effective only insofar as it can contain and harness all these drives. Perhaps Archbishop Temple had it right when he said: "The art of Government, in fact, is the art of so ordering life that self interest prompts what justice demands."
Adam Smith, who came to economics via philosophy, (sociology – as we should now call it –) and history, described how the interplay between the self-interest of many can further the mutual interest of all. I urge you to read him, both for what he said and for what he did not say, but is often ascribed to him. He did not say that self-interest was good perse; he saw it as a major drive which can be a blessing to any society able to harness it and a curse to those who cannot harness it.
He showed how the market economy obliges and enables each producer to serve the consumers interest by serving his own.
People must be free to choose what they consume, in goods and services. When they choose through the market, their choice is sovereign. They alone exercise their responsibility as consumers and producers. To the extent that the fruits of their efforts are taken away by the state, or other coercive bodies, they not only have responsibility taken away from them, but the ability to make their wishes felt. Power accrues more and more to the politician, bureaucrat, state-owned or subsidised providers of goods and services.
Choice in a free society implies responsibility on the part of the individual. There is no hard and fast line between economic and other forms of personal responsibility to self, family, firm, community, nation, God. Morality lies in choosing between feasible alternatives. A moral being is one who exercises his own judgment in choice, on matters great and small, bearing in mind their moral dimension, i.e. right and wrong. Insofar as his right and duty to choose is taken away by the state, the party or the union, his moral faculties, i.e. his capacity for choice, atrophy, and he becomes a moral cripple in the same way as we should lose the faculty of walking, reading, seeing, if we were prevented from using them over the years.
In a letter from a person who responded to the Archbishop of Canterbury's "call to the nation," this point was beautifully put:
"We wish to be self-reliant and do not want to be dependent on the state, nor do we want the state to take so great a proportion of our money in rates and taxes to decide for us what we shall have and not have … I may be wrong, but I think it weakens character when little by little our freedom of choice is taken from us."
And another person said:
"I am a middle-aged woman, wife of a lower-paid worker. We have struggled through the years to buy our own house, old though it may be. We have asked for nothing. We only had one child, so no child allowance. What we have achieved we did ourselves. When we look round and see all the handouts people are getting from this welfare state, we sometimes feel so sad that what should be a wonderful thing has really turned out to sap the goodness and initiative from so many of our people.".
So let there be no mistake: economic choices have a moral dimension. A man is now enabled to choose between earning his living and depending on the bounty of the state, a choice which comes about because benefits rise and remain tax-free, while earnings rise more slowly if at all, and tax is high at very low income levels.
A man must choose between spending and saving, between housing himself or depending on the state to house him at his fellow-citizen's expense, between paying for his children's education and accepting whatever the state provides, between working for a wage or salary and setting up on his own, between longer hours of work or study and spending more time in leisure with his family, even between spending more of his money on himself and more on his family, between joining a union and not joining, even if it means persecution by union and state.
The Socialists would take away most or all of these choices. A man would do what he was told by the state and his union, work where work was "found" for him, at the rate fixed and degree of effort permitted. He would send his children to school where the education authority decided what the children are taught and the way they are taught, irrespective of his views, he would live in the housing provided, take what he could get, give what he was obliged to give.
This doesn't produce a responsible or a moral society.
This does not produce a classless society; on the contrary it produces the most stratified of all societies, divided into two classes: the powerful and the powerless; the party-bureaucratic elite and the manipulated masses.
And are these rulers better fitted to make choices on our behalf or to dispose of resources? Are they wiser, less selfish, more moral? What reason have we for supposing that they are? As the French economist and critic of socialism, Claude Frédéric Bastiat, asked a century and a half ago, how can the socialists, who have such a low opinion of the people's ability to choose have such a high regard for their own?
I quote his own words:
"Since the natural inclinations of mankind are so evil that its liberty must be taken away, how is it that the inclinations of the socialists are good? Are not the legislators and their agents part of the human race? Do they believe themselves moulded from another clay than the rest of mankind? They say that society, left to itself, heads inevitably for destruction because its instincts are perverse. They demand the power to stop mankind from sliding down this fatal declivity and to impose a better direction on it. If, then, they have received from heaven intelligence and virtues that place them beyond and above mankind, let them show their credentials. They want to be shepherds, and they want us to be their sheep."
We know from experience that these self-appointed guardians use their power to perpetuate it. We have seen how the economic considerations which in a market economy are decisive, are increasingly subordinated in a controlled economy to the party political interests of politicians, to the group interest of state employees, and to workers in some nationalised industries. We pay through the nose in prices and taxes and take what we are given. In that sense, we don't own those industries, they own us.
And have we not seen at home, and particularly abroad, how some socialist politicians soon come to adopt the very "ruling class life-styles" they rose to power by denouncing?
In a market economy, people are free to give of their money and their time for good causes. They exercise their altruism on their own initiative and at their own expense, whether they give directly and personally through institutions, charities, universities, churches, hospitals. When the state steps in, generosity is increasingly restricted from all sides.
From the one side, the idea is propagated that whatever needs doing is best done by the state.
Since the state knows best, causes it does not support must be of questionable worth. On the other side, since the state takes more and more of peoples earnings, they have less inclination to give what money they still have left for those needs which the welfare state fails to meet.
When people give, directly, personally or through an institution, they respect, they feel that the sacrifices they may make in giving, and the effort in earning is worth while. People have always accepted the responsibility to sustain the young and the old, the unfortunate and the needy. But when the money is taken away and spent by government, the blessing goes out of giving and out of the effort of earning in order to give.
This contrast is borne out by historical experience. The Victorian age, which saw the burgeoning of free enterprise, also saw the greatest expansion of voluntary philanthropic activity of all kinds. The new hospitals, new schools, technical colleges, universities, new foundations for orphans, non-profit making housing trusts, missionary societies.
Dr Barnardos Homes was founded in 1866. It cares today for 2251 children in residential accommodation.
The Soldiers, Sailors and Airmens Families Association was founded in 1885 and now, with 12,000 volunteer workers helps countless families.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which now handles some 80,000 cases annually was founded in 1884.
The St John Ambulance Association was founded in 1877 to provide a service still essential to every centre of population.
The Church Army now giving help to 14,800 people, started in 1890.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded in 1824 and now maintains 250 lifeboats at a cost of about £3 million a year, almost entirely from voluntary subscriptions.
The Victorian age has been very badly treated in socialist propaganda.
It was an age of constant and constructive endeavour in which the desire to improve the lot of the ordinary person was a powerful factor. We who are largely living off the Victorians moral and physical capital can hardly afford to denigrate them.
You may remember Lord Acton's aphorism that while only a foolish conservative would judge the present by the standards of the past, only a foolish liberal would judge the past by the standards of the present. There are many foolish liberals in the socialist camp; we can do without them in ours.
Why then, you may ask, did socialist thought make so much headway? It is not only a fair question but a vitally important one for us. There are many possible answers.
But one obvious reason stands out. Socialists criticised imperfect human reality in the name of a theory. So long as socialism was only a theory, it made criticism of other ways easy for them. They could claim that their way was best. But now we are beyond the days of theory. For decades Socialists have extended their power until they control almost half the world's population. How has the theory worked out in practice? Disastrously. Wherever they have imposed their heavy hand, people are worse off and less free.
A leading Labour Party ideologist, Baroness Wootton, recently said proudly that during her lifetime she was glad to see that one-third of the world's population had come to earn its daily bread under socialism.
Certainly, she made a brief reference to the fact that they seem to practice tyranny and racism but very much en passant. She neither stopped to ask whether this was not inherent in socialist rule, nor what the quality and quantity of socialism's daily bread was like. Not all Lady Wootton's fellow-socialists are as frank as she is in claiming the socialist world as soul-mates, and as encouragement for their efforts to clamp down socialism here "irrevocably and irreversibly", to use one of the present government's favourite phrases.
True, not all of the Labour Party are happy to accept Communist-ruled regimes as fellow-socialists. But they are remarkably muted in their opposition to the "fraternal relations" adopted by a majority of their Party and Trade Union movement. Insofar as some are embarrassed by the behaviour of their fellow-socialists in the Soviet Union, Cambodia and East Germany, they have yet failed to produce a coherent explanation of why they believe that a doctrine which has produced such visibly inhuman results in a third of the world or more would lead us to Utopia in Great Britain.
To say that the others are not "true socialists" – no connexion with the firm next door with the same name – gets us no further. Socialism is what socialists do, and socialists do more or less the same, as the opportunity permits.
GULAG was the consequence of socialism. It was not the work of one man. It only happened because socialism demoralised the whole nation, replaced the individual conscience by the party, right and wrong by what was good for the revolution.
But, as I argued earlier, we shall not win simply by showing the dark side of socialism. That is why I began with our vision, and put it in the centre of the stage. I stress, vision, not blueprint; values and principles, not doctrines. We are really in no better position to prophesy than preceding generations were, and they always got it wrong; the more scientific they thought they were, the further they strayed. For the unfolding of human history is richer and more complex than our minds can foresee.
Yet by understanding the present and the past and adducing possibilities and probabilities as best we can, so long as we leave some margin for error, we can influence the shape of things to come.
We have learned much from the over-optimism of the immediate post-war era, when we thought Government could do it all. We need healthy scepticism, but not pessimism. We are not bound to an irrevocable decline.
We see nothing as inevitable. Men can still shape history.
Because the post-war Keynesian recipe of endless growth and full employment through high demand levels went sour, this does not mean we turn our backs on the aspirations which underlay the 1944 White Paper on Employment policy. Because we see that welfare can be abused, we do not neglect our responsibility to help people back onto their feet and to look after the handicapped.
We know that we must assure a better balance between what people receive and what they can earn, and between the hardship we see and are moved to mitigate through the welfare system and the reaction we create when taxes fall too heavily on the tax payer.
This is a turning-point in our party's history, no less than in our nation's, comparable to the situation when Iain Macleod came back into civilian life after the war. He and his generation's views had been formed under the combined influence of their heavy war-time responsibilities, the high hopes for post-war Britain generated during the war, and the stock of our electoral defeat in 1945.
Iain let none of these put him off-balance. He set to work with others of his generation to pick up the pieces, to begin from where they were. He and the "One Nation" group set the tone for much of post-war Conservative thought and action. They did not blame their stars, or the voters. They set to work to ask what had gone wrong, and how to put it right.
That was a generation back. We now stand before the new challenges: how to revive the economy, how to enlarge our liberties, how to restore the balance between trade unions and the community, how to further our European partnership while protecting legitimate British interests, how to simplify the welfare maze which often baffles those who most deserve help, how to regain an underlying sense of nationhood and purpose.
Circumstances in the late ‘seventies are different from those of thirty years ago. Once again we have faced electoral defeat, drawn the necessary conclusions and come back with renewed vigour.
Iain Macleod's approach then was, in essence; if it must be done it can be done; if it can be done it must be done. "We shall prevail" — one of his great speeches ended. We did; and we shall.