The following is adapted from remarks delivered at a ceremony in honor of Margaret Thatcher sponsored by the Hillsdale chapter of Young Americans for Freedom on April 22, 2013.
Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, in October. Her father was a grocer. She was born in Lincolnshire, in the middle of England. She studied chemistry at Oxford. In 1959 she got elected to Parliament for Finchley, which she represented until she retired from the House of Commons in 1992. She’s one of the great prime ministers in British history, and one of the longest serving, at least in continuous times.
I happened to live in England when Mrs. Thatcher’s party won the 1979 election and she became prime minister— the first woman to do so. It was better than watching sports on television. There was nothing like it. Every day she would do something big, and every day she would not apologize for it, even when reporters would press her. You just never saw anyone so direct or clear of speech.
Mrs. Thatcher faced a situation in Britain that was devastating, much like the situation we have today in our own country. What she did was to make plain that situation and to place great faith in the people of her country, and then when they were asked to choose, they chose for her over and over again. Indeed, she never lost an election after she won the first one. She only lost her job as prime minister because her party got tired of her. They were not as strong as she was and they threw her out, and she left very nobly.
I’ll tell you two quick stories about her. The first concerns a coal strike led by a very left wing man named Arthur Scargill, who was the head of the coal miners union. That union was powerful because people got their heat from coal, and if the union didn’t mine coal in the winter, people got cold.
The major political party opposed to Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative party, the Labor party, was basically controlled at that time in its governing structure by the labor unions, and the worst and most aggressive of them was the coal miners. So the Prime Minister stood largely alone, and great powers were arrayed against her. And what she did was store up a bunch of coal to get ready for a strike because she knew Mr. Scargill was going to call one, and he did call one. The coal mining regions of the country had thousands of people picketing, and parts of the country basically ceased to function.
This had happened many times in the past, and the government had capitulated. But this time there was Mrs. Thatcher at the head of the government, and there was something called the Battle of Orgreave, in which five thousand miners clashed with five thousand policemen. The policemen triumphed, and there were over 100 casualties. That was a battle for the soul of the country, and the Prime Minister was very clear about it. She explained that the stakes were enormous and that the government was going to stand up for the country. There was no wiggle in her. She didn’t budge. And what happened was that a large part of the membership of the miners union broke off, formed their own union, and made a deal that was in their interest but was not what Scargill had demanded. So Mrs. Thatcher basically broke that strike, and she broke that kind of unionism. The other kind—the kind where people act under laws that are fair, and where unions don’t take over parts of the country or the property of others—that kind of unionism thrives in Britain today. And so far there has not been an effort to bring back the destructive kind.
My second story concerns terrorism. You probably know that Mrs. Thatcher was almost killed when IRA terrorists put a bomb in her hotel during the annual Conservative Party Conference in 1984. They checked into that hotel months in advance and planted an explosive device set to go off near where the Prime Minister slept. It did go off, and it killed five people, but Mrs. Thatcher was working late and her life was spared.
IRA terrorists had previously killed one of her best friends, a man named Airey Neave, a distinguished soldier in World War II and one of the few men to escape the German POW camp at Colditz. He was very close to Mrs. Thatcher, and he was the Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland. Shortly before she became prime minister, the terrorists placed a bomb in Neave’s car set to explode when the car was at a certain angle coming out of the parking lot underneath the House of Commons, and Airey Neave was killed, having survived the Nazis.
So Margaret Thatcher had strong reasons to oppose terrorism. And when it happened that several IRA terrorists, the key one being a man named Bobby Sands, went on a hunger strike in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland—they were demanding to be classified as political prisoners rather than as criminals—she stood firm as they starved themselves to death. Over and over, she stated her position forthrightly: “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political. It is crime.” And what that meant was that those terrorists had chosen the wrong time to go on a hunger strike.
I’ll tell you what I think all that means. I’ve thought about this most of my adult life, and much of what I think about it is informed by having watched Mrs. Thatcher. We live in an age when a new kind of government has been invented, and it’s not so much that it has different aims, although it does have many different aims, but that it proceeds by a different method—through rules made by so-called experts, who gather the forces of government over themselves.
There’s an agency that has been created recently in the United States, and that agency does not get its budget from the Congress of the United States, but from a percentage of the revenues of the Federal Reserve, which gets its revenues as a government monopoly bank. This new agency has regulatory power that may affect us as a college and will certainly affect each of us as individuals. And Congress is forbidden to hold hearings on the budget of that agency, and that agency routinely refuses inquiries from Congress about its operations. That means it is sealed off from popular control. And the weight and scale of the government run by this new method means that there’s some chance that the government is going to overwhelm the society. That is the very abnegation of liberal politics—liberal in the sense of a free people managing those who govern them because human beings are born equal, with equal rights.
The greatest defender and servant of this principle of liberal government that I have seen in my lifetime is Margaret Thatcher, and I pray that we will see the likes of her again, because the battle over this kind of government is upon us again. For making clear that the right way of government is to operate under a constitution, and under the control of free people, and for fighting for constitutionalism more effectively than anyone in our time, we today remember Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.