Thatcher Conference Speech: Not for turning

By Chris McCarthy

Without a healthy economy we cannot have a healthy society. Without a healthy society the economy will not stay healthy for long.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 10 October 1985

The concept of a ‘U-turn’ has never sat comfortably in the lexicon of British politicians. The implication that a policy, strategy or position was misjudged, ill-informed or rushed will invariably ebb away at the credibility of a sitting government. Despite protestations to the contrary – the current Coalition has sought to portray its record of policy U-turns as a sign of strength; a responsive and consultative government – regular shifts in direction undermine the authority and effectiveness of a prime minister in executing their legislative agenda.

As Margaret Thatcher took to the stage at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in October 1980, her second conference speech as Prime Minister, it was still unclear to many present whether she would concede the need for a shift in her government’s fiscal plan tackling raging inflation. What transpired was a robust defence of the Treasury’s tough economic policies, delivered with the resilience and steadfastness that would characterise Thatcher’s tenure.

Ted Heath, the last Conservative prime minister before Thatcher, was hobbled in his premiership by inflation and high unemployment and damaged, perhaps irreparably, by the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. For three months at the beginning of 1974 the government introduced the Three-Day Week to conserve electricity that was being severely restricted by industrial action. Inflation continued out of control in the 1970s, peaking at 25% in 1975, and didn’t slow down until 1983. Unemployment figures followed a similar trend, topping three million in 1982 for the first time since the 1930s.

Thatcher and her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe were committed to wrestling inflation and unemployment back under control: “Inflation destroys nations and societies as surely as invading armies do. Inflation is the parent of unemployment. It is the unseen robber of those who have saved.” Fiscal discipline was manifested with a triumvirate of measures: cutting public spending, curbing the unions, and breaking down the “monopoly powers of nationalisation.”

In echoes of the recent narrative between the Conservative Party and Labour over accusations of fiscal ill-discipline against the latter while in government and shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’ calls for a Keynesian stimulus plan in opposition, Thatcher rebuffed suggestions to relax spending cuts: “Those who urge us to relax the squeeze, to spend yet more money indiscriminately in the belief that it will help the unemployed and the small businessman are not being kind or compassionate or caring.”

Despite the ‘toxic’ legacy of the ‘nasty party’ that Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to exorcise from the but still resonates with some, this was not a speech shorn of compassion. Thatcher recognised the plight of the country’s two million unemployed and pledged to address it:

Human dignity and self respect are undermined when men and women are condemned to idleness. The waste of a country’s most precious assets – the talent and energy of its people – makes it the bounden duty of Government to seek a real and lasting cure.

It was also a speech that forecast a glowing future for Britain and spoke optimistically of the role the nation could play in global affairs, despite it being an “anxious world” characterised by “darkening horizons.” Argentina would not invade the Falkland Islands for another 18 months but the framework for a robust defence policy and preservation of British interests overseas was already being established in Brighton: “Not for us the disastrous fantasies of unilateral disarmament, of withdrawal from NATO, of abandoning Northern Ireland.”

Despite the implications of Thatcher’s commitment to the armed forces for Britain’s ability to fight several wars in the 1990s and 2000s, that is not why her address to the conference is considered a great speech in the pantheon of British political oration. Facing doubters within her own party about the electoral viability of staying the course of economic liberalisation through high inflation and rising unemployment, and challenging a potent union force that had helped bring about the downfall of her predecessor, required courage and conviction.

The phrase that would encapsulate the speech, define Thatcher’s premiership, and will surely serve as a fitting epitaph, would also provide fodder for those angry with her obstinacy. The economic legacy Thatcher bequeathed is for a different discussion but in front of amassed party supporters and the media, with her cabinet sat alongside her, she delivered a speech that confronted her critics with resolve and steely determinedness.

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.


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