Nile Gardiner, Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, addressed a meeting of The Freedom Association in the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House, Westminster, on Tuesday 28th June 2022. The following is a transcript of his speech. We are grateful to Nile for giving up his time to address us. Please note: this speech was given just over a week before Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party.
The Freedom Association, I think, is one of the great British institutions which has defended the cause of liberty and freedom for so many decades, and I remember, as a member of the Young Conservatives, when The Freedom Association was headed by Norris McWhirter. It was a great force for Thatcherism in those days.
David [Campbell Bannerman] mentioned that I am now over in the United States. I have been over there for the last 20 years in Washington DC, and I am now heading the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
I had the pleasure and privilege of working in Lady Thatcher’s private office, assisting her with Statecraft, her final book, which in many respects became the genesis of Brexit. It is my view that Brexit is a big part of Thatcherism. I will spend the opening couple of minutes talking about Brexit as I think it’s so fundamentally important for Britain's future, and it is a tremendous part of Lady Thatcher’s legacy.
She made clear in Statecraft that Britain would be infinitely better off outside of the European Union. There are those who still continue to spread, what can only be described as disinformation, that Lady Thatcher would have opposed Brexit, or that she would have not been in favour of all the measures to unshackle Britain from the European Union. The reality is, based upon what she wrote in Statecraft, but also from my own conversations with her over many years (she personally established the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in Washington DC and I had the opportunity to meet her on many occasions throughout the final years of her life), was that she was 100 per cent fervent in her belief that Britain could only be a free country outside of the European Union. This has also been confirmed by other advisers who worked for her, including Robin Harris and Sir Mark Worthington. It was also confirmed by Charles Moore who wrote the authorised biography of Lady Thatcher.
So, if anyone tells you that Lady Thatcher would not have supported Brexit, they are fundamentally spreading false information. Brexit is a huge part of advancing Thatcherism, and it’s my view that Brexit is fundamentally important for Britain’s future as a great nation. Brexit represents sovereignty and self-determination. It represents the ability of the British people to decide their own future and destiny, which is why so many Americans have supported Brexit. If you speak to any Republican member of Congress, they wholeheartedly support Brexit because it represents the same values of liberty and freedom which the American people cherish in their own hearts.
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom played an important role in terms of shaping thinking with regard to Brexit, and it is certainly our view that the special relationship is infinitely stronger with Brexit in place.
Thatcherism, the subject of today’s discussion, has to encompass the importance of Brexit and what it means for Britain. Great Britain can and should be, without a doubt, a true world power. Great Britain may not be a superpower, such as the United States is, but Great Britain should operate as a world power with a tremendous history that we should all be proud of. I was struck by the remark just a few days ago of Suella Braverman, where she spoke about the pride in Britain’s past and its history. This is the same debate which is taking place in the United States right now, and there is so much for the British people to be proud of as a nation. Without Britain’s influence and role over the last several hundred years, the world would be a far more dangerous place. We wouldn't have the United States today as the leader of the free world; we would not have the many bastions of freedom and liberty which we see across the world today, without Britain’s influence. It was Margaret Thatcher’s view that the United Kingdom outside of the European Union could once again be a truly great global force for good on the world stage, and we are seeing that already on the Ukraine front where Britain is leading. In fact British leadership over Ukraine, I think, has been more powerful than American leadership. For all of the problems Boris Johnson is facing domestically, he has been a far more effective leader on the international stage than Joe Biden, who I think has been a monumental disaster as US President. More on that later!
Britain is leading at a time when the likes of Emmanual Macron continue to lick the boots of Valadimir Putin. British leadership really does matter, which is why Pres. Zelensky is so full of praise for Britain. Britain is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian barbarism and savagery, and that is something the British people should be proud of; something Ukrainians recognise wholeheartedly. In my view, British leadership in the Brexit era has eclipsed that of the United States over the Ukraine issue, but with regard to Brexit, it is vitally important that full British sovereignty is ensured which means scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol. This protocol is unworkable and is being used as a battering ram against the United Kingdom. It is being used against the United Kingdom as a punishment beating for leaving the European Union. You cannot have a situation where Northern Ireland is treated separately from the rest of the United Kingdom. You cannot divide one part of the UK from the other, which is what is happening right now. If we want to implement Brexit fully, the protocol has to go. At the same time, the UK has to extricate itself from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and you cannot have European judges deciding British law. The ECHR is not an EU institution, but a supranational entity that holds sway over a sovereign nation is unacceptable, and I am sure that if Lady Thatcher were alive today she would say that Britain would have to restore full sovereignty and self-determination. You cannot have Russian judges, for example, passing judgement over Great Britain. It is time for Brexit to be fully implemented at every level. That is, in my view, a further way in getting back to Thatcherism, as that was part of her vision.
Moving to the domestic political situation in the UK, I am struck to the degree to which there is a sense of doom and gloom in conservative circles here. It is extremely evident that many conservatives in the UK are asking: what is the purpose of the Conservative Party, where is the Conservative Party going, and what is the future of Conservatism In the United Kingdom? There is a sense of despondency and despair, even when the Conservatives have a majority of 80 seats.
Contrast this with what is happening in the United States right now. In Joe Biden, you have, without a doubt, the most left-wing US President in American history. Joe Biden has been a disaster for America. He heads an administration which is de-facto Socialist in many respects. It is an administration that is a monument to big government, high taxes, heavy spending. It is also a monument to wokeism and far-left culture. It is no wonder that the United States is sinking into recession. The stock market is collapsing, there are soaring crime rates with widespread looting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and it is even spreading to Washington DC now. You have a culture of impunity which exists thanks to left-wing policies which are in place.
There are de-facto open borders with two million illegal immigrants which sought to enter the United States in the last year and half or so under Joe Biden. This is a superpower in crisis. It is in many respects a superpower in decline.
But what is happening on the conservative side of the United States right now? The Republicans are looking ahead to the mid-term elections in November. Opinion polls are projecting a big Republican majority in the House of Representatives - perhaps the biggest conservative victory in the United States in close to a hundred years. The conservative movement in the United States is going through an extraordinary renaissance. Joe Biden will likely be a lame-duck.
It is also looking extremely positive for conservatives looking ahead to the Presidential election in 2024. There is an extremely strong bench of conservative candidates competing. There is a real sense of positivity and life-energy in the conservative movement in the United States. US conservatives are using the Vote Leave slogan, ‘Take Back Control.’ They want to take back control of the United States from the far left. They look at Brexit and the Brexit victory as an example as what can be done in the United States. The Brexit win against all the odds was an incredible win for British conservatives against not only the left, but against the sitting British government.
Why are US conservatives doing so well at this time? It’s because they have a clear-cut agenda. They stand for tax cuts. They stand for reduced government spending. They want to rein-in the massive amount of government debt. They stand for free markets and capitalism. Every likely conservative contender for 2024 celebrates free markets, economic freedom, and capitalism. Voters know what they are getting. They also stand for energy independence, sovereignty and self-determination, secure borders, and law and order.
They have also gone to war against the woke left. If you look at Gov. Youngkin’s victory in Virginia last November, he fought a campaign based on defeating the left on critical race theory, which is a highly divisive and racist doctrine that Americans overwhelmingly reject. He fought a campaign based on taking left-wing indoctrination out of American schools - and he won in the swing state of Virginia where the Democrats had been doing very well over the last decade. That is an example of conservatives having crystal-clear thinking on key issues, and American voters, of all races, are responding to that.
Contrast that with the situation in the United Kingdom. Looking at the country from across the Atlantic, and particularly looking at the Conservative Party today and what it is projecting, there is a lot of mixed messaging. The party is confused. It’s as if you are buying a high-definition ultra-HD television. You bring it home and you expect to see an ultra-HD picture, but instead what you see is a fuzzy picture full of static. You want a refund. That’s what has happened in the recent by-elections. Conservative voters have stayed at home because they don’t know what they are voting for and they don’t like what they see. In the US, with conservatives offering a crystal-clear picture, voters know what they are getting. In the UK, it is confusing. The message on tax cuts keeps changing from one day to the next. The message today from the Government is that they are not going to be moving down the course of tax cuts until inflation is sorted out. It could be years before inflation is brought back under control. These kind of mixed signals confuse voters. It is the exact opposite of how Lady Thatcher thought. Lady Thatcher’s view was that you have to stand on your principles, conviction and ideals like a rock. You can’t waver and blow with the wind. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t interested in the latest focus group. She wasn’t interested in opinion polls. She often said that nothing could be gained by trying to seek consensus. You have to lead. If you are going to take on the mantle of the Socialist left by increasing Government spending and increasing taxes, then voters are going to go for the real thing. They are not going to go for a Conservative Party that adopts some of the language of the left. They want the real deal. That was the point that Margaret Thatcher always made. Nothing good would ever come from inheriting the mantle of the Labour Party or the Liberals. It would only lead to defeat, and she is absolutely right on that.
The Conservatives today have to choose on whether they are going to offer voters a very clear conservative agenda, which has to be based upon reining-in Government expenditure, because the situation right now is out of control. Increasing Government spending is only going to undermine the economy in the long-term. It is going to saddle future generations with mountains of debt. It is going to make Britain less competitive on the world stage. If you are going to raise taxes, you are going to kill jobs. If you kill the entrepreneurial spirit and make it less encouraging for private individuals and businesses to set up companies and employ people, that’s a job killer, and I don’t see how in any way that helps the conservative cause. If you are going to have a green agenda which costs tens of billions of pounds and it’s going to act as a disincentive for people to invest in the UK, this is hugely counter-productive.
The whole net-zero agenda is wholeheartedly rejected by US conservatives. It is viewed as a big government intervention. In my view, it just cripples British competitiveness and is going to put a lot of people out of work. Big Government solutions are not the answer.
There is so much for this Government to do in a positive sense. Boris Johnson is on the ropes at the moment. His future survival depends upon returning wholeheartedly to Thatcherite Conservative principles, otherwise he is not going to survive. It’s as simple as that. And I hope that he will be going down that path.
He has done extremely well on the Ukraine front. It is also very encouraging to see the Conservative Party taking on the nefarious woke left agenda, because it is so poisonous and incredibly dangerous. In the US this is a huge battleground. A few months ago I hosted Oliver Dowden who gave a speech on this issue of defeating cancel culture. He gave, in my view, a very robust and courageous speech talking about how British Conservatives need to stand up for cultural values because the left will try to tear down this great nation at every opportunity, and unless you are going to fight them, they are going to succeed. They have a huge stranglehold over universities, schools, and institutions in the United Kingdom. It is so bad now that when one opens an email from the civil service there will be a description of the pronouns one should use. This kind of rubbish needs to be thrown out of the window by a Conservative Government. Why are civil servants advancing this language imported from the United States by left-wing extremists? This should have no place in Government here. And I know that there are many ministers who have vowed to fight this including Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary.
A Conservative Government has to stand up for conservative values and principles, otherwise it cannot call itself conservative. Margaret Thatcher’s advice, if she had been with us today, would have been that a Conservative Government should be proud of conservative principles; proud of conservative policies and ideas, and to advance those ideas. Do not be afraid to stand up for a conservative vision. Do not give in to the siren calls from the left. This is about real leadership at a time when Britain in the Brexit era should be the global leader for free markets and free trade; for getting big government off the backs of individuals and companies. It should be the most deregulated country in the world. It should be the country that attracts the most investment. It should be the leader for economic freedom and liberty.
This is such an exciting time for the UK, but we are beset by this tremendous sense of despondency right now. We can get rid of that by advancing a true conservative agenda.
Margaret Thatcher won three general elections in a row for a reason. Voters knew what they were getting. They voted for a politician who believed in real ideas and principles, and she was willing to stand up for those ideas and debate them. She won the war of ideas. We need to have a self-confident Great Britain on the world stage. We should be a shining beacon for freedom to the world.