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Tuesday, April 06, 2004
REVIEW: The Great Speeches - Margaret Thatcher

When it was announced that a three-CD set of Margaret Thatcher's speeches was to be released, a number of bloggers linked to me, noting how much I would want it. Of course, they were right, and I bought a copy as soon as I found out I hadn't won the Guardian Backbencher competition with it as the prize. You can do the same from Amazon or Politicos.

A set of speeches is a difficult thing to review, except generally. Certainly, it's a comprehensive set, spanning forty years of the subject's life and lasting three and a half hours. The first CD has short clips, ranging from thirty seconds to seven minutes, the second mostly longer speeches - including quarter-hour extracts from her 1989 and 1990 addresses to the Conservative Party Conference - and the third her fantastic thirty-three minute response to the motion of confidence leveled at her government on the day she resigned, a speech to the Falklanders shortly after the war ended - exclusive to the CD - and a few other little bits. You can read the full list of fifty-five clips at the Politicos site.

The collection is enjoyable, and one can learn a fair bit about Thatcher herself, recent British political history, and oratory generally from listening. There are some great moments, most of all her off-the-cuff comments. When her speech to the 1980 Conservative Party Conference is interrupted by rowdy protestors, she fires back, to the delight of the audience: "Never mind, it's wet outside - I expect they wanted to come in. You can't blame them: it's always better where the Tories are!". My favourite clip was from an April 1983 statement on inflation to the House of Commons, when the ridiculous Denis Healey heckled that her suspected plans for a June election in fact proved a desire to 'cut and run'. "Oh, the Right Honourable Gentleman is afraid of an election is he? Really?", Thatcher shouts back with such force. "Fraid, frightened, frit! Couldn't take it! Couldn't stand it! Oh-ho, if I was going to cut and run I'd have gone after the Falklands. Frightened! Frightened! Inflation is lower than it has been for thirteen years; a record the Right Honourable Gentleman couldn't begin to touch." The first few times I listened to this I sat literally open-mouthed at her beautiful aggression.

Other moments are also revealing. The first two clips are from 1961, and listening to them before any from her time in office shows amongst other things just how much difference was made by Mrs Thatcher heeding her advisors' suggestion that she lower her voice. In the second she could almost be impersonating the Queen. The 1988 Bruges Speech, meanwhile, was so nuanced, moderate and sensible that it is almost unbelievable that it caused such a fuss or that it marked the moment when over a decade of Tory divisions on Europe began. Certainly a good three-quarters of the British public would now consider it simply the purest common sense.

The aforementioned speech to the Falkland Islanders was delivered in January 1983. Its eleven minutes are also a real treat. As she details her experiences of the war, her relief as St Georgia and then Port Stanley were taken - the former the first absolute assurance the Falklanders had that we were actually coming - the warmth of her audience and their instinctive feel for her almost Churchillian rhetoric reminds one that there were out in the South Atlantic real people, real British people, who would have been deprived of their Britishness and their liberty had the right person at the right time not shown the courage and resolve that she did.

Her 1989 Conference Address, in which she rejoices at the death of socialism in Eastern Europe, has a distinctly modern ring to it:

Imagine a Labour canvasser talking on the doorstep to those East German families when they settled in on freedom's side of the wall. "You want to keep more of the money you earn? I'm afraid that's very selfish. We shall want to tax that away. You want to earn shares in your firm? We can't have that. The state has to own your firm. You want to choose where to send your children to school? That's very divisive. You'll send your child where we tell you."

Save the reference to nationalisation, these same issues are the battlelines of British politics today, fifteen years later, and the parties take just the same positions. If this causes one to realise what an utter waste non-Thatcherite governments are, it does at least serve as a reminder that the Tories of today do now offer what she did then. Let us please continue to do so.

In a word: unmissable.

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