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Friday, May 07, 2004
Diary: Adam Smith Institute Thatcher 25th Anniversary Event

I'd like to add my voice to those already expressing how great they felt was the event the Adam Smith Institute put on last night to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. It was well planned, had a lovely venue, and the three speakers - Norman Tebbit, Charles Powell and Cecil Parkinson - were each powerful and concise in what they said.

Thanks to Alex Singleton for the above picture of both the blogosphere's Tory-supporting Peters. In the packed Oxford and Cambridge Club, I was obviously perspiring more than I realised. I was pleased to be able to take some photographs of my own of the star guests.

I first entered shortly after the event began at 6.30pm, and saw one man who looked vaguely familiar as we both hung up our coats. I later discovered that this was Patrick Jenkin, one of Thatcher's Social Security Secretaries, father to the present Shadow Defence Secretary, and by one account one of the first Tories to note publicly how much the lessons of sociobiology are conservative lessons.

The main speeches started between about 7.00pm and 7.30pm, each speaker limited to three minutes. Norman Tebbit - variously her Employment Secretary and later Party Chairman - was first, and focused on the economic and industrial policies Thatcher pushed through, and the enormous changes made. Charles Powell, then the Prime Minister's Foreign Affairs Adviser, spoke on foreign policy and the difference made by Thatcher in Europe, America and the wider world. He won particular cheers recalling her successful fight for Britain's rebate from Brussels, and for praising the Thatcher-Reagan Alliance and its effectiveness in winning the Cold War.

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Cecil Parkinson - the Trade & Industry and Transport Secretary who resigned from the cabinet for personal reasons in 1983, preventing him becoming Foreign Secretary - focused on the battles Thatcher won against the civil service, as well as her own ministers. He began by describing a conversation he had had in opposition with Enoch Powell (the mention of whose name won hearty 'hear-hear's), and being warned of the inertia of office - of the immediate desire once a government is established to go with the tide and avoid any real reform. Parkinson noted that the usual practice was for Tory governments to be elected, and then within two years to perform a U-turn and reverse all that they had been intending to do. At this moment I scanned the room in the hope of seeing Ted Heath scowling, in the unlikely event that he had turned up to a pro-Thatcher event.

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Parkinson went on: Thatcher, of course, was able to break this dreadful pattern and put in place the changes needed. When the crunch came two years into her premiership, with feinthearts around her refusing to support what she was doing, Thatcher changed not the policy but the cabinet! This juxtaposition won roars of approval. By fighting the inertia of government and putting into effect desperately necessary changes, Thatcher had made Britain a far better place.

Later, I managed to see and photograph the two cabinet speakers up close, taking what I thought was a particularly good picture of Norman Tebbit.

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As I saw him engaged in conversation, he was being asked his view of European enlargement, and he was unambiguously in favour - apparently because it would ensure further immigration! He gave the statistics of the squadrons that fought on the right side in the Battle of Britain, and noted how numerous were the Poles in that conflict. Without them, we might not have won at all, he explained, and then said how well he thought Poles integrated into British society - adding that he had just hired one to look after his wife. His objection was to immigrants who didn't integrate.

Retirement has obviously not dimmed his energy, and for a very long time he spoke happily to everyone who approached him. At one point a young woman asked him somewhat immodestly if he would mind posing for a photograph with two lovely blondes - herself and a friend. Tebbit threw up his hands and looked up at the heavens in mock exasperation before agreeing.

Cecil Parkinson was also keen to converse with the guests, and when chatting to the Dissident Frogman expressed his hope that the French would find a Thatcher of their own. Chirac at one stage had looked promising, he noted, then left it at that, his expectations so obviously dashed that saying so would be superfluous. He then asked about Nicolas Sarkozy. There were ambiguous murmurs, and I pointed out: "Sarkozy believes in positive discrimination: not sound".

On Thatcher, Parkinson interestingly noted that she was a woman, but she got things done. He then mentioned that at no point during Tuesday evening's Conservative Way Forward celebration had a speaker described her as the first woman Prime Minister - so successful was she that it was one of the least important things about her reign. I asked if she had spoken, and Parkinson confirmed that she did, with all the authority and passion of old.

He elaborated further on the inertia of government that she had successfully fought. When they had come into office, he explained, they wanted to scrap the Prices and Incomes Board and the civil servants refused! Reduce its powers, leave it in place and ready, they had urged: 'You'll need it later'. Of course, this consensual nonsense was not accepted, and thank goodness for that. Some critics of Thatcher write as if all the leading achievements of her era were a sure thing whoever was in government. This is a Blairite fantasy sustainable only through an ignorance of just what happened in those years. We did not arrive at the present post-socialist era through the common sense of Britain's governing class. If we had relied on that we wouldn't have had a hope. We arrived where we are today because a few brave visionaries - Margaret Thatcher above all - were keen enough to get things done that they spent years crawling across broken glass in the form of fierce and variously violent or hysterical opposition from Labour, the unions, the liberal establishment and foreign foes fascist and communist. It was not Thatcherism that was almost inevitable, but Britain's decline. We must never forget the courage and achievement of those who were able to arrest this decline.

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