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Dr. Larry Arnn Reflects On The Passing Of Baroness Margaret Thatcher

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HH: Welcome to the last hour of my radio week which I spend with Dr. Larry Arnn, when I am able, as part of the Hillsdale dialogues, There is one campus in the United States that has on it a statue of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, the prime minister for more than a decade of Great Britain, and it is the campus of Hillsdale. Dr. Larry Arnn, why is that statue there?

LA: Well, she was great, Hugh, and also we knew her. She was here. And I knew her myself for a long time. And so it’s a monument to her greatness.

HH: Tell people who and when you knew her and when you got to know her, and in the way that only people that have worked with someone can communicate who they are.

LA: Well, you know, of course, I won’t claim that I knew her really well. I did know her for a long time, and I met her on many occasions. It started like this. I used to work for Martin Gilbert, and he was the Churchill biographer, and I was there at Oxford, and that happened to be from 1977 to 1980, coincident with the time when she rose to power. And so I would watch on the news, and it was better than watching sports. I loved to watch Wimbledon, and if you’re in England, everybody watches Wimbledon. This was better than that. And so I adored her, and I think it was in about 1980 that I met her for the first time in the British embassy in Washington, D.C. I can remember standing there. I can’t remember what it was, I can’t remember exactly when it was or why it was. But she knew who I was, because she’d heard of me from Martin Gilbert, who, you know, the very great man who’s incapacitated with health problems right now. But he did refuse to be her biographer, and it’s one of the few times I ever raised my voice to the man. He wouldn’t write a book about anything where all the papers were not open. Well anyway, I met her that way, and then through the Claremont Institute where I used to work, I met her a couple of times. And then at the college, three or four times, but then I sort of got to know her, and so I would go see her sometimes when I went to London. So that’s how I know her.

HH: Would you, I want to start at the end and then come back to the beginning. There is a movie that many people, the only way they think they know Margaret Thatcher is through the movie, the Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep. What did you make of that portrayal? And how was she at the end of her life when you knew her in recent years?

LA: Well first of all, I want to confess to you, I have not been able to bear to watch that movie. I’ve heard a lot about it. But the last time I saw her, my wife reminds me, I’ve been confused about the date, but the last time I saw her, I had lunch with her with my wife, in 2009. So that was three years ago. And she was, before, well, you know, getting on for four years, three and a half years ago. At that time, she was different than she had been before, but still very sharp. And I can tell you the difference precisely because I thought about it a lot. What she was like, she was a very forceful human being. But that was just from, just my own view, is that she was a worker. She grew up a grocer’s daughter. I think she was a woman who had a list of things she just felt like she darn well better do them. Have you ever met an older woman who when they talked about their father talked about him like he was still a source of discipline?

HH: Yes.

LA: Mrs. Thatcher, Lady Thatcher would do that. And she was very forceful, though. So like if you would tell a story, like I would tell stories about her, because I watched her and I read a lot about her, and I would tell something she did that was really great, and tell her that it was really great. Well then she would tell the story over again, you know, little bits that weren’t quite right, she thought, and she would get it better, right? So she wanted each thing in order. Later in her life, she would just give kind of general responses. I would say to her, you know, Lady Thatcher, you did this very great thing. And I just thought it was an act of courage and principle. And she would respond yes, we must stick to our principles. She’d say things like that.

HH: Well you just reminded me of, I’ve listened to her speech, one of her speeches that she gave at Hillsdale, this one from 1995. Let me play a clip of that, because in it, she refers to her father. Cut number one:

MT: A good education founded on religious belief, and on importance of family is our most valuable asset. If I were to say who are the two people who have influenced me most in my life, a first one would be my father, who left school at 13, but was the very best read man I knew, totally self-educated as in those days so many people were. He became chairman of our finance committee, became mayor of our city, was chairman of the library committee, he was foremost in Rotary. He always read one excellent book a week, which I had to go up to the library and fetch. And our grocers shop was not only a place where you brought groceries. It was a place where on Friday and Saturday nights when we were staying open late, you had some of the most excellent political commentaries and arguments.

HH: So Dr. Arnn, you’re absolutely right. She didn’t, she never left off talking about her father.

LA: No, no. She was, somebody asked me, because I know her, and because we have that statue, because she was here, we’re getting a lot of inquiries about her lately. And I’m glad to get one at last, Hugh, from somebody who knows something. So anyway, people want to know what was her sense of her own greatness and all that? Well, she was a very, very forceful woman, but, and I’ll tell you about that. I’ll contrast her with Reagan, because I happened to have moved back to the United States, a married man to an English girl, having watched Margaret Thatcher for three years, and a month later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. And I have an idea of the kind, and I’ve talked to both of them about the contrast. So that’s a very interesting thing. I’ve enjoyed that very much. But she wasn’t given to talking about herself a lot. She was interested in the things she was supposed to do. And she believed in those things very much, and it was her nature that when attacked, she was thing harder and get firmer. And also, she was not one to wait for the attack to come. She believed, she was commonly on the offensive. And so that was, I’ll even tell you the thing about Reagan. I have had the privilege of meeting Reagan a few times, and I told him about that I’d watched Margaret Thatcher come to power, and he said that must have been a great privilege, and I said yes, sir, it was, and so you coming to power. And I’ll confess to you, you always seemed a little soft to me. And he remembered that from time to time when I would see him, and his reaction to that was you know, I’m not offended at that comparison. On the other hand, I told her that, and her response was no, no, no. She would say Ronnie was superb, and no one firmer. So she was, she sort of chastised me.

HH: Oh, speaking of no, no, no, let me go to clip number 10. Of all the clips I’ve played in this week of remembering Baroness Thatcher, I think this is my favorite. She is facing down a parliament that’s demanding that she throw in with Europe. Cut number 10:

MT: Yes, the commission does want to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body, and I do not want the commission to increase its powers against this House. So of course we are differing. Of course the chairman, or the president of the commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the community. He wanted the commission to be the executive, and he wanted the council of ministers to be the senate. No, no, no.

HH: Larry Arnn, don’t you love that?

LA: I’ll tell you, that’s what you got used to. I’ll tell you a few stories about her that are my favorites. The morning after she got elected, after her party won the national election in 1979, and she’d become the first woman prime minister, she goes to Buckingham Palace to do what they call kissing hands with the sovereign, and then they come out and they’ve got a charge to form a government. And she gives an interview, and it’s very moving. And she is deeply moved, and it’s about Francis of Assisi, quotes him. And so the whole thing is this woman, the first woman prime minister, and that’s the atmosphere when she comes in, and that’s all everybody would talk about, the first woman prime minister. So the next morning, she gives this long interview to this fellow from ITV. And I’m so glad I can’t remember his name, because I can call him the fellow I always thought of as a worm. And he sets her up, and I just think of it, because you know, all the questions are as a woman this, as a woman that, and he leads her, and he gets her to say, you know, as a woman, you’ll be very sympathetic with the unemployed. And the numbers have just come out, and they’re record highs, and she said yes, yes, I lived above the grocery store, and my father’s a grocer, and we had to make the budget, and I feel very deeply. And so as a woman, he said, I’m sure that your party is going to delay some of the measures that you intend to take about reform of the welfare and unemployment? And I think you know, okay, good. So what does the politician say to that? Yes, we’ll be very sympathetic, we’ll do the maximum we can. That’s what she would say, right?

HH: Right.

LA: She looks at him, and at the camera, and she says my party has been elected on a platform. Nothing will make us change that.

HH: I’ll be back with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, you were going to say, you had two favorite stories. The one was that interview with the BBC worm, or the ITV worm.

LA: Yeah.

HH: What was the second?

LA: Well, the second one was there was a fellow, there was a group of fellows, actually, but they were IRA members convicted of murder, and they were put in the dark hole in Northern Ireland called the H-Block prison. And the leader of them, I think he was the leader, but anyway, he was the one who got all the press, was a fellow named Bobby Sands, and he went on a hunger strike until he was reclassified a political prisoner. And so this goes on for as long as it takes a man to starve himself to death, which is weeks, I think. And this is in the news every night, and she never gives an inch. And she’s in Saudi Arabia with the Queen on a state visit, and he does. Bobby Sands starved himself to death, and so she comes out with the King of Saudi Arabia and the Queen of England, and they rush up to her and stick microphones in her face. Prime minister, Bobby Sands has died, what comment do you have? And she says a crime is a crime is a crime. Nothing can change that.

HH: Wow, see, that is, her resoluteness, if they still had the HMS Resolute, they could just name her the HMS Resolute Thatcher, I suppose.

LA: That’s it.

HH: This week, I have interviewed Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, New York Times London Bureau Chief and two-time Pulitzer winner John Burns all about her. I asked them each the question, and they each had a different answer, so I’m going to ask you. Did the situation that she faced upon taking office present more difficult challenges than will face the next conservative leader of the United States?

LA: I actually think it’s the same one. And I think the lesson of her, which is better, more important than the lesson of her resoluteness, which was awesome, I mean, that’s the part that’s better than watching sports. It just thrills to see somebody so strong. But better than that is the cause in which she was strong, because her conception of things, like the tape about the European Union that you played, that’s what that issue is about. She thinks, she thought that the government of Great Britain should be run in the public interest and under the control of the people. And so she was so good at standing up to large, powerful factions that got control of the government, or parts of it, that she developed a reputation to be fair, because everybody knew she would fight, and she was fighting for Great Britain. And you know, by the time the Falklands thing came, they rallied to her big time. But what was going on in England at the time, it’s like what’s going on now. The Labour party, which the majority of the delegates to the annual Labour party conference in those days was chosen by the Trade Unions Council, which was like the equivalent of our AFL-CIO, kind of, but stronger. And a lot of them were very left. In fact, a significant number, and I think it might have been a majority, were people who said in public that they were communists. And so what would happen is the Labour movement was powerfully influential in the strongest party in the state at that time, the Labour party, and so they would launch a big strike, and they would strike against a company, and they would strike against its suppliers and its customers all at the same time. And they would cripple parts of the country. You couldn’t get milk, the trains wouldn’t work, power would go out, winter of discontent. And Edward Heath, elected before Margaret Thatcher was elected to fight that, and broke in the middle of it and compromised, lost his majority. And then she took over the Conservative party. And when she came in, she said she was going to stop that. She wasn’t going to stop unions, she wasn’t going to stop striking. She was going to stop the crippling of the country in the name of trade disputes, and a government beholden to one side in the dispute settling the dispute at taxpayer expense, that’s what she was going to stop. And she managed to make that plain. And then you’ve just never seen anything like the strength with which she went around about that.

HH: There was a time I was up at Hillsdale, and I gave a speech, and it was somewhat mixed up and incoherent because I was following the great Joseph Epstein, and I was intimidated, because I’m always intimidated by Joseph Epstein. But afterwards, you came up to me and you said well, that was quite interesting. You were speaking about rectitude. And I didn’t know I was speaking about rectitude, but I’ve always since thought about that. George Washington was rectitudinous, and Lincoln had rectitude. I think Thatcher is the same thing. It was not just that she was resolute, but she was resolute on behalf of rectitude. I mean, she was a good, virtuous, stalwart person.

LA: She was obedient. The people don’t understand that about Churchill, but that’s what Churchill was like, too. He thought he was obeying. He thought there were things he had to do, because they were the right things to do. And he thought he didn’t have any choice about it. And that’s what gave him strength, and that’s what gave her strength. And you could watch it happen. She was so different from Reagan in her manner, because that clip you played is a perfect example of it. No, no, in other words, it was just really clear.

HH: Very clear.

LA: …what she was up to. You just couldn’t mistake it.

HH: Here’s another famous Thatcherism, cut number 8:

MT: Those waiting with baited breath for that favorite media catch phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.

HH: Larry Arnn, did the Conservative party make a mistake? Or was it necessary at that time that she went that she go?

LA: Well, it was terrible that she went. She had to go at some point, of course, but what happened was, you know, first of all, she believed in being on the offensive, and so in Britain, the Parliamentary season opens, and the address from the Throne, written by the dominant political party for the Monarch, lays out what they’re going to do this year. And there was always, everybody waited for that, because it was always something amazing. She always thought up the most amazing things, and did very fundamental things every year, and never failed. Twelve years, I think, she was the prime minister. Well, the last year, what came up was she decided to do something called the poll tax, which doesn’t mean over there what it means here. The effect of it was that if you lived in a local government district that had very high spending, your taxes would go up, and that would give you a reason to make them tone it down. The central government was subsidizing profligacy at the local level, she thought. Well, the effect of that was a bunch of people’s taxes went up. And instead of turning to their local government, they were blaming her. And you know, she was just as quick to panic and run on that problem as she was on every other. And so, but that gave her enemies an opening. And I heard Martin Gilbert say one time, well you know, they finally got tired of being lectured by her, and that gave them their occasion.

HH: I am not getting tired of talking to Dr. Larry Arnn, nor you of listening, to him about Lady Margaret Thatcher, so go nowhere.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, Mrs. Thatcher was at Hillsdale in 1995. Her speech there endeared her to me forever because of this clip, cut number 2:

MT: I often look back on those days, because in that time, which was a time of the middle and late 30s, everyone was very well-informed from the radio. There was no such thing as television. You often, my friends, get more information from radio, to which you have to listen, than you do from television.

HH: Nothing ever more true was said by a prime minister, Larry Arnn.

LA: (laughing) That’s really great. Yeah, you know, she was a big reader. And the cool thing, you know, so let me put the Larry Arnn gloss on it, you know, to my radio show host. It’s also true that radio is really good for multi-taskers.

HH: (laughing) That’s true. Let me play for you also her grasp of history, and her way of telling a story, cut number 5:

MT: One day, a former prime minister in England, Gladstone, went to see our great, at that time, great scientist, Faraday, who discovered electricity, thought he’d better call on Faraday to see what this great new science was. And the way politicians will, found a question, if not necessarily the right one. Well, Mr. Faraday, will this new discovery, this electricity, every be of any use to mankind? Oh, yes, Mr. Gladstone, said the quick-witted Faraday. One day, you will tax it.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, that’s a great sense of humor. She had some wonderful writers, like John O’Sullivan, but in personal conversation, would she gig people? Would she put, as you often will, with a smile and with great fun, you’ll gig someone. Would she do that?

LA: Oh, yeah. Sure, she was funny. She was, you have to understand, also, she was a very, as I say, she was a very forceful person. She was friendly and welcoming, but also, she was pushy. So a few times, I’ve been privileged to introduce her at things, and she asked to see one before that happens. And she wants to talk for a minute. And then she says I must go now, first time I did this, I’m always nervous before I speak. And I said goodness me. And she said what? And I said do you now know how you seem? And she laughed at that. Then we get out there, right? And after she speaks, I’m asking questions of her that have been put in by the audience, and so I’m just asking questions other people have written. She just wipes the floor with me for 40 minutes. That’s the silliest thing, as though I did it, you know. And so she just wears me out.

HH: So she could be at the height of emotion as well. I want to play for you just a minute of her eulogy to Ronald Reagan, because from being funny, here she is at her most emotional, cut number 12:

MT: Ronnie himself certainly believed that he had been given back his life for a purpose. As he told a priest after his recovery, whatever time I’ve got left now belongs to the Big Fella upstairs. And surely, it is hard to deny that Ronald Reagan’s life was providential when we look at what he achieved in the eight years that followed. Others prophesied the decline of the West. He inspired America and its allies with renewed faith in their mission of freedom. Others sought only limits to growth. He transformed a stagnant economy into an engine of opportunity. Others hoped at best for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union. He won the Cold War not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress, and turning them into friends.

HH: I’ll tell you, Larry, that was an amazing speech. She was not full of the energy of her earlier years, but full of the emotion of a great friendship.

LA: Yeah, and she was very protective of him. And a thing I want to, I want people to think about this for a minute, right, because she was a very conservative woman, and people who listen to this show are conservatives. I am, you are. Margaret Thatcher’s art was that she tried to figure out what the public interest was, the interest of all given the purposes of the British nation. And she disciplined herself to that. And she recognized in Reagan somebody who did that, too, and goodness, she would brook no, she wouldn’t even let you tell a joke about him.

— – –

HH: Larry Arnn, one last clip from her speech at your college at Hillsdale on the key, she’s a political theorist here, and an important one, cut number 7:

MT: Without law, without the institutions of civil society, without religion, without values that promote rather than discourage self-restraint and mutual consideration, that darker side will prevail. I have constantly to emphasize when I’m going around in other countries to emphasize the importance of a role of law. People tend to think only of democracy, and certainly, it’s true that fewer than half the countries of the world are democracy. But democracy as merely a rule of majority isn’t enough. A majority cannot turn what is wrong into right, or the other way around.

HH: It is good to hear a leader speak that way, Larry Arnn, and not many do anymore.

LA: It sounds like James Madison, doesn’t it?

HH: Yes.

LA: And see, it’s funny about that, because in that way, Margaret Thatcher was a very effective populist. It wasn’t elite people who rallied to her. It was ordinary people. And that’s because ordinary people know the common sense of what she just said. Everybody gets up in the morning and knows that they might do right and they might do wrong, that they’ll have good days and they’ll have bad days. And only very foolish people ever seek unchecked power. And Margaret Thatcher was talking to them in a common sense way. It’s a profound point. The point is put in the Federalist Papers. If men were angels, no government needed, if angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls on the government. She just put that same point in a beautiful and common sense way.

HH: And here is the last clip I want to play for you, number 13, which is probably her most memorable engagement with the public.

MT: I must tell the House that the Falkland Islands and their dependencies remain British territory. No aggression and no invasion can alter than simple fact. It is a government’s objective to see that the Islands are free from occupation, and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, Christopher Hitchens on this show once said the evilest man he ever met was the Argentinian dictator, Videla. What do you think he thought when he heard the tape of Margaret Thatcher half the world away saying nothing they will do will change what we are about to do?

LA: Well, and he’s got a fight on his hands, right? And he thought, he’s been, first of all, this is the Argentine junta led by General Bignone, I think, was the leading military man at the time. And I used to call him General Big Nose. And I think they thought that was going to be easy. And you know, the British losses were significant in that.

HH: Yes.

LA: You know, they found out that their cruisers and destroyers had been built with aluminum above the waterline, because it was light and it would make them more mobile, and that stuff could be made to burn. And so many British sailors were burned to death in that thing. And so she went through a lot to take that place back. And the fact that it’s been renamed the Maldives by the current president of the United States is a shame, because that was heroic.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And if you ask the people of the Falklands today where they want to be, they give the answer that they’ve always given. And you know what, she’s proved, by the way, in other parts of the world, that if they gave a different answer, she would let them go.

HH: Now I have to, with our four minutes left, ask you to do two things, which is compare her with Churchill, whom you have spent a life studying, and also who will be her Gilbert?

LA: Oh, those are both really great questions, and about her being like Churchill, she was a very great woman, and goodness gracious, I’ll give you two answers to that. One is Winston Churchill led through the Second World War, and that’s a very big thing. And second, Winston Churchill wrote 50 books, and they are beautiful, right? That’s one answer. A second answer is an answer that our teacher used to give when we would argue who’s better, Lincoln or Churchill. If you look up into the clouds, and you see two peaks, it might be hard to tell which is higher, but you can distinguish them from molehills.

HH: And as to her Gilbert? Sir Martin Gilbert, of course, who has labored long, and to the benefit of all, on Churchill’s biography?

LA: Well, somebody should write a good, thorough story of hers, and you know, when the stuff is available. So there’s that kind of work to be done, and that, in Britain, is 30 years. So somebody who understands politics, people who are not given enough to pay attention to what politicians say. They, you know, in the history books, there’s not enough, figure out what they are actually claiming, and start with that. You know, you can disprove that. You can test that against what they do, and what they say at later times and other times, but, and what other people’s opinions of them are. But start with that. And I think if somebody writes a really great piece of work like that, they will discover that she was very powerful.

HH: And a last question, on those snowy days when you’re walking around with freshmen on the campus of Hillsdale College, or perhaps a senior in a high school who is thinking about coming and enrolling, and you walk past the statue of Lady Thatcher and you pause for a moment, what do you tell them about her?

LA: Well, the college was founded in 1844 to support the cause of civil and religious freedom and intelligent piety. She was one of the great servants of civil and religious freedom, and we happen to have had a connection with her. You know, she, by the way, approved that statue.

HH: No, I didn’t know that.

LA: We lowered the skirt, the hemline, because there was some vibration that she might prefer that from her staff. And I brought it up with her, and told her that it was mistake. And she said why? And I said very nice legs. And she responded I’ve been told that.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, on that note, I cannot improve on that, and I hope that every single reporter who covers the state funeral who’s listening right now has the good, great sense to send a camera up to Hillsdale College to capture Dr. Larry Arnn talking about his friend, Margaret Thatcher. Thank you, Larry Arnn,, for all of our conversations, but especially that one.

End of interview.


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