Margaret Thatcher: “Britain awake” (1976)

In January 1976 Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the Conservative Opposition in Britain, delivered a speech to party members in Chelsea. Dubbed the ‘Britain Awake’ speech, it laid out Thatcher’s foreign policy position with regard to Britain, the Soviet Union and the Cold War:

“The first duty of any Government is to safeguard its people against external aggression. To guarantee the survival of our way of life. The question we must now ask ourselves is whether the present government is fulfilling that duty. It is dismantling our defences at a moment when the strategic threat to Britain and her allies from an expansionist power is graver than at any moment since the end of the last war.

Military men are always warning us that the strategic balance is tilting against NATO and the west. But the Socialists never listen. They don’t seem to realise that the submarines and missiles that the Russians are building could be destined to be used against us. Perhaps some people in the Labour Party think we are on the same side as the Russians!

But just let’s look at what the Russians are doing. She’s ruled by a dictatorship of patient, far-sighted determined men who are rapidly making their country the foremost naval and military power in the world. They are not doing this solely for the sake of self-defence. A huge, largely land-locked country like Russia does not need to build the most powerful navy in the world just to guard its own frontiers.

No. The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo don’t have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter while we put just about everything before guns. They know that they are a superpower in only one sense: the military sense. They are a failure in human and economic terms.

But let us make no mistake. The Russians calculate that their military strength will more than make up for their economic and social weakness. They are determined to use it in order to get what they want from us.

Last year on the eve of the Helsinki Conference, I warned that the Soviet Union is spending 20 percent more each year than the United States on military research and development, 25 percent more on weapons and equipment, 60 percent more on strategic nuclear forces. In the past ten years Russia has spent 50 per cent more than the United States on naval shipbuilding. Some military experts believe that Russia has already achieved strategic superiority over America…

The rise of Russia as a world-wide naval power, threatens our oil rigs and our traditional life-lines, the sea routes. Over the past ten years, the Russians have quadrupled their force of nuclear submarines. They are now building one nuclear submarine a month. They are searching for new naval base facilities all over the world, while we are giving up our few remaining bases. They have moved into the Indian Ocean. They pose a rising threat to our northern waters and, farther east, to Japan’s vital sea routes.

The Soviet navy is not designed for self-defence. We do not have to imagine an all-out nuclear war or even a conventional war in order to see how it could be used for political purposes.

I would be the first to welcome any evidence that the Russians are ready to enter into a genuine détente. But I am afraid that the evidence points the other way. I warned before Helsinki of the dangers of falling for an illusory détente. Some people were sceptical at the time but we now see that my warning was fully justified…

We have seen Vietnam and all of Indochina swallowed up by Communist aggression. We have seen the Communists make an open grab for power in Portugal, our oldest ally: a sign that many of the battles in the Third World War are being fought inside Western countries. And now the Soviet Union and its satellites are pouring money, arms and front-line troops into Angola in the hope of dragging it into the Communist bloc.

We must remember that there are no Queensbury rules in the contest that is now going on. And the Russians are playing to win…

We in Britain cannot opt out of the world. If we cannot understand why the Russians are rapidly becoming the greatest naval and military power the world has ever seen if we cannot draw the lesson of what they tried to do in Portugal and are now trying to do in Angola then we are destined, in their words, to end up on the scrap heap of history.

We look to our alliance with American and NATO as the main guarantee of our own security and, in the world beyond Europe, the United States is still the prime champion of freedom. But we are all aware of how the bitter experience of Vietnam has changed the public mood in America. We are also aware of the circumstances that inhibit action by an American president in an election year. So it is more vital than ever that each and every one of us within NATO should contribute his proper share to the defence of freedom…

There are moments in our history when we have to make a fundamental choice. This is one such moment, a moment when our choice will determine the life or death of our kind of society, and the future of our children. Let’s ensure that our children will have cause to rejoice that we did not forsake their freedom.”