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Margaret Thatcher: A Conservative Environmentalist

  • G. Tracy Mehan III
  • By G. Tracy Mehan, IIl

    Viewing Margaret Thatcher’s poignant eulogy to President Reagan last June reminded me of the many enjoyable hours I spent watching the former prime minister engaging the opposition during “question time” in Parliament. Recalling her outstanding rhetorical skills, I reached for my copy of The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, a treasure trove of her eloquence on political and philosophic issues.

    Having served two Republican presidents and an equal number of GOP governors in the area of natural resources and the environment, I was pleased and surprised to see several entries in the index under the heading “environmental concerns.” Upon checking the references, I learned that during her later years as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher focused on a variety of global environmental issues — ozone depletion, climate change, land preservation, tropical rainforests, and pollution — while not relenting at all in her critique of socialism and statism. These speeches underscore her commitment to conservation of the natural world, the hallmark of a true conservative. As Robin Harris, a Thatcher advisor and editor of The Collected Speeches, notes, “the most enduringly significant passages are those in which she justifies Conservative policies against the (recurring) charges of materialism and selfishness” (334).

    Thatcher summed up what she believed to be the Tory philosophy on environmental protection in an October 1988 speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton: “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy — with full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full” (341).

    A month before, she gave an address to the Royal Society in which she outlined the government’s shift to supporting basic science, leaving commercially oriented research to the private sector. She stated her support for the concept of “sustainable economic development” whereby “[s]table prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded” (332). Citing progress in reducing air and water pollution, she acknowledged the costs, but stated her belief that it was “money well and necessarily spent, because the health of the economy and the health of our environment are totally dependent upon each other” (332). This speech reveals Thatcher to be apprehensive about mankind’s impact on the global environment, expressing the concern that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself ” (331).

    More European than American in her environmental sensibilities, Thatcher supports land-use planning with “green belts,” the British equivalent of “smart growth.” She calls for a global convention on climate change. Yet she also expresses a more traditional conservatism: “There is something deeper in us, an innate sense of belonging, of sharing life in a world that we have not fully understood” (356). Citing the pictures of barren planets sent back by Voyager 2, she expresses awe at the “solemn reminder that our planet has the unique privilege of life . . . The more we master our environment, the more we must learn to serve it” (356).

    In subsequent speeches to the United Nations General Assembly (November 1989), the Conservative Central Council (March 1990) and the Aspen Institute (August 1990), the prime minister proposes ambitious environmental ends but practical, market-based means. In the United Nations speech she speaks of battling to preserve life itself and describes the environmental impacts of humanity as “new in the experience of earth.” She asserts that “the scale of damage” is what is different today (363).

    Thatcher, who read chemistry at Oxford, argues for immediate action on climate change despite still evolving science. In her talk to the Aspen Institute, she maintains that “the cost of doing nothing, of a policy of wait and see, would be much higher than those of taking preventive action now to stop the damage getting worse” (411).

    But Thatcher does not give in to pessimism or to fashionable opposition to industrialism, technology, or economic growth. Before the Conservative Party Conference in October 1989, she noted “The way we generate energy; the way we use land; the way industry uses natural resources and disposes of waste; the way our populations multiply — those things, taken together are new in the experience of the earth . . . It is no good proposing that we go back to some simple village life and halve our population by some means which have not been revealed, as if that would solve all our problems” (355-56).

    Far from viewing multi-national companies as villains, she sees them as the entities that will find the solutions. Capitalism is “a friend and guardian” of the environment. The prime minister rightly states that “[a]s more people own property, so more people have an incentive to protect it from pollution” (382).

    Contemporary American conservatives may disagree with Margaret Thatcher’s specific policy positions, say, on climate change or land use. Her views may have evolved as the science and economic analysis progressed on this or that particular matter. Nevertheless, her underlying principles of stewardship deserve further study by all conservatives be they paleo-, neo- or libertarian.

    Thatcher, Margaret. 1997. The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, ed. Robin Harris. London: HarperCollins.

    G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, he is a principal of The Cadmus Group, Inc., an Arlington, Virginia, environmental consulting firm.

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