Margaret Thatcher, who served as Britain’s first and only female prime minister from 1975 to 1990, died of a stroke today at the age of 87. Whatever your opinions are of the “Iron Lady,” her speeches are great examples of rhetorical and argumentative skill.
To honor her, we’ve analyzed the “Britain Awake” speech, delivered at Kensington Hall in 1976 to warn British officials of the rising threat of Russia, whose leaders, she said, were “bent on world dominance.” This speech prompted the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star to pejoratively call her “The Iron Lady.” Instead of being offended, she took on the nickname as a point of pride.
Thatcher uses her characteristic wit that helped her operate in a government largely dominated by men who used humor for political influence every day:
“Perhaps some people in the Labour Party think we are on the same side as the Russians!”
Parliamentary leaders are typically less concerned about being polite and would rather dismantle their political foes with statements that make people laugh but also give a little dig at their opponents. Thatcher does this throughout this speech.
When she came to power, Thatcher had many vocal critics who could remark on her policies, toughness and even her screechy voice. In order to further establish her credibility with such critics and to show she wasn’t afraid to face opposition, she addresses contrarian arguments directly:
“I would be the first to welcome any evidence that the Russians are ready to enter into a genuine detente. But I am afraid that the evidence points the other way.”
After further describing the evidence stacked against Russia, she rallies Britain to stand up to its role in the world and in history.
“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…then we are destined—in their words—to end up on ‘the scrap heap of history.’”
She then launches into a “What Is”/“What Could Be” schema, arguing that the audience should move from accepting the current defense spending cuts and towards upending the status quo:
“What has this Government been doing with our defences? Under the last defence review, the Government said it would cut defence spending by £4,700 million over the next nine years. Then they said they would cut a further £110 million. It now seems that we will see further cuts.”
And she doesn’t forget to insert more of her acerbic wit and use of irony to make a point:
“If there are further cuts, perhaps the Defence Secretary should change his title, for the sake of accuracy, to the Secretary for Insecurity.”
At the end of the speech, she raises the conversation once again to the nobility of Britain and the new bliss, where the nation has played a decisive role to secure the world’s future:
“We are under no illusions about the limits of British influence. We are often told how this country that once ruled a quarter of the world is today just a group of offshore islands. Well, we in the Conservative Party believe that Britain is still great…”
“…The Conservative Party must now sound the warning. 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.”
Our hearts go out to her family and friends today, and we’re thankful for her contributions to history (particularly as a woman in a man’s world).
FYI, you can see the full text of the speech here: https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102939