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The fall of The Wall: The Power of Ideas

    In 1976 Vladimir Bukovsky was released by the Soviets from eleven years in the Gulag in exchange for a Chilean communist and despatched in handcuffs on a plane to Zurich. On arrival there he gave a press conference at which he was asked the question: “How many political prisoners remain in the Soviet Union?”

    He replied: “Two hundred and eighty million.” He went on to explain that all Soviet citizens, even the guards in the Gulag, were political prisoners because they were not free to speak their mind, read what interested them, or live where they wanted.

    Twenty years later Robert Conquest, the distinguished Anglo-American historian of both Stalin’s great terror and the Ukrainian famine, discovered the extent of this repression on a visit to Moscow to mark the re-publication of his most famous work in Russian. A former high Soviet official thanked him for his careful accounting of the victims of Stalin’s crimes which had kept alive their memory and kept awake the Russian conscience. He himself had read a samizdat version of “The Great Terror” by torchlight under the bedcovers.

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    At the time Ronald Reagan in California saw a report of Bukovsky’s remark and wrote his regular newspaper column on it. It suggested, he wrote, that the U.S. might be well-advised to divert a little of its expenditure on military hardware towards helping the relatively small movement of dissidents in Moscow and throughout Eastern Europe. As President he followed his own advice, arranging with such disparate political allies as Pope John Paul II, George Meany of the AFL-CIO, and Margaret Thatcher to keep Poland’s Solidarity movement alive when the Polish communists sought to crush it with martial law in 1981.

    Six years earlier Mrs. Thatcher, newly elected as Tory leader, had been introduced by a friend to Conquest and, thinking that she needed advice and information on how to deal with the Soviets, she had asked him to draft a speech on foreign policy. He did so. It was the first of two speeches that provoked the Soviet military newspaper, Red Star, into denouncing her as the “Ïron Lady.” But there were others who found her hawkish liberalism appealing.

    She met a former California governor at around the same time in London. Reagan and Thatcher discovered they shared almost identical views across the full range of policy—notably the importance of freedom in economic as well as in political and diplomatic affairs. By the time that Reagan entered office in 1981, she was in deep political water over her tough anti-inflationary policy. At the first major state visit of his presidency, however, he gave her strong political backing, counselling the Brits to stay her course.

    She was already disposed to do so. Mrs. Thatcher had been talent-spotted by Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon of the Institute of Economic Affairs as a rare economic liberal among Tory MPs in the doldrums of the Macmillan government. Along with Sir Keith Joseph, Enoch Powell, Geoffrey Howe, John Biffen, Nick Ridley, and other maverick Tory intellectuals, she was cultivated by them as a natural free-marketeer with the instinctive market understanding of a grocer’s daughter.

    She was an apt pupil. When the Heath government collapsed in ideological confusion in 1974, she and Keith established the Centre for Policy Studies to advance the IEA’s ideas in a partisan political context. Along with the IEA, the CPS brought a parade of distinguished liberal economists over to London to explain such new developments in liberal thought as NAIRU (so look it up then!) and their relevance to a cure for the “British disease.”

    These luminaries—Hayek, Friedman, Brunner, etc.,--turned out to be members of a rarefied international club devoted to high thinking. It was the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947 at the postwar apogee of socialism when nationalization, regulation, and statism were all the rage across Europe. A revival of classical liberalism was the least likely prediction when Soviet totalitarians occupied half of Europe and threatened the other half.

    By the fateful year of 1984, however, the US and UK economies had revived, a new kind of information economy had been created by them, the installation of U.S. missiles in Western Europe to counter the East’s SS-20s had gone ahead despite the “peace movement” and the Greenham women, and Hayek had received a knighthood. (Later Conquest and Friedman were both to receive America’s Silver Medal of Freedom.)

    Taking an intelligent interest in all this from the Kremlin was Mikhail Gorbachev. He could see that the Soviet Union was falling behind the West economically. When an Italian communist complained that unfortunately the bureaucracy creamed off all the benefits of public spending meant for the people, he said sadly: “Yes, Parkinson’s Law applies everywhere . . .” (C. Northcote Parkinson was not, as far as I know, a CPS or IEA author, but he should have been because he wrote in the “public choice” spirit of the recently late Gordon Tullock.)

    Accordingly, Gorbachev had several vigorous debates over economic liberty with Mrs. Thatcher before and after becoming leader. She saw he had got the point, and passed him onto Reagan. The president debated strategy with Gorbachev and persuaded him that there was no good reason for the Cold War combatants to build up armaments. Disarmament was a possibility; repression not a necessity. And though Gorbachev was probably not the Soviet official who read “The Great Terror” under the bedclothes, he could see these truths for himself.

    For Soviet economic backwardness, Gorbachev chose perestroika; for Soviet repression, he chose glasnost. But Soviet communism, as Pope John Paul said, was “unreformable.” It went into crisis... and the wall came tumbling down. 

    John O'Sullivan is a writer, broadcaster, editor, and columnist.

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