In May 1993 I visited Warsaw as guest of honour at the reopening of the historic Bristol Hotel. It was, in its way, a significant occasion. The Bristol had been one of the great hotels of Europe. Opened in 1901, owned by a company whose principal shareholder was the pianist and Polish President Paderewski, famous for the highest standards of cuisine and elegance in the elegant society of pre-1914 Europe, the Bristol had fallen on evil days when Poland itself fell on evil days under first Nazism and then communism. It had closed its doors in the early eighties. Now it had been restored to its full splendour with the help of a British company, and I had the great pleasure of reopening it. One felt that it was another sign that a high style of life was returning to its natural home in Central Europe. I also formally opened the Warsaw offices of my Foundation which I hope will help to entrench democracy and the free economy in the post-communist world.
But my visit was memorable for a far deeper reason. It coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. That Saturday afternoon I walked the perimeter of the now razed quarter with the oldest survivor of the uprising as my guide, after which I was taken to see still photographs of the Nazi destruction of the city’s Jewish community. It was a harrowing experience, especially so when I reflected that these terrible events had happened in my own lifetime when I was a young student enjoying Oxford.
The following morning I attended mass at the Church of the Holy Cross. The atmosphere was one of intense devotion and the ceremony elaborate, both very different from the restrained piety of Anglican services and the resolutely simple Methodism of Grantham. Every nook and cranny was packed. And the choral singing of unfamiliar Polish hymns was all the more uplifting because I could not understand the verses: it forced me to try to imagine from the music what the congregation was asking of God. Foreign though much of this experience was, it also gave me the comforting feeling that I was one soul among many in a fellowship of believers that crossed nations and denominations.
When the priest rose to give the sermon, however, I had a sense that I had suddenly become the focus of attention. Heads turned and people smiled at me. As the priest began, someone translated his words. He recalled how during the dark years of communism — that second totalitarian affliction suffered by the Poles — they had been aware of voices from the outside world offering hope of a different and better life. The voices were many, often eloquent, and all were welcome to a people starved so long of truth as well as of freedom. But Poles had come to identify with one voice in particular — my own. Even when that voice had been relayed through the distorting loudspeaker of Soviet propaganda, they had heard through the distortions the message of truth and hope. Well, communism had fallen and a new democratic order had replaced it. But they had not fully felt the change, not truly believed in its reality, until today when they finally saw me in their own church.
The priest finished his sermon and the service continued. But the kindness of priest and parishioners had not been exhausted. At the end of mass I was invited to stand in front of the altar. When I did so, lines of children presented me with little bouquets of flowers while their mothers and fathers applauded.
I had always believed, during the long struggle with the Soviet Union, that my firmest allies were the ordinary people of the Eastern bloc. Although real differences divide people from different nations and cultures, our basic needs and aspirations are very similar: a good job, a loving family, a better life for our children, a country in which a man can call his soul his own. I knew, simply
A reader who has survived through both volumes of these memoirs to this point will have read the record of a busy, productive and, on the whole, happy life. I hope it will carry on being all three for some time yet. But the very act of writing memoirs has forced me not only to be more introspective than I like, but even to look at my life as some sort of completed work, as if the publisher’s deadline had a higher significance. So what is the best epitaph that a living politician can reasonably aspire to? The question answers itself — dustily. But a fair verdict must begin with asking what is the most that any human being can achieve in life.
We are told on good authority that all human achievement is built on sand. Both our triumphs and our tragedies are transient. We cannot foresee, let alone determine, the future. The most that we can achieve in our private lives is to hand on better prospects to our children; it is up to them to build on those prospects. Similarly, as Prime Minister, the most I could aspire too was to hand on to my successor a better country than the one I had inherited in 1979’s Winter of Discontent. I worked hard to do so and, along with some disappointments, I can claim many successes. By 1990, the British people were freer, more prosperous, less torn by civil strife, and enjoying better prospects for world peace than at any time since the First World War. But there are no final victories in politics. Will these gains prove permanent? Will they be reversed? Will they be overwhelmed by new issues or clouds which now are no bigger than a man’s hand?
Naturally, such questions interest me. I have at least an average share of vanity. But they cannot be answered except in the most general (and gloomy) way: they are human achievements and therefore built on sand.
That gloom must, however, be qualified in two respects. In the first place, great political battles change the direction of history. Subsequent conflicts may sometimes seem to reverse the outcome. But in fact they take place on a different battleground, one permanently altered by the earlier victories. So the final
My second qualification is that our experiences, being in the past, are beyond amendment. Like a life that is ended, they can never be altered — for either good or ill. The young Jews killed in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising will never finish their education, raise families, serve their community, shape their own lives. The Soviet Union lasted for seventy-four years; for hundreds of millions of people that period was the whole of their reality. They lived and died under oppression. Equally, for those who lived to see the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989 or the aborted 1991 Soviet
The people of Britain lived in a free society before 1979 and therefore never suffered the oppression that was everyday life under communism. But after 1979 they enjoyed a self-fulfilment that the rolling-back of socialism and the expansion of freedom made possible. Some were no longer prevented by union power from doing the best work of which they were capable; some were able for the first time to buy a home, or a private pension, or shares in a privatized company — a nest egg to leave their children; some found that a good private school or a private hospital bed was no longer a privilege of the rich — they could buy it too; some exercised their new prosperity by sharing it with others in the upsurge of charitable giving in the 1980s; and all enjoyed the greater freedom and control over their own lives which cuts in income tax extended. A future government might curb the reforms which made these new lives possible — whether in the East or the West. But it could never remove the lived experience of freedom or the knowledge that such freedom is possible under the sun. As a character says in the film
Of course, no human mind, nor indeed any conceivable computer, can calculate the sum total of these experiences in terms of happiness, achievement and virtue, nor indeed of their opposites. It follows therefore that the full accounting of how my political work affected the lives of others is something we will only know on Judgement Day. It is an awesome and unsettling thought. But it comforts me to think that when I stand up to hear the verdict, I will at least have the people of the Church of the Holy Cross in court as character witnesses.