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Forty years ago Ronald Reagan’s words inspired a generation – his belief in democracy is still as relevant today

4 min read

Old speeches rarely age well. But there are exceptions, and on its 40th anniversary, Ronald Reagan's speech in the Palace of Westminster on 8 June 1982 should be essential reading for all of us who care about the future of democracy.

Reagan was addressing the future of our political system at a time when things in Europe looked bleak – after failed uprisings against communism in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, the future for those countries looked grim. But he refused to believe that we should accept the “terrible inhumanities in our time”, or that people would not choose freedom if they could. And the actions he announced in his speech continue to be relevant a generation later.

What we face today is different but familiar.

Reagan would surely have admired the absolute determination of Ukrainians to not give in. He believed that "optimism is in order because day-by-day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all fragile flower." Never has there been a stronger example of that resilience than now, in Ukraine. 

And Reagan’s recognition that “how we conduct ourselves here in the Western democracies will determine whether this trend continues” and his challenge to us all to “live up to our constitutions, abide by our own laws and comply with international obligations” – is relevant too.

Reagan tapped into the notion of democracy as a way of solving problems

He committed the USA to working with Congress in “the common task of strengthening democracies throughout the world." From his Westminster speech was born the National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the US Congress, as well as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.  

A decade later, Reagan's speech and these young institutions also inspired the creation of the UK's democracy support body – the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), funded by government but independently governed, with strong cross-party support. Although democracy support can never prevent invasion and rarely prevent a military coup, it is also true that – as Reagan put it – “regimes planted by bayonet do not take root,” and the roots strengthened by democracy support organisations in Ukraine have been stronger than most would have imagined. 

So, what can today's equivalent of Reagan's call to democratic arms look like? The Foreign Secretary's speech on the Network of Liberty reflected many of the key ingredients. Her four pillars of security, trade, investment, and technology alliances recognise one of our great collective modern failures – not providing young democracies with infrastructure funding to boost open and prosperous economies. 

But we will also need another pillar: one that focuses on democracy support and the UK’s role in delivering this overseas. Reagan tapped into the notion of democracy as a way of solving problems that affect us all, allowing societies to evolve and adapt when things do not work. The same is true today – security and investment partnerships will be sustainable only if they are underpinned by accountable government and informed citizens. As the doctor in Wuhan who raised the alarm on Covid-19 put it, and many in Russia might echo: “there has to be more than one voice.”

The Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (parliament) is already discussing these issues with the intention that from the ashes of disaster a much stronger democracy should emerge, as resilient in peace time as it has proved in war. This will not be easy, and we need to work with Ukraine now so that the post-war support they receive helps them to translate their heroic resilience into deeper democratic roots.  

Reagan’s words inspired a generation. We now need a renewed call to action to support democracy. Let us start by ensuring Ukrainian democracy wins out and reconfirm our belief that it is “the democratic countries that are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people.” 


Richard Graham is the Conservative MP for Gloucester and the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. He is chair of the board of governors of Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

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