Leader's speech, Blackpool 2005
Michael Howard (Conservative)
Commentary:In this speech, Howard stood down as leader after the Party’s defeat in the May general election, and asked the conference delegates to unite behind his successor. He claimed the Party needed to apply Conservative values to the challenges facing Britain and - more specifically - to restore respect in society, to treat all citizens fairly, to tackle the threat of terrorism, and to impose controls on immigration.
I was always taught that it doesn’t matter what you do in life, as long as you do it to the best of your ability. And that is what I have always endeavoured to do. When I became leader, I knew we had a hard slog ahead of us. But I was determined to give it my all. Not just for my Party - but for my country. Because I wanted to give back to Britain a tiny bit of what Britain has given to me. We were disciplined. We were united. And, yes, we did make progress.
For the first time in twenty two years, we came out of an election with many more MPs than we had when we went into it. We won more votes than Labour in England. And we made crucial issues like school discipline, respect and immigration the most important in British politics. But at the end of the day we didn’t win - and let’s be honest with each other: we didn’t even come close to winning. My best turned out to be not good enough.
A year ago, I stood before you and stressed the importance of accountability. In the real world, I said, if you say you’re going to do something, you do it. And if you screw up, you risk losing your job. But politicians, I said, seem to live in a different world: a world where promises are dropped just as casually as they’re made; a world where figures are fiddled; a world where there don’t seem to be any penalties for failure.
I promised that Conservatives would be different; that we would be accountable; and that if people didn’t deliver, they’d be out. And that’s why I’m standing down. It’s about keeping your promises, it’s called accountability. And looking at the Liberal Democrats and Labour, there’s something to be said for going and being asked to stay, rather than staying and being asked to go. My successor has a clear and simple task: to regain for our Party the trust and respect of the British people. After this week, I know we can do it. But it will take a lot of hard work.
If anyone here today thinks that we can just sit tight and wait for the pendulum to swing back to the Conservatives - think again. Of course this is a great party: the longest-standing, most successful party in the history of democracy. Of course we should be proud of what Conservatives have achieved. It was a Conservative, Wilberforce, who led the fight against the slave trade. It was a Conservative, Shaftesbury, who led the fight against child labour. It was a Conservative, Churchill, who led the fight against fascism. It was a Conservative, Margaret Thatcher, who helped win the Cold War, brought home ownership within reach of the majority and freed Britain from socialism. We Conservatives changed Britain and we changed her for the better. But no party, however much it has achieved in the past, is entitled to power in the future. No party has a God-given right to govern. There is no ‘natural party of government.’ The right to govern is a privilege we have to earn. And we will only earn it if we are clear, confident and consistent about what it means to be a Conservative.
When you are in opposition, it’s hard to prove that you mean what you say - that you will deliver what you promise. You cannot change the world. You haven’t the power to do so. But you can show, by how you act and by what you say, that you are competent to govern. Competence is built on discipline. Of course we need discussion and debate. But let’s not be offensive about each other. Let’s not run down our Party. Let’s show we can elect a new leader without bitterness and backbiting. And then let’s unite behind that new leader not just for a year or two, but for a whole Parliament, even when the going gets tough. Unity and discipline are essential. And I promise you this. Whoever you choose to succeed me I shall support to the utmost of my ability. And I expect each and every one of you, and each and every one of our Members of Parliament, to do the same.
This week we’ve heard a lot about change. And, yes, we must change. We must not be obsessed by talking about ourselves, to ourselves, at Westminster. We must engage with the vast majority of people who often - quite rightly - see Westminster as a remote and distant place, unconnected to the real world. These people don’t think that our country is on its knees - far from it. They like the buzz and excitement of our culture, our diversity, our individuality. They are deeply proud of Britain. You saw that when we won the Ashes, a win that brought thousands of people out onto the streets of London, just weeks after terrorists had attacked the Capital. And they’re excited about the Olympics coming to London, and what a tribute that success was to a Conservative, Seb Coe, and his team. These people have high hopes for Britain. They see a glass half full. They’re looking to the future, confident that Britain’s best days lie ahead, and so must we.
In 1979, we won more support among young people than in the electorate overall. Not by trying to be hip and cool, but by showing that we understood young people’s aspirations. They wanted a Britain where they would have more freedom, more opportunity and more power to better themselves, their families and their communities. And now think about this: at the next general election, people born in 1990 will be able to vote for the first time. They were born in the last months of Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership. They were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their youth has been shaped by the internet and the iPod, by cheap flights and mobile phones. It has been overshadowed by the destruction of the Twin Towers and the bombings in London, Bali and Madrid. And it’s been fired up by impatience for action on climate change and desperate poverty in Africa. So we must talk about what matters to them in today’s world - their world, the world as it is, not the world as it was.
Of course, we must hold true to Conservative values: the timeless values, rooted in human nature, values of personal responsibility, free enterprise, fair play and a sense of nationhood. But we must apply them to the challenges that Britain faces today: challenges to our values, our security and our society. How is it that when the vast majority of people play by the rules, communities across Britain are terrorised by an unruly minority who have no respect for their neighbours? Why do we, as a society, allow that minority to flout authority and get away with it - again and again? The scales of justice have tipped too far in favour of the rights of the individual at the expense of responsibility to the community. And it’s that obsession with individual rights that is at the heart of the breakdown of respect in our society. When a schoolboy arsonist has his exclusion from school overturned on the basis that it denied him a ‘right to education’ you have to wonder what kind of world it is that were living in. The truth is, that political correctness turbo - charged by the Human Rights Act - is undermining a very precious British value: the value of fair play. Fairness really matters to people. It matters to me.
Anyone who’s had children knows that one of the first arguments they ever make is ‘that’s not fair.’ Yet for far too long those of us on the right of politics have shied away from talking about fairness. Often we’ve just seemed to shrug our shoulders and say ‘well, life isn’t fair.’ That’s true. We are born with different abilities and aptitudes. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Sandra was always more likely to succeed as a model than me. But people are entitled to expect that their Government will treat them fairly. We are one country, one nation and we should all he bound by the same rules. Special rules for special interest groups breed anger and division. They blur the distinction between right and wrong. And they give the impression that some people are above the law.
No one should be over-powerful: not ministers; not trade unions; not corporations; not the European Union. Wherever we see bullying by the over-mighty, we must stand up to it. Wherever we see one group flicking two fingers to the law, we must fight back. We must never forget that our duty is to stand up for those who do the right thing. It is our responsibility to protect their freedoms - whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever their background. And today those freedoms are threatened by terrorists. We face a choice in how we address this threat. Some say that immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a fair settlement for the Palestinians would deprive the terrorists of their recruiting sergeant. Few are keener than I am to see a secure Israel living beside a genuinely viable Palestinian State - or for Iraq to be able to maintain its own security.
But let’s not delude ourselves. The terrorist goal is not an end to Western involvement in Iraq or the creation of a Palestinian State. It is the destruction of Western society and democracy, which they believe are fundamentally corrupt and weak. So if we respond with weakness or equivocation it will only encourage the terrorists further. Let’s start by confidently speaking up for democracy and Western values: freedom of speech, the rule of law, free elections and the equality of women. And let’s take the practical steps needed to defend those values.
We’re an island. We’re the fourth richest nation in the world. So our Government has the means to secure our borders. It just lacks the competence. That’s why our immigration system is in such a shambles. We need to know who is coming into and leaving our country - that means controlling immigration. To me, that is a statement of the blindingly obvious. It’s not about shoring up some core vote. It’s about protecting our country. And no one - not Tony Blair, not Charles Kennedy, not the media nor anyone else - should stop us from saying so.
To protect our country we need laws that are robust and effective. So we’ve given our support in principle to many of the Government’s proposals. But we will scrutinise each and every one of them in minute detail. Some of the new powers are far-reaching. So we have a simple test. No law should undermine the basic freedoms which we are seeking to defend. And we will not be reassured by Labour promises that they will be used with common sense.
Why? Because last week in Brighton, a man, an eighty two year old man, was detained using anti-terror legislation because he dared to disagree with the Foreign Secretary. Legislation that very same Foreign Secretary had promised ‘would not threaten in any way the right to demonstrate peacefully.’ That should never have happened and should never be allowed to happen again. If we are to have new laws against terrorism, we must make sure that they are used against their real targets, not against innocent people who represent no terrorist threat at all.
I’m sometimes asked if I had made it to Number 10, what is the one thing I would like to have achieved. Well, when I applied to university a very long time ago, I wrote an essay called ‘Why I am an Angry Young Man.’ I saw Britain then as a country too stratified, too hidebound, where people tended to be judged on their background, not on merit. I saw a country in which too few people were able to make the best of their lives. And I knew then that it was the Conservatives who were best placed to change things. And I know that’s still true today.
So had I become Prime Minister, my ambition would have been for everyone - whatever their background or the colour of their skin - to have the chance to make the most of their talents and abilities, to climb as high as their ambitions can take them, to live the British Dream. I hope that dream will not be forgotten. Conservatism must once again become the language of hope: hope for those who live in poverty in our inner cities, hope for the immigrants who come here and settle, hope for all those communities left behind and forgotten.
We have probably four years to the next general election. And we have made progress in the last two. Just look at our fifty-four newly elected MPs and you’ll see that our Party has a bright and promising future. But we still have a long way to go. It will be hard - picking yourself up after defeat always is. We’ll need stamina and comradeship. We’ll need to show respect for each other, as well as for our opponents. We’ll not always agree, but when we differ we must do so as friends, not as foes. We must build afresh acting with humility and in the knowledge that our Party has to earn the privilege of government.
This is the last time I shall address you from a Conference platform. We go back, you and I - a long way. I became an active member of our Party when I was at Cambridge nearly fifty years ago. It was here in Blackpool in 1970 that I first addressed this Conference. It took me a long time to find a seat - I was keener on the idea than some of you were. But I’ve been a Member of Parliament for twenty-two years. It took me a long time to become your leader, but I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of having led you. I love this Party, a party which has given so much to our country for so long and which will do so again in the future. I am intensely and immensely proud of this Party, and proud of you.
Britain deserves better than she has today and it is your duty to provide it. So as you leave this conference my message, my last message to you, is this: Hold your heads up high. Be strong and of good courage. Unite behind a new leader. And then fight to build a better Britain. Go for it.