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Leader's speech, Brighton 1971

Edward Heath (Conservative)

Location: Brighton


A key issue at the time of the conference was Northern Ireland, and Heath called on the gunmen to disarm, as only then would a political settlement be possible. He also claimed that the continuing presence of British forces in the province was necessary to prevent Ireland descending into civil war. Another important matter was Europe, as the government had set Britain on the path to membership of the European Community. In domestic politics, high inflation and unemployment were an ongoing concern, as was public services reform.

A year ago, Mr. Chairman, I spoke about a quiet revolution. I said that it would change the way we lived. It would change the way we looked at ourselves and the way the world looked at us. I did not use those words lightly. I felt then, as I had long felt, that an era in our history and the world’s history was coming to an end. The post-war years were over and with them went all that they meant in terms of trying to make ends meet, holding on, managing today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

We were now living in a new world. If we wanted to take a place in that new world we must understand that new world, and before we could hope to understand it we must understand ourselves. It was a time to take stock - and taking stock is not always easy. Sometimes history marks the turning points for us. In our recent history two world wars have done just that. After each of them we knew that nothing could ever be the same again. But this turning point was nothing like so well defined. It was a turning point not so much of events as of attitudes. Wars force change upon us. For good or ill, they create their own social revolutions. What faced us was the historic need for change without the impetus to change. This time, the shaping of the future, the decision, was in our own hands.

But did we know, as a nation, what we wanted our future to be? Were we not dangerously content to let things take their course, avoiding a decision, confident that everything in the end would turn out for the best? Were we not in great danger of losing our way in a changing world - a world that would go on changing whatever we did? These were the questions that concerned us more and more while we were in opposition. This was the task we felt we had been given in June of last year - to find for this country a new way in this new world.

The prospect was daunting but it was not depressing. The task we were given was the most challenging any peace-time government in this country has faced. What kind of a country did we want to be, not just tomorrow but a generation from now, two generations from now? No question demands a clearer answer. No question should command a higher priority from any government. We believe that we are finding that answer. The people of this country have a right to expect their elected government to do so, but equally that government has the right to ask the people to help in putting that answer into practice. A government must have the vision to look ahead, the intuition to point a path, the courage to lead the way. It must fulfil all those needs.

But the people of that country must care enough about their country to play their own part, to share in those tasks, to realise that a country - this country - stands for nothing unless every one of us individually stands for something in which we firmly believe - to work and to care, to prosper and to share, and to do it all as one nation. That has always been our goal and it always will be our goal.

It was a year ago that we started out together on a journey into the future. We have made good speed. We have come a long way - a lot further than many people dared to hope just 12 short months ago. But there is a long way still ahead of us. We have so far to catch up.

Twenty five years ago much of Western Europe lay literally in ruins. Economic and industrial life had come to a standstill. For us here in Britain it was different. We were bruised, we were exhausted, but our economy and our industry remained intact. In Europe they were able again to start from scratch but we had to make do and mend. So it was not surprising when those countries, starting from scratch, first matched and then, in unity, overtook Britain in economic performance and industrial effort. A new world was already emerging; and it is to the credit of our Party that from an early stage we recognised that fact. Later we tried to join the united and prospering efforts of the major countries of Western Europe, but then Britain was foiled in the attempt by the veto of President de Gaulle. We tried to build the firm foundations for a modern, industrial society based on faster expansion and higher real wages and better living standards.

But after 13 years of very considerable achievement Britain was foiled again, this time by the sheer unmitigated disaster of six years of Socialist government. I do not propose to dwell at any length on the follies and mismanagement for which they were responsible. Indeed, I must be careful not to accuse the last Labour Government of actually knowing what was going on while they were in office. I might be called…, and then they would ask for time to formulate their defence and to find out what really was going on while they were there. I shall not deal at any length with the present sorry state of the Labour Party, nor do I propose to reply in kind to the shrill attacks against my colleagues and myself. I would simply make one comment on the events which occurred last week in this hall. In my political lifetime I do not recall any party conference in which a party making claim to govern this country showed so conclusively that that claim was false. Day by day the lessons learned in office were abandoned as inconvenient memories. Day by day the Labour Party set off in hot pursuit of the irresponsible and the unreal. The impression left in the minds of sensible people was deep and will, I believe, endure. At the end of their period of office they left such a record of rising prices, high unemployment and slow growth that it is taking all the energies of this Government, indeed of the whole nation, to reverse that process. These are energies diverted from the great purpose of creating a lasting and enduring base for national prosperity.

Everyone agrees, of course, that the level of unemployment is too high - far too high. No responsible person in public life today can fail to be moved by the sight of people out of work week after week, the waste of energy and talent, the hardship and the dismay. In the situation of rising prices and rising unemployment with which we were faced on coming into office we continue to do everything we can to help. In the past few months alone we have made available nearly £500 million for new projects intended especially for the areas which are hardest hit. Others may seek to exploit the national concern about those without work to make party slogans. But this Government demonstrates its concern by positive action. This Government has already done more than any before to get the economy moving again and to reduce unemployment. This Government is committed completely and absolutely to expanding the economy and to bringing unemployment down. Industry has shown that it, too, will make its contribution by restraining price increases. The Government and the nationalised industries are doing the same. Now it only needs moderation and responsibility on the part of the unions when presenting their next round of claims for us together to complete a victory over inflation and unemployment. It is a unique opportunity. I say this to the unions and to their members: higher real wages are there for the asking - higher real wages. It is for you in the unions to decide. If you continue to demand increases in money wages far in excess of anything that can be earned from production, you will continue to price yourselves and others out of the market.

We stand now on the threshold of a period of growth and prosperity unparalleled since the war. We have the chance to beat the rest of the world at their own game - high production, low prices and high wages. Now it is up to all of us - management, men and Government together - to seize this opportunity. We must deal, of course, with the immediate economic problems and particularly that of unemployment. But we must do so in the context of the future. We are not going to be accused of neglecting the future in order only to remedy the present; for that way, we know, lies frustration, and we have had enough frustration over the past generation or more.

Of course, people come to terms with it. For the past 25 years we have learned to live with our tax system. Socialist Governments have put on more taxes, and Conservative Governments have taken them off - a law of nature which I do not propose to alter.

But for too long we have all known that, whatever the level of taxation, the system itself had come to mean discouragement and frustration. You do not have to be an expert in taxation - just an amateur in paying it - to realise that the whole system needed root and branch reform. Now, thanks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this has been introduced, and he deserves full credit for it. When 18 months are past we shall have a simple system of personal tax, a fairer system of company tax, and a single form of tax on spending. That is an achievement of which to be proud.

But while the British people have been frustrated, so has British industry; and we have learned to live with this, too. We have gone on for too long in the same old way: too much of the same techniques of management, too much of the old skills, and, above all, an outmoded system of industrial relations. Well, thanks to the admirable work of Robert Carr and his colleagues, that field, too, has been put right.

Today we are seeing the cost of going on too long with the old ways in the present loss of jobs, high cost inflation, high unemployment. But you do not solve these problems by refusing to face them, by taking the easy way of subsidy, and still more subsidy, of Government intervention, and still more Government intervention. The way to solve them is to do our utmost to create a better structure of industry, a better living environment, which will then bring real jobs for our people - lasting jobs - which is what they want.

The way to overcome the frustration of old is to show a better way. What we are doing is, once again, to give people a choice and a chance.

Of course, it is always hard to be a Government of change in this way. But change there must be, because postponing change, still more postponing it at this late hour, means facing far greater changes at a time which will not be of our choosing. Now is the time to give our people the chance to become strong in world markets, the chance to find and keep jobs which are based on expanding markets. So let us make use of the action we are taking - the urgent action which we have taken - to tackle prices and jobs as the springboard for greater responsibility in management and unions in order to produce still greater economic strength.

In the field of the social services, schools, housing, social benefits, we also face a massive need for change. Once again there is the legacy with which we have to deal - the legacy of the housing programme which we found going down instead of up; the legacy of welfare policies which were not even maintaining the advances of the past, let alone moving forward to meet the needs of the future; the legacy of education policies which were simply not giving a fair start to many children; and health policies which were denying decent care to so many of the old and the mentally sick.

But, once again, we have to look not just to the immediate needs, but beyond them to the whole framework of policy and the whole pattern of social and economic change.

We look back to the mid-forties - to the Butler Education Act, to the Beveridge Report on Social Security, and to the work of successive Governments during and after the war which led to the creation of the Health Service and the present national insurance scheme. We look back that far. But in housing the roots of today’s policies lie still deeper in the twenties and thirties. The Britain of today is separated from the Britain in which these frameworks were laid down not just by a quarter of a century or more; it is separated by the growth of mass prosperity on a scale which few in those days would have believed possible. It is separated by the unprecedented enlargement of home ownership, of educational attainment of economic opportunity and of social mobility. It is separated now by a revolution of attitudes and of expectations.

As our policies generate more rapid economic progress, so further change will come and new demands will arise. All this on its own would dictate the need for radical review. And there is another reason perhaps more compelling. It is simply this: that, in the general advance, there are many who have got left behind, many problems which the old policies have failed to meet in the past, and which they are manifestly incapable of solving now. Too many of the retired, the chronically sick, the disabled, and the very low paid stand out against the background of increased prosperity; too many of the old and the mentally ill stand out against a general background of better provision for health; too many slums, too much homelessness, stand out against the background of modern housing and wider home ownership.

These are things which cannot be tolerated in the Britain of the l970s. This Conservative Government are determined to bring them to an end. We have been determined, first, as a matter of urgency, to see that those who have been neglected get the extra help they need. We have made a record increase in national insurance pensions and major improvements in the position of public service and armed forces pensioners. The over-80s now have the State pension which the last Administration so persistently denied them. We are making new help available to many younger widows, as well as to the long term sick and disabled. We are tackling the problem of family poverty with wider exemptions from charges, with bigger tax allowances for children, and with the new Family Income Supplement.

Secondly, we have been determined to get the priorities right. We have changed the priorities of education policy, because we believe it is more important to see that every child goes to a decent primary school than to provide subsidies regardless of whether they are needed or not. We have asked people to pay more for prescriptions, because it has helped us to spend more in clearing up old hospitals and bringing better standards of care to the old and the mentally ill. We are determined, thirdly, to shape for the future social policies which fit the long term needs of an increasingly prosperous and responsible society.

This is the setting for our proposals for reform in the administration of the Health Service. This is why we attach so much importance to our new policy for pensions - a policy which over the years will see that every one can enjoy a pension related to his earnings, on top of the basic State provision.

This is the reason for the legislation we shall soon be bringing forward to reform the housing subsidies, so that for the first time the system will put its full weight behind helping those who need help, clearing the backlog of slums and decay.

Just as in our economic and industrial affairs we seek not only new policies but new attitudes, so also we need new attitudes to our social problems. Above all, we recognise that, unless we are prepared to take on more of the responsibilities for the things we can do for ourselves, then the State itself will never be able to do properly the jobs which genuinely demand community action - community action in building and improving our schools and hospitals and universities, community action on behalf of us all to help those who are in real need. This is the only way in which we can carry our social concern into effective action.

I am sure that it was right that the National Union found time for an emergency debate on Northern Ireland. It was right that you in the Conference should have the opportunity of expressing your views and that the Home Secretary, who has the immense burden of handling these matters, should have the chance to explain our policies. It is a subject on which in recent months we have spent many anxious, indeed many anguished, hours.

There have been moments, I must admit to you, when it seemed that violence and the rhetoric of violence filled the whole scene, when the clamour seemed so great that there was small hope that the voice of reason would find a hearing. But we have persevered. On Thursday the Home Secretary set out our aims and the means by which we are determined to achieve them.

Let me again make it quite clear, as the Home Secretary did, that there is an essential link between the political initiatives which we are taking and our measures to improve security and to smash the gunmen.

The truth is that neither one of these policies can succeed without the other. We cannot achieve a prosperous, harmonious and contented society in Northern Ireland until the minority as well as the majority feel that they have a permanent and guaranteed share in public affairs. But we cannot achieve a political settlement so long as the gunmen are still there, because the gunmen are interested in no solution except one imposed by murder and achieved through chaos.

It is right for me to warn the nation that the effort required of all of us in Northern Ireland is going to be strenuous and determined. There are no quick and easy answers. Those who claim that there are show that they do not understand the real nature of the problem. But neither do I agree with those whose only reaction to present events in Ireland is one of despair. Working on this problem since June of last year, I have come to realise the strength of the underlying forces which favour those who are working for peace.

We are fortunate in that the Prime Ministers of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are men of proved resource, of moderation and of goodwill. We are fortunate in the patience of the long-suffering people of both communities in Northern Ireland, whose steadfastness we have all learned to admire, who have refused to be provoked by the gunmen into communal strife.

We are fortunate in that this country has at its disposal in the services of the Crown armed forces and police forces of a quality unmatched in the rest of the world. No one can have failed to be moved by the restraint and the sheer courage which they have shown. As Prime Minister of this country I thank them today for what they are doing. And to my thanks I add an assurance which is perhaps the best thanks of all. I assure them and the people of Northern Ireland that we are going to see this through. We are going to see it through because to do otherwise would be an abdication of everything for which we stand.

On this side of the Irish Sea, I believe that people now see more clearly the underlying reasons for the effort which we are called upon to make. They understand that we are making it because Northern Ireland is, by the wish of the majority of its inhabitants, part of the United Kingdom.

They realise that if our troops were withdrawn and our efforts were relaxed, we would be condemning not only Northern Ireland but the whole of Ireland to civil war and slaughter on a scale far beyond anything we have seen elsewhere in recent years.

I and the Home Secretary have urged all those in Northern Ireland who wish for a peaceful answer to come forward and join with us in discussing how that answer can be achieved. I repeat that appeal today. Progress cannot be held up. There are many who are already carrying on these discussions and who wish to work out the answer.

I add also a warning to those who are interested only in violence, to the bombers and the gunmen. The history of Ireland contains the record of many mistakes and many miscalculations by both English and Irish alike. But if the gunmen believe that they can bully this Government or this people into abandoning the effort which we have undertaken, then that is the greatest miscalculation of all.

This Conference will long be remembered for one decisive vote. You have decided overwhelmingly to accept the Government’s recommendation, now that the terms are known, that Britain should become a member of the European Community.

Just ten years ago I came straight from making the opening statement in Paris at the beginning of the first negotiations, to this Conference where I received your endorsement. I came, of course, as Lord Privy Seal, not as Edward Heath as I now am.

You can imagine with what admiration I have followed Geoffrey Rippon in the skill and determination with which he has handled the negotiations. And with what happiness I greeted the result last Wednesday.

But our energies in this last year have been by no means confined to Europe.

Since we last met your Conservative Government have consistently followed policies which Sir Alec Douglas-Home outlined to you last year - policies of steadily protecting and advancing the interests of this country across the world.

We protected our interests during the Commonwealth Conference at Singapore last January. We protected our interests in the joint arrangements which Lord Carrington negotiated for co-operation with our friends in the defence of Singapore and Malaysia. We protected our interests in Geoffrey Rippon’s negotiations with the Governments of the Six. And we have protected our interests in the measures which we have recently taken against those who have sought to undermine the security of our country by acts of espionage.

As a result, we can now record with quiet satisfaction that there has been a real change in the standing of Britain among the nations of the world. We are now once again regarded as a country whose judgment can be trusted and whose promises can be relied on.

But let us be clear about the principles which have guided us in these policies. We have no desire to lecture others or to assert ourselves in the world for selfish reasons. We have no desire to make a crude and empty clamour on the stage of world affairs. Our policies are based on a sober, modern and realistic assessment of Britain’s place in the world today.

It is in that spirit that I want to speak this morning of the changes which, even as we sit here, are altering the shape of the world as it has been familiar to us for the last 25 years. If we look at that history, one salient fact immediately confronts us. Throughout that period, we and other countries of Western Europe have survived and prospered to a large extent thanks to the help and protection of the United States. Never in modern times has a great Power used its energy and its generosity with such effect to protect the interests of its friends. Everyone in this hall and in our Party would pay tribute to the statesmanship which successive American Administrations have shown.

Some of us, however, have for many years foreseen that this was not a state of affairs which could for ever be expected to endure. We have urged the countries of Europe to bestir themselves so as to secure their own defence and their own prosperity, because the time would come when this burden would not be carried in the same way by others on their behalf.

I must tell you today that the change which I and others foresaw is now coming upon us. The United States, faced with deep-seated problems at home and abroad, is working - while in contact with its allies - towards direct arrangements with the Soviet Union and with Communist China.

Even more important, the United States is acting drastically to protect its own balance of payments and its own trading position against the erosions which they have suffered. Everyone concerned with trade and finance knows that rough winds are beginning to blow across the world. It is in the interests of this country that trade should be as free and unrestricted as possible. We must do our utmost to prevent the development of a protectionist trade war. That is our interest, and that is the aim which every British Government should pursue.

With this aim in mind, we must consider today how British interests in this field can best be protected and advanced. I must tell you plainly that if in this changed world we were going to be forced to stand alone, then the prospects for the jobs and the livelihood of our people would be bleak indeed. We all know that decisions on world trade and world finance are not academic for the people of this country. These decisions vitally affect the well-being and the prosperity, the jobs and livelihood, of everyone in these islands.

If we were to condemn ourselves to isolation, then we would find that these decisions in world trade and monetary affairs, affecting us so closely, were taken not by ourselves but by others in the world wielding greater economic power - by the United States, by the European Community and by Japan. But fortunately we are not so condemned. Fortunately, this change in world affairs has come upon us at exactly the time when we have the opportunity to associate ourselves with the other countries of the European Community in full membership, and by associating ourselves now we can work together to protect effectively our own interests and theirs in a way which would not be possible were we to remain alone.

It is not by luck that this opportunity has come about. It has been created through the foresight and the statesmanship of those who have preceded me as Leaders of this Party and of this country. It was Mr. Churchill who, 25 years ago, proclaimed in Zurich the need for a Europe growing together in unity. It was Mr. Macmillan who put in hand our first application to join the Community. And it is your Government, elected in June last year, which has finally carried these negotiations through to decisive success.

The day of need which Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan so clearly perceived is now upon us. No longer are the problems which they foresaw lodged safely in some distant future. They are upon us now, urgent but not insoluble. They can be tackled and solved precisely because of the courage and loyalty of our Party in supporting our European policy with such consistency over the last ten years. Now that the need is upon us, we are prepared for it. We can join with others in Europe and exert ourselves to work out the Common European policies which will assure the future of every one of us: policies governing our dealings with the rest of the world, our trade, our finance and eventually our defence. That is what statesmanship means, not shifting from one belief to another as a result of some dubious calculation of brief political advantage, not looking simply to the headlines of next week or next month.

Our duty as a Conservative Government is to look to the future and to the lives of future generations. This is the habit which your Government has inherited from its Conservative predecessors, this is the task which we are wholly determined to carry through.

I have been speaking to you of a new world. That is no vision of the future, it is happening out there for all to see, it is there in the new patterns of power; in the sight of China, the awakened giant, taking up its role in the world; in the sight of America and the Soviet Union looking for a new place to stand. It is there in the sound of the new voices of new nations, some of them voices of violence, all of them questioning the practices of the past. This new world is a place of contrasts, dynamic and dangerous, a place of great risks but of even greater rewards - an exciting world to be part of. In such a world, history has reserved a place for us. At times of greatest stress, when the balance of history was shifting, there has always been a special place for us because we have a special kind of strength. Our strength is not just figures on a balance sheet, although we have those too; our strength is not just courage in adversity, although we have shown that time and time again. Our special strength lies in our sense of history, of knowing the right time to do the right thing.

Our special strength is our stamina, in going on with what needs doing until it is done, in running a race as long as that race has to be run. We never know when we are beaten and that way we never are beaten. We know no other way than to win. This new world needs wisdom, judgment and above all stamina. These qualities have always been ours, they have been needed many times in the past. I doubt if the world has ever needed them more than it needs them today. They are qualities that can be given but cannot be bought and no country has more of them to give than our own. Do you suppose it is just a coincidence that today - for the first time in a long time - Britain’s voice is being heard in the world again, not as a plaintive whisper in the corridors of power but as a voice that speaks what it knows and knows what is has learned from history? That is why Europe needs us. We speak our mind. We have something to say, and once more when we give our word the world believes us. Today that new world looks at us with new eyes. And there are plenty of new things for it to see and envy. It sees a country that is doing more to protect its weak and sick, doing more to reward effort with incentive, more to safeguard its environment and therefore its future.

In the quiet revolution these things mark the first silent steps. They need to be big strides to keep pace with the way the world is moving. In this same year our revolution has been paralleled by a global evolution - much of it predictable and all of it, many would say, inevitable. Despite all this change, perhaps because of it, this new world needs us as never before. It believes in us, but the important question is this: do we believe sufficiently in ourselves? Are we confident enough in what we can achieve?

There can be only one answer to us here in this Conference, to our party and, I believe, to the country - we can be, we must be. For too long we have walked in the shadows. It is time for us now to walk out into the light to find a new place, a new Britain in this new world. That is the choice that history offers us today. It is the kind of chance that only comes, if it ever comes, once in a lifetime. Let history record that when we were shown the way we took the way and walked out to meet our destiny. (Prolonged applause)

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