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Leader's speech, Blackpool 1977

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)

Location: Blackpool


The central theme of Thatcher’s speech was the economy. Inflation was high, investment was low, and the basic rate of income tax had reached 33%. Moreover, the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, had had to obtain an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) twelve months earlier. Other key issues at the time were crime, Northern Ireland, and the possibility of a general election in the not-too-distant future.

I want to begin with a confession. I do not greatly care for being in opposition, but we have certain plans to deal with that situation. I believe the essence of politics is not what you say, it is what you do, so I look to the day when we put Conservative principles into practice - in Government.

I look to the day when we throw off the Socialist yoke and turn together to the task of setting our country on the road to a real and lasting recovery. That day can be postponed but it cannot be put off for ever. One Thursday - it will be a day just like any other Thursday, and yet, I believe, it will be a day that will prove the turning point of our time - one Thursday the Labour Party will have to keep their appointment with the voters. It is a prospect I relish.

‘Either back us or sack us,’ says Mr. Callaghan. Just give the people the chance, Jim, just give ’em the chance. He will not, of course, until he must. He dare not, which is why, instead of having a government with steel in its backbone, we have got one with Steel in its pocket.

Last week at Brighton we were accused of ‘an insatiable lust for power.’ It is not the Tories who have wheeled and dealed and manoeuvred and manipulated to avoid one thing at all costs - facing the voters; it is Labour’s limpet Government. Hence the Lib-Lab pact.

So much for Labour’s political principle. So much for the Liberals’ genuine conviction, and so much for the courage to stand by what you believe in, even if by standing by it you lose your seat. Better to lose your seat than your self-respect.

Just what is it that the Liberals have kept in office? A Government that for two and a half years overspent, over-taxed, interfered, nationalised, debased our currency and all but bankrupted Britain; in short, that acted like a Labour Government.

Mr. Healey blandly refers to the horrors of 1974-5, but who was Chancellor of the Exchequer then? You have guessed - they were Healey’s horrors. After him the deluge? No, because of him the deluge. ‘The financial position has been reversed 180 degrees,’ says the Chancellor with a flourish. Quite so, because his policies have been reversed 180 degrees - by order of the IMF. Twelve months ago, the four-budget-a-year man all but took the country over the cliff with him, until at the eleventh hour he turned back from Heathrow in a panic and headed for home to take out the most massive mortgage in our history. The prescription the IMF forced his Government to swallow is the prescription we have long been advocating - a good sound sensible Conservative prescription. So my message to Moses is this: keep taking the tablets.

If Labour wants an election slogan I suggest - it is just a thought but one likes to be helpful - ‘You know IMF government works.’

Some of the commentators are saying that the Prime Minister is stealing our clothes. Well, it is true that he has lost his own but he is going to look pretty ridiculous walking around in mine!

Of course, all of us are deeply thankful that the wealth of the North Sea has started to flow; but the North Sea is not a Socialist sea and its oil is not Socialist oil. It was found by private enterprise; it was drilled by private enterprise; and it is being brought ashore by private enterprise. So let us put the picture in perspective.

As the oil comes on stream, our balance of payments is going to look healthier. That is good news for Britain. Sterling should be safe from another Socialist slide. That is good news for Britain. The standard of living of our people might rise again, if only a little after its catastrophic fall. That would be good news for Britain, too. As I have said before, good news for Britain is good news for the Conservative Party.

But look closer. The truth is that we are still grinding along in bottom gear, with our factories producing less than they were when Labour came to power. Real profits and therefore investment are still abysmally low; the number of men and women without a job is the highest since the War. And that is bad news for Britain.

Now take prices, if you can catch them! The Government boasts of its success in bringing down the rate of inflation. But even if it falls as far as Mr. Healey predicts - and today not even his own No. 2 believes him - prices in Britain will still be going up faster than in other countries. If Labour survives into next year, prices will have doubled while they have been in power. Doubled! That is not an economic miracle. It is an economic and personal disaster.

At Brighton last week we saw Socialism wearing its pre-election face. Beware the leopard when it is quiet. It has not changed its spots, it just does not want its victim to know that it is there. Why was it so quiet last week at Brighton? Because it wants the people to believe that it is a gentle, well behaved, social democratic pussy-cat.

We all know the drill. In the run-up to each election the claws of Labour’s extremists are not drawn; they are just withdrawn. The front men are paraded to talk quietly, moderately, almost sensibly. The Left-wing just allows them their little outing until the voters are once more in the trap.

Now suppose the election is over. Make a supreme effort and imagine that Labour has won, only for a moment. What then? The trap is sprung and Labour’s extremists resume the drive towards a Britain modelled on Eastern Europe.

‘It cannot happen here,’ you say. But at Brighton the annual election to Labour’s National Executive produced the same line-up as before; not a single Left-winger lost out. It is the same Executive which produced Labour’s Programme for Britain 1976, and that programme remains official Labour Party policy 1977. Mr. Benn was frank enough to say so, perhaps hoping the public was not listening.

Nationalise the banks and insurance companies. That is Labour policy. Do you like the idea of their hands on your savings? How do you fancy Mr. Healey or Mr. Benn as your friendly neighbourhood bank manager?

They want to nationalise all the land, not just some of it. All of it! They demand a free hand to take over almost any firm big or small, the building industry, the food industry, fishing, forestry, ports and many more. That is their policy, too. They want the power to make every business obey them. They want to cut tax relief for home buyers. They want higher income tax to pay for their plans. They want an immediate wealth tax on top of Capital Gains Tax, on top of Capital Transfer Tax. What is the point of building up your savings or your business if they are going to take it all away from you? But it’s all there in their little red book. It’s all official Labour Party policy. And to make it easier to ram through this frightening Socialist programme, they have just voted to abolish the House of Lords. There, behind the cosy Brighton front, you have the reality of Labour. Although, Mr. President, I rather agree with you about the House of Lords, they will not find it easy to abolish it, because while half the Labour Party are trying to abolish it the other half are trying to get in!

When the election comes, will this actually appear in their Manifesto? Some of it will, and if they were to win, sooner or later they will do it all. Because, whenever Labour win an election, the Tribune Group grow stronger and stronger and stronger. From one election to the next, Labour’s programme gets meaner, more narrow, more Marxist. Britain, beware! The signpost reads: ‘This way to the total Socialist State.’ Destroying freedoms we have cherished and defended down the centuries doesn’t worry the far Left. They like everything about Eastern Europe - except, alas, going to live there - because, after all, the living standards there are very low for them.

So let no one say today there is no true difference between the parties, no real choice before the nation. That is not what the people think. Many men and women who had voted Labour all their lives turned to us in Ashfield, Stechford, Workington and Walsall. They know the Labour Party they used to vote for is not the Labour Party of today. The Party of Hugh Gaitskell has become a Party fit for Andy Bevan and Peter Hain. The disillusioned, the disenchanted, the courageous, the converted, we welcome them, one and all, to our cause. But the job of cleaning up Labour the job of ditching the extremists, is not in our hands. It’s in the hands of the people on that special Thursday for which we watch and wait and work.

If just 5 or 6 out of every 100 voters switch from Labour to Conservative at the election, they will slash the size of the Tribune Group by about a third, and on a swing of that size 25 Tribunites will lose their seats. And Britain will have a Conservative Government, a truly moderate Government, moderate not by order of our foreign creditors, but by genuine conviction, a Government in touch and in tune with the people, carrying out the sort of sensible, prudent policies that work so well in other countries.

Of course, that is not the picture our opponents are going to paint. And here let me make a personal prophecy. In the coming months you are going to see a carefully orchestrated campaign by the Labour Party and Labour Government to portray me as ‘extremely this’ or ‘extremely that’ - not to mention ‘extremely the other,’ A whole battery of extremist labels are going to be bandied about. Indeed, they are being bandied about already; and the closer the election looms, the faster and more furious will the bandying become. So just let me tell you a little about my ‘extremism.’

I am extremely careful never to be extreme. I am extremely aware of the dangerous duplicity of Socialism, and extremely determined to turn back the tide before it destroys everything we hold dear. I am extremely disinclined to be deceived by the mask of moderation that Labour adopts whenever an Election is in the offing, a mask now being worn, as we saw last week, by all who would ‘keep the red flag flying here.’ Not if I can help it! The Conservative Party, now and always, flies the flag of one nation - and that flag is the Union Jack. So much for my so-called ‘extremism.’

There is another word our opponents like. The word is ‘reactionary.’ They say that a Thatcher Government - and I must say that I like the sound of that; I like it a little more each time I hear it and they use it quite a lot so they must believe it - they say that a Thatcher Government would be reactionary. If to react against the politics of the last few years, which undermined our way of life and devastated our economy - if that is reactionary - then we are reactionary, and so are the vast majority of the British people.

They believe, as we do, that Government is far too big - indeed, the next generation were telling us so earlier in the week. They believe, as we do, that Government does not know all the answers, that it has downgraded the individual and upgraded the State.

We do not believe that if you cut back what Government does, you diminish its authority. On the contrary, a government that did less, and therefore did it better, would strengthen its authority. Our approach was put very simply by a Chinese philosopher centuries ago: ‘Govern a great nation,’ he counselled, ‘as you would cook a small fish. Don’t overdo it.’

if you ask whether the next Conservative Government will cut controls and regulations and keep interference in people’s lives to a minimum, my answer is ‘Yes, that is exactly what we shall do.’ The best reply to full-blooded Socialism is not milk and water Socialism, it is genuine Conservatism. For 13 years from 1951 we curbed the powers of the State. Ask those who remember which they preferred: the steady increase in prosperity of the 13 Tory years or the white-hot Socialist stagnation of Messrs Wilson and Callaghan?

By their fruits ye shall know them. What are the fruits of Socialism? Where is the prosperity? Where are the new jobs, the stable prices, the low taxes? Where is the money created by a thriving economy, to spend on our schools and our hospitals, on the pensioners, on the sick and the disabled?

Today we know Socialism by its broken promises; above all, by the broken promise of a fairer and more prosperous society. Socialism has not made society fairer, it has made it less fair. It has not made Britain richer, it has made it poorer. It has not distributed the rewards of achievement more widely, it has decimated them.

Just let us ask, and keep on asking, the question Labour can never answer: ‘If your policies are right, why do they never work? And why is it only when you start doing some of the things we have told you to do that you ever take a few steps forward?’

But a few steps are not enough. If I have one message above all else it is this: I am not prepared to settle for the second, third or fourth best for Britain. I do not believe that our decline was inevitable any more than I believe that an accident of nature off our coasts has made our recovery automatic. I believe that if we confront - yes, ‘confront’ is the word I use - if we confront reality, if we pin our trust on the skill, the resource, and the courage of our people, then this country can work out its salvation and regain its prosperity, regain the respect of others and its own self-respect.

Some people regard this as dangerous talk. ‘The Tories,’ they say ‘want change; they want to challenge the rules and ideas and policies that govern Socialist society.’ ‘Risky,’ they murmur, ‘Right, of course, but risky - might upset Arthur Scargill or Jack Jones - better not do it, better not do it.’ And there you have the root and heart of the choice facing our nation. What worries Jack Jones is that the leaders of his Party are living too well. What worries us is that ordinary people are not living well enough.

That is why the next election will be so crucial. All elections are crucial, but this time the choice could be decisive for a generation, because this time how the country votes will settle which party is entrusted with the immense benefits of North Sea oil. If it is the Socialists, then the profits of free enterprise will be used to purchase Socialism, and to take more powers for the State. If it is the Conservatives, they will be used to give power back to the people. The choice is the classic choice. Labour will do what it has been doing for the last three years, only more so. We shall do what we have said we will do set the people free.

The key question I am asked over and over again is, ‘But will a Conservative Government be free? How will you get on with the trade unions, and will the trade unions allow a Conservative Government to govern?’ Yes, the word is ‘allow.’ People who ask that question are already half way into Labour’s trap. They have swallowed the bait and they are ripe for the catch. Here is the position: The Government dare not fight on their record or on any manifesto that would be acceptable both to their Marxist Left and to the people of Britain. So, like an unimaginative parrot, they keep on repeating: ‘The Tories won’t be able to work with the unions.’ When the time comes, Jack Jones will be expected to mutter it; Hugh Scanlon to go along with it; David Basnett may actually say it; and Clive Jenkins - he will almost certainly shout it. And it will not be true, unless the union leaders are determined to make it true.

Now let us take and face a hypothetical situation. Suppose they are so determined, suppose they have already made up their minds, to make the task of an elected Conservative Government impossible. Then we would face a situation in which an unelected minority was intent on getting rid of a government that it could not control and replacing it with one that it could. Is this what the union leaders seriously intend, to use then industrial muscle for political ends? I do not believe it. But people are asking: if it were so, what would happen? Could a handful of men with great power hold the nation to ransom? The answer is: it is possible. Should such a situation arise, for example in a vital nationalised industry, it would be presented as a conflict between Government and trade union. This would be false. The real conflict would be between union and people, because it would be the people who would suffer. It always is. In that case the duty of the Government, any Government, would be to act through Parliament on behalf of the nation as a whole. In a vital issue such as this, in which the Government had to take decisive action on a single specific matter, it would he important for the Government to know that it had the support of the majority of the people.

It is in that context, and that context only, that I have suggested a referendum to test public opinion. In those circumstances in those special circumstances I say: ‘Let the people speak.’ But I hope, and believe, the situation will never arise.

I would like to make two final points about the unions. First, a strong and responsible trade union movement is essential to this country, and its rights must be respected. Second, the belief that those rights take precedence over all other rights, and even over the law itself, could be fatal to this country. Happily, the great majority of trade unionists know this as well as, if not better than, some of their leaders. They know that while their leaders represent them at work, we represent them in Parliament.

We in the Conservative Party look forward to a long and fruitful association with the unions, because a Conservative Britain will be as much in the interests of union members as of the rest of the community. They know that taxes today are too high, that they torpedo talent, and that they must be cut; and that is what we Conservatives will do. We shall cut income tax, so that once again it is worthwhile to work harder and to learn a skill. We want to keep our best brains in Britain. We want to bring home some of those who have been driven abroad. We want to hold out to the enterprising businessman a reward which matches the risks of building up a firm. We want to renew the spark of incentive in our economy, because without that, new jobs cannot and will not be created. We want to leave everyone with more of his own money in his own pocket to spend as he pleases.

Our aim is to make tax collecting a declining industry. There are more civil servants in the Inland Revenue than there are sailors in the British Navy. If governments do not cut what they spend, we have to cut what we spend. There is one hand-out that the people really want today. That is the Government’s hand out of their pocket.

This is the positive approach, and it is the key to getting industry going again. We do not believe that Government can run industry better than the people who work there. It cannot. Countries that are more successful than we are owe their economic achievements above all to free enterprise, and the benefits are not confined to a few of their citizens. They are spread among the many. The whole community benefits, because, ‘when the tide comes in, all the boats rise.’ Of course, no Government in a modern industrial society - and certainly no sensible Conservative Government - can wholly withdraw from the market place. But Government support for ailing industry will only produce an ailing economy unless it is selective, unless the circumstances are exceptional, and unless that support is directed to two overriding aims: moving the firm out of the red into the black and then back to independence as quickly as possible. A sure recipe for industrial blight is a Government that gives what amounts to a blanket guarantee that virtually any firm will be saved from the consequences of its own mistakes. No firm and no nation can behave indefinitely as though there is little difference between profit and loss, high production and low, success and failure.

In this as in so much else, Winston put his finger on it. ‘It is a Socialist idea,’ he said, ‘that making profits is a vice. The real vice is making losses.’

We would like to see the workers who help to create the profits sharing them. The Labour Party want union leaders on boards of directors. We want more employees voting as shareholders at company meetings. Under a Conservative Government we hope that more of them will own a stake in industry and that more of them will own their own homes.

We Conservatives are a family Party. We believe that in a healthy society more and more people should be able to buy the roof over their own heads. That is why we will give council tenants the right in law to buy their homes. That legislation, I promise you, will be announced in the first Queen’s Speech of the next Conservative Government.

Let the Labour Party go on offering newlyweds a place on the waiting list for a house on a council estate which they can never call their own. We offer them a place that belongs to them, their own home in which to start life together and later to bring up their children.

What happens when the children go to school? We have got to stop destroying good schools in the name of equality. The main victims of Labour’s recent attack on the direct grant schools have been able children from less well-off families. People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Our aim in education is simple: it is to raise standards for all our children. That means fighting far more vigorously against that small minority which believes that the principal purpose of education is to instil contempt for democratic institutions. That is not education, it is political propaganda, and I see no reason why you and I and every other taxpayer should pay for it. These destroyers would also destroy respect for our laws and the order on which a civilised society is based.

People have asked me whether I am going to make the fight against crime an issue at the next election. No, I am not going to make it an issue. It is the people of Britain who are going to make it an issue. The old people in our city centres who are frightened to go out at night are going to make it an issue. The taxpayers and ratepayers who have to meet the bills for mindless vandalism - they are going to make it an issue. The parents, worried sick when their children go out on their own - they are going to make it an issue.

Yes, law and order will be an issue, and it will be a vital issue, at the election. If anyone thinks that is Right-wing, they should talk to the workers in the factories and the women at the supermarket.

The next Conservative Government will give more resources to the police. They are under-manned and poorly paid. We will bring them up to strength. We will give them the money to do the job. I do not intend to sit on the sidelines wringing my hands while London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and the rest of our cities go the way of New York.

But if the violence in Britain is deeply disturbing, it is nothing to what has been endured by the people of Northern Ireland for nearly ten years. What happens in Ulster touches us all; it is part of our country, our United Kingdom. So let the people of Ulster be assured of this: the Conservative Party stands rock firm for the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Today I would like to express our deep and lasting admiration for Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, the Belfast Peace Women who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Their courage symbolises to us and to the whole Western World the yearning of the people of Ulster for peace.

We honour with them the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment and our servicemen in Northern Ireland. I only wish that all the members of our armed forces who defend freedom there and in other parts of the world had a higher place in Socialist priorities. The Labour Party have cut present and future spending on defence by the staggering figure of £8 billion. What sort of Government is it that so neglects the welfare of our servicemen? What sort of Government forces front-line soldiers into claiming rent rebates and makes many of them worse off than people who do not even try to work at all?

Our armed forces are poorly paid. They are denied the equipment, the stores, the back-up and the training that they know are vital to the job they do. Worse, they see the anti-Western wing of the Labour Party calling for still more gigantic cuts in defence, which a former Labour Defence Secretary said would mean, at best, neutrality and at worst, surrender. We have a Government that neglects our defences, a Government that lets down NATO so badly that our allies have rebuked it publicly. What a disgrace! A Government which spends money on nationalisation while cutting spending on the defence of the Realm. As I promised President Carter last month, the next Conservative Government will give defence the high priority that it demands. The Conservative Government will see that our troops are properly paid, increase defence spending so that we can meet our obligations to our allies and, by strengthening the defence of the West, restore the morale of our fighting services.

Let us not forget - our first duty to freedom is to defend our own. It was to that end and purpose that I entered politics, and two years ago, in this hall from this platform, I spoke to you for the first time as Leader of our Party. I remember well my nervousness, and pride, as I tried to tell you something of my personal vision and my hopes for our country and our people. I felt deeply my responsibility then. Today I feel it even more deeply. For much has happened between those two Octobers. Two years ago I spoke of a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master. And today the threat to those democratic values has doubled and redoubled.

I know only too well, as I go about the country, the fears felt for our British way of life. I know it from the letters I receive. And I know how many hopes ride with us today the hopes of millions who are Conservative, and millions who are not, but who look to us because they feel instinctively that what is happening to their country threatens not only their freedom but everything that made it materially and morally great.

Paul Johnson expressed it movingly and with a writer’s clarity, the other day, when he resigned from the Labour Party. ‘I have come to appreciate, perhaps for the first time in my life,’ he wrote, ‘the overwhelming strength of my attachment to the individual spirit. The paramount need to keep it alive, I now see, is so great as to override any other principle whatever.’

These are deeply anxious and disturbing days for those whose eyes are open and who value freedom, but provided we are alert and alive to the danger, then the human will of the growing and quietly determined majority must prevail. The responsibility that rests upon the Conservative Party is huge and humbling. But as autumn moves towards winter, and we brace ourselves for the great task that lies ahead, let us make this promise to the British people: We will discharge that task with all our strength and all our faith. We shall not fail our country. (Prolonged applause)

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