Leader's speech, Brighton 1978
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
Commentary:In this speech, Thatcher pledged to make every effort to force a general election once Parliament reconvened. The economy was in the doldrums and, the longer it remained that way, the more difficult it would be for the Conservatives to reverse Britain’s decline. A further concern was the threat of Soviet expansionism and the resultant need to restore Britain’s defences to the minimum level. Other issues were Northern Ireland, immigration, and rising crime.
I must first thank you, Madame Chairman, for the wonderful heart-warming welcome. I confess that this is the biggest birthday party that I have ever had. I just do not know whether my parents had in mind the timing of the party conference, but if that is what is meant by family planning I am all for it.
One of the distinguished members of my shadow Cabinet sent me a birthday card today and said ‘Don’t think of it as another birthday; think of it as another year spent mastering the intricacies of a rewarding and demanding life.’ That seemed to me a pretty fair description of the job.
Let us turn to the nation’s business. Political life may be unpredictable. Dull it isn’t. Last month the nation was privileged to watch on television the first broadcast ever to present a chronic case of cold feet as a noble act of patriotism. ‘Let’s see it through together,’ said the Prime Minister in his now notorious announcement that there would be no election, ‘in the national interest.’
Of course, by seeing it through together he meant seeing it through with Labour. I am inclined to think that the people of this country will reject that invitation the moment that they are given the opportunity. Whenever the moment comes we are ready. As soon as Parliament reassembles we shall do all we can as a responsible Opposition to end the present damaging uncertainty, to defeat the Government and to bring about a general election.
But I must warn you that the dying days of this administration may well see one last wretched round of manipulation and manoeuvre, of private deals or public pacts or cosy little understandings - always, of course, ‘in the national interest’ - before the Government are finally dragged kicking and screaming, to the polls. If that should be the case, so be it. I believe that the longer they wait the harder they will fall. But the harder, too, will be our task of halting and reversing the decline of Britain. Our party offers the nation nothing less than national revival, the deeply needed, long-awaited and passionately longed-for recovery of our country. That recovery will depend on a decisive rejection of the Labour Party by the people and a renewed acceptance of our basic Conservative belief that the State is the servant, not the master of this nation.
But the problems we shall face are daunting. After nearly five years of Labour Government living standards have just got back to where they were when they took office. The Wilson-Callaghan years have left Britain close to the bottom of every international league table in terms of prices, in terms of jobs, and, above all, in terms of what we produce and what we owe to the rest of the world. Where they have left our country in terms of self-reliance and in terms of self-respect, in terms of national security, I hardly have to tell you.
That is the legacy of Labour, and no amount of whistling in the dark by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor can change it. There is only one service they can do the nation now. It is to stand not upon the order of their going, but go. The damage that they have done to Britain is immeasurable. Our ancestors built a land of pride and hope and confidence in the future, a land whose influence grew out of all proportion to her size, whose constitution guaranteed a balance between freedom and order which used to be the British hallmark and became a model for the world. That was the heritage they handed down to us.
What would they think of Labour Britain today. A country in which people ask, ‘Why work if you can get by without?’ ‘Why save if your savings are taxed away, or inflated away or both?’; ‘Why do a good job when you will probably make out just as well if you do a bad one?’; ‘Why bother to get extra qualifications when differentials and earnings so often depend on political muscle, not personal merit?’
At home we are a country profoundly ill at ease with ourselves, while abroad a darkening and dangerous world scene confronts us. This is not just a Conservative analysis, it is a view shared here and overseas not least by those who love this land and wish it well. In their franker moments even some Labour Ministers subscribe to it. ‘Land of hope and glory, mother of the free’ sounds as stirring and moving as ever, but it is less and less like the land we live in today. Why is that? What has happened to this country of ours that we thought we knew? It is not just a question of pinning down who is responsible, important though that is. The first step in clearing your mind about where to go is to understand how you got where you are.
Does what has happened to Britain over the last four and a half years imply that we have been governed by remarkably foolish people? No, though you may be able to think of one or two who would qualify under that heading. Is it the result of having been governed by unusually wicked people? No. There have been enough good intentions to pave the well-worn path twice over. The root of the matter is this: we have been ruled by men who live by illusions - the illusion that you can spend money you haven’t earned without eventually going bankrupt or falling into the hands of your creditors; the illusion that real jobs can be conjured into existence by Government decree like rabbits out of a hat; the illusion that there is some other way of creating wealth than by hard work and satisfying your customers; the illusion that you can have freedom and enterprise without believing in free enterprise; the illusion that you can have an effective foreign policy without a strong defence force and a peaceful and orderly society without absolute respect for the law.
It is these and many other Labour fallacies that have brought Britain to where we are today. Of course it is true that things have not deteriorated quite so quickly since the crisis of 1976. It was then, you will remember, that Denis Healey was put on probation to the International Monetary Fund. A strange man, Mr. Healey. He seems to think that being put on probation is some sort of achievement demanding recognition. Someone ought to tell him that you do not give the man who sets fire to your house a medal just because he phones for the fire brigade.
Last week at Blackpool he was boasting again about his success. He could see growing confidence throughout the economy. We are poised, he said, for another ‘great leap forward.’ But, he told the assembled comrades, there were two conditions which Labour had to fulfil to win the election. First, and I quote him again, ‘we have got to keep inflation under control.’ Agreed. ‘And we have got to strengthen, not weaken the authority of Jim Callaghan in this movement and in this country.’ Disagreed. ‘Those,’ said Mr. Healey ‘are the things you have got to ponder before you cast your votes.’ Well, the brothers pondered and then they voted. They voted overwhelmingly to throw overboard the government’s whole economic strategy, and with it, according to the Chancellor, the Prime Minister’s authority.
The following day Mr. Callaghan tried to restore it by speaking of the Government’s ‘inescapable responsibility’ to deal with the present situation. He said nothing about his own inescapable responsibility for bringing that situation about. That is the charge against M.r Callaghan. Ask Sir Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle what they thought of his ‘responsibility’ nearly 10 years ago when he fought tooth and nail against their plan for reforming the trade unions, for making them - yes - more responsible. ‘In Place of Strife’ they called it. The unions did not like it. Mr. Callaghan saw it straight into the waste paper basket. The road to Blackpool 1978 was opened in 1969 by Mr. Callaghan. He cut the tape, and so long as it suited him, he travelled steadily down the road he had himself opened without so much as a backward glance.
In 1974 during the dispute with the miners how did he define responsibility then? I will tell you how. He went to Wales and said to the miners: ‘I am here as chairman of the British Labour Party because I wanted to come into the mining valleys to place the Labour Party firmly behind the miners’ claim for a just and honest wage.’ What would he say, what would the people of this country say, if the chairman of our party had gone down to East London and announced: ‘I am here as chairman of the British Conservative Party because I wanted to come to Dagenham to place the Conservative Party firmly behind the Ford workers’ claim for a just and honest wage’?
Well, now that the boot is on the other foot, what will the Conservatives do to him? Let me put his mind at rest. We are not going to follow in his footsteps. We won’t accuse him of union bashing. We won’t support a strike in breach of an agreement. We won’t act irresponsibly, and he knows it. Nor do we rejoice at his discomfiture, for his problems are the country’s problems. But a man who whets the tiger’s appetite cannot expect much sympathy when it turns and bites him.
Today the nation has a Prime Minister whose party has disowned his principal policy and destroyed the chief plank in his election strategy. Until last week that strategy was simple. Labour would play its union card, the one called ‘special relationship.’ The idea was this. A group of union leaders would try to persuade the country that if they were not allowed to call the tune there would be no music. Mind you, no union leader ever said: ‘I shall overturn a Conservative Government.’ It was always the union next door that was going to do that. For Labour this device would have had one splendid virtue. It would have made it possible for every Labour candidate to say in effect: ‘Suppose Labour has created more unemployment than any Government since 1945; suppose it has produced a stagnant economy; suppose it has doubled prices; suppose it has nothing to offer but more and more nationalisation, more and more State control. The fact remains that only it can keep the unions happy, and without this the economy will grind to a halt.’
That, in a nutshell, was to be the Labour case when the election came, but the election did not come. Blackpool came - and with it, the great illumination.
Today, Labour’s policies are at a dead end, economically and politically. This is not something to crow about. We do not hope for a country in ruins so that we can take over. We want to be elected so that we can do better, not because we could not possibly do worse.
This country is looking for a sign that we can succeed where socialism has failed. Labour’s dead end has to be our beginning. The idea that only Labour can talk to labour drowned in the sea at Blackpool. Let me now at our Conservative Conference start the Conservative dialogue.
Here are the facts as I see them - and I am talking now straight to the union leaders.
‘We Conservatives don’t have a blue-print for instant success. There isn’t one. But at least we start with this advantage.
‘We know what not to do. That path has been clearly signposted.
‘If a government takes too much in tax, everyone wants higher wages.
‘If a government bails out those who bargain irresponsibly, where does the money come from? The pockets of those who bargain responsibly.
‘If a government tries to level everyone down, with year after year of totally rigid incomes policies, it destroys incentives.
‘If a government enforces those policies with the underworld sanctions of blackmail and blacklist, it undermines its own authority and Parliament’s.
‘For years the British disease has been the “us” and “them” philosophy. Many in industry are still infected with this virus. They still treat the factory not as a workplace but as a battlefield. When that happens, the idea of a common interest between employers and employed flies out of the window and so does the truth that if your company prospers, you will too.
‘Now, you the trade union leaders have great power. You can use it well or you can use it badly. But look at the position of your members today, and compare it with the position of workers in other free countries. Can you really say, can anyone really say, you have used your power well? You want higher wages, better pensions, shorter hours, more government spending, more investment, more - more - more - more.
‘But where is this “more” to come from? There is no more. There can be but there won’t be unless we all produce it. You can no more separate pay from output than you can separate two blades of a pair of scissors and still have a sharp cutting edge.
‘And here let me say plainly to the trade union leaders, you are often your own worst enemies. Why isn’t there more? Because too often restrictive practices rob you of the one thing you have to sell - your productivity. Restrictive practices are encrusted like barnacles on our industrial life. They’ve been there for almost a century. They were designed to protect you from being exploited, but they have become the chief obstacle to your prosperity. How can it be otherwise? When two men insist on doing the work of one, there is only half as much for each.
‘I understand your fears. You’re afraid that producing more goods with fewer people will mean fewer jobs, and those fears are naturally stronger at a time of high unemployment. But you’re wrong. The right way to attack unemployment is to produce more goods more cheaply and then more people can afford to buy them. Japan and Germany, mentioned several times this week - and rightly so - are doing precisely that and have been for years. Both have a large and growing share of our markets. Both are winning your customers and taking your jobs.
‘Of course, we in Britain see the German success and want it here - the same living standards, the same output, the same low rate of inflation. But remember, what they have also had in Germany is strict control of the money supply, no rigid incomes policy, less state control than we have, lower personal tax and unions which are on the side of the future, not re-fighting the battles of the past.
‘We shall do all that a government can to rebuild a free and prosperous Britain. We believe in realistic, responsible collective bargaining, free from government interference. Labour doesn’t.
‘We believe in encouraging competition, free enterprise, and profits in firms large and small. Labour doesn’t.
‘We believe in making substantial cuts in the tax on your pay packet. Labour doesn’t. We will create conditions in which the value of the money you earn and the money you save can be protected.
‘We will do these things. That I promise you. We’ll play our part, if you, the trade union leaders, play yours responsibly.
‘Responsibility can’t be defined by the government setting a fixed percentage for everyone, because the circumstances are different in every concern in the country, whether nationalised or free. It’s up to you, the trade union leaders, to act realistically in the light of all the facts, as the government must do. If you demand too much, you will bargain your firm into bankruptcy and your members on the dole. And no one wants that.
‘Our approach works in other countries which are doing far better than we are. It worked here during 13 years of Conservative government. You did better, Britain did better - infinitely better than today under Labour.
‘Let’s make it work again.’
That is our message to the unions.
You can hear the same message in country after country.
You can hear distant echoes of it even from Labour Ministers. It would be nice to think that this was due to an irreversible shift in the distribution of common sense. But it’s really due to the nearness of an election and a swelling tide of protest from every taxpayer, every home owner, every parent in the land.
I look forward to Labour’s continuing conversion to good sense, and after the election, to their becoming a helpful Opposition in the new House of Commons.
So far I have spoken mainly of the practical and material failure of the last four Labour years and how we shall start to put things right. Let me turn now to something deeply damaging to this country.
Many of us remember the Labour Party as it used to be. In the old days it was at least a party of ideals. You didn’t have to agree with Labour to understand its appeal and respect its concern for the underdog. Gradually over the years there has been a change. I have no doubt that those ideals, those principles, are still alive today in the hearts of traditional Labour supporters. But among those who lead the Labour movement something has gone seriously wrong.
Just compare the years of Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell with those of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Today, instead of the voice of compassion, the croak of the Quango is heard in the land. There may not be enough jobs for the workers, but there are certainly plenty of jobs for the boys.
That is the house that Harold built, to which his successor has not been slow to add a wing or two of his own.
Many in the Labour Party wonder what has happened to it. Socialism has gone sour. Today Labour seems to stand too often for expediency, for greed, for privilege, for policies that set one half of society against the other.
There are many reasons for this. One stems from that least attractive of emotions: envy. This spirit of envy is aimed not only at those privileged by birth and inherited wealth, like Mr. Wedgwood Benn. It is also directed against those who have got on by ability and effort.
It is seen in Labour’s bias against men and women who seek to better themselves and their families. Ordinary people, small businessmen, the self employed are not to be allowed to rise on their own. They must rise collectively or not at all.
Object to merit and distinction and you’re setting your face against quality, independence, originality, genius, against all the richness and variety of life.
You are pinning down the swift and the sure and the strong, as Gulliver was pinned down by the little people of Lilliput.
A society like that cannot advance. Our civilisation has been built by generation after generation of men and women inspired by the will to excel. Without them we should still be living in the Stone Age. Without the strong who would provide for the weak? When you hold back the successful, you penalise those who need help.
Envy is dangerous, destructive, divisive - and revealing. It exposes the falsity of Labour’s great claim that they’re the party of care and compassion. It is the worst possible emotion to inspire a political party supposedly dedicated to improving the lot of ordinary working people.
From there it is but a short step to the doctrine of class warfare. The Marxists in the Labour Party preach that this is not only just but necessary and inevitable.
But let me put this thought to you. If it is wrong to preach race hatred - and it is - why is it right to preach class hatred? If it is a crime to incite the public against a man simply because of the colour of his skin - and it is - why is it virtuous to do so just because of his position?
The political organisation of hatred is wrong - always and everywhere. Class warfare is immoral, a poisonous relic of the past. Conservatives are as fallible, as human and therefore as given to making mistakes as the next man. But we don’t preach hatred and we are not a party of envy.
Those who claim that we are a class party are standing the truth on its head. So, too, are those who claim that we are racists. Our determination to deal with the very real and difficult problems of immigration control has inspired Labour to a shameful attempt to frighten the coloured population of Britain.
Last month the Liberal leader added his voice to the chorus. No doubt in an effort to distract attention from his many deep and pressing problems, he too did his best - or worst - to pin the label of ‘racialism’ on the Conservative Party.
I realise that a drowning man will clutch at any straw. But let me remind young Mr. Steel, millions of Conservatives were among those who spent five years of their lives fighting a war against racialism when he was still in short trousers.
It is true that Conservatives are going to cut the number of new immigrants coming into this country, and cut it substantially, because racial harmony is inseparable from control of the numbers coming in.
But let me say a word to those who are permanently and legally settled here, who have made their homes with us. Your responsibilities are the same as those of every other British citizen, and your opportunities ought to be.
Compulsory repatriation is not, and never will be, our policy and anyone who tells you differently is deliberately misrepresenting us for his on ends.
Many other smears and charges will be thrown at us as election day comes nearer. But let us not be too concerned, however large the lie or absurd the charge. They are a sign of our opponents’ desperation. For instance, you may have noticed, and so, I suspect, has the public, how often these charges contradict one another. One moment it is said that we have no policy, the next that our policies would bring about every disaster known to man. One moment, Shadow Ministers are said to be notorious villains - well, here the ‘villains’ are. The next minute, they are said to be unknown. Unknown? There’s a charge from a party with household names like - let me see, now - Stanley Orme, not to mention Albert Booth. But then, no one does, do they?
Well, Mr. Prime Minister, if there are any unknowns in the Shadow Cabinet we are all looking forward to becoming a lot better known at your earliest convenience.
Until then, national uncertainty continues, and with it the continued weakening of one of our most ancient and deep-rooted traditions - respect for and safety under the law. When a rule of law breaks down, fear takes over. There is no security in the streets, families feel unsafe even in their own homes, children are at risk, criminals prosper, men of violence flourish, the nightmare world of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ becomes a reality.
Here in Britain in the last few years that world has become visibly nearer. We have seen some of the symptoms of the breakdown of the rule of law - the growth in the number of unsolved and unpunished crimes, especially violent crimes, overcrowded courts, an underpaid and undermanned police force, judges insulted by a senior Minister of the Crown. Sometimes, members of the Labour Party give the impression that as between the law and the lawbreakers they are at best neutral.
We Conservatives are not neutral. We believe that to keep society free the law must be upheld. We are 100 per cent behind the police, the courts, the judges, and not least the law-abiding majority of citizens.
To all those engaged in law enforcement we pledge not just our moral but our practical support. As for the law-breakers, whether they are professional criminals carrying firearms, or political terrorists, or young thugs attacking the elderly, or those who think they can assault policemen with immunity, we say this: ‘You will find in the new Conservative Government a remorseless and implacable opponent.’
The Conservative Party also stands for the defence of our realm. I am often told that there are no votes to be won by talking about defence and foreign policy. Well, I intend to go on talking about them, especially with elections to the European Parliament approaching. And, unlike Labour, we shall work to make a success of our place in the community, and we shall not need to be prompted to honour our obligations to our NATO allies.
It was nearly three years ago that I warned of the growing danger of Soviet expansion. I was at once attacked by Labour’s Defence Secretary and the Soviet leaders - strange company, you might think, for a British Cabinet Minister. What has happened since I made that speech?
The Soviet Union, through its Cuban mercenaries, has completed its Marxist takeover of Angola; Ethiopia has been turned into a Communist bastion in the Horn of Africa; there are now perhaps 10,000 Cubans in that continent, a deadly threat to the whole of Southern Africa. And as the Soviet threat becomes stronger, so the Labour Government have made Britain weaker. It has cut our forces time and again. We now have only 74 fighter planes to defend our country. We lost twice as many as that during one week of the Battle of Britain.
I am well aware that modern Phantoms have many times the firepower of the Spitfire or Hurricane, but how does that help if you run out of Phantoms? There is a minimum level below which our defences cannot safety be allowed to fall. They have fallen below that level. And I give you this pledge: to bring them back to that minimum level will be the first charge on our national resources under the Conservative Government.
It will not be easy, but there are no short cuts to security. There are only short cuts to defeat. Conservatives too will see that our Armed Forces are properly paid. They do an indispensable job abroad and at home, not least in Northern Ireland.
I spent three memorable and moving days in Northern Ireland in June. The constancy and patience of the men and women of the Province who have endured so much pain through 10 years of terror is something that I shall never forget. I know that there are those who say: ‘Leave them to solve their own problems and bring our boys back.’ To them I must reply: ‘If you wash your hands of Northern Ireland you wash them in blood.’ So long as Ulster wishes to belong to the United Kingdom she will do so. That is the policy of the Conservative Party and it will be the policy of the next Conservative Government.
The next Conservative Government. I have spoken of what four years of Labour Government have done to Britain, materially and morally, at home and abroad. I hope that after this afternoon it will not be possible for anyone to say again that there is really not much difference between the parties. There is all the difference in the world, and if it is the will of the country we will show the country and the world what that difference is.
May I end on a personal note? Long ago I learned two lessons of political life - to have faith and to take nothing for granted. When we meet again the election will be over. I would not take the result for granted, but I have faith that our time is coming and I pray that when it comes we use it well, for the task of restoring the unity and good name of our nation is immense.
I look back at the great figures who led our party in the past and after more than three years I still feel a little astonished that it has fallen to me to stand in their place. Now, as the test draws near, I ask your help, and not only yours - I ask it of all men and women who look to us today, who share with us our longing for a new beginning.
Of course, we in the Conservative Party want to win, but let us win for the right reason - not power for ourselves, but that this country of ours, which we love so much, will find dignity and greatness and peace again.
Three years ago I said that we must heal the wounds of a divided nation. I say it again today with even greater urgency. There is a cause that brings us all together and binds us all together. We must learn again to be one nation or one day we shall be no nation. That is our Conservative faith. It is my personal faith and vision. As we move towards Government and service may it be our strength and inspiration. Then not only will victory be ours, but we shall be worthy of it.