Leader's speech, Blackpool 1981
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
Commentary:A central theme of this speech was unemployment and the Conservatives’ policies for alleviating it. Thatcher also spoke about the recent launch of the SDP and the riots in Brixton and Toxteth, and she condemned the IRA attack on Chelsea Barracks, which killed two people and injured 40 others. Other important issues at the time were the continuing threat of the Soviet Union and the resultant need to both strengthen Britain’s friendship with the United States and oppose unilateral nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, in Europe, the government had succeeded in reducing Britain’s budget contribution and in initiating significant reform. Such changes were vital if Britain were to continue to trade with Europe and compete with other European countries for American and Japanese investment.
Thank you, Mr. President, for that wonderful introduction, one so typical of your own generosity and your dedicated service to our cause.
I turn now for a moment to another great servant of our Party. Six and a half years ago I asked Peter Thorneycroft to become our Chairman. Of course I was anxious whether he would agree to take on the very heavy responsibilities that go with the Chairmanship. But my anxiety was misplaced. He who had already given more than forty years service to our party wanted to do more. We all came to respect his wise judgement, his zeal for our cause, his breadth of vision and his devotion to the enduring honour of our country. It was typical of his magnanimity that he himself suggested that I should appoint a younger Chairman. I know that it is the wish of all us that we should send to Peter and Carla on the last day of our Conference a message of affection and of gratitude for the unique qualities which he placed unreservedly at the service of the Party in which he believes so deeply.
And to our present Chairman may I say this: I want to let you into a secret. I asked Peter’s advice about you. With that characteristic caution and understatement he said: ‘I think he’d do it rather well’ - and so say all of us.
This week in Blackpool we have had the grand assize of the nation. Once more the Conservative Party has demonstrated that it is the party of all the people. We are not here to manipulate millions of block votes in some travesty of democracy; nor were we drawn here by the tinsel glamour of a marriage of convenience. We are here as representatives of a myriad of different interests from every constituency in the land. We are here because we share a deep and abiding concern for the future of our country and our party.
There has been strenuous discussion and dissent - I welcome it. For years as our Conference has assembled I have grown used to the charge that we are bland and anodyne, careful to avoid differences. I do not think that that is a charge that can be levelled at us this year.
We have witnessed here this week a party conscious of its awesome responsibilities as Government at an immensely difficult time, difficult not only for us but for many other countries in the world as well, for we are not alone in our problems. The diversity of our Party is not a source of weakness; it is a part of our strength, for it is a reflection of the personal commitment that each one of us brings to the task that lies ahead.
Let me say at once that I am glad that Ted Heath addressed our Conference and delighted that he will be helping us in the Croydon by-election.
Our country is weathering stormy waters. We may have different ideas on how best to navigate but we sail the same ocean and in the same ship.
I have listened to much of the debate that has taken place in this hall and, you know, I seem to have heard a good deal of what has been said to us around and, as you put it, Mr. Chairman, in your introduction, even beyond the fringe. This afternoon I want to draw together what seem to me to be the main strands of your wisdom and advice to the Government and to express some of your worries.
First among these is the deep and heartfelt concern for the personal hardship and waste reflected in every factory closure and redundancy. I learnt from childhood the dignity which comes from work and, by contrast, the affront to self-esteem which comes from enforced idleness. For us, work was the only way of life we knew, and we were brought up to believe that it was not only a necessity but a virtue.
The concern of this Conference is focused on the plight of the unemployed. But we seek not only to display and demonstrate that concern but to find and pursue those policies which offer the best hope of more lasting jobs in future years.
To do that we must learn the lessons of the past in order to avoid the mistakes that led to the increase of inflation and unemployment in the first place. Today’s unemployment is partly due to the sharp increase in oil prices; it absorbed money that might otherwise have gone to increased investment or to buying the things which British factories produce. But that is not all. Too much of our present unemployment is due to enormous past wage increases unmatched by higher output, to union restrictive practices, to overmanning, to strikes, to indifferent management, and to the mistaken belief that, come what may, the Government would always step in to bail out companies in difficulty. No policy can succeed that shirks those basic issues.
We have to earn our living in a world which can choose between the goods we produce and those of other countries. The irony is that many of our people spend five days of the week making British goods and on Saturday go out and spend their earnings on goods produced abroad, goods made in countries which have embraced more modern technology and where management and workforce understand that they are on the same side.
Oh, yes, unemployment is the most emotional issue in our country, and however much we may explain what has led to it we cannot alter the fact - (Interruption) - Yes, in this Conference it does matter; it matters enough not only for us to talk about it but to try to do something constructive about it.
However much we may explain what has led to it, we cannot alter the fact that many people who worked loyally and well for firms up and down the country feel bruised and resentful when, after long and devoted service, they suddenly find themselves without a job.
I understand this - I would feel the same. But that would make it even more inexcusable if any Minister, let alone the Prime Minister, were to deceive them with false hopes or spurious remedies. We are dealing with one of the most complex and sensitive problems of our time and neither rhetoric nor compassion is enough, and demonstrating will not help either.
There have been many voices in the past few weeks calling on us to spend our way back towards a higher level of employment and to cut interest rates at the same time. It is a familiar treatment, and it has been tried by many different Governments these past thirty years.
In the early days it worked well enough. In the 1950s a few million pounds of what we learned to call reflation earned a swift reward in jobs and output. But as time went on the dose required grew larger and the stimulus achieved grew less. By the 1960s it was needing hundreds of million of extra spending to lift some hundreds of thousands of our people back into employment. By the 1970s we found that after thousands of extra millions had been spent we still had unemployment at levels which ten or twenty years before would have been unthinkable. The trick had been tried too often. The people, as earners and consumers, had rumbled what the Government was doing to their money. They knew the Government was creating inflation and they took that into account in their wage demands. So all the extra money went into wages and prices and not into more jobs.
So today, if we were to heed the calls to add another thousand million pounds to our plans for spending, we might thereby create an extra 50,000 jobs in two years time, and even those would be all too swiftly cancelled out by the loss of other jobs in private industry as the result of what we had done.
The fact is that a good chunk of the higher taxes and the higher interest rates needed to find the money for the extra spending would come from the tills of every business in the land. ‘Ah,’ but we are told, ‘don’t put up the taxes or the interest rates - put them down instead.’ In other words, ‘print the money.’ That way, I must tell you, lies a collapse of trust in sterling both at home and abroad, lies the destruction of the savings of every family. It would lead to suitcase money and penury as the sole reward for thrift. That is not what this Government was elected to do.
But these problems are not peculiar to Britain. Governments all over the world are seeking to borrow on a scale hitherto unknown, and that is why interest rates in every major financial centre have been rising steeply. Indeed, if we had been members of the European Monetary System we might very well have found our interest rates going up long before this September.
That is why it is not a question of choosing between the conquest of inflation and the conquest of unemployment. Indeed, as one of our speakers reminded us yesterday, we are fighting unemployment by fighting inflation. Of course there are those who promise success without tears. I wish they were right. Who more than the Prime Minister would benefit from an easy answer to our troubles? But they would not benefit because there is no easy answer - (Interruption). It makes it much more exciting, doesn’t it? As the President said, it is like the Empire Loyalists when we were young and sitting down there.
But if there were a way of beating inflation and unemployment by displeasing no one in the meantime, I should take it like a shot. I can tell you unhesitatingly that if I thought Britain could solve her problems more easily, if I found that world conditions opened up a less rugged road, I should not hesitate to take it. There would be no question of sticking doggedly to so-called dogma. I do not want to prove anything, except that Britain can once again succeed and that all of us can share in the fruits of that success.
But, Mr. President, I cannot bow to the pressures to take a route which I know will lead us even further from that prospect. That is not obstinacy. It is sheer common sense. The tough measures that this Government have had to introduce are the very minimum needed for us to win through. I will not change just to court popularity. Indeed, if ever a Conservative Government start to do what they know to be wrong because they are afraid to do what they are sure is right, then is the time for Tories to cry ‘Stop.’ But you will never need to do that while I am Prime Minister.
Mr. President, in the teeth of international competition British business is beginning to win the major orders that for too long went elsewhere. As the Chairman reminded us earlier this week, £1,000 million of British goods are sold abroad every week. In the last month alone Standard Telephones has won the £170 million contract for a telephone cable right across the Pacific from Australia to Canada - the longest contract that has ever been put out to tender. British Steel has gained contracts worth £70 million in the North Sea and across the world in Hong Kong. The Davy Corporation leads the international consortium to build the £1,250 million steelworks for India. Foster Wheeler has started work on a £140 million petrochemical plant in Greece. Great international companies like Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard and Motorola are demonstrating their faith in Britain’s future by choosing this country under a Conservative Government as the main location for their expansion.
This is the way to get extra jobs - thousands of extra jobs - for Britain. That is the real recovery. And it is happening now. We are winning through.
These are the headline-catching stories, but every bit as important to this Government is the health of the many small and thrusting businesses. We have already taken some sixty measures of direct practical help for small businesses. Indeed, our business start-up scheme is one of the most radical and effective in the Western World. Ten thousand new businesses are starting every month. From them will come so much of the new and lasting employment of the future. I salute their work and their enterprise and we all wish them well.
But yes, I know. You have said it all week. Private business is still being held to ransom by the giant monopolist nationalised industries. And you are right. They do not price themselves on to the dole queues. They do that to other people. They do not have to match the competition. They have captive markets at their beck and call. While free enterprise prices are going up in single figures, prices in the nationalised industries are going up by 20 per cent.
The fact is that only when we introduce the spur of competition in the State owned industries do they begin to respond to the needs of the customer. That is why, for example, Norman Fowler, when he was at the Ministry of Transport stripped away the veto powers of British Rail on bus coach licences. If you can travel now from Manchester to London or from Edinburgh to Bristol by road or rail at fares lower than when we took office that is thanks to Norman Fowler, just as it is thanks to Freddie Laker that you can cross the Atlantic for so much less than it would have cost you in the early 1970s. Competition works.
You heard Patrick Jenkin speak of companies as different as Cable and Wireless and British Transport Hotels. I never thought that we should be able to make so much progress with denationalisation in these first two and a half years. And I can assure you that there will be more of these measures in the next session of Parliament.
Mr. President, if this is dogmatism, then it is the dogmatism of Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer, and I’ll plead guilty to that any day of the week.
But, you know, the thought does sometimes occur to me. If only we had never had all those nice Labour moderates - the sort that now join the SDP - we should never have had these problems in the first place. For it was the Labour moderates who nationalised those industries. They are the guilty men. And they have now shacked up with David Steel - although I do not think that Mr. Gladstone would have put it in quite those words. The Liberal leader seems to have quite a passion for pacts, associations, understandings and alliances - a sort of man for all fusions. But, of course, there is nothing wrong with pacts provided they are based on a broad identity of principle. But without any genuine common ground parties that cannot advance on their own two feet tend to be trodden on by their partners.
The marriage is for one election only. After that either party can call it a day and go its separate way. Well, of course, nothing is for ever. But it is an odd couple that pencils in a date for divorce before they have even sat down to the wedding breakfast. Perhaps the caution is understandable. Little is known about the SDP, except that its four leaders were senior members of Labour cabinets of the 1960s and 1970s. And if the country is in difficulty today they played their part in bringing that difficulty about. And they have not repudiated their Socialism. Mr. Jenkins may remark that, good Lord, he has not used the word ‘Socialism’ for years, but he has not disowned it. Nor have his former Cabinet colleagues, the other leaders of the new party whom the Liberals are being asked to embrace.
At a time of growing danger for all who cherish and believe in freedom this party of the soft centre is no shield, no refuge and no answer.
As Quintin Hailsham said so vividly a few days ago, ‘In a confrontation with the politics of power, the soft Centre has always melted away.’ And when the soft centre SDP has melted away, we are left with the hard shell of the Labour Party.
And make no mistake, the leadership of the Labour Party wants what it has always wanted, the full-blooded socialism that has been the driving force and purpose of its political life and leadership.
Mr. Wedgwood Benn says that ‘The forces of Socialism in Britain cannot be stopped.’ They can be and the will be. We shall stop them. We shall stop them democratically, and I use the word in the dictionary sense, not the Bennite sense. What they cannot be is half stopped, least of all by those who for years helped to nurture and support them.
Some of the most important things in life are beyond economics. Last Sunday I visited the victims of the IRA bomb outrage in Chelsea, the kind of outrage that has occurred time and again in Northern Ireland. After seeing the injured children and young soldiers, the heartbreak of their parents and wives, one began to count one’s blessings. For their world had been suddenly and cruelly shattered by the bombers and terrorists who are the enemies of civilised society everywhere.
We are all in it together, because a breakdown of law and order strikes at everyone. No one is exempt when the terrorists and the bully boys take over. We look to the police and to the courts to protect the freedom of ordinary people, because without order none of us can go about our daily business in safety. Without order fear becomes master and the strong and the violent become a power in the land. This was why the first action after the riots in Brixton and Toxteth was to restore order. Nothing, but nothing, could justify the violence that we saw that week.
I listened to every word of the debate on Tuesday. You made your views absolutely plain. Much as we are doing to support the police and uphold the rule of law you urge us to do even more. I will give you this pledge. Above all other things this Government are determined to maintain order and uphold the Queen’s peace. Order depends upon discipline, overwhelmingly upon self-discipline. It is lamentable that the virtues of self-discipline and self-restraint that mark a mature democracy have lately been so little preached in some homes and schools that they have become so poorly practised in our society.
It is when self-discipline breaks down that society has to impose order. It is in this sense that we Conservatives insist that Government must be strong, strong to uphold the rule of law, strong to maintain order, strong to protect freedom. This was the truth which our ancestors knew well, but which some of our generation have managed to unlearn. What is freedom if it does not include freedom from violence and freedom from intimidation?
One of the most revealing things about the rhetoric of the Left is the almost total absence of any reference to the family. Yet the family is the basic unit of our society and it is in the family that the next generation is nurtured. Our concern is to create a property owning democracy and it is therefore a very human concern. It is a natural desire of Conservatives that every family should have a stake in society and that the privilege of a family home should not be restricted to the few.
The fact that over 55 per cent own their own homes is a tribute to successive Conservative Governments, each one of whom have helped to build the property-owning democracy.
It is now our turn to take a major step towards extending home ownership to many who, until now, have been deliberately excluded. Councils, particularly Socialist councils, have clung to the role of landlord. They love it, because it gives them so much power. So, more than two million families have seen themselves paying rent forever. Petty rules aid restrictions and bring enforced dependence. These are the marks of this last vestige of feudalism in Britain. It is the arrogance of the Socialist creed to insist that they know best. For them, equality of opportunity means their opportunity to make sure that everyone else is equal.
Nowhere is this more true than in education. For every family the chance to give your children a better start than you had is one of the greatest joys. Yet we have been so obsessed with the reorganisation of education and with buildings and equipment that we have failed to concentrate on the quality and content of what is taught in our schools. This is precisely what is of greatest concern to parents and that is why this Government have given them so much more say in the way schools are run, so much more choice in which school to pick for their children, so much more responsibility for the next generation.
But the best schools, and the best housing and the best education will avail us nothing if we lack the means or the resolve to defend the way of life of our people. For abroad, this is a time of danger. We face in the Soviet Union a Power whose declared aim is to ‘bury’ Western civilisation. Experience has taught us that threats such as we now face do not disappear unless they are met calmly and with ingenuity and strength. We cannot defend ourselves, either in this island or in Europe, without a close, effective and warm-hearted alliance with the United States. Our friendship with America rests not only on the memory of common dangers jointly faced and of common ancestors. It rests on respect for the same rule of law and representative democracy. Our purpose must be not just to confirm but to strengthen a friendship which has twice saved us this century.
Had it not been for the magnaminity of the United States, Europe would not be free today. Nor would the peace have been kept in Europe for what is now thirty-six years. Assuming we hold this peace for eight more years we shall then have enjoyed a longer time free from European war than for two centuries. What a triumph for the Western alliance.
One thrust of Soviet propaganda is concerned to persuade the world that the West, and the United States in particular, is the arms-monger, not the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it is not surprising that the Russians have found a ready audience for none of us has any illusions about the horror of nuclear war and we all shrink from it. However, that should force us to consider what is the most likely way of securing peace. It is precisely because I believe that the unilateralists make war more likely that I seek another way.
Should we more easily get the Soviet side to the table to negotiate disarmament if we ourselves had already renounced nuclear weapons? Why should they negotiate if we had already laid down our arms? Would they follow our example? There are no unilateralists in the Kremlin. Until we negotiate multilateral disarmament we have no choice but to retain sufficient nuclear weapons to make it clear to any would-be aggressor that the consequences of an attack on us would be disastrous for them.
To those who want us to close down the American nuclear bases in this country, let me say this. We in Britain cannot honourably shelter under the American nuclear umbrella and simultaneously say to our American friends ‘You may defend our homes with your home-based missiles, but you may not base those missiles anywhere near our homes.’ The cost of keeping tyranny at bay is high but it must be paid, for the cost of war would be infinitely higher and we should lose everything that was worthwhile.
It is in this dangerous world that Britain must live. She cannot escape it or retreat into an island bunker. Yet that is precisely what the Labour Party proposes. It has become the ‘get out’ party - to get out of our defence obligations, get out of our NATO nuclear commitments, and get out of the European Community.
It is in European affairs that the contrast with the Conservative is particularly marked. When in power Labour did nothing to improve the European Community. In two and a half years this Government have slashed our budget contribution and set the Community on the road to far-reaching reform. It is vital that we get it right. Forty three out of every £100 we earn abroad comes from the Common Market. Over two million jobs depend on our trade with Europe, two million jobs which will be put at risk by Britain’s withdrawal. And even if we kept two-thirds of our trade with the Common Market after we had flounced out - and that is pretty optimistic - there would be a million more to join the dole queues. That is only the beginning.
American and Japanese firms are coming to this country to build factories and provide jobs for us, so that they can sell to the whole of Europe. If we came out future investors would not come here. They would go to Germany, France or Greece. Even those who are already here would not be satisfied with a market of fifty million ‘cribb’d, cabin’d and confined’ by import controls, customs duties and tariffs. They would up sticks and away. They would take their investment, their expansion and their jobs into the rest of Europe.
For the unspoken assumption behind policies of withdrawal from the Community and unilateral disarmament is that others will continue to bear their burdens and pick up ours as well. Others would continue to accept our products, even though we refused to accept theirs, that others would continue to ensure the defence of Europe and provide a shield behind which we would shelter.
What a contemptible policy for Britain. Nothing is beyond this nation. Decline is not inevitable. They say I’m an optimist. Well, in this job you get called all sorts of things. An optimist is one of the nicer ones and I would not deny the label. I remember what our country used to be like and I know what we can become again. But first we must rid ourselves of the idea that the laws of economic gravity can somehow be suspended in our favour and that what applies to other nations does not apply to ours.
We must finally come to accept what in some ways we have not accepted since the war - that although then, we, with superb defiance, helped the free world to survive, the world has not since then, and on that account, owed us a living.
We in the Conservative Party know that you cannot get anything for nothing. We hold to the firm foundation of principle, grounded in common sense, common belief and the common purpose of the British people, the common sense of a people who know that it takes effort to achieve success, the common belief in personal responsibility and the values of a free society the common purpose that is determined to win through the difficult days to the victory that comes with unity.
This Government, this Government of principle, are seeking the common consent of the people of Britain to work together for the prosperity that has eluded us for so long. There are those who say our nation no longer has the stomach for the fight. I think I know our people and I know they do.