Leader's speech, Blackpool 1989
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
Commentary:At the time of this conference, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe were collapsing and the borders of these states were opening to the West. Terrorism was a major concern, as British hostages were being held in Lebanon and the IRA was continuing its bombing campaign. Inflation was at 7.6 per cent, a level Thatcher believed was too high. The Conservatives pledged to raise interest rates in an effort to reduce inflation, as the consequences of higher inflation would be more damaging for Britain than a short-term rise in interest rates. Other key issues were choice in public services, climate change, and the debate over nuclear disarmament.
Mr. President, friends, I can think of no more fitting Chairman for this final session of our Conference than you, Mr. President, the greatest team player in British politics, a straight bat at the wicket, steady on the green, mighty in the scrum. Your role in Government was invaluable: always wise, often witty, and just occasionally wily. I know that I speak for everyone when I say that this Conference extends to you and to Celia the warmest possible thank you. It’s marvellous to see you both here. And may I say thank you to our Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, our Conference off to a flying start with such a terrific speech. Speeches from all ministers have been superb. We are the right team for Britain’s future.
Mr. President, this Conference, as distinct from last week’s little exercise in shadow-boxing in Brighton, has addressed, head-on, the real issues of the day. Which is what you would expect from a Party and a Government of real beliefs. Not for us, disposable ideals. Not for us, throwaway conviction. Not for us, rent-a-principle. We Conservatives know what we believe, say what we believe, and stand by what we believe.
The Triumph of Freedom
Mr. President, what a fantastic year this has been for freedom. 1989 will be remembered for decades to come as the year when half the people of half our continent began to throw off their chains. The messages on our banners in 1979 - freedom, opportunity, family, enterprise, ownership - are now inscribed on the banners in Leipzig, Warsaw, Budapest and even Moscow. For decades, East Germans had risked their lives to claw their way through the barbed wire to freedom. Now they come, not by the brave handful but by the cheerful thousand. Hungary, turning day by day more confidently towards freedom and dignity, dismantles Communism and opens her borders to the West. In Poland, the freely elected representatives of a courageous people move resolutely into the seats of government. And let us never forget Poland’s contribution to our own Finest Hour. What happened in Russia in 1917 wasn’t a revolution. It was a coup d’etat. The true revolution is what is happening in Russia and Eastern Europe today.
In 1979, we knew that we were starting a British revolution; in fact, we were the pioneers of a world revolution. So it’s ironic that as enterprise and liberty rise from the dead ashes of State Control, the Labour Party here is still trying to blow life into those old embers. Imagine a Labour canvasser talking on the doorstep to those East German families when they settle in, on freedom’s side of the wall: ‘You want to keep more of the money you earn? I’m afraid that’s very selfish. We shall want to tax that away. You want to own shares in your firm? We can’t have that. The state has to own your firm. You want to choose where to send your children to school? That’s very divisive. You’ll send your child where we tell you.’
Mr. President, the trouble with Labour is that they’re just not at home with freedom. Socialists don’t like ordinary people choosing, for they might not choose Socialism. That’s why Labour wants the State to take more and more of the decisions. ‘But that’s all changed,’ we’re told. If you believe the reports, Brighton last week was the scene of an unprecedented mass conversion. Nothing like it since the Chinese General who baptised his entire army with a hosepipe. Isn’t it amazing? The Party which fought to stop council tenants having the right to buy their homes now tells us it is the Party of home ownership. The Party which called for one-sided nuclear disarmament now says it stands for strong defence. The Party which took us to the IMF, like some Third World Country, now primly poses as a model of financial rectitude. And it’s all happened, as dear old Tommy Cooper used to say: ‘Just like that.’
Would you believe it? Well no, actually I wouldn’t. You see, one can’t help wondering: ‘If it’s that easy for the Labour Leader to give up the principles in which he does believe, won’t it be even easier for him to give up the principles in which he does not believe?’ The truth is, nothing has really changed. Labour just wants power at any price and they’ll say anything to get it. Labour’s real prescription for Britain is the disease half the world is struggling to cure. And as for the leaders of the former Alliance parties, I will say no more than this: They have never learned what every woman knows: you can’t make a soufflé rise twice.
The Heart Of The Matter
Mr. President, it is no accident that Socialism has failed, nor that the democracies and free enterprise economies of the West have prospered. These results are the inevitable consequences of two quite different approaches. It’s not a question of a little less planning here or a little less regulation there, or of a fraction more private capital in this sector or a touch more competition in that. Socialism is not just about economics. Its central dogma is to make the State the ultimate authority for the whole of life. It’s based on coercion. It denies the dignity of people. It is a secular creed which has utterly failed. The ruins that remain of Socialism in Europe today are physical shortages, a corrupt bureaucracy, growing unrest, and the urgent cry of those refugees, ‘We want to get out.’
Our creed never set out to dominate the whole of life. At the heart of our belief is the principle of freedom, under a rule of law. Freedom that gives a man room to breathe, to take responsibility, to make his own decisions and to chart his own course. Remove man’s freedom and you dwarf the individual, you devalue his conscience and you demoralise him. That is the heart of the matter. Some talk as if we should be ashamed of harnessing men’s talents to the common good. They paint wealth as selfishness, a better standard of living as greed. But only by creating wealth can you relieve poverty.
It’s what you do with your wealth that counts. In these ten Conservative years, voluntary giving has doubled. Individuals and companies contribute unprecedented sums to rejuvenate the inner cities and support great charitable causes. Others give their time and their effort. Of course, there are people who are selfish. There are people who are downright evil. Human wickedness is always with us but you’ll find it’s not in this Party that crime and hooliganism are excused. For the most part, freedom enables and moves men and women to be warm hearted and generous. For every Pharisee our system produces, you will find at least three good Samaritans.
Ten years ago, we set out together on a great venture. To provide a new lexicon for prosperity. To replace ‘It can’t be done,’ with ‘I’ll have a go.’ And we succeeded. Yes, there are still serious problems to tackle and I’ll come to them in a moment. But let us set them against the massive achievements of our period in office. Industry - modernised at a pace unrivalled in the post-war years. Productivity in manufacturing - gains far exceeding those in Europe and North America. Profits - the best for 20 years, leading to investment at record levels. Jobs - more people in work in Britain than ever before. Living standards - higher than we have ever known. Reducing the national debt - not piling it up for our children to repay. Privatisation - five industries that together were losing over £2 million a week in the public sector, now making profits of over £100 million a week in the private sector. That is the measure of our achievements. But if you really want to see how the economy is doing, look at the newspapers. No, I didn’t say read them. Just count the ones that didn’t exist before 1979 - and weigh the ones that did.
And if you’re still not satisfied, talk to the Americans and Japanese. They are investing more in Britain than in any other European country. Moreover, for the first time in years there are as many British as there are German companies in the top 100 in Europe. And, further, of these, six of the seven top earners are British or part British. And, with all these achievements under our belt, who presumes to advise us on inflation? Labour - who hold the record for the highest inflation for 50 years: 27 per cent. Mr. President, all inflation is painful. So is reducing it. But in 1982, we got it down to 5 per cent and by 1986 to 3 per cent. Today, inflation is 7.6 per cent. For a Conservative Government that’s far too high. We must get it down again. And we will.
But I know what a worry inflation is, especially for pensioners. We have always promised that whatever the rise in inflation, the retirement pension will be fully protected against it. This month’s figure for inflation, which came out this morning, is the one used for the pension increase next April. That means that the single pension next April will go up by £130 and the married pension by £530. This Government keeps its promises. I also know what a worry high interest rates are for families with mortgages and for those involved in farming and other small businesses. But when the choice is between high rates now or persistent higher inflation later, with all the damage that would do, the choice is clear.
Inflation will come down through the use of high interest rates, as it has in the past. And so it must, for the rest of the world isn’t standing still. America, Japan, West Germany - they’re all investing, modernising, and cutting costs. To stay competitive, we must do the same. As Nigel Lawson made clear yesterday, industry must not expect to find refuge in a perpetually depreciating currency. Only by steadily improving efficiency will we win and keep our share of the world’s markets. Britain’s economy is strong. When inflation is beaten - and it will be - Britain will be stronger still.
Conservatism and Choice
Mr. President, we Conservatives have extended ownership of homes, shares and pensions to more people than ever before. We’ve created that democracy of ownership upon which political democracy depends. We’ve laid the economic foundations of a decent and prosperous future. None of this would have been possible without the two finest Chancellors of the Exchequer since the War: Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson. Their achievements have enabled us to provide more resources where they were needed for schools, for hospitals, for pensioners and disabled people. But money can’t achieve everything.
We have to make sure that public services meet the needs of the public and not just the convenience of those who work in them. It would be wholly wrong if people could only exercise choice in the private sector, and were given no choice in the public sector if they had simply to take it or leave it. If patients had no choice where they were to be treated, they’d be left on long waiting lists. If parents couldn’t choose their children’s school, they’d have to go where the local authority sent them. If tenants had no say in the way their estates were run, they would be under the thumb of their council landlords. What could be more democratic than to give people a direct say in these things? What could be more arrogant than to deny it to them? That’s why choice matters so much, choice for the less well off as much for the comfortably off.
Mr. President, in every year since I became Prime Minister, more money has been spent on the Health Service, in every year more doctors and nurses have been recruited and in every year more patients have been treated. These are the actions of a Government determined to make the Health Service one of the best in the world. The advances in the last ten years have by any standards been remarkable. At the same time people rightly worry about waiting lists for operations and also about the time that outpatients have to wait before being seen. The time taken to treat patients can be weeks in one area and years in another. There are some who say that the only way to improve the NHS further is to give it more money. So we have. Two billion pounds more this year than last. But the truth is that money on its own is not the answer. That’s why we are looking at other ways of improving the service to the patient.
We want those hospitals and doctors who carry the heaviest burden of work to be rewarded for it. We want people to be able to choose where they can get the best and quickest hospital care. In view of some of the false impressions that have been created, let me emphasise one simple point: The National Health Service will not be privatised. The National Health Service was never going to be privatised. No matter what the emergency, accident or disease; no matter how long or complicated the treatment, the Health Service is there, the Health Service will always be there, to provide the finest care. There to heal, there to cure and there to tend the needs of the patient.
Mr. President, we all want our children to have more opportunity than we had ourselves. We know their individual strengths and capacities. We wish every one to be able to explore the limits of their own abilities and to find their place in the world. And we fervently believe that parents are the best people to judge what is right for their children.
Socialists, however, are obsessed with equal outcomes at the expense of equal opportunities. Time and again, we erected ladders for children to climb; time and again, the Socialist politicians climbed them, and having done so, they tried to kick them away. They did it with Grammar Schools. They did it with Direct Grant Schools. They want to do it with Assisted Places and Grant Maintained Schools. Mr. President, they haven’t changed. Let me tell you what I found when I opened a new school in Nottingham a fortnight ago. It was a City Technology College. The local Labour controlled council had told an eleven-year-old girl that she would be thrown out of the Council’s Music School if she attended the CTC where she’s been accepted. To deprive an eleven-year-old of her music classes because she goes to a school that the Council doesn’t control - there’s Socialist compassion for you.
In the teeth of fierce Labour opposition, we have enlarged the choice of schools for parents and children and brought in major education reforms. We’ve brought in a National Curriculum of ten subjects which all children have a right and need to know: with mathematics, English, and science at their core. Who now argues that we were wrong? They know that we were right: right to insist on higher standards in the classroom, right to establish a curriculum which gives children the skills for work and the knowledge for a full life, right to pass on the best of our heritage and scholarship to the next generation, and right to establish wider opportunities throughout the entire education system.
Passports to Opportunity
But there are still too many ways in which opportunity after school can be blocked. For instance, there are prejudices about the age at which people can begin a new career. Well, I started being Prime Minister at the age of 53. I’d never been a Prime Minister before, But I adapted to the work. I did my best. And my employers have twice asked me to stay on. Then again, some people find a lot of jobs blocked to them because they don’t have the right qualifications. I went to Oxford University, but I’ve never let it hold me back. Let there be no mistake: skills, degrees, diplomas, qualifications - these are necessary in the modern industrial world.
But opportunity mustn’t be cut short at eighteen. We must make sure it lasts a lifetime. We have already set up the first training scheme that’s open to all young people and a new adult training scheme for the long-term unemployed. Incidentally, it’s the best of its kind in Europe. Other people come here to see how we do it. But we also need to remove those obstacles and disincentives which government itself has erected. That’s why I’m proud that this month we abolished the earnings rule for pensioners. Income Tax and National Insurance can also be an obstacle to those starting work, especially the low paid. So, again, I’m proud that this Government has cut income tax at all levels. And this very month we have cut the national insurance contributions by up to £3 a week.
And thanks to the Chancellor, from next April, married women will be taxed separately, giving them complete privacy in their tax affairs. And then, Mr. President, in 1992 the professions will have the freedom move throughout Europe. That will open up a much wider vista for all young people. These and other changes are passports, passports that will enable their holders to overcome a false start in early life, passports with no expiry date, passports to the Conservative world of opportunity.
Mr. President, when I spoke to the Royal Society about the environment over a year ago, I spoke about the global threat of climate change. I set out the magnitude of the challenge we face. Until recently, we have always thought that whatever progress humanity makes, our planet would stay much the same.
That may no longer be true. The way we generate energy. The way we use land. The way industry uses natural resources and disposes of waste. The way our populations multiply. Those things taken together are new in the experience of the earth. They threaten to change the atmosphere above us and the sea around us. That is the scale of the global challenge. We have to work to solve these problems on a sound scientific basis so that our remedies will be effective. It is no good proposing that we go back to some simple village life and halve our population by some means which have not been revealed, as if that would solve all our problems.
Indeed, some of the Third World’s primitive farming methods created the deserts and denuded the forests. And some of Eastern Europe’s crude technologies polluted the skies and poisoned the rivers. It’s prosperity which creates the technology that can keep the earth healthy. We are called Conservatives with good reason. We believe in conserving what is best the values of our way of life, the beauties of our country. The countryside has shaped our character as a nation. We have a special responsibility not to let the towns sprawl into it. We will keep the Green Belt green.
And to make Britain cleaner, we shall bring in a new Environment Bill to give us much tougher controls on pollution, litter and waste. Next month, I shall be going to the United Nations to set out our view on how the world should tackle climate change. We have proposed a global convention - a sort of good conduct guide - on the environment for all the world’s nations, on problems like the greenhouse effect. Britain has taken the lead internationally and we shall continue to do so.
This is not only a question of acting responsibly, though we do. There is something deeper in us, an innate sense of belonging, of sharing life in a world that we have not fully understood. As Voyager 2, on its remarkable 12 year flight, raced through the solar system to Neptune and beyond, we were awestruck by the pictures it sent back of arid, lifeless planets and moons. They were a solemn reminder that our planet has the unique privilege of life. How much more that makes us aware of our duty to safeguard our world. The more we master our environment, the more we must learn to serve it. That is the Conservative approach.
Change and Uncertainty
Mr. President, there are always new dangers to be faced, new battles to be fought. We are at war against drugs: against those who produce drugs, against those who peddle drugs, against those who launder the profits of the drug trade. Drugs stunt young lives, they break up families, they injure babies before they are even born. There are those in Britain who say we should legalise certain drugs. As though burglary could be defeated by legalising theft. How typical of the muddled thinking of the so-called progressives. In fact, such action would expose many more of our young people to the danger of drugs. We must continue to protect them with the full force of the law. The police and customs officers deserve our thanks for all they do.
We also face a continuing battle against the terrorists and those who take hostages. We think of Terry Waite, Brian Keenan, John McCarthy - and of their families and friends who endure so much. Any government which has influence over those who hold hostages should be ready as a matter of course to use that influence to bring about their release. A country cannot support terrorism and still expect to be treated as a member of the international community. To take hostages is to exclude yourself from the civilised world.
In Germany in the last few weeks we have seen the IRA gun down a young army wife sitting alone in her car. And in Britain, we have seen them bomb the young musicians in the Royal Marines Band. Some can’t wait to put the blame on security arrangements, as though they were somehow responsible for these appalling crimes.Let us pin the responsibility where it belongs: on the common murderers of the IRA. We thank our servicemen and women and the police for their courage and dedication.
Mr. President, in today’s rapidly changing world, you never know where conflict may arise. In the last ten years, we have seen the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq war, Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia conflicts in Africa and Central America, attacks on shipping in the Gulf, one crisis after another in the Lebanon and the Middle East. And for us, the battle for the freedom of the Falklands.
Times of great change are also times of uncertainty and even danger. The lesson is that you must always keep your defences strong so that you are prepared for any situation. Some among us remember all too well what happened in the 1920s and 1930s, when we allowed our hopes for a peaceful world to outrun our judgements on the need for defence. And the world paid a terrible price. We know now that it’s strong defence which protects peace, and it’s weakness which brings war.
So we have kept our defences strong and we have kept the peace in Europe. Yes, we are ready to negotiate to reduce the levels of weapons on both sides. But only so long as it can be done without jeopardising our security. President Gorbachev understands that principle very well. From our very first meeting he has always told me that he would never do anything to put the Soviet Union’s security in danger and he knows that I would never endanger our security, nor would the Government I lead. Yet that’s just what Labour would do. Endanger our security.
Last week the Labour Party voted overwhelmingly to cut Britain’s defence budget by a quarter - almost equivalent to the entire Royal Navy. Of course, Labour says that they would keep our nuclear deterrent. But what for? Not to defend or deter, certainly not. Only to negotiate it away as quickly as possible in return for a small cut in the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal. We would give up all our nuclear weapons while the Soviet Union would keep most of theirs. What a bargain.
Labour’s supposed conversion to multilateralism is no more than a confidence trick to try to make Labour electable. It’s still unilateral disarmament - unilateral disarmament by agreement with the Soviet Union. That isn’t a defence policy to see Britain through the 1990s; it’s a form of words to see Labour through the next election. How does one explain the Labour leader’s contortions? Is he being false to his convictions? Or true to his character?
Mr. President, politicians come in many colours, but if you aspire to lead this nation: ‘This, above all, to thine own self be true.’ You don’t reach Downing Street by pretending you’ve travelled the road to Damascus when you haven’t even left home. It will be our job to expose Labour’s defence policy and make sure no one is taken in. It is Government’s responsibility to safeguard our defence. Today, as for the past ten years, only a Conservative Government can be trusted to do that.
Mr. President, I spoke to you first as Leader of our Party here in Blackpool, on this platform, at our Party Conference in 1975. I remember it so well. It was not the height of our political fortunes, nor the height of Britain’s. Freedom was in retreat. The countries of Eastern Europe seemed crushed forever under the communist heel. But I said then that we were coming up to a turning point in our history. Few believed it but that turning point came in 1979. For we Conservatives were the pathfinders. We did not know it at the time, but the torch we lit in Britain which transformed our country, the torch of freedom that is now the symbol of our Party, became the beacon that has shed its light across the Iron Curtain into the East. Today that beacon shines more strongly than at any time this century. You can see it reflected in the faces of the young people from the Communist countries who have reached the West.
Like most young people the world over, they are resolved to make their own way; to achieve success by their own efforts; to live the life they choose as part of a free world, a free world they have never known. They are retelling the story of our history. We cannot know the direction in which free nations in the future will progress. But this we do know - and dare not forget. Only those whose commitment to free enterprise and opportunity is a matter of conviction, not convenience have the necessary strength to sustain them. Only those who have shown the resolve to defend the freedom of the West can be trusted to safeguard it in the challenging, turbulent and unpredictable times that lie ahead. Mr. President, the decade and the century which open up before us must see the lasting triumph of liberty, our common cause. The world needs Britain - and Britain needs us - to make that happen.