Leader's speech, 1991
John Major (Conservative)
Commentary:This speech was Major’s first as Conservative Party leader, in which he paid tribute to Mrs Thatcher and outlined his vision for the Party. At the core of Major’s vision was his belief in the power to choose and the right to own, which underpinned the new Citizen’s Charter. Major also expressed his commitment to partnership in the EU, whose members were currently in negotiations over the Maastrict Treaty, and hoped that the Union would one day welcome the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe. The Middle East was another important issue, as on 17 January the coalition had launched air strikes in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Earlier this week this Conference welcomed Mrs Thatcher. You gave her the most tumultuous reception. She deserved it. She led our country for over 11 years, our Party for over 15. We owe Margaret a great debt. The Britain she left us is immeasurably stronger than the Britain she found. Above all, she helped others to believe in us and us to believe in ourselves. And on those foundations she laid three great election victories. It’s good to applaud; it’s grand to cheer. But the greatest tribute we can pay her is to do as she did. To win, and win, and win again. At this Conference - and what a successful Conference it’s been - you have heard how the next Conservative Government will secure the best future for Britain. We’ve heard some cracking speeches this week. From the right team. A young team - in fact the youngest Cabinet this century. A professional team.
Just think for a moment. When the going gets rough in international affairs, who would be the first person you would send for? Gerald Kaufman? No, he would be the second person. The first person would be anyone but Gerald Kaufman. But far and away the best person would be Douglas Hurd, one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country has ever had. Of course, Labour’s Captain tries to talk up his team. ‘A winning team,’ he calls them. After three election defeats? Well, it goes to show that there must be more than one way to look at history. Take Waterloo. You thought Wellington won Waterloo? No, Waterloo was a smash hit for Napoleon.
But we can all help Labour to win one thing the record for the longest run of election defeats. Played four, lost four. And a probable vacancy for team captain. Last week at Brighton we had speech after speech about a fairytale future for the British people. Then there was sing-along-a-leader. It was all good fun, if you like that sort of thing.
But while this was happening out front, there was something thoroughly nasty seeping from under the platform. I refer, of course, to what Labour pretends to believe are the Government’s plans for the National Health Service. There’s only one way to deal with a lie: nail it to the wall of truth, as William Waldegrave so conclusively did yesterday. We have all been brought up with the Health Service. We use it, we cherish it, we are proud of it. I know that for millions of people in this country the National Health Service means security. I understand that. Because I am - and always have been - one of those people. I know that even when you’re fit and well, it brings peace of mind just to know it’s there. It is unthinkable that I, of all people, would try to take that security away.
A genuine belief I can respect, even when I profoundly disagree with it. But deliberate calumny - repeated, repeated and repeated - merely diminishes its authors. The Health Service has been in existence for over 40 years. And who has been in Government for most of that period? We have. For 29 of those years it has been a Conservative Government. It has been under Conservative Governments that the National Health Service has been built up, enlarged and improved. And our reforms will carry that right through into the 1990s. So let me say now, once and for all, and without qualification - under this Government the National Health Service will continue to offer free hospital treatment to everyone. And so that no one can misunderstand the position - and I hope the whole country is listening - let me make it even clearer. There will be no charges for hospital treatment, no charges for visits to the doctor, no privatisation of health care, neither piecemeal, nor in part, nor as a whole. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not after the next election. Not ever while I’m Prime Minister. And if, after all I have said, there are still those who set out to frighten the vulnerable, the weak, and the old, with carefully calculated smears, then the public will know where to find them - in the gutters of public debate. Such people are not friends of the Health Service. They are the parasites that live on its back.
No Conservative need be defensive about the health service. On the contrary, every Conservative has the right to share my disgust at what is said. Go to your local hospital. What do you find? You’ll find Conservatives. In the hospital shop. Serving with the League of Friends. Working on the wards. They are not just the friends of the Health Service. They are part of the Health Service. The National Health Service doesn’t belong to the Labour Party. As its name makes clear, it belongs to the Nation. And, in both senses of the phrase, Labour isn’t going to get away with it. The Health Service is not a political football to be kicked around in the hope that, somehow or other, it will reopen the door of Downing Street to a Labour government. It won’t. Neither by hook or by crook.
This is the first Conference I have addressed as Leader of the Conservative Party. It is hard to explain quite how I feel about that. It is a long road from Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street. It is a tribute to the Conservative Party that that road can be travelled. Perhaps at the back of this hall today there is another young man or woman who stands where I did 30 years ago. Who knows few people here. Who feels it is a long road to this platform, too. They should remember the last two leaders were a builder’s son from Broadstairs and a grocer’s daughter from Grantham. We don’t need lectures in the Conservative Party about opportunity. We are the Party of opportunity. This Party is open to all. And to all those who may be watching, wherever you come from, whatever your background, I say simply this: ‘Come and join us.’ There are no barriers in our Party, just as there will be no barriers in the Britain we are building together.
Some people ask whether we will have a different sort of Conservatism in future. Of course we will. We all bring our own beliefs, our own instincts, and our own experiences to politics. And I am no exception. But the fundamental beliefs of the Conservative Party, those beliefs that brought me into this Party, are the beliefs that Chris Patten expressed so brilliantly on Tuesday. They remain as strong today as ever. Old though our Party is, the values behind it are older still. They are rooted in the instincts of every individual. And it is through our policies that we make them come alive. What is it that we offer? A strong Britain, confident of its position, secure in its defence, firm in its respect for the law. A strong economy, free from the threat of inflation, in which taxes can fall, savings can grow, and independence is assured.
I want to give individuals greater control over their own lives. Every mother, every father, a say over their child’s education. Every schoolchild, a choice of routes to the world of work. Every patient, the confidence that their doctors can secure the best treatment for them. Every business, every worker, freedom from the destructive dictatorship of union militants. Every family, the right to have and to hold their own private corner of life: their own home, their own savings, their own security for their future and for their children’s future. Building the self-respect that comes from ownership. Showing the responsibility that follows from self-respect. That is our programme for the 90s. I will put it in a single phrase: the power to choose and the right to own.
Do you know what Labour believe? That choice is something for them. They just can’t accept that choice is something most of us can be trusted with. You might make mistakes, they say. What arrogance. As if the State had never made mistakes, in our name, with our money. Try telling that to the tenants of the crumbling tower blocks that disfigure our cities. And tell that to the citizens of Eastern Europe, who have risked their very lives for these freedoms, for the right to own, and for the power to choose. Ordinary values for which ordinary people have, in our time, fought an extraordinary fight.
During the summer, I did quite a bit of travelling: Headingley, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Lord’s, the Oval. Also Moscow, Peking, Hong Kong and Kennebunkport. Wherever I went abroad, I found the same story. Britain is respected again. We don’t always realise the admiration and affection for Britain abroad. We’ve earned it, because when others have hesitated, we have always stood firm and given a lead.
As we did again this year. In defence of freedom in Kuwait. We didn’t want that war, its waste, its suffering, its grief. But to achieve greater security in the world, we had to reverse the annexation of Kuwait. And to keep that security we must destroy Iraq’s nuclear weapons capacity. They are still trying to cling to it, still cheating, still lying. They cannot be permitted to succeed. One way or another, that nuclear capacity must go. I hope it will go peacefully. If not, it must go by force. But go it will.
In January I flew by helicopter over our army in the Gulf. I can still see the scene below me. A great convoy of troops and heavy equipment moving forward across the sands. For mile after mile. You could only marvel at the organisation and planning involved. But down on the ground, I had a different impression. Dug into position, each unit seemed almost alone. Young men, mostly very young, thousands of miles from home in the wastes of the desert.
Let me tell you what was in my mind when I met them. What would they think? Here was a new Prime Minister, unknown to them, untried, asking them to prepare for battle, perhaps not to return. How would they respond to that? And would they understand the reasons why they were there? Whatever doubts I had soon disappeared. They knew why they were there. They knew the cause was right. And they knew that they could do the job. They asked only to be allowed to get on with it. And, when they did, my goodness, how they proved their point. They really were the best of Britain.
I learned something else from that extraordinary war, and especially from that precision bombing that amazed the world. It’s this: If our troops are to do the job we ask, it is absolutely vital that their equipment and their training are the best. That is why in the last few weeks we have bought the new anti-submarine helicopter from Westland - the best. Why we are moving ahead with the new Challenger tank from Vickers - the best. And that’s why we will keep our own independent nuclear deterrent, Trident. The best security for Britain. And we will take with just a little pinch of salt the conversion of those who campaigned for CND for the past thirty years and then suddenly let their principles - what was the word? - lapse. What principles? First, peace at any price. Then power at any price. I know what this country will say to that. Never at any price. For a man with no fixed view on the defence of Britain, there can be no fixed abode in Downing Street.
As we saw again in the aftermath of war, a confident Britain is a force for good in a troubled world. If we had not created those safe havens in Iraq, hundreds and thousands of Kurdish people would have died last winter in bitter, freezing mountains. We spoke out strongly for human rights in Peking and spoke out first against the return of tyranny in Moscow. Alone among all the nations of the world we stand at the hub of three great interlocking alliances. Of NATO, which is and must remain the core of our defence. Of the European Community. And of the Commonwealth, which meets in conference next week. There we must persuade 50 nations, some - frankly - with a chequered political history, to a formal commitment to democracy and human rights.
And in the 1990s, I hope to see one former member of the Commonwealth once more take its rightful place. We have always fought for an end to apartheid. But we have worked just as consistently for the long-term goal of a fully free and prosperous South Africa. I believe that both goals are now in sight. And when they are reached I want to see South Africa back where she belongs - as a fully-fledged member of our Commonwealth of nations.
A great debate is now underway in Europe. One in which the Conservative Party can speak with authority. Harold Macmillan first sought to take Britain into the Community, Ted Heath finally led us there, and Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act - with its vision of ever-closer union between states. Closer union between states. Not a federal merger of states. That is still our policy.
I believe strongly in partnership in Europe. Britain, as a great European power, has gained from our membership of the Community. That is the verdict of those people in our country who live by business, banking and trade, the very people on whom our prosperity and jobs depend. But it must be the right Europe. Let me set out for you the objectives that I have in mind, the principles that I will fight for, and the propositions I will resist.
First, we want a Community that will in time embrace the new democracies of the East. We have the chance to heal the scar that divided and disfigured Europe for two generations. The nations of Eastern Europe - Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States - need to know now that when their economies are ready for the Community, the Community will be ready for them. Second, I want a genuine single market, open for business right across the Community. It must have common rules. And these rules must be obeyed. When we sign up to something, we put words into action. Some of our partners, I fear, are keener on making new rules than on keeping them. We need a system that can deal effectively with those who call themselves good Europeans, but who hijack lorries or hold up free trade.
We are now negotiating new Treaties on political and economic union. I am always ready to listen to new ideas. But they must be workable ideas. Ideas that make sense for Europe, and for Britain. There are vital issues at stake. They involve hard judgments of where our true interests lie. The idea of a single European currency is one with enormous ramifications, both practical and political. At best, it is an uncertain prospect. Any treaty must provide for a separate decision to be taken - not now - but at a future date by the British Government and the British Parliament. It’s our decision. A single currency cannot be imposed upon us. And I would not accept, on behalf of Britain, any treaty which sought to impose a single currency - at however distant a date.
We already work closely with our European partners in financial affairs. So, too, in foreign policy and defence. When national interest and Community interest coincide, then common action is only common sense. But in no circumstances - not now, not at Maastricht - will a Conservative Government give up the right, our national right, to take the crucial decisions about our security, our foreign policy and our defence. We are working to reach an agreement at Maastricht in December. But I cannot guarantee that our negotiations will succeed. For it is no easy task to get 12 nations to agree. And for my part, I shall put the interests of our country before any agreement. Not any agreement before the interests of our country.
I hope we can reach agreement. If we do, I will submit that agreement to Parliament, for it is here in Britain that the crucial decisions must be taken. Not in the European Parliament. Not in the Council of Ministers. Not in the Commission - certainly not in the Commission. It will be for Parliament to decide on behalf of the people of Britain who elected it.
So far I have spoken of alliances. Of how much we can achieve if we work with other nations. But when it comes to the search for new markets, even our closest allies remain our competitors. I have never accepted the craven argument that Britain can’t compete with Germany or Japan. And I have contempt for the defeatists who run down our country and write off its future. Those who said we couldn’t compete in Europe when we led Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Those who said that we would have to push up interest rates. And that our inflation was bound to stay far higher than the rest of the Continent. All that was just a year ago this week. And look what has really happened since. We have cut interest rates eight times. Our exports to the rest of the Community have shot up. Our imports have fallen. Our trade deficit with Europe has been almost wiped out.
And in case you haven’t heard this morning’s news, our inflation rate has fallen to just 4.1 per cent. For the first time in a generation, we have brought inflation down to German levels. They said we couldn’t do it. We did it, and in just one year. Let me remind the ‘sell Britain short’ brigade of just a few facts. We attract more American investment than any other European country, and twice as much investment from Japan. Only two years ago, this country had a £17,000 million deficit on manufactured trade. This summer, we had a surplus. Our manufacturers sold more abroad than ever before. They didn’t sell Britain short. They sold for Britain. And they had to fight for their markets when the going was hard.
I know times have been tough. Unemployment has risen. Many people have faced great difficulties. I know how they feel - what it’s like for a family when a business collapses. What it’s like when you’re unemployed and when you have to search for the next job. I have not forgotten - and I never will. It is because of that that I will never play fast and loose with the economy. Many have pressed us to do so this past year - siren voices, urging us on to the rocks of inflation, and off the course to recovery. The Chancellor and I ignored those voices. And, as he told you, we can now see the way ahead, out of recession, to the recovery that will bring investment. To the investment that will bring jobs. And the clearer the signs of recovery, the louder the Labour Party complains.
Look how they rounded on the Governor of the Bank of England. All because he dared to confirm what everyone else was saying. That recovery is on the way. When he said there was a recession they cheered him. When he said it was coming to an end they called for his head. What are they going to do with those hundreds of businessmen telling the CBI exactly the same thing? Will Labour threaten to sack them too? All of them? Do Labour realise what their policies would do to business? Stab it in the back just when it’s winning the battle for trade. Impose new levies. Pile on new costs. Bring back union power.
It may be true that a Labour Prime Minister would no longer get his marching orders over beer and sandwiches at No. 10. No. In these days of designer socialism, he’d get them over a G&T - down at the old T&G.
A minimum wage would create the very unemployment they claim to care about. New burdens would drive business out of markets. Higher taxes would drive business talent abroad. Above all, inflation would drive our economy out of the future and back to the past. Remember who suffers from inflation. Infant businesses. People on fixed incomes. Pensioners.
Inflation is a tax paid by those least able to protect themselves. It is Labour’s invisible tax. It wouldn’t come through the letter box, though there are plenty that would. They have eight new taxes lined up already. Well, that’s not surprising. We’ve costed Labour’s spending promises. £35 billion extra and still rising. Of course, they say there would be hardly any more tax for hardly anyone. But that’s hardly credible. The next Labour Manifesto will be the biggest tax demand in history. They love nationalisation. High taxes nationalise choice. It won’t be a case of ‘you pays your money; you takes your choice.’ It will be they take your money; they take your choice.
High taxes would enrich the businesses, the laboratories, and the universities of America and the rest of Europe at the expense of the businesses and universities of Britain. We’d be back with something we haven’t heard of for twelve years - the brain drain. Our low tax policies have built up a brain bank for Britain. Our Party has always kept personal tax rates down. And in the next Parliament we will go on doing so. Lower taxes don’t just mean richer people. They mean a richer life. A life with wider horizons, in which people can develop their interests. Support their favourite charity, pursue their hobbies. Go fishing or to a football match, the theatre or the cinema, or just save up for a holiday. But lower taxes give people more powerful choices, too. The chance to save for the long-term, to invest in the future. Building up a pension. Starting a business. Giving their children a good start in life - and passing on to them the fruits of a lifetime’s work.
In the 1980s we began a great revolution. Our aim was a life enriched by ownership, in which homes, shares and pensions were not something for others, but something for everyone. We can now see the lifeblood of ownership of wealth running through the veins of the country. Nearly four million more families own homes. And eight million people more own shares. And four and half million people now have personal pensions. But this revolution is still not complete. In the 1990s we must carry it further. We must extend savings and ownership in every form. And we now have the chance to make enduring change. For people in their middle years are inheriting homes, businesses, farms on a scale never before seen. The pioneers of the property owning democracy are the parents of the capital owning democracy to come.
We Conservatives have always passed our values on, from generation to generation. I believe that personal prosperity should follow the same course. I want to see wealth cascading down the generations. We do not see each generation starting out anew, with the past cut off and the future ignored. So, in the next Parliament, I believe that we must go much further in encouraging every family to save and to own. To extend every family’s ability to pass on something to their children, to build up something of their own for their own. Labour have their eyes on the money stored in the homes in which millions of people now live and in the businesses they have created. But I believe that what people have worked to build up in life, the State should never destroy. As Harold Macmillan once memorably put it: people walk in public gardens, but they tend their own. I want to build a pride in our common inheritance of town and city, coast and countryside. In the very fabric of our nation.
I want to foster ownership in its widest sense. In making people feel that public property belongs to them. Giving them more say at the local level in how things are run. Giving them a choice. Putting them in control. That’s the idea behind our Citizen’s Charter about which Francis Maude spoke so well yesterday. It will be a centrepiece of our policies for the 1990s. I want to see public services in which the passenger, the patient, the parent can have confidence. And in which public servants can have pride.
I see that Labour are now trying to copy my ideas. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at that. Even the Labour Party has to have some good ideas amongst all the bad. It’s just that they filch the good ideas from us. The bad ones, of course, they think up for themselves. They don’t even hide it when they steal some of my clothes. Did you see how many of them were wearing grey suits last week? Have they no shame?
The test for Labour will come in the next session of Parliament. We will be legislating on the Citizen’s Charter. We shall be giving parents a greater say in schools. Making the big utilities more responsive to customers. And, as Michael Heseltine promised us yesterday, exposing incompetence in the council chamber. And how do you imagine Labour will vote? With us? For the Charter? And for the consumer? Or against us? For the trade unions? For the old ways? For the past? But it’s not just a matter of changing the way we run things. It’s a matter of breaking down the false and futile divisions, based on class and envy, that have been around for generations. They are wholly artificial.
Labour fosters those divisions. It thrives on them. Our task is to end them for good. I spoke of a classless society. I don’t shrink from that phrase. I don’t mean a society in which everyone is the same, or thinks the same, or earns the same. But a tapestry of talents in which everyone from child to adult respects achievement; where every promotion, every certificate is respected; and each person’s contribution is valued. And where the greatest respect is reserved for the law.
There can be no harmony in a lawless society. The recent outbreaks of violence in some of our council estates involved a brutal disrespect for other people and their property. Such behaviour cannot be excused and will not be tolerated. In the face of such violence, I know this Party will give the police the support that we always have. We admire the bravery and the professionalism of those young policemen and women who have been the front line against violent attacks. This Conference must leave no shred of doubt. Rioting is a crime, a serious crime. And it will be dealt with as such.
But dealing with crime is not just something for other people the police, or the courts, or the Government. It’s a challenge to everyone. And the way to fight crime is to change the attitudes that lie behind crime. The attitudes of people who say that theft or vandalism are somehow less serious. They call it ‘property crime.’ Property crime? Tell that to the widow who has been robbed of treasured mementoes of her past life. That’s not a property crime, it’s a personal wound that can never be healed.
This Government is going to crack down on crime, as Ken Baker made clear this week. Let me give you an example. What the irresponsible call ‘joyriding,’ we know as simple theft; dangerous driving, a disregard for human life, and the destruction of other people’s property. Some of these people are too young for a licence. We will ensure that when they reach driving age they can be banned from the road. As for those parents who stand by and watch while their children commit crimes, they are going to be held responsible for their children’s actions. Those in authority - parents and teachers as well - should use their authority to teach a sense of respect for others, for their rights, not just your own; for their opinions, their welfare and their possessions. Without respect for others, there can be no proper respect for the law.
We don’t help our children by excusing bad behaviour, we betray them. And we lead them into worse behaviour. Sometimes it’s right to say no. A great deal has been written about my education. Never has so much been written about so little. Perhaps that’s why I am so keen on the subject. I believe that Ken Clarke’s programme of reform is a turning point in education. It will mean that parents and pupils come first, that the key subjects are studied properly, and that the status of teachers is restored. Some have said that Ken Clarke and I are wrong to insist on simple pencil and paper tests for children in schools. Well, I’ll tell you what marks I would give to people like those. Nought out of ten for concern. Nought out of ten for interest in our children. Nought out of ten for commonsense. And, so long as there is a Conservative Government, they’ll get nought out of ten for influence in our schools.
It will take more than platitudes in Brighton to efface the memory of years of left-wing vandalism in our classrooms. And we will take no lectures from those who led the long march of mediocrity through our schools. What Labour Governments did, and what all too many Labour Councils are still doing, is unforgivable - the years of levelling down; the destruction of good schools; the harassment of good teachers; the kicking away of the ladder of opportunity by those who climbed up it themselves; the setting of the union rule book above all other text books; the neglect even of spelling. That is where the long march of the Left in education has led us. Well, we are now rooting these ideas out. We are giving parents more influence in schools. If we want them to exercise responsibility for their children, we must give them a say in the education of their children. I will fight for my belief in a return to basics in education. The progressive theorists have had their say. And they’ve had their day.
In the last twelve months we have seen the Socialist philosophy collapsing in ruins. Who will ever forget those days of high drama in the Soviet Union last August? Or the three young men in Moscow who gave their lives for reform. When I visited the place where they died, I was struck by the number of young people who pressed in around me. They had copied Western fashions, wore Western gear. For decades, they and their parents had been taught that Socialism was the destiny of the future. That the Soviet Union would bury the West. But it wasn’t the West that the Socialist system had buried. It was the hopes and dreams of their own people. Socialism has gone in Czechoslovakia, gone in Poland, gone in Hungary, gone even in Sweden. And here in Britain, I’ll tell you what you’ll see over the next few months. You’ll see the Red Flag dying here. It’s going. Going. Gone. Suddenly, it’s just so old fashioned, so irrelevant, so out of date.
What I owe to this country and to its people is difficult to put into words. My greatest wish now is to give back something of what I have been given. I want to work for a Britain that is the best educated and the best governed. Where schools and universities are the finest and accessible to all. Where inner cities don’t mean deprivation, but communities that bind and belong. And where no one has to go in fear at night. I should like to live in a world where opportunity is for everyone, where peace is truly universal, and where freedom is secure. If that is what you believe in, then go back to your constituencies. Tell them what we stand for. Tell them what we care for. And ask them to choose.