Leader's speech, Brighton 1992
John Major (Conservative)
Commentary:This conference took place six months after the Conservatives’ fourth consecutive general election victory. A key issue was Britain’s place in Europe, and in particular the Maastricht Treaty, which created a new framework for the Community around the three ‘pillars’ of home affairs, international affairs and economic relations, and provided a blueprint for economic and monetary union. The latter was particularly important because on 16 September, a day that subsequently became known as ‘Black Wednesday,’ the UK was forced out of the ERM. Meanwhile, there was civil war in Yugoslavia, and Major sent 2000 British troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force.
Well it hasn’t exactly been a dull week has it? What we have seen has been democracy in action. And this Party is stronger and healthier for it.
Someone - I forget who it was - said that nothing that’s good is ever easy. I’m beginning to know what they meant. Politics is a rough, tough, unpredictable business - and troubles come in bunches. But you have to keep your nerve. And remember that when you come out of the teeth of the gale you’re tougher, more battle-hardened. Take my word for it. I know.
In this stormy period, some people seem to have forgotten something rather important. Just six months ago this very day, this Conservative Party won the General Election. We did so against all the odds. Everyone said we hadn’t a chance. The opinion polls - and in those days people actually believed them! - they were against us. The pundits were against us. They said history was against us. They all got even more egg on their faces than I did. Because they left something out of their calculations. 14½ million British people were with us. We got more votes than ever before in any election in the whole of British history.
So why was it that those television exit polls were so wrong? Why didn’t the commentators see? Why didn’t the experts see? Why didn’t the BBC?
There were two reasons why we won that record level of support. First, it was the principles we all stood for - the principles we stand for still. And second, it was the people who worked for that victory. You. And thousands like you. Who did so much, gave so much, campaigned so hard together. There is one lesson we should never forget. When the Conservative Party is united, it is an irresistible political force.
We Conservatives have great hopes and dreams for our country. But to make them reality we must win the battles we care about. Lift our country back into growth. And, in all we do, create the society we want for our children and their future.
But before I turn directly to the great decisions that face us, I’d like to say something about someone not with us today - Chris Patten. We planned the Election in the early days of January. We knew we would go into it behind in the polls - and we were confident we’d come out of it ahead. But we knew, too, that for Chris to run the Election - and hold Bath - would be desperately difficult.
So it proved. He’s a huge loss, not just to us, but to British politics. It was typical of him to decline a by-election, turn down a peerage, and take one of the toughest jobs in the world - as Governor of Hong Kong. Chris, win for Hong Kong, just as you won for us. And when you come back, come and join us - in Government. Because you’ll still be welcome. And we’ll still be there.
There was someone else who was a tower of strength through that Election - Norman Fowler. He was always at my side. Always there - with everything from beef burgers to wise advice. But every time I went out with Norman, something very curious happened: people threw eggs at him. But they kept missing him and hitting me.
There are moments when great truths become evident. And this was one. A man who was able to duck so fast so often was clearly the right man for Central Office. Norman – it’s good to have you back.
But, above all, I must thank someone who is not a politician. Someone to whom my debt is too personal to express fully. She is here today - just as she was on every day of the Election campaign - I mean, of course, Norma. Her role was even bigger than you may think. If I hadn’t met her on April 9th 1970, I might never have picked April 9th 1992. All those oceans of ink guessing the election date! Wasted! If only they’d asked Norma!
In all our conferences there is theatre. You expect to hear us expose our opponents’ policies. Expect none of that from me today. For Labour and the Liberals are utterly irrelevant. Let us leave them on the sidelines - where they are and where they deserve to be. I intend to address myself to the country, the Conference and the Conservative Party.
Debates over our place in Europe have always touched raw nerves - in our Party and in our country. I don’t find that surprising. There are gut issues at stake. Opinions are passionately held. It is right to speak plainly and directly, even if for some it is uncomfortable. People must know exactly what’s at stake. The great dangers for our country and - as Douglas Hurd pointed out so graphically in that marvellous speech on Tuesday - for our Party if we make the wrong choices. And the right choices can only be based on facts. They can never be built on fears.
Of course, emotions run high. We saw that from both sides in that great Conference debate earlier this week. For many of you, I know, the heart pulls in one direction and the head in another. There is nothing that can stir the heart like the history of this country. It is part of us. Nothing can change that.
But it’s a different world now. Our families are growing up in a different age. They know we can’t pull up the drawbridge and live in our own private yesterday. They know we live in a world of competition - and we can’t just wish it away. Change isn’t just coming, it’s here. I want Britain to mould that change, to lead that change in our own national interest.
That’s what I mean by being at the heart of Europe. Not turning a deaf ear to the heartbeat of Britain. But having the courage to stand up and do what we believe to be right. Right for British industry; right for British jobs; right for British prosperity.
During the summer, when I was in Cornwall, a lady came up to speak to me. ‘Mr. Major,’ she said, ‘please, please don’t let Britain’s identity be lost in Europe.’ She didn’t tell me her name. But she spoke for the anxieties of millions. She spoke for this country. She spoke for me. So let me tell this Conference what I told that lady in Cornwall. I will never - come hell or high water - let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe. Let no one in this Conference be in any doubt: this Government will not accept a centralised Europe.
And if there are those who have in mind to haul down the Union Jack and fly high the star-spangled banner of a United States of Europe, I say to them: you misjudge the temper of the British people. And you do not begin to understand the determination of this Prime Minister to put the interests of this country first - now and always.
It’s true, the European Community has centralised too much. It has talked too much about European directives - and thought too little about Europe’s direction. But at Maastricht we began to reverse that trend. And at Birmingham and Edinburgh we will carry that further. So let me say to the European politicians: if you don’t heed that, you will never build the European Community you want. You will break up the European Community you have. You cannot go forward by browbeating Denmark. And to those who offer us gratuitous advice, I remind them of what a thousand years of history should tell them: you cannot bully Britain.
I speak as one who believes Britain’s future lies with Europe. But, when I hear assertions from others in Europe, that we or the Danes should sign up on their terms, I’ll tell you what I think. I think they should keep their advice to themselves. Sign up on their terms? Before I was born, if this country hadn’t fought on our terms there’d be no free Europe to sign up to. All these are frustrations. They cause great anger. But emotion must not govern policy. At the heart of our policy lies one objective and one only - a cold, clear-eyed calculation of the British national interest. What is right for Britain. What is right for our future. And from that calculation I will not be budged.
Let me come directly to the issue that has caused such controversy. The Treaty of Maastricht seems to have become enshrouded in myth and legend. Certainly, the Treaty I hear talked about is not the one I negotiated. What are the fears people have about Maastricht? We heard many of them in our debate this week. A Single Currency? Under the Maastricht Treaty, Britain is not committed to a single currency. Immigration? Immigration policy is specifically excluded under the Maastricht Treaty. Jobs and working conditions? I refused to sign up for the Social Chapter. Education? The Treaty explicitly rules out any Community interference in what is taught in schools or the way education is run. Defence? Defence is kept out of the control of the Community. Citizenship? We are British citizens and we will always remain British citizens.
If I believed what some people said about the Treaty I would vote against it. But I don’t. So I'm going to put the real Treaty - the one I negotiated - back to the House of Commons.
There is one great prize in the Treaty. For the first time we have reached agreement on developing the community in voluntary co-operation between independent nation states. That means outside the Treaty of Rome; outside the jurisdiction of the European Court; outside the competence of the European Commission. We have wanted this principle established for years. And we now have it in the Treaty I agreed.
It is time the distortions were put to one side. It is time to return the debate to reality and away from myth. In the Treaty, there was give and take - there has to be in any partnership. But in the end we got what we wanted. Not the agreement our partners signed up to: a better agreement. We obtained for Britain the flexibility and freedom which others signed away.
When I hear some of the criticisms of the Treaty I think of Don Quixote - you may remember him. He read too many old books and got carried away, fighting imaginary battles. He tilted at windmills in the belief they were giants. He saw things that weren’t there. There has been a lot of that in the current debate on Maastricht.
Yes, we made concessions. But so did our partners. What would they now think of a British Prime Minister who fights a tough negotiation, gives firm undertakings, and then comes back and breaks his word? What would we think of someone who did that to us? Who would ever trust Britain again? We would have broken faith. A demeaning position in which no British Government should ever be placed.
But, far more than that, what is at stake is something practical and hard-headed. We wouldn’t just be breaking our word. We would be breaking Britain’s future influence in Europe. We would be ending for ever our hopes of building the kind of Europe that we want. And we would be doing that, just when across Europe the argument is coming our way. We would be leaving European policy to the French and the Germans. That is not a policy for Great Britain. It would be an historic mistake. And not one your Government is going to make.
Let us not forget why we joined the Community. It has given us jobs. New markets. New horizons. Nearly 60 per cent of our trade is now with our partners. It is the single most important factor in attracting a tide of Japanese and American investment to our shores, providing jobs for our people. It is absolutely vital for businesses, big and small - and for our prospects of economic growth. There isn’t a single business leader who believes Britain’s interests lie outside. And I hope they will make their views clear - and public.
But the most far-reaching, the most profound reason for working together in Europe I leave till last. It is peace. The peace and stability of a continent, ravaged by total war twice in this century. Today, as we meet here in Brighton, images of violence and exile are being acted out on the shores of the Adriatic. Where only two years ago the children of a million tourists laughed and played, young men of Europe are locked in a bloody civil war.
That’s why I want Britain to work in the ’90s for a wider and wiser Community, embracing the new democracies of the East. That is the vision we have for the next generation. And it’s vital for our own security. But it is a vision we will only make reality if we’re in there arguing for it, not out there, scowling in the wings.
I’m not starry-eyed about Europe. If I’m starry-eyed, it’s about this country. Britain has always grown and prospered when it has looked outwards - from the time of the First Elizabeth, right through to the Second. Let us then not turn away and put up the shutters, but do what we believe - with faith, and courage and conviction. In the name of the present, and in the name of the future, we cannot sit this one out.
Some take the view that we must choose between Europe and our friendship with the United States. What total nonsense. Britain is the unbreakable link between the United States and the continent of Europe. We have growing ties of commerce and trade with Europe, but we have blood ties over many generations with our friends in America.
We in this Party will preserve and strengthen our special relationship with the United States. It is long-standing. Tested in many battles. Reinforced by ties of kinship, language and shared values. Britain and America have stood side by side many times in many theatres of war against tyranny and oppression. And we always will.
Eight weeks ago, we decided to send some 2,000 troops to Yugoslavia under the flag of the United Nations. They will bring aid to the victims of that terrible civil war. Without this common effort, we would be seeing in a few months time hundreds of thousands of people - men, women and children in Bosnia - in Europe - dying of starvation, of cold, and lack of medicine.
Britain is already the largest supplier of medicines. And, amidst all the dangers, our RAF Hercules have played a leading part in the airlift into Sarajevo. Those young men know the risks; but they have met them, just as the young men who will keep open the land corridors know the risks and will meet them. We can be proud of them - and we are.
The safety of those troops will always be first in our minds. They are there for humanitarian reasons. They are not there to hold the combatants apart - and they will not be asked to do so. They are there to fight only in self-defence and then they have the authority to use all the force they need.
We are asking a lot of them. But they know what we know - and what our soldiers in Northern Ireland who stand in the front line against terrorism also know: there is a duty to be done. I believe it is a duty that this Conference, gathered here in Brighton, would not want Britain, of all nations, to shirk. In these difficult and dangerous tasks, they deserve - and they will get - this Party’s full support.
I have spoken of our plans for Europe, and our beliefs about Britain’s place in the world. We now have to lead Britain through difficult times at home, as we have done so often in our history.
You know the things I care about - we all care about - the things I dreamt about as a boy. The chance to get on in life. To acquire knowledge, security, the prospect of a better future and a life fulfilled. A corner of life that you can call your own. That’s what people struggle for and sacrifice for when they watch their children grow.
If we’re going to meet those hopes, fulfil those dreams - then we must build a strong economy. And looking around the world, we can see ever more clearly what makes an economy strong. A Government that secures two things: low inflation, and the right climate for business to succeed.
People - not government. Business - not bureaucracy. Enterprise - not interference.
But business can’t succeed if Government doesn’t play its part. Low taxes - low inflation. Leaving people more of their own money to spend and save. Protecting them from those robber barons of the twentieth century: inflation and the State.
I believe - I know - that it was for those tasks that the British people elected us to govern again. They didn’t trust anyone else to control inflation. They didn’t trust anyone else with their taxes. They didn’t trust anyone else to keep the state off industry’s back. We must - and we will - keep faith with that trust.
But today even the world’s most successful economies face difficulties. In the United States. In Japan. Throughout Europe - yes, and in Germany, too. And here in Britain I know how great is the personal hardship that many people are facing. Some have lost their jobs; some their businesses; some their homes. We must continue to pursue policies that will bring real hope back into their lives.
In this terrible world recession, I know how hard people are being hit - here in Britain - by the misfortune that befalls home after home, family after family. Unemployment is a bitter experience. So I don’t want a temporary cure. I want a lasting recovery. I want to come out of this recession safe from the threat of its repetition. That’s why we’re looking for long-term solutions. That’s why we’ll take no risks with inflation. And that’s why we will continue to do everything possible to create prosperity that lasts.
Yes it’s true. Inflation is down from nearly 11 per cent to just over 3½ per cent in the past two years. And today I can tell you that even the underlying rate - that hard core we have found so difficult to reduce - has come down to 4 per cent. Yes, it’s true. Interest rates are down from 15 per cent to 9. The starting rate of income tax - down from 25 per cent to 20. Mortgage payments - down, on average, £80 a month. All putting more of people’s own money back in their own pockets.
And, yet, despite that progress, it’s been taking such a long time for things to get going. I know how frustrating that is. Here as abroad, debt has made people cautious. Slow to spend. That’s made things tough for small businesses. Tough for industry, too.
There are signs of improvement. But that’s not enough. It is only a beginning. Now, I believe, we must aim for more.
With a low inflation rate, we can compete with the best in Europe. And I want to thank Norman Lamont for his courage in bringing that inflation rate down. Now we must keep it down at the point where it no longer interferes with the decisions people and businesses have to make in their daily lives.
But, last month, we faced turmoil in the markets and rising interest rates across Europe. European interest rates were driven so high that the Exchange Rate Mechanism was no longer the servant of Europe’s prosperity.
But let us not waste time looking back. We have to deal with the world as it is. With a lower exchange rate, we have a new competitive edge in Europe. And provided we don’t blunt it with inflation, it gives us a real opportunity, in a single European market of 330 million people. A market for British computers. British cars. British televisions. British textiles. British services - British skills.
The biggest free trade area in the world. That’s the market in which British enterprise must succeed. And the Government will back British business all the way.
Let us return to that old and vivid slogan: Britain means business. And let me say a little more about what I believe Government can do. We must create an economic environment in which more people are willing to invest their effort, their savings, their skills in new businesses because of the rewards that exist.
Those who risk their savings must know that if they build up wealth by their efforts, they will be able to keep more of it. What families have worked a lifetime to create, the taxman will not be allowed to destroy. Those who build up new businesses must be confident they won’t be stifled by taxation. And we know what that means for Government - it means standing firm against all those pleas for extra public spending. All so attractive to someone - so disastrous in combination.
Where more is really needed we will spend more. Our plans allow for that. But more for some programmes may have to mean less for others. Because we have set our limits - and we will stick to them.
It’s too easy - when spending is under pressure - to forget the long term. To let the burden fall on private industry alone. We must work with industry, to see whether the public and private sectors working together can do more to invest in our future. More to improve the infrastructure of this country. I know the problems. But it is time to look afresh at whether we can find new solutions.
But that’s not enough. We must also see what more we can do to help our exporters win for Britain. In the single market - and in the world trading system. We are battling for free trade - and to make sure we take the best advantage of it. I want to see British enterprise succeeding across the globe. Winning contracts. Creating British jobs. Generating our future prosperity. And to help them we must do more to lighten the burden of government regulation. Government should stand behind business - not in its way.
This is a battle we’ve been fighting since 1979. But it’s a battle that is never won. And now is the time to mount a new offensive.
We’re already on the march against the Eurocrat and his sheaf of directives. But, you know, it isn’t just Brussels that rolls out the red tape. It’s Whitehall. And town hall. Everyone likes to tie another knot. Good intentions - bad results. Piling costs on industry. Mr. President, that has got to stop.
It’s not just big business that suffers. Far too often, it is the small firms who really suffer. Small firms - fed up with filling in the forms - who feel that it is just not worth being in business at all.
Of course, we want to have confidence in the safety of the food we eat; the homes we buy; the places we work in; the people who take charge of our children. But when this reaches the point where you may need 28 separate licences, certificates and registrations just to start a business, then I say again: this sort of thing must stop.
I have asked Michael Heseltine to take responsibility for cutting through this burgeoning maze of regulations. Who better for hacking back the jungle? Come on, Michael. Out with your club. On with your loin cloth. Swing into action!
You know, deregulation isn’t just about making life better for business. It’s about making life better for everybody. Take the bureaucratic controls which mean Whitehall decides whether you have the chance to stop off the motorway. Every parent knows what I mean. Next services, 54 miles - when your children can’t make 10! Or take the system that keeps air fares far too high. It’s absurd that international air travel is regulated under rules set out before the jet airliner was even invented.
And why should so many people, from all over Britain, have to come to London when they want to fly abroad? I want to see more flights directly out of Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham and each and every one of our regional airports that want them. That’s better for the people who live there - and better for London too.
It is vital that we get the economy back into strong - and sustainable - growth. We can do it. We must do it. But that is only the first of our ambitions for the course of this Parliament. The Manifesto that won the Election set out a full programme for five years. Now we’re going to put it into action.
Ladies and gentlemen, the year 2000 is less than a hundred months away. I want Britain’s example, its ingenuity, its decency and principle to be in the forefront as we cross that threshold. In all we do, we must speak to the instincts of the British people. For 300 years, the Conservative Party has reflected those instincts in a way that no other political party has ever been able to match. So let’s go out, go out and tell the people about the things we’ll be working for, and fighting for, in the next four years of Conservative Government.
We’ll be fighting for better public service. For services that put the parents, the patients, and the passengers first. Fighting bloody-minded and petty bureaucracy wherever we find it. That’s what the Citizen’s Charter is about.
We’ll be fighting for good local government, closer to local people. That’s why in Wales it’s set to be goodbye to the likes of Clwyd and Gwent and welcome back to Pembrokeshire and Anglesey. In Scotland, the Scottish Secretary will be consulting the public on change - but I rather suspect it could be an Ian Lang farewell to monstrosities like Strathclyde.
In England we will give everyone the chance to put their views on the future of councils like Cleveland or Avon. I can’t predict the outcome. But can you imagine Len Hutton walking out to bat for Humberside?
We’ll be fighting for better health and social services. For a Health Service run by local people in patients’ interests. For more GP fund-holders and more of our successful hospital trusts. We want better care for the elderly and vulnerable in the home and the community - wherever they choose to be.
And we must make sure local councils respect the wishes of those who do go into homes. People in their last years are entitled to as much choice and dignity as anyone else. Not less choice and no dignity.
And we have all been deeply shocked at the reports of scandals in some social service departments. It’s terrible when children are involved. That’s why we are going to set up regular independent inspection of social work in every council. We will not let vulnerable people and children be put at risk.
We’ll be fighting to strengthen the rights of ordinary trade union members. They must have freedom to join the union of their choice - and fairness in union ballots and finances. And, under the Citizen’s Charter, we’re going to give you - all of you - a new right. To take direct action in the courts against those who disrupt public services through unlawful strikes.
And we’ve already blown the whistle on one of the last bastions of the closed shop - student unions. The days in which they march and demonstrate at the taxpayer’s expense are numbered.
When it comes to education, my critics say I’m ‘old-fashioned.’ Old-fashioned? Reading and writing? Spelling and sums? Great literature - and standard English grammar? Old fashioned? Tests and tables? British history? A proper grounding in science? Discipline and self-respect? Old-fashioned?
Well, if I’m old-fashioned, so be it. So are the vast majority of Britain’s parents. And I have this message for the progressives who are trying to change the exams. English examinations should be about literature, not soap opera. And I promise you this. There’ll be no GCSEs in ‘Eldorado.’
I also want reform of teacher training. Let us return to basic subject teaching, not courses in the theory of education. Primary teachers should learn how to teach children to read, not waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class.
I don’t know if you feel as I do, but I think it is intolerable that children should spend years in school and then leave unable to read or add up. It is a terrible waste of young lives. We want high standards, sound learning, diversity and choice in all our schools. But, in some - particularly in those inner cities - Isaac Newton would not have learned to count, and William Wordsworth would never have learned to write.
We cannot abandon the children in schools like these. And we will not. So if local authorities cannot do the job, then we will give the job to others. In the place of the local authority which has failed, new Education Associations will be set up to run and revive these schools. Governments have always shied away from it. But I am not prepared to do so any longer.
Yes, it will mean another colossal row with the educational establishment. I look forward to that. It’s a row worth having. A row where we will have the vast majority of parents - and the vast majority of good, committed teachers - squarely on our side. They believe what we believe - that children must come first.
There was a time when Britain was a watchword for good behaviour across the world. I want to restore that good name. People are horrified when they see mindless vandalism; old people attacked by young thugs; drunken louts on the rampage, blackening Britain’s reputation abroad. Not only horrified, they’re ashamed.
To excuse crime may seem understanding. But it’s wrong. Sympathy doesn’t curb crime. If society wants to protect itself it must condemn crime, not condone it. We must create a climate in which people know the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘yours’ and ‘mine.’ We must spell out the truth. Crime wrecks lives, spreads fear, corrupts society. It is the fault of the individual, and no one else.
We are cracking down hard on crime - particularly violence. And that includes - as I promised you last year that it would - tough sentences for those who cause death by dangerous or drunken driving. Nothing can excuse those who kill in this way. We are taking action. And I hope the courts will respond.
There’s another problem we are dealing with - the illegal occupation of land by so-called ‘new age travellers.’ You will have seen the pictures on television or in the newspapers; if you live in the West Country and Wales you may have seen it on your own doorstep. Farmers powerless. Crops ruined and livestock killed by people who say they commune with nature, but have no respect for it when it belongs to others.
New age travellers? Not in this age. Not in any age.
They say that we don’t understand them. Well, I’m sorry - but if rejecting materialism means destroying the property of others, then I don’t understand. If ‘doing your own thing’ means exploiting the social security system and sponging off others, then I don’t want to understand. If alternative values mean a selfish and lawless disregard for others, then I won’t understand. Let others speak for these new age travellers. We will speak for their victims.
The things I care most about are the long-term things - stability and security at home and in Europe; rebuilding standards in education; the long-term strength - economic and moral - of our nation.
Preserving Britain’s pride and purpose and belief in itself. That’s what I care about. That’s what I stand for.
Isn’t that what we’re all about together in this Party? That’s what our forebears worked for when they built it, when they sent its roots down deep - right into the very heart and marrow of Britain. That’s why we’re all in this Party together - you and I.
That’s why I fought so hard in the Election to keep our country one. For me that is the highest and greatest of causes - to defend the unity of the United Kingdom, and all that binds our nation together. For unless we stay united, unless we stand together, as a Party and as a nation, this country will never prevail. There is not a man or a woman in this hall, or listening outside, who doesn’t know in their heart that is true.
So let’s be confident at home and in Europe. Let’s not turn away and say: ‘It’s all too difficult.’ Let’s not hang back because we don’t believe our voice will be heard. Right across Europe, now, in this critical hour, people are looking and listening to us and to what we have to say.
It won’t always be easy. It won’t always be comfortable. But in all we do, there is one thing I will never forget. This is our country.
What we do, we do for Britain. What we do, we do for the future of our children and for generations yet unborn. For their prosperity and their security - and never for short-term political advantage.
Let us have faith, and courage, and pride. Britain’s interests will come first - for me, and this Party. First. Last. Always.