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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Bournemouth 1996

John Major (Conservative)

Location: Bournemouth


Major’s primary goal in this speech is to prepare the Party for the forthcoming general election. To this end, he outlined the achievements of his government, which included low inflation and falling unemployment, and presented his plans for the future. Among these proposals were the provision of a wider choice of schools, reductions in taxes, improvements in social care, and increased accountability for government in Northern Ireland. Major also criticised New Labour’s plans, linking them to the state socialism of the past.

Working for Election Victory

This has been the week the Tory family came together - to renew the family contract with the British nation. Through the week, colleague after colleague has set out fresh, detailed, new policy for the future. There have been some marvellous speeches. It is been 21 years since Michael Heseltine first got a standing ovation at this conference; and no one has sat down since.

The well-being of our country is more important than any political party. And the well-being of the Conservative Party is more important than any member of it. So the lesson is clear. Everyone in the Conservative Party should work - and if I know them, will work - heart and soul, irrespective of personal interests, to secure the re-election of a Conservative government.

The Character of the Conservative Party

Over the last two or three years there has been attempt after attempt by our opponents to sully the reputation of our Party. I know this Party. No doubt it is not perfect - nor is everyone in it. But I grew up in it. And that campaign will not succeed, because this Party as a whole is straight and honourable and true and - like you I am proud to be a member of it.

Unlike Labour, we are not ashamed of our past. Unlike Labour, we have not abandoned our principles. Unlike Labour, we have not had to reinvent ourselves. We are proud of what we have achieved, because we have changed Britain - for the better.

When I became Prime Minister, I set out to make Britain a low inflation economy. I knew what a fight it would be. But we went for it. We took the flak - no weakening, heads down. We did what we always do when we are challenged: we came out fighting.

As a result, we have had the longest run of low inflation this country has seen for a generation. I want to thank my colleagues - and you, my party - for standing with me through that battle. Between us, we have transformed the prospects for our country. And we did it with raw political gut.

We set out to create jobs. And we are succeeding. Unemployment is lower here than in any comparable country in Europe. In Britain it is falling. In Europe it is not.

Last year, this year, and next year we are set to have higher growth here, in our country, than any big country in Europe. Curiously enough, the Labour leader did not mention these successes in his flight of fancy last week. Pages missing, perhaps? He just said the country was falling apart. Inflation down, mortgages down, unemployment down - some fall.

Of course there was a time when this country was falling apart. It was when we had a Labour Government. So I have got some friendly advice for Mr. Blair. If you knock your country, you will never lead it.

The plain truth is, I am the first Prime Minister for generations who can say ‘We are the most competitive economy in Europe.’ And I intend to be the Prime Minister who builds on that success after we have won the next General Election.

At that Election there is a central question. It is this: who can be trusted with the future? Labour try to persuade people it is them. ‘We are different,’ they say. ‘We have changed our name. Rely on us - you know we have always been wrong in the past.’ Well, that is candid - if a touch eccentric.

The trouble is, they are wrong in the present as well. And it simply will not do for Mr. Blair to say: ‘Look, I am not a Socialist anymore. Now can I be Prime Minister, please?’ Sorry, Tony. Job’s taken. And anyway, it is too big a task for your first real job.

Mr. Blair’s handlers are trying to spread the tale that he is a very fierce dog indeed, but also that he is quite harmless. Another eccentric message: ‘Fierce dog - no teeth!’

By the way, have you noticed how the less a politician has to say, the more over-heated the language in which he says it? When every aim becomes ‘a crusade’; every hope ‘a dream’; every priority ‘a passion’- then it is time to duck for cover.

And when the whole show is laced with words like ‘tragedy’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘triumph’ and ‘destiny,’ terms with real meaning, but which, ransacked for political advantage, degrade the message. Then I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘the louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.’

Our Beliefs

I came into politics to open doors, not shut them. They were opened for me. I was born in the war. My father was 66. My mother was - how shall I put it - surprised.

We were like millions of others - not well off, but comfortable, until financially the roof fell in. Nothing special about that. But for us, it changed our life. My mother coped - as women do. I left school at 16, because an extra £5 a week mattered. I learnt something from that experience. In the game of life, we Tories should even up the rules; and give people opportunity and choice, to open up an avenue of hope in their lives.

And by ‘people’ I do not mean ‘some people’. I mean everyone. Opportunity for all. It is in the bloodstream of our party. It was Shaftesbury who gave an education to thousands of children from poor homes; it was Disraeli who gave many working men the freedom to vote. It was Salisbury who brought free education within the reach of almost every family in England. All Tories. And it was Margaret Thatcher - another Tory, as you may know, who sold council houses and public industries, giving people a real stake in this country.

Giving people opportunity marks the great divide in British politics. In its heart, Old Labour, New Labour, any old Labour still believe that government knows best. I do not. But then, I am a Conservative. I believe we should give families opportunity and choice and a wider, warmer view of life. Our belief in choice is the driving force of our policy it is not a political ploy; for me it is the core of what I believe in.


I start with education. There are millions of children in our country, all unique, everyone an original, with different skills, different talents, different needs. Should each child with all his or her originality be made to fit into a regimented education system? Or should we design an education system to fit the originality of the child? Well, of course we should.

Our task is to provide a rich choice of schools and colleges, giving the best to every child and demanding the best of every child.

Who should choose the right schools for those children? The Government? The bureaucrat in Whitehall? The councillor in the Town Hall? Or the parents, who love and care for those children? Of course it is the parents. Wherever possible, they should choose.

We are improving that choice every year, and we intend to widen it further. So, I make this promise: If parents want more grant-maintained schools they shall have them; more specialist schools we will provide them; more selection they will have it. Why should government say ‘no’ if parents think it is right for their children? And if parents want grammar schools in every town, so do I - and they shall have them.

We grammar school boys and girls - Gillian - believe in choice for parents. That means parents should not face a choice between one bad school and another. What kind of choice is that? I will tell you. It is the kind of choice you get in Islington unless you move out of the borough. We are going to change that. That is why this autumn, as Gill Shepherd told you, we will turn today’s promises into tomorrow’s reality with a flagship Education Bill.

We want high standards in every school. It is why we set up the National Curriculum. It is why we insist on tests. Without tests, how can you know what a child has not learned? And how can parents be sure how well their children - or their school - are doing?

When we insisted on giving that information to parents, John Prescott called it ‘political propaganda.’ Just pause and think about that for a moment - it tells you a lot. Information to parents about their children, and the Deputy Leader of New Labour calls it ‘political propaganda.’ If education is a passion for Labour, it is a passion that dare not speak its results.


Last year, at this conference, I told you of my determination to restore sport, and particularly team sport, to the heart of school life.

It is natural and healthy for young people at school to have their sporting heroes and heroines: sportsmen and women whom they can choose as role models. So, with the enthusiastic help of the Sports Councils, I am going to set up a team of Sporting Ambassadors widely drawn from the best role models in sports, our leading athletes, past and present, who will visit schools and talk to pupils, teaching staff, school governors and parents, to enthuse and inspire and encourage.

To work up the scheme, I have asked that legendary England cricketer that man for all seasons, Sir Colin Cowdrey, to chair a small committee whose members will be drawn from the elite of the sporting and academic worlds. Colin is here today and I want you to thank him for agreeing to do this.

His committee will announce their conclusions by Christmas, and I intend that the scheme will be up and running in schools in the coming academic year.

Colin scored nearly 8,000 runs for England. Now he is going to inspire nearly 8 million boys and girls who might want to play compete and represent their country. I want them to enjoy sport. And they will enjoy it more if they play to win. Take it from me - winning is fun.

The Family

There are those who believe in the self before everyone, grab what you can school of thought. They may find opportunity for all an odd philosophy. But it is ours. And for the last seventeen years we have followed it.

We have cut direct tax, given more and more people the opportunity to save, to own shares, own pensions, own homes. More than ever before, we have given families more independence and more freedom to choose. As a result, millions have become owners of homes, savings, shares and pensions. But not enough yet.

In our next five years, we will seek new opportunities - an opportunity-owning democracy. We will help more people save and build security for retirement. We will help people who need care keep more of those savings.

We are aiming for the least possible tax to give the greatest possible choice. As we can afford it, we will move to a 20p basic rate for all. That is our priority. We know that cutting taxes is not government giving anything back to people. It is the government taking away less of people’s own money. That is why low taxes are right.

We do not want to soak the taxpayer. Labour often say they want to soak the rich. But they are the only party in history who also regularly manage to soak the poor.

Sometimes no taxes are right. So, to encourage wealth creation for the future, we will reduce and then abolish Capital Gains Tax. Many people in our country build up savings long after they have enough for their own needs. One reason they do that is to pass on the fruits of their life’s work to their children and grandchildren. This is a powerful human emotion. So, over time, our next target is to remove the burden of inheritance tax, building wealth for the many, not the few.


People treasure independence, their own independence. The State is the last option, not the first. The more independence, the less reliance. The less reliance, the more we can help those in real need.

There are many demands we must meet: health, as science provides more treatment; social services, as we improve care. We have always accepted this responsibility. But as we accept responsibility, so must people accept responsibility themselves.

Dependency must be about needs, not culture. I cannot stand the welfare cheats. I will tell you why. They deprive those in real need. We are determined that taxpayers’ money goes where it is needed.

Our task is to build a welfare system for the 21st century: a system for a self-help society not a help-yourself society. And one way of building independence is to get more people back to work. We are now doing that on a scale that is the envy of Europe - partly because we refuse to make political gestures that cost jobs. That is why I say ‘No’ to the minimum wage and ‘No’ to the Social Chapter. The minimum wage is the wage of the dole queue. It is not a wage at all. How can you talk of a Social Chapter that makes it more difficult for people to find work. That is why I say they are no-go areas for jobs and no-go areas for us.

It is business - not government - that creates jobs. But government can help the unemployed. Last year I announced our plans to develop a Contract for Work. This week we Tories took a big step forward with the start of our new Job Seeker’s Allowance. We do not want to pay people to stay on the dole. We do want to help them get back into work. So first, we are going to help those who have been out of work the longest. They are the people for whom the barriers to opportunity are highest.

First, we give them help to find a job, and if that does not succeed, they will be offered work on a community project. For many it is just the motivation they need. But it also shows up those who do not want to work. I think that is right. So, over the next year, we will be extending the scheme to towns and cities across the country. This is part of building a welfare system we can afford. One that goes with the grain of the British nation - fair to those in need, and fair to those who pay the bills.


Every year, someone writes to The Times to say he has heard the first cuckoo of spring. And every year at the Labour Conference, some cuckoo distorts our commitment to the NHS.

Our NHS is unique. In this country, when you are ill, we take your temperature. In other countries, they take your credit card. While I am in Downing Street, that will never happen here.

That does not mean the National Health Service should not change. It must. If it were fossilised, it would decline. I saw that clearly the other day when Norma and I visited a doctor’s surgery in Glossop, actually. The family doctor is the gateway to the Health Service. More people see their doctor than anyone else. This was a fund-holding practice, part of our reforms and, in its own small way, an example of the quiet revolution of the NHS. Waiting lists had been slashed. People no longer had to trek to the district hospital. More services were available: osteopathy, acupuncture, Alexander technique, counselling, nursing, physiotherapy and occupational therapy posts had been created; community care had been improved. More money was being spent on patients, not paperwork.

This is Tory policy working for the patient. Now, this practice is one of the very best. But that excellent service could be the future everywhere. Our task is to make it so.

This autumn, Stephen Dorrell will introduce a Bill to do just that, giving family doctors greater freedom to develop local services in their surgeries, creating a new generation of cottage hospitals all over Britain. But that is only half of it. In the autumn, Stephen will set out our ambitious plans to build the National Health Service for the 21st Century.

And Labour’s vision? Stuck in the past and stuck in the mud as usual. They plan to end fund-holding. What ideological madness. Do you know what that would mean? I learnt in Glossop. It would mean that those new clinical posts, new nurses, new physiotherapists, the new occupational therapist - all those would go. New Labour, no new services.

But, in the NHS, we must always try to improve our services. Before the end of this year, we will unveil new plans to help mentally ill people, followed by new plans to reform social care for children, disabled people and the elderly. These will be more practical Tory measures.

Looking a little further ahead, I still hear too many stories of politically correct absurdities that prevent children being adopted by loving couples who would give them a good home. If that is happening, we should stop it.

For over seventeen years, through thick and thin, we Conservatives have found extra money for the NHS. It has become a habit. So today, I give you a Health Service Guarantee. Our Manifesto will pledge that the NHS will get more, over and above inflation, year, on year, on year, on year, on year, through the next Conservative Government.

Law and Order

Earlier this week, Michael Howard set out our new plans to fight crime. But there is two things I would like to add.

First, in a few weeks, we will publish new plans to deal with younger offenders. They are a real problem. We must spot school-age children turning to crime and stop them in their tracks early on. One theme of our plans will be to make them repair the hurt they have done. And we will have some new ideas.

Let me tell you of our plans for young tearaways who are out of control. We only want them in institutions if it is really necessary. But if they do not deserve that punishment - severe for young people - they must not think they can offend and get away with it. Over the last year, we have been testing an electronic way of tagging offenders so we can confine them to their homes, and know that that curfew is being kept.

It has worked. We think it will work on younger offenders as well, so we will try that too. If we know a young trouble-maker is out there, night after night, disturbing the peace and committing crimes, we will make sure the courts have the power to order him to stay put. At home off the streets. And the tag around his ankle that cannot be removed will raise the alert the moment he tries to go out.

If he cannot go out on Friday and Saturday nights with his mates, it might cool him down a bit. If he cannot watch his football team on Saturday, let me say it plain. That is his fault; not mine, not yours - his. And it is time the buck stopped where the responsibility lies. No one will miss the hooligan on the terrace. He might just learn the lesson, and that will help him as well as us.

Northern Ireland

Earlier this week, the IRA once again spat their hate at the British nation. Many good people tell me I should not bother with Northern Ireland. ‘No votes in it,’ they say. Maybe not. But there are lives in it. And that is why I bother.

I do not believe Northern Ireland will leave the United Kingdom, nor do I wish it to. But I know that there can only be a peace in Northern Ireland if all its citizens, Catholic and Protestant alike, feel their traditions have a welcome place in the United Kingdom. And there will only be peace of mind if we remove the causes that have given rise to so much conflict.

This is a political task, grindingly hard, I know. But that is what the multi-party talks are for. Progress has been slow painfully slow. But progress has been made. And there is no other show in town.

Bombs will not bring Sinn Fein into the talks. All they mean is that Sinn Fein has slammed the door on themselves.

I applaud the way the Loyalists have maintained their ceasefire in the face of the IRA’s provocation. Their political leaders have gained in influence and standing as a result. I urge them to stand firm and not to throw away what they have achieved.

The IRA’s latest betrayal of Northern Ireland means the demand for decommissioning of illegal arms is justified ever more clearly. We must have decommissioning in parallel with the talks. And so that there is no hiding place for those arms, missiles and explosives, Paddy Mayhew will introduce legislation into Parliament this autumn to set out how they can be taken out of circulation.

I want those weapons off the street. And I want to remove the false excuses peddled by the men of violence for keeping their weapons. Let us expose these men to the world for what they are.

I also want to make government in Northern Ireland more accountable and give MPs more responsibility. We have already given the Scottish and Welsh members greater ability to question Ministers. This autumn, I shall do the same for Northern Ireland. MPs from there should be able to question the Ministers and scrutinise Government policies directly in the Grand Committee, meeting sometimes in Northern Ireland. I will consult the parties about how best to achieve that.

The IRA has always believed that Britain can be deflected by terrorism. They have always been wrong. And they are wrong now. No one will take Sinn Fein seriously ever again until they show a serious commitment to end violence for good. 

I believe in the politics of reason - backed by strong law enforcement. I know in the end it will prevail. And I promise the people of Northern Ireland this: for as long as there is a political breath in my body, I will fight for a secure way of life in Northern Ireland and for a settlement fair to all.

Europe and the Wider World

Earlier this week, Ian Lang, Malcolm Rifkind and Ken Clarke set out exciting new possibilities for Britain as a global trading nation with interests around the world.

We have links and influence on every continent. We have given birth to a whole family of nations. I never forget that as I contemplate our future role in Europe.

The sharpest element of the European debate is the possibility of a Single European Currency. We Conservatives are in grown-up politics. We know that where Britain’s national interest is at stake, Britain’s national voice must be heard. Over recent days, in articles, interviews and in this conference hall on Wednesday, I spelt out why we must play a full part in that debate.

Europe is changing. The only thing that is certain is that it will not he the same in the future. In a few years, Europe will have twenty-six or twenty-seven members. They will be wildly different. Many of them will never match the economic performance of the larger European nations.

How do we cope with this? We believe Europe must become more flexible and responsive. That the only realistic future is as a partnership of nations, not a United States of Europe.

But some of our partners do see the future of Europe as ever-closer political as well as economic integration. We do not believe this is practical, nor, to be frank, desirable. It is not the Europe we joined and it is not a Europe we can accept.

This debate about the future direction of Europe is one of the most critical we have ever engaged in. We need to argue it fiercely but fairly. Europe is at a watershed. Britain is a great nation. Of course, we must be in Europe. But we are in Europe to help shape it, not to be shaped by it.

Our Nation

A buccaneering spirit, gritty resolve, give and take, a conviction that everyone is entitled to the same dignity, courtesy, and esteem because of what they are, not who they are - these are some of the values we all share. That is what makes us a nation. Down the centuries, they have moulded our democracy.

It is not a concept of government copied across the world because it is the oldest. It is because it is the best. We treasure it. That is why we must hold on to it. 

The Union, Parliament, our voting system - it is naïve to think that radical change would be easy or risk-free. And it is revealing to look at Labour’s plans. Their priority would be to gerrymander the British constitution.

They are avid for more parliaments, more assemblies, more regional assemblies. Their policy is in chaos. On Scottish referenda, they change sides more often than a windscreen wiper. What a message. ‘Vote Labour for more politicians, more bureaucrats, more taxes, more regulations, more tampering, more meddling, more authoritarianism.’

If this is the New Gospel, give me the old religion. In less than 1,000 days, Labour would vandalise nearly 1,000 years of British history.

Once again, they show their true colours. Labour are the Party of the State. We are the Party of the Nation.

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