Leader's speech, Blackpool 1997
John Major (Conservative)
Commentary:In his last speech as leader, Major reflected on the Party’s general election defeat in May and its achievements during 18 years in government. He expressed his support for his successor, William Hague, and identified a number of policy areas – notably the economy, public services and local government – where the Party should focus its efforts in the future.
Life has changed a little since I last spoke to you at Bournemouth: changed for you and for me. Five months ago, we lost the election. Like you, I wish events had been kinder to us but - on this occasion - it was not to be. So, today, my first task is to thank the British nation for the trust they placed in Conservative governments over 18 years.
This year they made a different choice and as democrats we respect their decision - but as politicians we must work to change it at the first available opportunity.
It’s no great secret how I feel about this Party. It’s the Party I grew up with, that fashioned the chances I had in life, that is full of people who share my hopes and values. To everyone who works in our constituencies in good days and bad - I’d like to say ‘thank you.’ ‘Thank you’ on behalf of our Party and ‘thank you’ for all the warmth and support you have always given to Norma and to me.
On my first day as Prime Minister, I set out an ambition to build a ‘nation at ease with itself.’
As I look around today, at the growing confidence of our Nation, at the glittering economic prospects, at the rising growth, the strong trading position, the low inflation, the falling unemployment, the low interest rates, the strong pound, the increasing number of young people in higher education, the rising level of savings and record personal well-being, then I sometimes wonder if we did not build better than we knew. If there is a New Britain, we built it.
So when the Government boasts about the economy - it’s our economy. When they boast of falling unemployment - it’s our fall in unemployment.
And - now I think about it - isn’t it odd. Those unemployment figures John Prescott said were ‘fiddled’ are now a triumph for New Labour as they march to the New Jerusalem. Or - as it’s probably now called - the People’s new, New Jerusalem.
Our election defeat was not your defeat. Perhaps it was mine. Perhaps divided views - expressed without restraint - in the Parliamentary Party made our positions impossible. Perhaps it was the weariness of 18 years in government. Perhaps the democratic instinct of our Nation simply sensed it was time for a change. Probably it was some of all of these things.
Rather than brood over it, we must accept our defeat as gracefully as we can; we should not waste time in pointless recrimination; we should work in the towns and the cities and the villages and begin to build for the future and the next Conservative Government.
A few moments ago, we heard that you have endorsed William Hague’s election as Leader and the need for reform of the Party by a massive majority in a far larger vote than anyone expected.
William is right. We need reform - but we don’t need to re-write every policy. Or change our name. Or deny our past. Or betray the philosophy that built us up. But neither can we leave things as they are.
It’s a simple choice: reform the Party, back William Hague, re-discover the art of working together, fight every seat for every vote - or fight one another and lose elections.
I know my choice. I’m backing William. I’m backing him because he’s an able man of talent and integrity with a tough job ahead.
It’s difficult being the leader of a newly defeated Party. For a while, people won’t wish to listen to what we have to say. But that will pass. The tide will turn and - as the local election results are already suggesting - perhaps more speedily than anyone imagines. If anyone is fearful of our future, they should have heard Jane and Munish a few moments ago, for that is the future of the Conservative Party.
In the meantime, we must use the time wisely. Party reform - yes. But we must also look at the things we left undone or uncompleted. Education reforms; market reforms; how to make better health care available; a fresh look at reviving local government - a big job there; more welfare reform; the people being left behind as prosperity grows.
We now have the luxury of time to think anew - and we should use it to build up policies that the broad mass of the British people will know are right - and feel comfortable with.
I propose to give William Hague the unqualified support - in public and in private - that he has a right to expect from his predecessor. If I should disagree with William, I’ll do it in private, not on College Green, not on the media, not in anonymous briefings to the Press that breed suspicion and distrust. And I’m backing reform because never again must we be constitutionally powerless to deal with people whose behaviour is damaging the Party as a whole.
The Prime Minister said last week this was ‘the giving age.’ Well, he should know. Because we’ve given him a glowing inheritance. Not just the economy - excellent though it is. We gave him the route map to the settlement in Northern Ireland that I long to see. We gave him the ‘opt out’ from a single currency that - now the information is to hand - he should use without delay and say: ‘the economic case is not yet right: we will not be joining in 1999.’ And we gave him a lottery that - even after they’ve raided it - is still helping charities, schools, village clubs, arts and sport at local level on a truly massive scale.
It’s good to give. And we should remind people what we gave.
I’m confident about our future: ignore the pessimists - we can beat Labour. Never forget, their swollen majority is made up from far, far fewer votes than we polled in 1992. Our history might have been different if our votes had delivered Labour’s sort of majority in 1992.
As I end, I’d like to say something else about the Party. Remember what we are.
Remember that our Party has served its country in government more often and longer and better than any democratic party in the whole history of western politics.
As we’ve seen, even such a party can be beaten at the polls. But the Conservative family can only be defeated from within.
At the end of this week, there’s one strong message that I long to hear from this Conference:
We are the Conservative Party.
We exist to serve a nation that is Conservative by instinct.
We will be back.