Biography Chronology Home Search Speeches/Statements

1994 - Mr Major’s Speech to Conservative Central Council

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to Conservative Central Council, held at Plymouth Pavilions in Plymouth on Saturday 26th March 1994.


PRIME MINISTER:

The First Three Years

Someone once wrote of me that, when faced with a problem, I would take a piece of paper - draw a line down the middle - on one side I’d list the problems and on the other the objectives.

That’s true. It’s an old habit.

The other day I was looking for a note I wrote on the day I became Prime Minister. On the left hand side, under “problems”, I had written:

Inflation

Interest rates

Unemployment

November 1990. Inflation was almost 11 per cent. Interest rates were stuck at 14 per cent. And unemployment was rising fast.

That day - three and a half years ago - they were our biggest problems.

Today?

Unemployment: down by 220,000 in just over a year. That’s a city about the size of Plymouth back in work.

Interest rates are at their lowest for over 20 years.

Inflation has been under three per cent for over a year - we haven’t seen that for a quarter of a century.

Taken together, our present economic position offers tremendous opportunities for the years ahead.

If I’d said in 1990 that we’d achieve those objectives so comprehensively in just three years, people would have said that I simply didn't understand the extent of Britain’s problems.

‘He’s new,’ they’d have said, ‘he'll soon grow out of it.’

But I haven’t grown out of it. Britain has.

And now exports are up, retail sales are up, productivity is up. Our economy is presently growing faster than any other leading European country - and that is expected to continue. So it’s time to start writing Britain up - and stop writing Britain off.

No-one else will get that message across. We must do it. So we must junk the jargon and put our case across in straightforward terms that everyone can understand.

Changing lives: schools

Take grant-maintained schools. You've all read the Central Office literature.

It’s very good literature. It gives all the information you need. It tells you we now have nearly 900 GM schools. But it doesn't make the policy live. Doesn't tell people what being grant-maintained really means.

These are local schools, funded by government. Voted for by local parents, run by local people - for local children.

And there are now over half a million children in them.

‘Trust the people’ is an old Conservative maxim. And that is exactly what we’re doing. Shifting power from Whitehall and from Town Hall - and back to local communities.

Our opponents seem uncomfortable with people having more choice. They don’t trust them with it. Where we decentralise they demoralise.

Well, I know who I admire. Not the Labour and Liberal education authorities who've tried to stand in the way of these local schools. But the Governors, parents and teachers who, in the teeth of sometimes bitter opposition, have had the courage and the vision to create them.

Changing lives: hospitals

And just look at this, a Liberal leaflet dealing with another policy where we are taking power from the centre and giving it to the people - health.

Do any of you remember the Kincardine by-election? I do.

The local hospital wanted to become self-governing within the NHS. But the Liberals wanted people to think the hospital was leaving the Health Service.

So they said the Trust was a dangerous first step towards privatisation. Simply untrue.

People were worried. And they voted Liberal in the by-election. But the Trust went ahead. And what happened? Well, I'll tell you what didn't happen - privatisation didn't happen.

And I tell you what else didn't happen. Something that’s owed to people in that part of Scotland and to that hospital - an apology from the Liberal Party.

Since then that self-governing hospital - freed from Health Service bureaucracy - has treated a record number of patients.

Waiting times and lists are down. And it has new services it never had before.

And, at the General Election, the seat came back home to the Conservatives.

But, what happened in Kincardine has happened right across the Health Service.

Since the reforms we are now treating 1,000,000 more patients a year than we did before. One million more. Don’t just glide over that. Behind every one of that million lies a personal story of care given and hope revived.

So don’t worry about partisan criticism. It is in the nature of politics at the moment. It will pass. And time will root out the truth.

And the truth is that a Labour Government may have set up the Health Service. But it’s Conservative Governments that have built it up.

Changing lives: public service

We are sweeping out the cobwebs of the public sector. Sometimes what we find is uncomfortable. But we’re right to expose poor service - so we can improve it.

That is the aim of the Citizen’s Charter. It’s a ten-year programme to transform the quality of public services.

That’s why every one of the 24,000 schools in the land is being inspected in just four years. Under the old system it would have taken 200 years to inspect just the primary schools. Now reports are sent out on every child. Exam results - and truancy tables - are published for all to see.

Every hospital in the land is setting times for appointments. We have reduced the time people wait for hip, knee and eye operations. Three out of every four people are now treated within three months.

And those in genuine need of key benefits have seen the time taken to deal with their claims cut by a third.

These are real changes improving real lives.

I belong to the school of thought that believes that people should get as good a service in the public sector as if they’d gone to the private sector and paid cash on the nail. And we are determined they will.

Looking forward

These are some of the things that have been achieved in the last three years. It’s time to lift our heads above the parapet and say so.

We have to look to the future. So let us travel forward for a moment.

And then look back from - let us say - spring 1997. I pick that date at random, of course.

By then we will have had 48 months of steady economic growth. More new companies up and running. More people back in work. More families better off.

Why? Because we've got the fundamentals of the economy right today.

In 1997 we'll see British industry manufacturing more. Selling more. Exporting more. Proving that British firms can make at home and sell abroad.

Why? Because British companies are now more competitive than anywhere else in Europe. And they'll stay that way, so long as we keep the Social Chapter at bay.

We'll see more people owning their own homes. More people living in decent housing, not anonymous tower blocks.

Why? Because we'll press ahead with the Right to Buy and private renting, and we’re going back to housing on a human scale.

We'll see more children in nursery education. New apprenticeships. And more young people going on to colleges and universities.

Why? Because we’re not just interested in raising standards in the schools. We want better education for all - for life and through life.

We'll see more being spent on the arts, on charity, on sport. And we'll see more people taking part in them.

Why? Because we'll have a national lottery, raising billions of pounds for good causes and the national heritage.

And I also hope we'll see more team sport back in our schools. I have no time for those Left-wing ideologues who oppose competitive sport.

Put children together and what do you see. They run. They jump. They fight. They compete. It is their natural instinct. We don't help them by hiding that away from them. Life can be tough. They need to know victory and defeat. And the sooner they learn it, the better equipped they will be for life.

These are some of the things there'll be more of three years from now.

But also let me tell you what there'll be less of.

There will be fewer people committing Social Security fraud - because we are bringing in modern technology to beat the cheats.

I know the British instinct. We’re always ready to help someone in genuine need. But there’s a counterpoint to that - and it’s a real sense of anger against people who cheat the system and take advantage of others, often poorer than themselves except in those qualities of decency and honesty that make this country what it is.

There'll be fewer squatters on private property. The Criminal Justice Bill means trespassers really will be prosecuted, and not before time.

There'll be fewer young criminals on the loose creating mayhem. There'll be secure homes for them and safer streets for the public.

There'll be fewer offenders getting away with just a caution. There should be fewer people committing offences while out on bail, because if they do, they can be certain that the courts can come down on them hard.

And especially down here in the West Country, decent hard-working people are fed up with people invading their property and destroying their crops. In future, if these New Age travellers drive in, the police will have powers to drive them out.

So much of what I've described is just plain commonsense, building on old principles. Marking out a clear line between right and wrong.That’s what I mean by going back to basics. And I’m certain of this. Britain needs more of those basics, not less. And I don't think there's anyone here today who wouldn't agree with that.

Many of you here are facing local elections in the weeks ahead - some against Labour, some against the Liberals.

But whoever your opponent is, the first thing to do is to take pride in your own record.

Ever since the birth of the modern Conservative Party our local councillors have been one of our greatest strengths.

Last month at our Local Government Conference in London we set out the policies on which we'll be standing.

Higher standards in schools. More say for the public. A tough line on crime.

And above all, keeping the Council Tax low. Here’s one figure to take out with you and say day after day after day. Conservative councils cost you £131 less than Labour ones. £131. Knock that home.

Wherever you go tell them. Conservative councils cost you less. Labour councils just cost you.

Let me just say a word or two about the sheer incompetence of some of those Labour councils.

Last year John Smith spoke of his concern about growing cynicism in politics. About the need for standards of integrity and honour. And about politics being a moral activity.

Let me break with the adversarial nature of British politics. I agree with Mr Smith about that. But Mr Smith, you must be consistent.

It’s not possible to talk about standards of integrity and honour if senior members of the Labour Party condemn people before an enquiry has reported.

You can't have standards of integrity and honour if they make false allegations and never retract. If they charge impartial public servants with political bias.

By all means let's maintain those high standards. But let us do it right across the board. And let that include Labour councils.

Let Mr Smith condemn councils like Lambeth.

I wonder if any of you saw the report about how much it cost to get two gas fires fitted in Lambeth? In the real world it costs £500. But what did it say it cost in Lambeth?

£2000?

£5000?

£25,000?

No. In Lambeth, it said that two gas fires cost the taxpayer £71,000. That’s 140 times the usual price. It’s scarcely believable - but I fear it’s true.

And let’s not stop there.

Take Derbyshire. Where did the Chairman of the Finance Committee have his office? In his prison cell.

He'd been jailed for fraud. But he still went on getting his allowances and running the council’s finances. Nothing seems to be barred in the modern Labour Party.

Local elections: Liberals

I don’t want to waste much time on Liberal councils, though come to think of it waste would be a good place to start.

But here in Plymouth, just a stone’s throw from Devonport, let’s take a cool sceptical look about Liberal claims for the West Country. Down here they said that Devonport should get the Trident contract. Up in Scotland they said Rosyth should get it.

When it came to the crunch, they backed Rosyth. When put to the test the Liberals put Devonport last. That tells you everything you need to know about Liberal concern for the West country.

At council level Liberal and Labour work together. The only time they compete is about who can charge the taxpayer more.

Liberal councils are asking £67 extra on average on your Council Tax bill. Liberal Richmond has had the biggest rise in London - almost four times the rate of inflation.

Liberal-led Hampshire has had the biggest rise in the Shires - more than five times the rate of inflation.

If you want high standards of service and good value for money in local government, Conservative councils win hands down.

Let everyone remember that on May 5th.

European elections

In the last week of the General Election, when we were way behind in the polls, I spoke out about the Union between Britain and Scotland.

Some people thought I’d gone mad.

But it was the right thing to do.

Many of you will remember the long, bruising debates about Maastricht. It was not easy to get it through.

But it was the right thing to do.

Now, we are engaged in difficult negotiations with our partners in Europe. We are under furious assault from some quarters on both sides of the channel.

But preserving British interests is the right thing to do.

These negotiations are difficult. Points at issue are important and complex.

But they are not insoluble. It is quite possible to get an agreement that secures our interests without damaging the concerns of our partners. That is what negotiation in Europe is about.

I hope we can succeed, because enlargement of the Community is an important prize.

Unfortunately as so often happens with the European debate, the complexities of the issue have been lost.

It is cheap and easy to say that our position has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with Party management.

But it is untrue.

And isn't it absurd that whenever the British Government takes a stand upon a legitimate interest we are parodied as being anti-European?

No one thinks that of the French, the Germans or the Spanish when they take a stand in their interests. Nor should they, because every country in Europe fights its own corner very hard.

Frankly, those people who comment in this way should just grow up and learn what the European debate is really about.

We fight hard for our vision of Europe because we want Europe to succeed. Being a good European doesn't mean you sign up to every dot and comma that our partners propose.

It does mean we use our own judgement about the long-term interests of the Community. Because our national interests, our economic interests, our jobs, our livelihoods are engaged in Europe as never before.

Over half of all our exports go there. To a huge single market right on our doorstep that Conservative Britain helped to create.

Thousands of British companies, large and small, trade with Europe and provide huge numbers of jobs. And it is in the homes that their workers go back to at the end of the day that Britain’s interests in Europe are felt.

And there is one other priceless legacy of our partnership in Europe. And that has been a Europe free of war.

Fifty years ago a huge armada of ships and men gathered on the South coast to liberate the Continent. To end a war which had ravaged Europe. In June we will remember those veterans and thank them.

Because of them, we have had an unparalleled prize. Fifty years of peace in Western Europe. Do you know when Europe last enjoyed 50 years of uninterrupted peace? If I tell you that the Cabinet then had names like Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, you get the idea. 1800 years.

Today, our interests lie in being part of a Europe that sustains that peace. And keeps peace elsewhere.

A week ago I was in Bosnia on the borders of the European Union.

I visited Gorniy Vakuf, Vitez, Bugojno and Sarajevo and saw British troops helping deliver a new peace.

In Gorniy Vakuf we saw villagers return to their shattered homes, carrying furniture on handcarts and children returning to play on the streets for the first time for months.

In Sarajevo we saw a city return to life after months of nightmare and British troops dominating the trouble spots.

Aid convoys often now travel unmolested and unescorted as troops corral weapons, man checkpoints, and keep former combatants apart.

I've seen the British Army operate in many parts of the world. But I can say to you with perfect conviction that I have never been prouder of the British Army than I was last week.

This was Britain in the heart of Europe.

So we are firmly a part of Europe and let us conduct the debate on that basis. The decision in June is about how we shape that Europe. It is not Europe right or wrong. It is Europe Right or Left.

And the distinction between those positions is very sharp. The policies of the Labour and Liberal Parties in this country on Europe are startlingly similar.

Between them they would impose a minimum wage. A 35 hour week. They would renegotiate our rebate. Double Community spending. And if that is not enough, they would surrender our national veto.

And what does that mean? It means we would no longer control our foreign policy. Our defence policy. Our planning controls and much else besides.

What kind of manifesto is that? I'll tell you. It’s one we should publicise - North, South, East and West. There aren't just differences between us and the other parties - there’s a yawning gulf.

People tell me they are confused as to where John Smith stands on Europe. So let me help you.

In 1971 Labour opposed Europe, but John Smith voted for it.

The following year, although he still said he was for it, he voted against. And he was against Europe through most of the 1980s.

In 1992, John Smith became Labour Leader. Labour was now officially in favour of Europe, but Mr Smith told his Party to abstain.

But now it’s 1994. And whatever Europe wants is good enough for him. He has abdicated independent judgement.

So I hope you now understand where John Smith stands on Europe. And if you do, will you write it down on a postcard and send it to him. I’m sure he’ll be extremely grateful.

If you know any Conservatives who are saying: ‘These elections don’t matter’, or ‘I don’t see why I should help’, just tell them, too.

They do matter. And - if they care about Britain - they should help. For if they sit at home, others won’t. And people who believe - passionately - that we should be submerged in a different kind of European state will be out there day in, day out, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets.

If in the next couple of months you look out of your window and you see people with red or orange rosettes going up and down your street campaigning, just remember this.

They too, have a view about Europe. But it’s not your view, it’s not mine. And it’s not the view of the people of this country.

We have a vision - one that’s right for this country and right for Europe. And we will pursue that vision best with the help of more Conservative MEPs back in the European Parliament.

Peroration

I wasn't born a Conservative. I became one. By choice and by conviction.

I don’t believe a great country is built by Government or planned from the centre.

Governments can open doors, remove obstacles, point the way.

But it's people down the ages who have made our country what it is. Millions of people who never make the headlines - working together to better themselves and make a better future for their children.

I believe that the people who made Britain - if only they have the confidence - can help to make Europe too.

We’re an old Party. Were an old country. We have values and experience that make us equal to any challenge.

In our Party we don't walk away from difficulties. We go out there to meet them, solve them and turn them into success. That's what we've always done. And that’s what we will do again.