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1995 - Mr Major’s Speech to the Conservative Women’s Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Conservative Women’s Conference, held in London on Friday 1st December 1995.


PRIME MINISTER:

I've come to talk to you today about one word, pride.

Pride in our country, pride in ourselves and - yes - pride in what this Government is doing. This week - a momentous one indeed - we have seen what Britain is really about.

Perhaps the moment when it struck me most forcibly was while I listened to the President of the United States speaking the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords.

Sometimes it takes a friend from abroad to see us as we really are.

He gave an historic address to both Houses of Parliament against the grandeur and pageantry which only our country can display to such inspiring effect.

He knows that we are the ally upon whom America can rely in pursuit of the great values which we share:

- love of freedom;

- enrichment of democracy;

- faith in the individual;

- and the sense of mission and purpose which has so often given us the strength to stand alone in defence of the things we treasure.

That relationship is not an empty idea from the vacuum of the sound-bite or the easy phrase. Relationships of this sort are not self-sustaining, bestowed by some charitable act of history upon one nation from another. They have to be worked at, fought for, nurtured.

America would not look to us in any nostalgic sense, because of events long-since past. They look to us because our nation is a rock. An ally whom they know has the same instincts and interests. An ally upon whom they have relied in the past and upon whom they can rely in the future. Generations now gone would easily understand this. We owe it to them to sustain that same spirit and that same commitment. We will enjoy our relationship with the United States because, by our own endeavours, we are a fitting partner.

In tackling one of the greatest challenges Europe faces today, we can be proud that Britain is there, soon to be joined by America, playing her part.

The Bosnian peace agreement is a very helpful beginning.

Success there is vital, not only for Bosnian, but for international security. Vital for the standing of NATO and the health of Europe.

That’s why Britain is getting ready to send 13,000 troops to Bosnia over the next year.

Thirteen thousand of the most effective soldiers anywhere in the world, a contingent second to none.

This wasn't an easy or cheap decision.

But it is the right decision.

Because we’re not afraid to give a lead, as we have done through three years of terrible conflict. This is an issue of massive potential and consequence. I would have made that commitment if it were only for humanitarian reasons, for I hate the loss of life, the brutality, the cynical disregard of every decent value.

But anyone who has the first understanding of the implications of political collapse in the Balkans realises that Britain’s self interest remains with the peaceful containment and resolution of its problems.

So we must make sure the peace agreement succeeds, right through to the end.

Northern Ireland

Peace is relevant at home as well as abroad.

The cause of peace in Northern Ireland has received a huge boost this week.

Can anyone who witnessed President Clinton’s remarkable visit to Northern Ireland seriously contemplate a return to bombing and shooting?

We saw a Northern Ireland enjoying the prospect of a second Christmas in peace.

A Northern Ireland hearing him support our call for violence and punishment beatings to cease, for ever.

Earlier in the week, the Irish Prime Minister and I launched a new initiative. It has two aims, two tracks.

First, it’s time all the political parties of Northern Ireland began to prepare seriously for negotiations on a just and comprehensive settlement.

It’s time for them - each of them - to make their contribution to peace.

Their people, their supporters, want a lasting peace and a fair settlement, not just a ceasefire.

That’s the unmistakable message from the shops and the factories, the streets and the villages of Northern Ireland.

We, the Government, can facilitate the process.

But we can’t decide it.

The parties themselves have to decide how they are going to negotiate.

If this process is to succeed - as it must - they must begin to show flexibility.

No-one can have a veto on progress.

No-one should be allowed to block the road, by sticking to rigid and uncompromising positions which others can never accept.

Now is the time for the Northern Ireland parties and their leaders to show open-mindedness, and to have the courage to step out of the bunkers they built during Ulster’s troubles.

It’s time to put aside the old hatreds and the old feuds and the old mistrusts that have served Ulster ill for too long.

That is the aim of the preparatory talks we are convening.

And there’s a second aim to our initiative.

Some parties represent illegally armed paramilitary organisations which, to this day, are training, plotting, intimidating and making savage assaults on other people.

If they are to enter constitutional negotiations, they are going to have to change their ways. They are going to have to show that they, like other parties, are committed to exclusively peaceful methods.

Words aren't enough.

So we have set up an advisory international body to discuss how the paramilitaries are going to decommission their arms.

People who mean peace don’t need guns.

The time has come for them to start ridding themselves of weapons and explosives so that they, too, can join the constitutional negotiations.

The British and Irish Governments have again given a lead, just as we did with the Downing Street Declaration two years ago.

That Declaration led, after several months, to the ceasefires.

I hope this week’s initiative will lead by the end of February to negotiations for which all parties will qualify.

It’s now up to them to respond to our lead.

Getting to this stage in the process has taken years of effort. We have always been working for the long term.

Three years ago, to talk of peace in Northern Ireland seemed like a grim joke. Today, it is becoming a possibility. Tomorrow, I hope it will be reality.

The Budget

Madam Chairman, I said my theme was pride.

Today’s conference is our opportunity to show how this week’s events (and not just in Bosnia or Northern Ireland) fit in to the long term goals for this country which I set myself five years ago.

I take pride in the strength of Britain’s economy. I can remember no time in my political lifetime when the economic prospects for our country looked more promising.

Every politician claims they can create economic success. The difference is, Madam Chairman, we have actually achieved it.

The best industrial relations for a hundred years, the best inflation record for nearly 50 years, record exports, a third of all the inward investment coming into Europe.

Madam Chairman, surely and securely, we’re building for Britain’s long term prosperity.

That’s why I’m proud of the budget Kenneth Clarke delivered this week.

Well, I read all the pre-Budget options. Bribe people. Take risks. Don’t worry about the long-term, it’s the short-term that matters. I’ve heard it all my life, and I tell you this - I won’t do it. I won’t do it for one overriding reason: it would be wrong for Britain.

If we’d have taken some of the more flamboyant advice we’d been offered, many of them most forward with their views would have been the first to criticise us for being silly enough to take it. The British people have worked too hard, sacrificed too much to achieve the excellent prospects that lie ahead for us to even consider putting it at risk. We are not that sort of Government.

Ken Clarke’s Budget had three clear objectives.

To build on the strength that his earlier Budgets had created.

To increase the nation’s commitment to raise standards in our classrooms, expand the health service and back the police in their growing success in their fight against crime.

And to reward those millions of our citizens who have worked so hard to help to build the economic success we now enjoy by giving back to people, in as fair a way as we could devise, a growing share of their own money.

This morning the Chancellor made an excellent speech outlining his Budget. I warmly congratulate him on it.

In planning the nation’s finances, it’s vital to get the long term arithmetic right.

And that’s what we’re determined to do.

Reducing the overall amount Government spends and borrows. Spending more on our hospitals, schools and police. Leaving more money in people’s pockets by cutting taxes.

Widening the bands. Cutting the basic rate. And introducing a new, lower 20 per cent rate on savings.

Now a quarter of all taxpayers will pay tax at 20p.

In time, 20p will become the basic rate.

That’s the way to the future. To prosperity that lasts.

And it’s the way we'll continue to build a prosperity in which we shall all share.

Welfare

But this budget also had measures to deal with other long term issues.

As more people live longer, paying for their care is one of society’s major challenges.

To leave our children a welfare system which works and they can afford, we must plan ahead. We are developing imaginative solutions to address the growing cost of long term care.

So we’re examining how to encourage people to provide for themselves and share the cost with the state. Protecting their wealth so it can be passed on to their heirs.

And shorter term, we'll be raising the capital threshold so people who face these costs will be able to keep more of their assets.

We'll go on working at this problem.

We owe it to elderly people. We owe it to our children. And we'll not just talk about it - we'll do it.

Welfare should always be there for elderly people with nowhere to turn. Just as it should be there for the unemployed looking for jobs. The weak and disabled with no support.

The people of this country are always ready to lend a hand to those who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times.

We have one of the most comprehensive social security safety nets in the world.

To run it costs the average worker £15 every working day.

Until recently, the social security budget was rocketing up. Eating into more and more of people’s pay packets. Thanks to the fight against fraud and targeting benefits on those in greatest need, it’s now growing more slowly than the economy as a whole.

We must keep it that way. And we must ensure that people have incentives to look after themselves and families, and not rely on the state.

This week’s budget provided more concrete help for the unemployed. We know jobs for the future are created by enterprise, not government.

But governments can help those who have been out of work for sometime to regain the confidence and work experience they need.

And we can ensure that people have the incentives and motivation to move from welfare into work.

In my speech at Blackpool a few weeks ago, I talked about our plans to develop a contract for work.

And this morning, Gillian Shephard announced we are proceeding with pilots to offer new opportunities for work experience to the long term unemployed.

The majority who are genuinely seeking work will find this a lifeline. But those who refuse to take an offer of work experience will lose some or all of their benefit.

Another example, Madam Chairman, of how we develop long term policies to deal with long term problems - and then take real action.

Once again, we will look with interest at whether the Labour party has the courage to support us.

Madam Chairman, we’re steadily building the economic foundations to double our living standards in twenty five years.

Those foundations can easily be wrecked by the wrong policies or the wrong government.

Compare Ken Clarke’s carefully constructed Budget with Labour’s ramshackle plans.

Instead of sensible economic policies they offer gimmicks.

Remember Gordon Brown’s lop tax gimmick? No sooner was it out of his mouth than it became a long term objective, then disappeared into silence.

The leader of the Labour Party claims that he doesn't want to put up taxes.

The Deputy Leader, that affable character from Kingston upon Hull, doesn't quite agree.

Labour ‘should not follow the Government down the road of reducing the basic rate of tax’ he said.

And in case that was just a slip from the mouth of the Humber, he’s also said that under Labour there’d ‘certainly’ be a higher top rate.

That’s refreshingly frank. And undoubtedly true. But it’s certainly not what the Labour leader told the CBI, or anyone who’d listen.

I know Labour now say they believe in choice, but the only choice they offer is who to believe: the Labour Leader or the Deputy Leader?

I know what experience suggests. They've voted against tax cuts all their lives.

They approach every problem with a flapping chequebook. They hold the pen, but it’s your chequebook and your money.

And spending more means only one thing. They would have to put up taxes. It’s as simple as that.

Without higher taxes, Labour’s sums don’t add up.

The Nation

I don’t usually quote Roy Hattersley with approval, but he was surely right to say Labour has become less a moral crusade and more of a marketing campaign.

And it needs marketing because it’s a dismal product.

But, Madam Chairman, while Labour run their marketing campaigns in their own interests, we’re running the country in the national interest.

We are preparing Britain for the challenges of the future. Immediately ahead of us is the European Council in Madrid.

I act in Europe with only one interest in mind: Britain’s national interest.

Sometimes that means we can’t agree with our European partners. If that’s the case, so be it.

I want Europe to succeed, but not at Britain’s expense.

The Labour leader says it’s his policy never to be isolated in Europe.

Think what that would mean.

Imagine if Margaret Thatcher had never been isolated, we’d never have had our budget rebate worth billions of pounds to British taxpayers.

If I’d never been isolated we’d have no opt-out from the Single Currency. We’d not have the choice to join or not to join as British interest dictates.

If I had never been isolated, Britain would now be in the Social Chapter, losing jobs rather than gaining investment.

Of course, we know that the Labour leader would take us into the Social Chapter. He made out that it was like buffet lunch: you can have some dishes, but not others. Pick and mix. Choose only what you like.

Of course, European policy is very complex. Some of it is difficult to understand. And the Labour leader hasn't had any experience of European summits.

Or, indeed, any summits except Labour summits. And to avoid being isolated at those, he doesn't invite the Deputy Leader.

But, on the Social Chapter, he’s plain wrong.

The Social Chapter is a mechanism, a means to an end. On much of it, there’s no veto. No picking and choosing. You have to swallow the lot.

Tomorrow, I gather he may be talking about Europe again. Last time, he misled the country. Inadvertently, no doubt. He should put the record straight. We'll watch to see if he does, and if he doesn't, we'll prod him again and again - until he does.

The fact is - even if you prefer co-operation to confrontation - sometimes it’s necessary to stand up for British interests, even if our partners disagree. I believe that is the job of the British Prime Minister. And if you’re not prepared to do the job, don’t seek it.

My patriotism is not jingoistic tub-thumping. It’s a deep respect for the people and traditions of our nation.

The strongest foundation of our society is our United Kingdom.

Some say the nation state will soon be irrelevant.

I disagree.

In a changing world, people want to hang on to what’s familiar. The nation state offers that reassurance and continuity. It matters to people as much today as it ever did.

I don't look to mend what isn't broken. I don't change things for change’s sake. We are, after all, the Conservative Party.

But to meet the challenges ahead, we must accept change where change is due.

That’s why, this week, Michael Forsyth proposed changes to improve the Government of Scotland.

But we are the Conservative and Unionist Party.

We must protect the union of proud countries. Some people in Scotland want independence.

There’s nothing to stop them going their own way. But it’s my task, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to point out the dangers of that happening.

Will the Scots feel the Union gives them a better deal if they have to pay the extra Tartan Tax? It’s a straight tax on Scottish jobs, on Scottish investment, on Scotland’s future prosperity.

Moreover, Labour’s Scottish spokesman has made it clear. He believes the majority of MPs in the Parliament at Westminster should not have the final say on the Laws of Scotland, but must defer to the majority party in Scotland. Would they apply the same proposition to England?

For on that basis, few past Labour Governments could have Governed England - they had no majority in England. What sort of perversion of our Constitution are they prepared to tolerate?

Either they fail to grasp the dangers of such devolution, or they’re prepared to sell the crown jewels of our political heritage in a desperate bid for votes. For they are putting the whole constitution of our country into question. As they plan that, how dare they talk of the national interest?

Down the years, our Union has weathered all that our enemies have thrown at us.

What folly if Labour were allowed to do what our enemies never achieved - split our island apart and set one people against another. What stupidity.

Yet, that would be the effect of Labour policy. They offer a tax-raising parliament to out-flank the SNP for their Labour Party advantage. Yet that very Parliament would prove to be the very mechanism to maximise conflict and wreck the Union.

What an irony it would be. In opposition we know Labour knock our country. If they ever came to power, they would divide it and we would all rue it.

There’s only one Party that will protect the unity of Britain. That represents our whole nation. That’s our Party - the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Party of the Union. We care for the Union. We care for the nation state. And in our hands - and only our hands - it is safe.

Peroration

Wherever I go in the world, Britain’s reputation is on a high.

The resentments of Empire have been replaced by the affections of commonwealth.

Britain’s economic revolution is studied and copied across the globe.

Exports markets daily open wider, for products that are made in Britain and sold from Britain.

Our military services advise Government across the world because our standards are respected and admired.

Students flock here from all over the world to take advantage of our academic achievements.

So yes, I am proud to be Prime Minister of this country. Proud to be Leader of this Party.

The only Party that believes in Britain. That articulates the success of Britain. That travels the world explaining the triumphs of Britain.

And if we have to do that against the clamour of the Opposition Parties and despite the relentless self-destruct mode of too much of our national media, we must shout louder, shout longer and shout with more conviction.

Madam Chairman, we should have more confidence in ourselves and in our Party. We have piloted this country through very rough economic weather.

We have taken decisions unpopular for our Party because we judged them to be right for our country.

The fruits of those decisions are now becoming clear.

We have led this country to an opportunity of unimaginable dimensions. Together, we shall ensure not only that the prizes are there to win, but that we are there to win them.