1997 Onwards -
Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech, “The Churchill Lecture”, held at Churchill College in Cambridge on Friday 26th November 2010.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
THE LIMITS OF POWER : CONSERVATIVE EXPERIENCE AND OPPORTUNITY
This year is the 50th Anniversary of Churchill College, which was founded as a Memorial to arguably the greatest man in the history of our Islands.
Sir Winston would be proud of this College. Proud that it focuses on science and technology. Proud that it houses the Archives of men and women who have influenced public policy. And proud that his daughter, Lady Soames -
I, too, am proud -
Most are already here, and those that I’ve held back -
I speak as a politician. Not an ideologue and not a theorist. I became a Conservative over fifty years ago, when I was barely in my teens and living in a multi-
I don’t claim that every aspect of Conservatism was -
Some have wondered why a boy with no money, no influence and no family background in politics should become a Conservative.
The answer is simple. Socialism told me a benevolent State would help me -
Not everything turned out as I hoped: in politics, as in life, it rarely does. I had hoped my background would enable me to make Conservatism the natural choice for future generations from communities like Brixton. But events took over. When I became Prime Minister, the economy was broken and needed mending. And when it was back to full health -
But, even in failure, there are lessons and I shall try to set them out. Some of what I say may re-
Let me set some context.
Over the last 60 years, the world has changed at a pace without precedent in human history. Nothing is as it was, nor will be as it is.
Instant, accessible and cheap electronic communication has changed the very nature of politics. Direct face-
The once hallowed distinction between “news” and “views” has gone. “News” is now part of a sharply competitive entertainment industry: one might call it -
Satellite coverage has multiplied the number of channels. Competition has made the media more demanding, more intrusive. Media outlets thrive on drama and sensation and -
There’s no point in complaining about this: it’s the world in which we live. And politicians cannot simply blame others for public intolerance towards them. To be elected, they set out promises but -
Today, every Government is at the mercy of the global market. François Mitterrand – always more of an historian than politician – used to express alarm that the volume and velocity of financial flows were beyond the control of any Government. He was right. Sterling’s exit from the ERM taught us that seventeen years ago. Today, the Market is even more powerful.
As the Global Market has grown, the influence of Governments has shrunk: even basic policies such as tax must conform to international norms, or investment moves away.
The same internationalism is evident in foreign policy.
More than ever before governments only share in the solution of common problems after negotiation in a plethora of international bodies. This is frustrating: and one reason why successive British Prime Ministers are less pro-
The uncomfortable truth is that the limits of power for politicians are narrower than many suppose. The modern Head of Government may wish to bestride the political stage like a colossus, but events can reduce him (or her) to no more than a cork bobbing on the waves.
But not always. Consider: if Labour hadn’t imploded during the “Winter of Discontent”, would Margaret Thatcher have been able to enact such wide-
Out of this chaos, came opportunity. Margaret Thatcher saw her chance and seized it.
Even so, she was fortunate. She had a clear cut majority in Parliament. It is far easier to be bold with troops united at your back, than dis-
That is why David Cameron was wise to agree a five-
But, even with a working majority, Prime Ministers must bend to reality. Again, let me draw from my own experience.
In 1989, Margaret Thatcher and I took Sterling into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. We did so to general acclaim.
For 50 years, inflation had bedevilled the UK economy. Two Chancellors, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, both believers in the free market -
She did so with her eyes open. She was persuaded by reality. There was no alternative. Prices and mortgages were soaring and we had to bring them down. We entered the Mechanism to do so. This mattered to Margaret. Those for whom she most cared -
The ERM medicine was acutely painful, but it did drive prices down, and set us on a path to economic well-
As we returned to growth, I wished to exit the Mechanism. It had done its work and I’d never thought of it as a stepping stone to economic and monetary union. It was time to leave. But the dilemma was how to do so without ending up with a lower exchange rate and higher inflation. This dilemma was still unresolved when the Market swept Sterling out of the ERM: an economic liberation, but a political disaster that grew to dominate the perception of all we did in Office.
After our ejection, the myths began. We had entered at the “wrong rate” said free-
It was widely asserted that this episode had “wrecked our reputation for economic competence”. At the time, such a sentiment had resonance. But critics should pause. The decision I had taken at Maastricht -
As ever, facts are more potent than the words of critics or supporters. On the day I became Prime Minister, interest rates were 14%, unemployment was soaring, the economy was collapsing, inflation was 9.7% and the tax burden 36.3%. When I left Office, interest rates were 6%, unemployment was falling, the economy was growing healthily, inflation was 2.6% and the tax burden 36.6%.
No other Government had passed on such a sound legacy. Yet few acknowledged the turnaround, or credited the Government with it.
We Conservatives are to blame. In Government, we should have explained more and assumed less. In Opposition, after 1997, we shouldn’t have let myths take root: but we were demoralised by defeat -
New Labour offers lessons, too. In 1997, they gained a huge majority from a supportive public. They could have done anything. But, after eighteen years out of Office, they were determined not to return to Opposition. The public were told what focus groups said they wished to hear. Good news was announced and re announced. Bad news was buried. And the electorate was bribed with its own money. Emerging problems were ignored and are still with us.
The general effect was a giant Ponzi Scheme, in which everyone was made to feel better whilst being fleeced. In its own way, it was genius. But it was not serious Government -
Yet Labour’s neglect of these has left David Cameron an opportunity similar to the one Margaret Thatcher seized: once again, there is a mood of public tolerance to change.
So let me turn to the future. Our national well-
This brings me directly to the Coalition Government.
Many Tories and Liberals are hostile -
Can a Coalition Government succeed? I think so.
Coalition, per se, is not a problem. The Conservative Party is, itself, a coalition: a broad Church that is more a way of life than an ideology. To win elections it must attract support from the Centre and, where it can, from the Centre-
If it falls into schism, it repels electors. Such internecine warfare scarred my own Premiership, and the leadership in Opposition of my three immediate successors. When the Conservative Party shrinks into itself, it shrivels into un-
Can the Coalition achieve its purpose in five years? It will be hard pounding but its programme is essential to national well-
Neither Party will admit that possibility at present, not least because it would upset their core vote but -
I seem to recall the Liberal Party was saved as a Parliamentary force in 1951, by the Conservatives not opposing five of its MPs: progressive co-
The Coalition has a daunting agenda. They must repair our national finances. Restore economic efficiency. Reconfigure foreign and European policy. Help an under-
Nor is that all. Climate change, population growth and the alleviation of poverty will demand attention. So will trouble spots in the arc of uncertainty from Syria to Pakistan. Do not be surprised if politics is in a hyperactive phase for years to come.
Some priorities won’t wait. National well-
Governments can’t create wealth. The private sector can. To help them, the Coalition need, within this Parliament, to offer certainty in the tax and regulatory regime. Revisit employment law to create jobs. Lower taxes, and remove obstacles to growth. Tone of voice matters, too: the Government must promote success, and condemn the sour envy and resentment that so often derides it.
There is one old truth that should not be forgotten.
If the State is too big, the Private Sector will be too small. A smaller State -
Some may reject this. They like big Government. Labour policy is to regard any “cuts” as a plot to shrink the State, thus ignoring the inconvenient truth that, had they won the election, they would have been forced to a similar policy.
A smaller State is not a devil-
Nor should they shrink from any debate about how to maximise our national self-
In the recent Defence Review it was decided to extend the present life of Trident, but not yet to replace it. Few subjects so exercise Conservatives as national security but I believe this was the right decision. A bigger decision on replacement lies ahead with some unavoidable questions: what is the opportunity cost of Trident in the loss of conventional capability? In what circumstances, and upon whom, is Trident likely to be used? These are uncomfortable questions, but they must be answered before billions are committed.
As our military power is reduced, our “soft” power – that is, diplomacy and the ability to achieve our purpose by persuasion -
As a middle-
Sustaining overseas aid, as the Government is doing, is a legitimate part of this policy. So is boosting education links and improving overseas broadcasting. We are lucky. We have the enviable gift of our language and culture to build on. Soft power must become an indivisible part of long-
Our diplomacy is a priceless asset. In the United Kingdom, our most important alliance is, and will remain, with the United States. We are -
We have often led policy before. In Europe, the Single Market and enlargement were British-
We should lead more often. If we do, others may follow. We should not under-
There is an issue David Cameron and his successors cannot avoid: the character and reputation of Government. Parliament has had some serious setbacks in the last thirty years that have damaged its reputation.
There are many reasons for this. One is political funding. The present system is not sustainable. When wealthy individuals make large donations -
Similar reservations apply to funding from special interest groups, notably Trades Unions and business corporations. Limits must be placed on these contributions and -
Greater scrutiny leads to a public awareness of shortcomings among Parliamentarians that may have gone unnoticed in earlier years.
There have been too many instances of personal frailty in all political Parties: the most damaging are those that involve financial mis-
Of course, the publicity in some cases was unfair, but the reality of criminal prosecutions shows that much was wrong. This dovetails into a bigger problem: alienation of the electorate. The growth of the far right, the fall in voting levels, the declining involvement in politics, and public estrangement from it, all add to the widespread feeling that Parliament is “out of touch” and politicians and public are too far apart.
It is easy to see why. People work hard. Pay too much tax. Earn -
These people are not selfish. Or racist. They are worried, some even frightened, by their own circumstances. Often they are economically immobile. They feel trapped. They believe no-
It won’t be easy. Dis-
Other objectives should be to tackle the fearsome bureaucracies that bear down on them. The Man in Whitehall or Town Hall does not know best. They are, too often, arrogant in their treatment of the citizen. We should be wary of the individual liberties they crush.
Tackle these issues, and the Coalition may hit the political mother-
In so many areas I welcome the ambitions of the Government. It is fashionable to be pessimistic and to sneer that Britain does not count any more.
I profoundly disagree with such cynicism. It is not only cheap -
We matter because of our history. Our language. Our law.
And we matter because of what we can do -
And we matter because of what we are. Our quality as a Partner. Our reputation as an honest broker. Our generous impulse to crisis. Our culture. Our theatre. Our literature. Our tolerant instincts as a Nation.
Sometimes, in politics, it is necessary to stand back and take stock. Now is such a moment. Our world has many complexities, but far more opportunities. If we arrange our affairs to take advantage of them, our future can be so much more promising than even the most optimistic can believe.
For nearly seven years I was Prime Minister of this Country. I am proud of much of what we did. There are things I regret we did not do.
But I was always proud of my Country. Of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Its history. Its institutions. Its great figures like Winston Churchill, the Founder of this College. I still am: for all its shortcomings, I know of no place in which I would rather have served. And no place I would rather be.