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1993 - Mr Major’s Speech at the Newspaper Society Luncheon

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the Newspaper Society Luncheon, held on Wednesday 5th May 1993.


PRIME MINISTER:

Can I say that I do regard today as an important occasion to talk about some of the particular difficulties and some of the opportunities that are faced by the press generally but most importantly in terms of today's occasion, the regional press. It does I believe have a very special place in our community and I want to touch upon that in a little more detail in a few moments.

It is a rapidly changing industry, it has come a huge way since that old and hoary headline we all know about the sinking of the Titanic, Aberdeen Man Feared Lost at Sea - all that seems a very long time ago. Regional papers, local papers, have a much broader vision these days. New technology, new attitudes, new approaches, all of those in their different ways have transformed your industry. And if I may say so on this occasion, I think no-one pushed harder for such transformation than the great Malcolm Graham, the grand old man of regional press if I might put it that way, who sadly has just died and who I know must have been well known to many of the people here today.

I teased about Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea. But I have to say, despite the modern attitudes of your industry, despite the changes in it, the headline writers still occasionally have a tricky job. For example, I have in my hand the Lynn News. Those people who wonder whether I read the press now know that I read the regional press. And last week's Lynn News announced: "MP introduces his bride-to-be, Emma." Now that seems straightforward enough, doesn't it? Less straightforward than you might think. The Member of Parliament of course is our old friend Henry Bellingham who is shrinking into the tablecloth over there on that table, and I offer Henry my congratulations. His engagement, you may think, is just plain, simple, straightforward good news. Or is it? Read on in the Lynn News. It says here that an ancestor of Henry's murdered the Prime Minister and the Tories are the party of tradition. Family tradition, Henry, is a wonderful thing, but so is ambition, and they may clash.

My current favourite headline does not as it happens come from today's press but from headlines: "Better times", it says, "are really on the way". I think that should be good news for everyone although of course good news for some is bad news for others. And to quote a recent headline in the Financial Times: "British recovery worries Delors" - very snappy, I like it, and poor Jacques, if our recovery really does worry him, he is in for a very bad time in the future.

Mr President, let me say something about how I see the importance of your industry. Or perhaps a little better, let me quote Alan Proper from the Kent Messenger Group, and I do so now: "The strength of the regional press lies in binding together local communities and giving people back a sense of belonging." I think that is right. And in giving us just that you often, as you hinted in your modest remarks earlier, Mr President, you often out-perform the nationals. People want the news, they want to be informed, but I believe they want the good news as well as the other news, they want to know about local events and they want to contribute themselves. Public figures of course may respond to the press by lurching from blase to paranoid during the space of a single afternoon. But for private citizens penlines on the turn are an event. You can brighten lives or you can blight them. So I would say to you, dip your pens in kindliness and tolerance when writing of private citizens, you record the real Britain so be a recording angel when you do.

So far as public figures are concerned you may think different circumstances apply. I certainly know, and I see a number of my Parliamentary colleagues from different parties here today, I know many Members of Parliament are tempted to use Sir Jacob Astley's prayer. He wrote as follows:

"Oh Lord, thou knowest how busy I shall be this day,

If I forget thee, do not thou forget me."

A very wise man, Sir Jacob Astley, and any Westminster politician who thinks he can forget the real Britain and forget his local newspapers will be out of touch now and probably be out of office later.

I welcome unreservedly, and I say so not simply because Harry Roach is sitting opposite me, I would have said it anyway, if you spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons like I do you lose that sense of delicacy, I welcome unreservedly yesterday's statement by the Press Standard's Board of Finance outlining measures to strengthen self-regulation. The government is still considering its response to the Calcutt Report but I have not a shred of doubt that this positive move will play its part in moving the debate forward, we will keep a particularly close eye, Harry, on how effectively and widely the new measures are implemented.

The best of the national press can be very good even though it may not thunder like the times of delaying, often it drizzles, sometimes it drizzles acid rain. There are moments when Quintus Flyde of the People's Vanner appears to have leapt straight from the pages of Trollop into contemporary journalism. Quintus Flyde was very fierce with politicians and I think it has to be said that politicians are sometimes very fierce with the Quintus Flydes. Baldwin's memorable remarks about press power and responsibility have travelled famously down the years.

And last night reading in the watches of the night that remarkable Martin Gilbert biography of Churchill I came across Churchill's letter to The Times complaining that his editorials had, in his words, and now I quote, "been a very important adverse factor in the life and strengths of the British Empire and Commonwealth." And he went on, in remarkable fashion: "Time after time they have thrown their immense weight on the wrong side and such is their power that they have been able, again and again, to blow away the head of every front or formation which could be made to keep Britain great and strong."

Thank goodness it is not like that today. Churchill, you may equally be interested to know, wrote his letter, but as Martin Gilbert faithfully reports, he did not send his letter which suggests that underneath the frustration there was a very practical politician indeed.

Now obviously, just as the press has responsibilities to the public, so the government has responsibilities to let the public and the press know the state of our thinking. We will never be proscribers but there is a common climate of anxiety about malevolent abuse. Contemplate for a moment, particularly important I believe to the regional and local press, the new opportunities to challenge government and public services. Under the Citizen's Charter we are publishing more information about public services, about school league tables, hospital waiting times and shortly the performance of local authorities as well, comparing one with another. Rich pickings for local reporters, bad news for the inefficient, ammunition for the awkward squads and even fun for trouble-makers, but all now published and all available for use.

We are giving, too, much more detail of the thinking behind government policies. Ten times more background information accompanied this year's budget compared with 15 years ago and we are opening up the process of government, Cabinet Committees, historical records, disputed criminal verdicts, the Channel Island occupation papers, even the secret of the FCO Sphynx Suez - all now available. Sir Humphrey Appleby, a wonderful character, I believe of fiction, once said: "You can either have openness or you can have government, but you can't have both." I don't understand this next line but you can have William Waldegrave. And this summer he will be publishing a White Paper on openness with further proposals to open the workings of government and public services to public scrutiny. I want to turn Sir Humphrey into a melancholy ghost who has lost his mystique.

In recent weeks, Mr President, a cascade of economic information has been released that suggests we are moving out of recession and back into growth. The recovery is in its infancy but it is growing daily, GDP up 0.6 percent in the first quarter; new car registrations 11.5 percent up on a year ago; manufacturing output up; construction orders up; retail sales at record levels; exports at record levels; unemployment down for the second month in succession. And business optimism, so vital, that instinct, that feel that people have for what is likely to happen in the future, business optimism, as assessed by the CBI, the highest for 10 years. Other surveys, private sector, not government surveys, paint the same picture.

And the vital ingredient for our economic future is confidence, confidence that recovery has started, confidence it can be sustained, confidence we can compete successfully abroad in manufacturing and services. But confidence and recovery need to be earned. It was the long hard slog to get inflation down, down from nearly 11 percent to just 1.9 percent, that laid the foundation for recovery. We started that process before we joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the benefits had started to come through before we left the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Interest rates had been cut from 15 percent to 10 percent before last September. GDP had stabilised before September and started growing again in the second half of last year. And it is now clear that retail sales, industrial production and manufacturing Investment all started to recover from around the middle of last year. So anyone who argues that leaving the Mechanism was the sole cause of recovery should inform themselves by looking at those facts. We were cutting inflation and cutting interest rates well before and recovery was starting to show through, but we could not have sustained recovery if we had not already got inflation under control. And those conditions, low inflation, low interest rates, competitive exchange rates combined with high productivity, those are the quiet enormously influential guarantors of sustained recovery for the future.

Of course our recession was exacerbated by a slow-down in the world economy. Similarly, the speed of our recovery will be affected by the recession in many of our European markets. But the fact is we have emerged from recession ahead of our main European competitors and ahead is a good place to stay.

Mr President, in recent months public and parliamentary debates have been dominated by the economy and by the Maastricht Bill. And one of the effects of that has been that a vast range of reforming legislation has been passing through Parliament in some cases almost without notice, other than perhaps by those Parliamentarians who spent so many hours debating it, discussing it, reforming it and amending it. Recently I asked my staff to draw up a list of our manifesto commitments and the progress that we had made thus far in putting them into effect. On a rough estimate we have already fulfilled rather more than one-third of the commitments we made in the manifesto, in fact more manifesto pledges have been honoured in the Parliamentary year since the 1992 election than was achieved after the elections of 1979, 1983 or 1987.

And we have had resounding successes in taking important reforming measures through Parliament - the Housing Bill, the Asylum Bill, the Lotteries Bill, the Education Bill, the Employment Bill have now all either received Royal Assent or are well on the way to the Statute Book. As Michael Caine might aptly have put it, not a lot of people know that, but that is what has happened in the midst of the debates about the economy and the Maastricht Treaty.

And neither I think should we overlook some of the other notable successes, the dogs that did not bark, the successful introduction of the Council Tax and the long awaited reforms of health care in London. And then there is a whole list of solid achievements, of far reaching reforms that just over a year ago people said would never happen - the 800 grant maintained schools, the 150 National Health Service Trusts, the 3,000 GP fund-holders, new rights for parents, new rights for pupils, new rights for trade union members, new rights for tenants, more opportunities for people to buy their own homes, more opportunities to take out their own pensions, more opportunities for parents to know how their children are doing at school. All that has happened over the period of the last year. And we turned over some stones that were left unturned throughout the 1980s. We will abolish NEDDY, we are getting rid of the Wages Councils, controversial in many cases but things that we believe to be right, that we have done and our opponents have rightly opposed for they believe we are wrong, that is the essence of Parliament.

We are bringing the fresh air of private enterprise into the railways and we are saying that public services - all of them - are no longer no-go areas for government reforms. Pushing through changes as profound and wide ranging as anything we attempted in the 1980s, and just as we succeeded then, I believe we will succeed on this occasion.

So away from the headlines, away from the smoke and fire of Westminster, we have been pushing ahead with a radical agenda to extend choice, open up opportunity and enable more people to know the pride of ownership. That is what has been happening.

In the year ahead I want us to make more progress on that vital domestic political agenda and I want to single out just two areas where we will be moving the debate forward. Firstly, and I make no apology for putting it first - law and order. I know there is growing concern about crime, I know it because I share that concern. We have already brought forward measures to tackle the problem of persistent young offenders and new age travellers. Ken Clarke has responded to concerns that have been expressed about the Criminal Justice Act. So we have shown that we are prepared to listen and then act, but there is more that we can and must do and you can expect to see further action in the next session.

For I am personally in no doubt at all, when that smoke and fire spoke about has cleared away and the Maastricht Treaty is concluded and the immediate concerns and day to day high publicity of the economy have been swept to one side, the matter that is most likely to be on the minds of all of our fellow citizens up and down the country is the need for us to deal firmly with the concerns that they face about crime and the determination to uphold law and order and it is right for Parliament to put it in the centre of its concerns, and that I am determined is precisely where it will be.

And secondly, businessmen tell me time after time about the problem that they face from over-regulation. Again I believe they are right to be worried, unnecessary bureaucracy destroys jobs, it is as simple as that. I am not amongst those people who decry bureaucracy almost as though it was a smear word, bureaucracy has its role and it is a vital role in many industries and in the maintenance of government and in many ways and on many occasions it is very efficiently performed and I welcome that.

But unnecessary bureaucracy is a drain on the economy. No-one, for example, who cares about unemployment can be complacent about the great tomes of rules and regulations with which business are burdened. That battle against red tape is never ending, it is a battle that must be fought year, after year, after year, after year, the enemy never seems to lie down and die, it always reappears in one guise or another. So we need to get its hand round its throat, and let me say to you quite clearly today, for me deregulation is an absolute priority and I believe you may see that reflected when we bring forward our legislative programme in the autumn.

There is a great deal that needs to be done, a great deal that want to do, a great deal that I believe the people of this country want to see Parliament do if we are going to build on the reforms of the 1980s and turn Britain into a country that will succeed in the 1990s. That is why the legislative programme this year is so full; that is why the legislative programme next year - bad news for my parliamentary colleagues of all parties - is going to be very full too and there will be plenty of red meat for every parliamentarian to get his teeth into and equally for the press, both national, regional and local, to comment upon and to examine with care and let me tell you one reason why that must necessarily be so.

We live, I believe, in the most rapidly-changing decade in peacetime that any of us have ever known. All around us, wherever you look around the world, the competitive environment we face, the people with whom we do business or the people with whom we must transact political exchanges are changing as well. We lead that change or we will find ourselves led by that change. I don't want to see Britain with a halter round its neck led away by other countries. I want us to play our part in leading in the development of the 1990s both within the European Community and beyond.

It is very easy - and people are often very fashionably inclined to do it - to stand back and decry the contribution that this country has made, can make, is making and will continue to make in the different fora around the world. That is not a party point. I make no party point. I think it is an instinctive reflection of our historical background that we have a particular role to play in Europe and in the world and I believe it is overwhelmingly the view of Parliament - again irrespective of party - that Britain should play its part in those changes and to do so with maximum influence we need to make sure domestically and economically that we remain ahead of the field.

It will need changes. Sometimes they will be painful changes. Change is often difficult, often debilitating, often something people would like to put aside and wish it wasn't necessary but unless we wish to decline, we must face up to many of the needs that we see for changes and implement those changes during this particular decade. I want to be certain that when we start the next Milllennium in 80-odd months time - for that is how close it is - that we can look back on the span of the 1990s and say: "Not only did we deal with the contemporary problems; we laid the groundwork for a more successful, prosperous, secure and happy country at the beginning of the new century!"

Mr. President, let me just finally turn back, if I may, to your own industry. It shouldn't, I think, surprise you that I feel a certain sympathy and kinship for your industry. After all, politicians and some journalists hold an equal place in the public's esteem - as every opinion poll shows! [Laughter] There we are and I think you know where we are! There we are at the bottom of the list along with estate agents who are deeply embarrassed to see themselves bracketed with us!

So let us see who can improve their rating fastest. We, the Government and the newspaper industry national and local, won't always agree, Mr. President, but let us join forces in one thing at least. As I said a moment ago, our world is fast changing, disturbing and too many people are uncertain of the future, fearful of losing much that is traditional and valuable about our society - tolerance, decency and respect for others.

Alan Sprossor spoke of the danger of people becoming - and I quote directly from him again - "strangers in their own land" and he spoke also of the role of local newspapers in preventing that. I agree with him. Let us offer support, show that those British values we care about are still alive and well. Like you, the regional and local newspaper industry, we speak for the local hearts of Britain. Let us help local communities take control and shape their own local services, promoting choice and encouraging responsibility. It is work worth doing; it is work worth doing together; it is work, I believe, that millions of our fellow citizens out there hunger to see done both at Westminster and locally so let us see to what extent we can work together and build that better Britain we want to see and build it from the ground up. [Applause].


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION:

I ask this question, Prime Minister, not because I am sitting opposite you [indistinct] [laughter] I was very pleased indeed to hear the fact that you welcomed the improvements that [indistinct] announced yesterday about self-regulation. What I would like to say is given those improvements and given that the industry - and by "the industry" I mean the national, regional and local press - is not opposed to legislation to protect the privacy of members of the public providing that that legislation is applicable to all and not just to newspapers, would you agree, Prime Minister, that the way forward is to couple that general [indistinct] with continuing improvements in self-regulation rather than [indistinct].

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me say firstly to Harry it is unsurprising you should have a question in mind and I answer it not because I'm sitting opposite you but because I am happy to deal with what is a very important point.

Let me elaborate firstly on the question of self-regulation. I always welcome moves to improve self-regulation. I think it is attractive, I think it is desirable and I shall study very carefully, as I said, precisely what you proposed yesterday and how it works. We will need to see how successful it is before passing judgement on it and deciding absolutely what to do. We will take that into account when responding to the Heritage Select Committee Report as we are bound to do in due course.

Let me tell you some of the instincts I have about press regulation. I have made it clear before and I am happy to make it clear again today that I am reluctant to go down the route of statutory press complaints tribunals. I am reluctant to do that. I have made that clear before and am happy to reiterate that point today. We have reserved our position but our reluctance is genuine.

We have accepted the recommendations that Calcutt produced for criminal offences of unwanted intrusion into people's privacy. We have done that because we think there is a difficult balance to be kept. There is firstly upon the one hand the legitimate right of the press to investigate and report and as I said a few moments ago when I spoke to you, I am not a proscriber, I am not in the business of restricting the legitimate rights of investigation of the press but I do want to balance it with the legitimate right to privacy of individuals as well. It is a difficult balance to keep but it is one in my experience that the regional and local press particularly have well understood over many years and well appreciate.

We all know from time to time that the desire to know goes further than the desire to know legitimately ought in the interests of the individual and you have seen the sort of occasions I mean: where there is a vast collection of people with bugging devices, telephoto lenses and a degree of intrusion and harassment often of people in a very defensive position, perhaps when someone has died in a very emotional situation and I think many people think that goes too far. Much of that is for self-regulation and I hope your proposals will help. Bits of it, I think after Calcutt, are perhaps for the Government to consider regulating but we are not in the business, as I said, of going down the route of a statutory press complaints procedure.

We are considering precisely how we should proceed. I think it is right that we should take a good deal of time to do so because it is a very important series of principles that are at stake. They are not principles that all lie on one side of the argument. There are legitimate principles over the right to know as well as legitimate concerns over the right to privacy. I don't want to make a snap judgement on what might be in any proposals we produce. Let me say to you: when we produce those proposals, it will only have been after the greatest consideration and care and with no intention to do violence to the traditional freedom of the press. That is not our intention and we will announce our conclusions when we have finished our consideration. That, I fear, will be a little way ahead [applause].

QUESTION:

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I do, but let me say a few general words and then I'll come directly to article 3B which for those of you who have been carefully following the debates in the House of Commons through day and night and not reading Martin Gilbert's biographies will know is the clause that actually deals with subsidiarity.

Let me say a word or two about Europe first. There are three sorts of people who look at Europe and our position in it.

There are those who wish in their hearts we were never part of it and the world was still as it was a long time ago and that we were still sending Henry II abroad to teach the French how to behave [laughter] - and some of those may be here.

Then there are those who are full of the milk of human idealism and do actually see a great deal of advantage in a centralised Europe.

I would suggest to you that both of those two extremes are a minority of opinion amongst the British people.

And then there are the vast majority of people, amongst whom I stand myself, who look across the European Community and see the reality of what life is industrially and commercially and the opportunities that exist for us if we play a part in it and the disadvantages that lie ahead for us if we do not. Those people, I believe, take my view that we are in the European Community, 60% of our exports go to the European Community. We export more to Germany these days than we do to the United States and Japan added together. There are vastly important markets for us and for our industry and the European Community of which we are a part makes the rules that govern this great free-trading single market, a free-trading single market that has come about because of the British influence.

We have a choice: get out and lose many of those markets; stand aside without influence and let the French, the Germans, the Dutch and the Spanish make the rules that will govern the way our industry operates or get in the middle of it and actually form alliances with other people who think as we do and ourselves begin to frame the sort of European Community that is compatible to us and compatible to the rest of the European Community and there I must say is where I take my stand as to the right policy for the United Kingdom.

There are those who say to us: "But you never win!" Where have they been these people who say we never win? Who invented the Single Market, the free-trading aspect of Europe? A British commissioner. Started by a British Prime Minister, completed at Edinburgh by a British Prime Minister.

Who pushed for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy? The British pushed for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Who want the European Community to widen and bring in the EFTAn states? The British wanted it to widen and bring in the EFTAn states and why? Because what we have at the moment is a fragment of Europe, not the real Europe; it is a fragment of Europe.

Bring in the EFTAns and you bring in free traders, you bring in people who will contribute to the Community budget and you make it infinitely more likely that you will have the sort of European Community that will be amenable to you as a businessman and to every other businessman in this country.

And then lift our eyes for a moment above the mundane problems of commerce and the profit and loss account nationally or at company level. Twice this century the world has gone to war and the war has started in Western Europe. That is inconceivable and the principal reason it is inconceivable is that intermeshing of trade that has come about over the past 30 to 40 years in the European Community, that interlinking of mutual self-interest that renders any war other than a paper war or a war of words absolutely unthinkable and we have an opportunity not just to enshrine that but to spread that. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism, the opportunities that exist with enlargement of the Community to the north with the EFTAns and potential enlargement to take in the Visegrad countries - our old friends from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Lands and Slovakia - opens the possibility of extending that free trade principle, that democratic principle. With free trade there is democracy; without free trade there often is no democracy at all. Those are historic political opportunities that we actually have as well.

That is - you may put it - the high-flown reason for being part of the European Community but you say that I am buried in all sorts of boring and tedious regulations. I know that. What do you think I spend my life fighting in Europe for? It is to get rid of those tedious regulations. Where do they come from? They come from the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act. The Maastricht Treaty gives us an opportunity for the first time to start reversing that.

What was I doing last night? I was discussing with the new French Prime Minister the virtues of subsidiarity with which he wholeheartedly agrees. What was I doing in Salzburg when I went to see Chancellor Kohl on his health cure? [Laughter] I was actually eating a five-course meal while he drank herbal tea! [Laughter and applause]. But apart from that, we were discussing matters like subsidiarity.

It is not just we who feel frustrated about it. Ask the French how they feel about the fact that they are often stifled and you will get the same sort of response that you had a moment ago. Ask the Germans how they feel about subsidiarity with the troubles they have got between their federal parliament and the their Lander all the way around Germany.

What has changed in the European Community is that Britain no longer stands alone. That is what has changed and we have the opportunity of forming those alliances and shaping in a way we have not previously had the sort of Community in concert with our partners that we like.

Let me put this point to you. If any other European country suddenly said: "We are going to do it all our way and the rest of you in the Community can follow on behind!" If the French said that, the British would be up in arms and equally, I have to say to you that when the British beat their chests and say: "In a Community of Twelve we are going to do it our way or not at all!" the same frustration, the same blockage, the same breaking of links that will actually reach concrete results also comes about so I no longer am Henry II. I cannot go abroad and impose my will. I have to negotiate and agree what is right for this country but I don't have any doubt that it is right for us to be there, right for us to create our sort of Community and I have no doubt that the principle of subsidiarity

[small section missing]

I put it at its simplest. The Maastricht Treaty is in British national interest. If I had wanted cheap, short-term popularity, if I had wanted to don a John Bull vest and been cheered no doubt in odd meetings from Lands End to John O'Groats I could have said: "Away with treaty! We'll all do it differently!" but it isn't in our interest and whatever the manoeuvrings and interests of others are, my responsibility is to proceed with what I passionately believe is in the British national interest and that means ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, Britain in Europe with the Treaty without the Social Charter playing a role in developing the future of Europe. I believe that is an historic role for the British nation and I believe it is an historic role for the British Conservative Party and upon that point I will not be moved. [Applause].