The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

Foreign Secretary (1989)

Mr Major’s Speech to Conservative Party Conference – 12 October 1989

The text of Mr Major’s speech to the 106th Conservative Party Conference, held at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, on 12 October 1989. The text of the speech is from the press release, 201/89, issued by Conservative Central Office on the same day.


When I was appointed, some of the newspapers said I had never been north of Dover. So I thought I had better come to Blackpool. Just to prove them wrong.

At that time Gerald Kaufman was in Africa. Fact finding – a new departure for him. He said I had no experience – that I was a stooge. It’s a good thing he likes me or heaven knows what he’d have said! As for him, I share the general view. He’s a real charmer!

The Prime Minister was worried about my appointment. She thought I might be too old. Too staid. Too well known. That’s why she gave me: Lynda Chalker, William Waldegrave, Francis Maude, Tim Sainsbury and Ivon Brabazon. And she let me keep my PPS Tony Favell, to whom I owe so much.

It’s a team with a style of their own. Unstuffy. Practical. And with their eyes on the opportunities of the future. There are tremendous demands on them: from Hong Kong to South Africa; from Lebanon to Cambodia; and from Brussels to Moscow. But they are the right team to represent Britain around the world.

They have something else in common that Gerald Kaufman might have noticed. They have far more Government experience than Neil Kinnock and the rest of the Labour front bench put together.

And what is more: our team are getting more experience of Government every day. And we intend to make sure that Mr Kinnock and his colleagues never get any at all.

I am fortunate to have taken over from Geoffrey Howe. If he will permit me to say so, he is a very good friend to have. I have sought his advice often in the past – and I shall not hesitate to do so in the future.

Throughout my lifetime the continent of Europe has been divided. There have been grim political barriers across the whole of Eastern Europe. And economic barriers throughout the West.

Now the barriers are coming down. Three years from now those inside Western Europe will have gone. And in the East, the Iron Curtain is being torn apart before our eyes. You don’t need me to tell you this. You see it in your living room night after night. We now see:

– a non-communist Prime Minister in Poland;

– free elections imminent in Hungary;

– real debate in the Soviet Parliament;

– and thousands and thousands of East Germans fleeing from repression in the East to freedom in the West.

Some years ago, Mr Khrushchev threatened that Socialism would bury the free market. If he were here today he would see how wrong he was. It is the free market that is burying Socialism.

That makes it even more sad, even more ironic, that the Labour Party are repolishing their socialism just as the Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland are abandoning theirs. Too late, as usual, the Labour Party have not learned the simple underlying lesson of Eastern Europe. Socialism has failed. The more intelligent socialists know it has failed. The news is spreading throughout the world and – some day – it may even reach Walworth Road. But don’t hold your breath!

In our party we knew that freedom could not forever be crushed. But few expected so much change so soon.

Now we must help that change.

We must support freedom and reward reform. That’s why this Government pressed vigorously and successfully for generous treatment of Poland and Hungary by the European Community.

Last year Britain got the Community to secure an important trade agreement with Hungary. This year we did it with Poland. Last week, we secured a generous package of Community Aid for both those countries. Our aim is to encourage and reward real reform. That is why Britain has set up its own fund for Poland, worth £25 million over 5 years, to help them run elections, set up newspapers, form political parties, and build businesses – the very life blood of a free society. And I can tell you now that we are setting up a similar fund for Hungary as well.

The ultimate success of the reforms in Poland and Hungary will depend on the resource and determination of the Poles and the Hungarians themselves. But we cannot allow them to fail for want of our help at this critical time in their history.

Change in Eastern Europe is dramatic and welcome. But we must be hard-headed about it. We must not and dare not neglect our defence. Just ponder this. If the will of the West had weakened, the reformers in the East would have lost long ago. If the Kremlin tune had been a winning one, they would never have changed it. Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher can do business because he knows she means business.

So beware when Labour want to make unilateral concessions. From weakness. That is not our way. We will reach negotiated agreements. From strength.

Mr Chairman, Western Europe is changing too. Fifty years ago, Europe was full of young people with knapsacks going off to fight. Now it is full of young people with haversacks going off on holiday. That is a better Europe. A new Europe.

Entering the European Community was a momentous decision. It opened up new opportunities which we are now beginning to take up. And it aroused great uncertainties which at last we are beginning to put aside.

I am not someone who believes in Europe right or wrong. We must judge it on its merits. But a clear-eyed look at British national interests shows beyond doubt that we have benefited from Community membership – and we will continue to do so.

We are now setting the European agenda, and we no longer need to fear being dragged along behind unpopular policies.

The fight to get the Community on the move – and in the right direction – is already half won. That could not have been done without the joint achievements of the Prime Minister and my predecessor, Geoffrey Howe. And nor could it have been done without the work of our colleagues, the Conservative members in Europe. They are an important part of the right team for Europe.

Of one thing I am sure: we in the Conservative Party make a terrible mistake if we are defensive or defeatist about our role in the Community. For it is we who have breathed new life into it. It is we who put the Community’s finances on a firm foundation; we who tackled soaring farm spending and absurd food surpluses; we who brought the Community together to speak with one voice to the wider world. It is we who have brought the 1992 drive to the top of the Community agenda.

Let none of us forget these things. Together, British Conservatives have performed a priceless service to the Community.

It is our show. The Community is carrying out our programme.

We are putting the torch to a whole bonfire of petty obstacles and niggling controls. The Community has already agreed over half the measures of the 1992 programme. And as a result, people throughout the Community will be free to save wherever they want. Practise their profession wherever they wish. Buy insurance across national boundaries. And much else too.

Excellent progress. But not enough. Now we must sure that what we have agreed for Europe is implemented throughout Europe.

There is no backlog in this country. We keep our promises. If we agree to something, we do it. It’s Britain that has the best record for carrying out the community’s objectives. And it’s Britain that makes the fewest guest appearances in the European Court.

It’s not what you say that matters – it’s what you do. It’s not only the principles you preach – it’s the policies you practise.

And there is much else that must be done.

– We need to open up financial services still further. Britain has done so completely. Other countries are dragging their feet. It’s time they did the same as us.

– We need to open up transport. It’s time some of our partners thought of cosseting their international passengers instead of feather-bedding their national airlines! It is ludicrous that air travel costs three times as much in the Community as it costs in the USA – and that must be put right.

– We need to cut state subsidies. They distort competition. We are cutting them. But some member states are actually increasing them! That has to stop!

– We need to abolish exchange controls throughout the Community. We abolished them ten years ago!

– We need to crack down on fraud and regain the trust of the tax payer.

– And we need faster flows of people and goods across Community frontiers, without giving up the effective controls we must have against the criminal, the terrorist and the drug runner.

Our partners in the Community have come to expect that sort of common sense from the British. And I’ll let you into a secret: they’re really rather grateful!

In recent months we have seen much discussion of economic and monetary union. It means different things to different people.

So far, the discussion has centred on only one set of ideas. They would involve an end to national currencies, to independent national central banks and national control over fiscal policy. All that in exchange for benefits that are unspecified and uncertain. We can’t accept those ideas, but there are other ideas to discuss and we will put them forward.

Mr Chairman, Labour accuse us of wanting a free enterprise Europe. Well, I do. I do want a free enterprise Europe. And I’ll tell you why. Because free enterprise works and Socialism doesn’t! The Labour Party may not have noticed it, but that is why the people of Eastern Europe are shedding socialism for free markets even as we speak.

Labour say they’ve changed their attitude towards Europe. That is true. They have. They were malevolent. Now they are simply incompetent. But they remain blinkered. They still think like that famous newspaper headline: “fog in channel. Continent cut off”.

They still do not understand that Europe’s greatest social problem is unemployment.

We welcome the debate over Europe’s social dimension. We say: of course there is such a dimension. But it is not the dimension set out in the Commission’s grandiose social charter. There is nothing social about a dimension which prices people out of jobs.

I know a bit about unemployment. From personal experience. I won’t forget it. I hated it. And I rejoice at over three years of steady cuts in the dole queue here. We now have one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the European Community. So it is with total conviction that I shall argue in this country and in the community that the Conservative recipe for tackling unemployment is right, and the Socialist recipe is wrong.

Mr Chairman, jobs must be at the very heart of a social Europe. Our partners said just that last June in Madrid. Now we must all act on it.

Of course, our idea of a social Europe doesn’t stop at jobs. We have a wider perspective than that.

We want a Europe where everyone has the chance to contribute towards the success of their enterprise – and reap the rewards of that success. Capital ownership should not be the province of the rich – it must become available to everyone.

We want a Europe where people have the chance to develop their careers and their talents.

We also want a Europe where people enjoy the highest standards of health and safety.

But that’s not all we want!

We want a Europe where workers have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, creed or disability, and where they have the right to belong to a trade union if they want to and the right not to belong if they don’t want to.

And last, but not least, we want a Europe clean and green enough to hand on to our children.

That is the social dimension of the Community that we want to build.

Mr Chairman, we Conservatives are realists. We know that the best way to achieve our objectives is for countries to work with their national traditions – not against them.

We want companies and workforces to come to their own arrangements.

Above all, we want decisions to be taken by those who have to live with them.

It’s a very simple principle. It means that all those things that can’t best be done together at Community level should be done at local level, by each member state. The Community calls that principle ‘subsidiarity’. It deserves a better name. Because, if we Europeans stick to is, it will take power away from the centre, where it should never be left, and hand it back to the people – where it belongs!

That principle is understood well enough in Eastern Europe. For it’s the very diversity of the West which is so attractive to the East.

Mr Chairman, after the last World War, people said, as they always do, ‘this must never happen again’. This time there was a difference. This time they did something about it. They created Western European institutions that have become so embedded that traditional European conflict is now inconceivable. That is the gift from the statesmen of the last 40 years to the present generation – and it is a gift beyond price.

Now the statesmen and women of today have a new challenge.

All Europe stands on a threshold – and we Europeans now have to make a choice. We can turn our backs on the divisions of the past, and tear down the barriers that divide us. Or we can cling to the old certainties – and go on as before.

That would be an abdication. An abdication of such scale that future generations would never forgive us.

There are times when the pace of events and the path of policy come together. When they do, the course of history can change.

In Europe, East and West, we are living through such a time.

Opportunities will arise that may not recur. Some will be clear. Some will not. Some may be expected. Some not.

We must take these opportunities. There is a feeling in the air. In East and West, and between East and West, there is a better Europe to be built. A Europe more secure. More prosperous. More free.

In Britain, in the Community, in the wider Europe, this Party has built better than it knew.

It has opened up choices undreamed of a few years ago.

They are there for the taking.

Together, let us take them!