The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Young Conservatives Conference – 9 February 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the 31st Young Conservatives Conference, held at the Spa Complex in Scarborough on Saturday 9th February 1991.

[Text is from a Conservative Party News Release, some small portions are missing from the original speech]


In each of the last three General Elections well over a million young people voted Conservative – three times as many first time voters supported us for every two who voted Labour in 1987.

That is good, but not good enough.

Why did we enjoy that support? It was because young people shared the values that we care about. I believe we want to strengthen and deepen that commitment.

I want them to know that the Conservative Party is open to them and to their ideas.

They will be welcome – and we need them.

Their idealism.

Their willingness to challenge accepted wisdom.

Their readiness to try new ways. And we must respond to their hopes as well.

To their concern for the sort of life they want to build for themselves.

Today the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. We cannot be immune from that.

Our principles and our philosophy are firm. But we must still adapt in order to thrive.

We must be open to originality, to innovation, and to change. And so long as I am able to ensure it, we will.

In a few moments I want to share with you some of my thoughts about our priorities for the future.

But first I want to speak of one group who are uppermost in our minds at present – those in our armed forces in the Gulf.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting many of them. They made a lasting impression.

They had no doubt that the task they had been set was just. And they left me in no doubt that they were wholly equal to that task.

And since then – night after night and day after day – we have seen them prove that with a skill and courage we can only admire.

They deserve all the support they can get – and they will get from us all the support they need.

And when they have done their job we will bring them back home – as soon as we can.

For here, at home, there are deep anxieties faced by their families.

I have received in recent weeks many letters from them.

Some are worried. Some emotional. All proud.

I believe the whole nation shares those feelings.

We did not want this war.

But we have it.

And we face a difficult period ahead.

But Saddam Hussein must know what he faces.

He faces defeat.

The timing maybe uncertain.

But the outcome is absolutely certain.

Because we intend to complete the job they have begun.

The British people understand very well the key principle underlying the Gulf conflict.

Throughout history the instinct of Britain has always been to defend freedom.

To uphold the rule of law.

That above all is why our troops are in the Gulf.

For our troops back home and all over it is not enough simply to protect the rights and freedoms that we have inherited. We must look beyond the present.

We must extend them.

In the last ten years tremendous advances have been made. Now we must move forward again.

We must look now at the opportunities that should be there and are not.

At the choices we do not yet have.

And at the people who have not yet benefited from change. The success of our Party since 1979 has sprung from our readiness to reform – our willingness to make the changes necessary to produce a better quality of life.

And I promise you today that great programme of reform will continue in the years ahead

In our Party we know you have to produce wealth before you can use it.

Like many other nations, Britain faces economic difficulties at present.

The next few months will be uncomfortable.

I regret that.

But short term expedients won’t do.

They will only lengthen and worsen the problems themselves.

We must follow a policy that will cure those problems, not simply mask them.

That is precisely what people expect of us.

Every time we have faced economic difficulties we have brought the country out of them.

We have a good track record.

And we will come through our problems yet again.

The centre piece of any strong economy is low inflation. And in that there are good signs for Britain.

Inflation is coming down, and will continue to fall throughout the year.

It will halve from its peak.

And we will still be driving it down.

There are some who that say inflation doesn’t matter so very much.

What that shows is that to them people don’t matter so very much.

Well, people matter to me.

I know that inflation is the enemy of personal security and peace of mind – for people of all ages.

It gnaws away at the hard won savings of the pensioner. It disrupts business and destroys jobs.

It betrays the basic trust in the value of money that lies behind every transaction in our daily lives.

That is why we must and will defeat inflation as our first priority

But, you know, when we talk of efficiency, of competition, and of economic success, we do it not for its own sake.

Not for material reasons only.

But for what we can achieve with the resources we create.

In the year ahead we will set out our ideas for the 1990s and beyond.

We have an agenda to work through.

Some of those ideas will be tried and tested.

Some will be new.

Some will involve novel concepts.

But all of them will have one thing in common – the long-term needs of this country and the people that live in it.

Our Party exists to give more people more choice, more independence, more control over their daily lives.

We know that the role of government should be limited. At present it is still too big.

But let there be no question about one thing.

We must never accept the contention that limited Government means lower standards.

That state services must be second-best.

I want to see an unending search for better quality in all our public services. When we deprive people of their money in never taxes, they have a right to ensure that it is never wasted in government.

So I want to see new ideas flowing into public service. More privatisation, yes, of course.

But also more partnership with the voluntary and private sectors.

More use of the best private skills.

For far too long we have tolerated public services that are just not good enough.

Council house repairs that are shoddy and slow.

Hospital appointments that take all day.

Trains that run late and buses that travel in packs. Children refused admission to the schools to which their parents wanted them to go.

In all of these areas we have been investing enormous sums – in health, in transport, and in education.

But are we getting proper value?

We must make those services operate better for the people who use them.

And operate with the same efficiency within the public sector as we would expect outside the public sector.

At the top of my personal agenda for the 1990s is education.

Education is the key to opening new paths for all sorts of people, not just the most gifted and for doing so at every stage of their lives. And it is also the key to the Tory ideal of a mobile, dynamic and diverse society.

So my objectives are straightforward – improving quality and standards.

More pupils staying on in education after 16.

Much more choice, and better training for all young people. I want to see more vocational options in schools of equal rigour and repute to the academic courses.

And this must go hand in hand with greater coherence and quality in post-school training.

There has been great progress over the last ten years. Some parts of our education system are unrivalled.

But others clearly are not.

Right back to the 60s and before, serious mistakes were made. Tried and tested methods were swept aside.

Unproven theories were foisted on our children.

And as a result, standards were lowered. And as a result of that the status of teachers was undermined.

As a nation we cannot be proud of what has been done over the last thirty years for many of our children.

Too many of them have been allowed to expect too little of themselves and too many other people have expected too little of them.

Over a decade ago the Labour Party recognised all this to be true.

They launched what they called a “great debate” about education.

But of course it was not debate that was needed.

It was action.

As usual, it was left to a Conservative Government to take it up after 1979.

In 1979 we set ourselves to tackle those problems.

And since then, we have introduced a great range of reforms in our schools.

Given more choice and influence to parents.

More responsibility to governors.

Set out the building blocks of a new system with better education in the National Curriculum.

These policies are working.

More pupils are getting more out of their education.

There are now five 16 year olds staying on at school for every four just two years ago.

Ten years ago only one person in eight went on into higher education.

Now it is one in five.

And soon it will be one in four.

We have many more young people graduating from our universities than ever before in the past.

Those are the real tests of success. And the policies of the Conservative Government have passed them in the last ten years.

And we are passing them.

So the 1980s have seen an opening of freedom and choice.

But I for one have no intention of resting on the Government’s achievements.

I want to bring the benefits of the best possible education to all. We cannot accept a situation where in some places nearly 40 per cent of school leavers get at least five higher level GCSEs, while elsewhere, less than ten percent do so. The Conservative Party has never accepted the notion that excellence for the few excuses mediocrity for the many.

It is, of course, the teaching profession that must lead the drive to higher standards and aspirations in our schools. I want to see dedicated teachers rewarded fairly.

But I also want to see more effective scrutiny of performance in schools.

And I want the most rigorous standards applied in teacher training.

We must ensure that every subject is taught to a high standard.

Teachers may need to be better trained in the subjects they are going to teach.

It is no good having hours of study of the theory of education if you actually fall down in the practice of teaching it when you get into the classroom.

So we want to see an educational system that is the equal of anything abroad.

Doing the basic things well.

It is not only a question of reading and spelling.

Although it is most emphatically a question of every child having the right to be taught how to read fluently and spell accurately.

And it is also teaching to a good standard with the right combination of factual knowledge and critical understanding in every subject.

And of training people for worthwhile qualifications in job related skills when they choose a vocational course.

And so what is it we seek? In summary we seek a system of education and training able to equip the children of today for the twenty-first century.

That is the objective that we will be seeking in our education policy throughout the 1990s.

And we need that for a variety of reasons, we need it because we need that education, that excellence in education to maximise our success both domestically and in Europe. And also of course, because that education equips people so much better to enjoy all the aspects of life both in work and in leisure, that will be opening up before them in the years to come.

Above all in the 1990’s we will face a competitive future in a world that is becoming increasingly competitive and most especially in a European community that will become increasingly competitive. There will be no hiding place for inefficiency, no hiding place for the shoddy and the second-rate once we get into the Europe of the 1990’s. That will all change as the reforms of 1992 increasingly come to place. Those who are well equipped and do well, work well, think well, produce well, are efficient and effective will be the leaders of the Europe in the 1990’s. And we are, and will remain, an important and enthusiastic part of the European community. It is simply not enough for some people to say, ‘I don’t really like Europe, but I will tolerate it’, for if we take that view about Europe we will never be the centre of it and can not lead it in the direction which we wish it to go.

It may be true in some ways that we need Europe but by golly it is equally true that Europe needs us and we had better make sure we are a key part in it.

It is not only the opportunities in Europe, though I will return to those in a moment. Look at the opportunities opening up in other parts of the world, the increasing democratisation of so much of Eastern Europe, a part of the world that for a very long time indeed we have seen subjugated, and unable to open itself up to a free enterprise system and all the opportunities that will flow from that.

That is all changing and has been changing in the most dramatic fashion in recent years.

And then you see the extent to which throughout the whole of South East Asia and elsewhere there are growing industrial giants with whom we will have to compete in the future and then there is the increasingly growing and important market throughout the whole of Latin America. Those are the opportunities that lie there for British industry, British commerce, and British people in the future.

And to return to the central point, providing we have the education system, the skills and the enterprise we will be able to win in those markets and winning in those markets will mean a much higher standard of life and living for all people who live in this country in the future.

And nowhere will that competitiveness be more needed than within the European community itself.

And that is why I say again that we must remain an enthusiastic partner in Europe.

It is not for nothing that we led the way in the drive for the Single Market. It was not without good reason that we took sterling into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. We propose to play a leading part in Europe’s future and no-one should doubt that for a single second.

And Britain will have a strong voice in the new Europe. Strong because of our commitment.

Strong because we have hard heads as well as soft hearts. Strong because Britain under a Conservative Government has firm principles and a very clear idea of where it wants to go and what needs to be done to get there.

And we will also resist the unworkable.

Set realism in place of impractical dreams and protect the diversity of Europe while removing obstacles to partnership and enterprise.

Necessarily you in the Young Conservatives must look to the long-term, to the year 2000 and beyond.

And so you should.

It is your future for a good deal longer than it is mine. Your Government has the same instincts. We will set our sights on the same horizon and so we should because it is our responsibility to do so.

Mr Chairman, I have a total faith in Britain and in its future.

I don’t accept for a second the craven argument that we cannot compete with the Germans and the French.

I don’t agree with the pessimists who always believe we must devalue in order to remain competitive and I despise the defeatists who run down this country and write off its future. Defeatism is always an excuse for doing nothing. But we have no intention of doing nothing. In the months ahead our agenda will unfold. Throughout the last decade Conservative Governments have proved successful to an extent beyond most peoples’ imagination. I believe that will be increasingly recognised.

Throughout the past decade Conservative Government’s have shown very clearly what it is possible for the British economy and people in this country actually to achieve and do. That is a record that people will look back on, I believe, in years to come with some envy and with a considerable amount of pride.