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 Conservative Central Council – 23 March 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made to the Central Council meeting, held in Southport on 23rd March 1991.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I must begin by telling you how proud I am to be here today. Proud to be your Leader. Very proud to have been chosen to lead your Conservative Party in the 1990s. Proud to follow Margaret Thatcher and proud to build on her policies in the years to come.

And what I want to do today is to set out our agenda for the decade. A full agenda for a Conservative Government as we plan for the century that lies ahead.

It’s a good moment for us to be taking stock together. My first weeks at Number 10 were dominated by international tension and the demands placed on this country by a dangerous war. Now – together -we are resolving the great domestic issues facing this country. And it has been a remarkable week.

Seven days ago, Mr Kinnock accused us of not doing anything. Now he says we are doing too much. Just a week ago, he accused me of refusing to change our policies. Now he says I’m changing them all. He can’t seem to make his mind up. He’s very indecisive. I think the word is dithering.

But then – poor man – he doesn’t have the experience of the Conservative Party.

The Conservative Achievement

Ours is the oldest political party in the world. But in many ways it is also the freshest. We have never rested on success. Never clung to past positions when the time called for fresh ideas. We have always been the first to look ahead to find ways to meet the challenges that face our country.

That is why our party has lasted and grown. Our duty now is to press on with reform and to carry through the long-term changes this country wants and needs.

Whenever the British people have looked for a new lead it is to the Conservative Party that they have turned.

Rallying the country in the dark days of the last world war. Lifting post-war controls and creating wealth for the social improvements of the 1950s and 1960s. Leading Britain into the opportunities of Europe in the 1970s. And rolling back the tide of Socialism and opening up choice and freedom throughout the 1980s. All under Conservative leadership.

What then is our task for the 1990s? It is to prepare to meet the challenges of the 21st century. And it is to dedicate ourselves to the service of the British people. Of all the people – however they vote, wherever they live, whoever they are. There must be no barriers, no boundaries, no doors bolted in the Britain that we strive to create.

Guiding Principles for the 1990s

Governments have three fundamental responsibilities:

– to defend the security of the realm;

– to protect the value of the currency;

– and to raise the living standards of the people.

We will discharge those duties as no other party would or could.

And as we pursue them, five great principles will guide us;

  1. That we are a national party.
  2. That we give opportunity and power to the people.
  3. That we need a strong and stable economy in which the wealth that is created is owned more widely.
  4. That we want a citizen’s charter to deliver quality in every part of public service.
  5. And that we work, not for short-term gain, but for the long-term good of the nation as a whole.

The National Party : uniting and leading the nation

When I say that we are a national party, I mean two things. Firstly, that we are a party that works for all the people. But secondly, that we will stand four-square for the union. There is something unique about the United Kingdom, a country which draws together in partnership the rich traditions of four great nations.

We have much to learn from each other and much to give. We must respect the particular needs of each of those nations. We must cherish the diversity that gives each of them its character. But above all we must stand together.

There is far more that binds us than divides. And the things that bind us are the deepest of all. Common principles. Centuries of partnership. The very interweaving of families. When young men and women from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales stood together in the Gulf, they were rightly proud of their roots. But no-one doubted that all fought together in the name of Britain. This Party must never let that spirit of union be lost.

I want to take our policies to every corner of our country. Our ambitions should not be limited. In the 1990s I want to see us once more the leading Party in Scotland and in Wales. And I want to see the spread of Conservative values in Northern Ireland as well. There must never be no-go areas for Conservatism and for the hope our policies bring.

Power to the people

In the 1990s Britain faces an historic choice. To retreat into Socialism, or to move forward again to spread independence and opportunity to all.

What is the difference between us and Labour?

Power over the people is Labour’s dream. Power to the people is ours. Giving power to the people will be our second guiding principle for the 1990s.

When we came to office, they said the people could not be trusted. We trusted them.

They said that big industries were best in state hands. We sold them to the people. And their performance was transformed.

They said public sector homes must not be sold. We sold them to the people. And one and a half million families have a security they only dreamed of before.

They said lower income tax meant more greed. We cut tax for the people. And what resulted was not greed but opportunity, personal choice, and record charitable giving. The people gave Labour the right answer to that.

So how right we were. Where Labour lectured the people, we listened. We understood their hopes. And we acted to make them reality.

Labour’s legacy

Perhaps some of you remember what used to happen under Socialism. How it used to feel for the ordinary man and woman. I do.

When if you didn’t join a union you could be shut out of a job.

When if you were a council tenant you had to beg to paint your own front door – and were lucky if you could.

When you had to ask permission to take money on holiday abroad. Do you remember? £50. And Britons abroad were the humiliated paupers of Europe.

When if you were a pensioner and put some savings aside for a rainy day, you saw their value halved in just five years.

Now Labour talk to us about “quality” and “freedom”. “Quality and Freedom”. The Party that gave us the closed shop, the shoddy estate, and the shattered pound. What right have they to talk of freedom? They don’t understand it. They don’t trust it. And they would never deliver it.

We are wholly different. Our aim is opportunity for all. And so long as I am privileged to lead this Party our Conservative revolution for the people will continue.

Extending Choice

I want no complacency in any quarter.

I want to see more privatisation. The sale of the rest of British Telecom, and the new plans for British Rail and British Coal. For privatisation means personal ownership and better services. It has been an outstanding success.

I want to see more competition, more contracting-out, less regulation and less government intervention. All that has been proved to be right. We will not change that winning formula.

And I want to see more choice. You know, whenever we have extended choice for the people, the Left have fought us all the way. But time and again we have won. And through us, the public have won.

Choice has improved the standard of services for all. It is a strange but telling truth. But if it’s bad for Labour it is almost certainly good for the people. And it is a safe, safe bet that if it’s good for Labour it is bound to be bad for the people.

We opened up the market in television. Labour opposed us. But every night millions of people have wider choice – not only Channel 4, but satellite channels as well.

We deregulated the sale of spectacles. I claim no special interest in that. Labour fought it tooth and nail. But the range of glasses was widened and better value ensued.

A fortnight ago we opened up air routes to new airlines. Labour criticised us. But within hours of our decision fares across the Atlantic were cut by 15%.

Last week we announced more competition in telephone services. Labour attacked us again. But as a result domestic and international call charges will be coming down.

Watching television. Seeing properly. Travelling abroad. Just chatting on the phone. Some of the basic building blocks of a satisfying life. All improved by Conservative policies. All opposed by Labour.

And, you know, when you look at Neil Kinnock’s so-called new policies, they don’t amount to much, do they? Yesterday’s mashed potatoes. Just contemplate them. Turn them round in your mind. And the more you think, the more he’ll shrink.

More choice in the 1990s

In the 1990s we will extend public choice yet wider. And the reason we do it will be to extend opportunity and improve family life for all.

We are giving parents more say in the running of schools and making more schools independent of council direction.

We will give those hospitals and those doctors who want it more control over the decisions that affect their patients.

We will extend bus deregulation, bringing to the cities the long-distance coach revolution that has seen more people travelling more cheaply than ever before.

And we will reform the market in housing bringing new opportunities to those now remaining under council control. Rents into mortgages. Giving life to empty council property. More use of homesteading. The aim is a new and better deal for those who are not yet home owners. They, too, deserve the opportunities that Conservative housing policies have given to millions. And they must not be locked out of receiving them.

Personal independence in a strong economy

This Government’s strongest commitment is to the long-term success of the economy. And to put more of the wealth that is created into the hands of the people. That is our third guiding principle for the 1990s.

Last Tuesday, Norman Lamont demonstrated our intentions. Circumstances were not easy. Every tax cut had to be paid for. But our guiding principles shone through.

To cut and simplify the burden of direct taxation on people and business.

To support families.

To nourish enterprise.

To create a tax system which is fair, restrained and free from distortion. A system which leaves as much as possible of your income in your hands.

That’s why we shifted more of the load of local taxation from people to spending – and why we will keep that local burden down under the new system that will replace the Community Charge.

That’s why we made the shift in tax in such a way that the money goes to people directly, through lower charges – not to the councils who have driven the Community Charge so high.

That’s why we used the Budget to strike more distortions out of the tax system.

And that’s why we cut the rate of tax on businesses and increased child benefit for all families.

Just compare our principles with Labour’s.

They believe that all the fruits of economic growth – growth created by your efforts – should be spent by them.

They believe none of it should be used to cut the burden of your tax.

They are against a simpler tax system. They want to introduce ever more distortions into the system to confuse and bemuse the taxpayer.

And they have one answer to every problem: spend more money. Taxpayers’ money. Your money.

But Labour has one big problem. But apart from him. One or two of its politicians – just one or two – are uneasily aware that people don’t want more taxes and less wealth. So they are shamelessly trying to con the British people.

Out of one side of their mouths, Labour tell you they would spend more on everything. Out of the other, they try to pretend they would spend almost nothing.

Which is it? Will they tell us?

Do they think the British people can’t add up?

Don’t they know that the British people can? And they will see that Labour doesn’t add up.

Local Government Reform

Now Labour have made another miscalculation. They’ve asked for a confidence debate on our policies.

And do you know what that means?

They’ll have to tell us what their policies are.

Take local government, just for a start. First, Norman Lamont dramatically reduced the burden of local taxation in the Budget. Then, on Thursday, Michael Heseltine revealed our plans to find the right role for local government in the future, so that we can work with it, not fight against it.

By making it more accountable to voters. By simplifying its structure. By clarifying its functions. By testing its efficiency. And by reforming its finance.

He set out the principles on which local taxation will be based in the future.

First, on the number of people in each household. For I believe it is right that contributions should reflect the numbers using local services.

Secondly, in part on the value of the property people live in. We will not allow high property prices in some parts of the country to feed through into excessive local taxes.

We understand those fears. A fair local tax is one which does not fall too heavily on any single group. Let me be clear.

We will not permit local authorities to impose penal taxes on the few -as they could and did under the old rating system – while the many bear no share of the costs of local government. And we will not allow the reform of local taxation to trigger a new spiral in local spending.

We have made these clear pledges. And we have demonstrated our commitment to them by reducing the burden of local tax immediately.

By contrast, what does Labour offer? A rag-bag of confused ideas dressed up as “fair rates”. How could rates ever be fair?

Labour will not answer even the most basic question: at what level should local taxation be set? How much should be raised? They can’t say. They won’t say. Because they don’t know. Dithering again. But don’t worry. If they won’t answer these questions, we will. We will do the sums for Labour and publish them.

Beating inflation

The key message from this Budget was that the battle against inflation is being won. This year inflation will be down to just 4% and falling still further.

And as it falls, we will bring interest rates down as well. As we did yesterday – the fourth cut since we entered ERM. I disagree strongly with those who criticise our entry into the ERM. Does anyone seriously imagine that, against the background of the dramatic events of the last few months – a recession at home and abroad, a change of Prime Minister and even the fighting of a war – that interest rates could have been cut and the pound stayed strong outside the ERM? Of course not. And it is sheer folly to say so.

We took tough action when it was needed to bring inflation under control. Now we are seeing the results. Inflation is coming down in Britain, when others are seeing it rise. Interest rates are falling, when elsewhere they are rising. And when across the world the impact of the recession is being felt, Britain is coming through the worst and will soon be growing again.

And never forget how this country has progressed since 1979. In the 1980s our economy grew faster than Italy or France, faster even than Germany. The purchasing power of the average family is up by almost a third. Personal wealth has been spread wider than ever before.

We can beat our competitors. And, yes, we can even beat our competitors in Germany. There is no reason to be defeatist about our prospects. I believe in Britain and in the ability of the British people to win. And win we will.

Growing personal wealth; widening personal ownership

Over the decades ahead we shall see the fruits of our free market policies. The widening of ownership isn’t an index of greed, as Labour so shallowly claim.

Indeed, it is the very foundation of personal security, the keystone of independence, the gateway to opportunity and prosperity for generations to come.

People who own homes; people who own shares; people who have savings. That security adds to a sense of dignity and pride. And they have an independence of action denied to those without homes or shares or savings. We want more of such people. Our Right-to-Buy policies have achieved a property-owning democracy. We now want to extend and deepen the Right to Own.

Already – each year – some 10 billion pounds is inherited through home ownership. In a Conservative Britain, inheritance is no longer the privilege of the rich. It is already the prospect of the majority. And we must make it the birthright of all. We wish to see that money held by future generations for their own use.

How different it is with Labour. Clause Four Socialism they say is dead. I wish it was. It’s still there in the small print. And tax demand Socialism lives on. The single unifying principle of every Labour government is higher personal taxation. They can always agree on that. Not much else. But always that.

How characteristic that they now see family savings as a target for tax. You inherit, they take. You save, they tax. And this from the Party that says it wants investment. The only thing you can be sure of is that a Labour Chancellor will have his hands in your pockets, even more often than you do.

Labour’s threat to savings

Under Labour anyone inheriting a house or flat worth more than £30,000 and investing that money in savings would face a tax surcharge. That is their response to millions of people’s efforts to build their family’s security.

Labour fought to stop those people buying their homes. While we helped them. But now they are back again. When those hard-earned savings in bricks and mortar come down to children Labour’s plan is to tax them away. A tax surcharge on savings. Nothing could more clearly show the hostility of Labour to personal independence. And the ignorance of Labour of the opportunities the next century will bring.

And take pensions, too. Under Labour the opportunities to save for retirement independently of the state would be dashed away. Early next century there will be some three million more pensioners than there are today. Those working now want opportunities now to save money for old age in the way they want. Our Government has helped them to do just that. Some 4 1/2 million people now have personal pensions of their own.

But what is Labour’s response to this social revolution? Again hostile, ignorant, vindictive. Their spokesman boasts he will “turn the pensions market on its head”. Only last week they announced the latest step in their vendetta against personal choice. They warned they would act immediately to grab over £600 million a year from investors in personal pensions and strip them of the help a Conservative government has given them. So, if you’re young today, remember today. Labour are planning to destroy your prosperity tomorrow.

Safe in Labour’s hands?

You know, as over the years we debated the National Health Service, one phrase became famous. ‘Safe in our hands’. Margaret Thatcher said it. And how right she was. Under her Government the Health Service had more resources, took on more doctors and nurses, and provided more treatment than ever before.

Safe in our hands the Health Service was, is, and will be. It has served me and my family well over the years. And I can promise you this. It will be there in the future to serve every family well so long as a Conservative Government continues.

But can Mr Kinnock say the same to the families working to build their independence?

41/2 million personal pensions. Safe in your hands, Neil?

The shares that over 5 million people have in privatised companies. Safe in your hands, Neil?

The lower taxation that has raised living standards to record levels. Safe in your hands, Neil?

The right to go to work free from union interference. Safe in your hands, Neil?

The battle against inflation that means security for all. Safe in your hands, Neil?

Five questions which Mr Kinnock will never answer. He dare not. But we know the answer. Not safe. Not secure. In fact, doomed – under Labour. The Conservative Party has fought for those rights and given them to the people of this country. We must never allow Labour to steal them away.

And when we speak of safety there is one area above all that counts -the defence of the realm. Is that safe in Labour’s hands?

Where would our defence have been if Labour had been in power this last ten years?

Defence spending cut to ribbons. Our forces slashed.

Our nuclear capability going or gone. Going or gone. Just as Saddam Hussein was building his own.

We have seen this last two months how right we were to keep our forces strong and ready. And how superbly we were served.

It was all possible because Margaret Thatcher’s Government prepared for the unexpected.

Unlike Labour. Unprepared. Even for the expected.

Of course, we welcome the changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But great uncertainties remain. And secure defence is still our foremost duty.

For Labour defence is an embarrassment. Some of them hate it. Some resent it. Some just wish the need for it would go away. Those attitudes spell disaster.

In our Party we know that the unexpected does occur, and that when it comes to defence you err on the side of safety. You don’t take risks with defence.

The British people will never trust with office a Labour party they do not trust on defence.

Quality in public service

Mr Chairman; the fourth great challenge for us in the 1990s will be to take our Conservative revolution into the dustiest and darkest corners of public service. Too many people still have to feel the benefits of the changes we have made.


Getting it right in education is crucial.

Some people seem to think we have no right to insist on higher standards for our children. That it is a matter to be left to the “experts”. Well, people like that have some learning to do themselves. We do have that right. Every child in every classroom has a right to higher standards. And we intend to ensure that they receive them.

Ken Clarke has insisted that children should be taught to spell. What a revolutionary thought. I agree with him on that. So do parents. So do employers. But it seems not everyone does. There are those who defend something called “real books” – where young children are given books and expected to pick up reading, as the Schools’ Inspectors put it, by a “process of osmosis”. It sounds pretty odd to me.

It did occur to me that this “real books” method might explain Mr Kinnock’s grasp of economics. Because do you know what the Inspectors say about people taught by the “real books” method? I looked it up.

“They were able”, the Inspectors said, “to tell stories, but relied heavily on pictures…”

“They were ill-equipped to move on to unfamiliar material, for example non-fiction…” (They mean facts – unfamiliar indeed to him.)

“They were weak readers of instructions and questions in subjects such as maths.”

Adding up was never his strong point.

Yes, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it? I think it explains a lot.

But I have to say also that I have a suspicion, which I share with Ken Clarke, and millions of parents in this country today. And that is that there has been too much experimentation, too much theory, too little attention to the basics. Theories come and go. But children have just one opportunity to be taught. And that must not be lost.

That is why reform in education is top of our list.

* Pushing through the changes in our schools that give more say to parents and more freedom for schools themselves.

* Tackling the truanting that if unchecked allows vulnerable children to lose out on opportunity and which is a seedcorn for crime.

* Setting clear standards of what should be taught.

* And, yes, I say it to those who still seem to be fighting it, testing to see how children are doing.

Of course testing is right. How can you find out where teaching is going wrong unless you know whether it is going wrong?

The key people behind a good education are good teachers. That is why I am determined to see their status properly recognised and quality rewarded. Good schools. Good teachers. Good discipline. And good results. That is what parents demand and pupils deserve. And what this Government will deliver.

Ensuring quality : a citizen’s charter

Our changes in education are about raising quality. But quality applies elsewhere as well.

What we now aim to do is to put in place a comprehensive citizen’s charter. It will work for quality across the whole range of public services. It will give support to those who use the services in seeking better standards.

People who depend on public services – patients, passengers, parents, pupils, benefit claimants – all must know where they stand and what service they have a right to expect. All too often today the individual is unable to enforce better service from those who provide it. I know how powerless an individual can feel against the stone-walling of a town hall. How hopeless when he is bounced from phone to phone by some impersonal voice. How frustrated to be told yet again: “we regret the inconvenience this may cause”. And I see no reason why the public should have to tolerate that. Not just inconvenience. But often hardship. And all too often personal loss.

Most of those who work so hard and so well in our public services will agree with me when I say this situation must be brought to an end. And end it we will. By injecting competition, extending privatisation and widening competitive tendering. And alongside this by measures under a citizen’s charter to enforce accountability and achieve quality control. This will look systematically at every part of public service to see how higher standards can be achieved.

Some mechanisms are already in place. The Audit Commission, for example, does superb work on behalf of the citizen. How typical that it is lined up in Labour’s programme for the axe.

But we will define clear and appropriate mechanisms for enforcing standards right across the public service. Sometimes an audit function. Sometimes an ombudsman. Sometimes simply the separation of powers between those who provide services and those who check on them. Some other ideas, too.

We will enforce publication of results by public services, make inspectorates truly independent, and make properly accountable those in control. We will seek to extend the principle of performance-related pay. And, where necessary, look for ways of introducing financial sanctions, involving direct compensation to the public or direct loss to the budgets of those that fall down on the job.

We will also look to public bodies to publish clear contracts of service -contracts that mean something – against which performance can be judged. Our programme will mean that for the first time all those people who depend on public service will have strong support from within the public sector itself in enforcing quality control.

Quality in service is our aim for the 1990s. Second-class services cannot be excused by handing out third-class treatment to those who complain.

Building for the Long-term

The principles I have set out for the 1990s – building the unity of the nation, giving opportunity and power to the people, sustaining a stable economy and spreading wealth, striving for quality in public services -all these are essential to Britain’s future. Together they flow from our fifth guiding principle – to consider the interests not only of this generation but of those to come.

And as we build for the long-term, unlike our opponents, we will build on ideals, and on principle. Labour wouldn’t recognise principle if it gripped them by the windpipe. And the Liberal party is riddled with self-interest. We needn’t detain ourselves with Liberal policy. They would sign up to anything, so long as it means a seat at the table. That is Liberal policy. They say they want proportional representation. Note that. Their first and only policy objective. A policy that is in their own self-interest. Not on health. Not on the economy. Not on defence. On Liberal self-interest. And they will give anything for it. Defence cuts. Higher taxes. Even Labour Government. What they really want is not proportional representation but permanent representation for the Liberal Party in Government whatever the policies. Well, there is a simple answer to Mr Ashdown. He can’t have it from us. And he won’t get it.

It is because we care for lasting principles that I want to place Britain at the heart of Europe.

But partnership in Europe will never mean passive acceptance of all that is put to us. No-one should fear we will lose our national identity. We will fight for Britain’s interest as hard as any Government that has gone before. I want Britain to inspire and to shape Europe as decisively as we have over the Single Market programme. Then we will fight for Europe’s interests, too. But not from the outside where we would lose. From the inside where we will win.

We are rightly proud of our national traditions, all of them, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. We are proud of Britain, of what it has meant and will mean to the world. I wish that all who wrote and taught and spoke in our country could share that pride. I wish that they could help to open the eyes of the whole nation to what that means. For in the history of our nation and in the towns and villages that form it lies a great part of our identity.

But that identity comes too from the values we share. And they are values that are shared by our friends abroad – personal freedom, opportunity, respect for one’s fellow citizens and their views, a fundamental belief that power should be with the people and not the state.

Idealism, yes. But practical idealism. Democracy. Plain common or garden decency. It is those values I believe in. And it is those values that Britain stands for. The world needs those values more than ever before. And it needs us to work with those who share them. They are values that spring from the very fibre of ordinary men and women. Lasting values. Commonsense values. Conservative values. The values which I and all of us in our Party will fight to uphold.